Lessons in Character Development: The Real Ghostbusters

Now if you chew gum, ride a skateboard, blow off homework to watch South Park, Futurama or Family Guy and don’t give a rat’s about the differences between them, nor their petty inter-network rivalries, then you’re probably 43. Or 35. Okay 30 at the least, but the point is you grew up in the eighties and you’re hooked on that good-ol’ colorful candy for the soul. And it’s no wonder, really, because eighties TV networks served it all.

Even since well before the wondrous eighties, cartoons have inspired generations of children to think outside the box, to invent new characters, to find magic in all they see and to always consider the launch trajectory of an Acme rocket and the proximity of cliff overhangs when blasting themselves towards super-fast, highway-dwelling avian prey. Well, if you are a product of this inspired generation, we hope you will enjoy a trip back to a classic example of this period in art history.

Image Credit: Ryan Dunlavey

The Real Ghostbusters

Image source: thestade.com

It’s no big news that TV, movie and cartoon characters often undergo a change or two when a new series is released. At the same time, though, it is kind of ironic that the world-famous Ghostbusters have undergone more incarnations than the ghouls they pursue. Cartoon buffs might remember that there were two animated Ghostbusters series released simultaneously in the eighties. The US release of the non-identical twin series was on rival networks, ABC and NBC, on the very same day, September 13th, 1986. Now if that doesn’t conjure up images of fierce inter-company rivalry! Picture squadrons of animators caffeinated to the eyeballs, powering mercilessly towards the deadline.

In all fairness, both companies had sound claims to the name. Columbia had reaped extraordinary success with their live action film “Ghostbusters” (1984) and one might say they were merely staking their claim to an animated spinoff. Filmation, on the other hand, had conceived the idea way back in 1976, with their live action comedy TV show “The Ghost Busters”.

Image source: ghostbustersnews.com

Columbia’s “The Real Ghostbusters” presented an interesting challenge for artists’ development of characters. Far from being the world’s first team to be presented with the task of turning live action into animation, DiC nonetheless had additional weight added to the challenge by the sheer popularity of the film that preceded their work. World-renowned personalities, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis would need to be presented as likeable, animated alter-egos whilst retaining sufficient appeal to children. Herein lay the challenge for DiC’s Art Directors. Sticking too closely to realistic depictions of the actors themselves (i.e. if the characters were simply not rubbery enough) might preclude the second goal, while allowing characters to warp to proportions worthy of a nod from John Kricfalusi would certainly break cohesion with the Ghostbusters movie on which the success of the cartoon spinoff relied.

Producer Joe Medjuck explains how allowing some creative license during character development allowed the team to achieve this: “The characters [are]… certainly not meant to look exactly like the actors: They’re meant to look like the characters, which means they have some resemblance in terms of very basic things. If a character wore glasses, he wore glasses in the cartoon show, but we’ve changed the color of their hair, for example. Peter Venkman doesn’t look like Bill Murray. People probably think that Egon Spengler looks the most like the actor, but that’s probably because he’s got those glasses, which are characteristic. We’ve given him a much different haircut than Harold [Ramis] had in the movie.”

Image source: The Real Ghostbusters animation production cel on fanpop.com

Ramis himself, relays his feeling of surprise when first presented with a character sketch of Spengler’s animated doppelganger, saying, “I was probably most shocked of all, because my character came out blonde!” Dan Aykroyd somewhat begrudgingly admits to his character, Ray Stantz, being penciled up as “the fat one”, but was pleased with the outcome as a whole, describing the artists as having captured all the essence and attitudes of the characters from the motion picture.

An important aspect of writing fiction, particularly the sort that involves fantastical elements, is the need to give the viewer some perspective. This, too, is often achieved through characters. The Ghostbusters already had two geeks, an unbridled bad boy and, later, a spud-shaped ghost, so the next begging inclusion is a Joe Everyman: someone to play Minister of the Viewing Public and bring a voice of reason to the madness of the specter-hunting nuthouse. Dan Aykroyd explains how Winston Zeddemore was introduced to the 1986 cartoon to fill this role: “He was brought in from the outside, was not a Ghostbuster. His reactions are what every man feels.”

Image source: The Surfing Pizza and The Consummate Button Masher

Arguably the biggest surprise amongst the cast was Slimer, the onion-headed, team-switching ghost who is depicted as an enemy in the original film, but teams up with the Ghostbusters to fight his own kind in the cartoon series. Whether it was the result of clever voice-casting (Slimer was played by Frank Welker) or of successful character design, he was adored by enough kids to justify his own animated series, a comic (albeit short-lived) published by NOW Comics and even became a mascot for a drink, Hi-C’s green-colored Ecto-Cooler.

The design of Slimer’s character has undergone numerous changes (not least his appearance in several Ghostbusters computer games), but the basic themes of his green colour, onion shape and untamed teeth have been adhered to in each of his reincarnations. Speaking of reincarnations, Dan Aykroyd has repeatedly made reference to John Belushi when asked about the inspiration behind Slimer’s character: “John sort of had that lust-for-life feeling and appetites for things.”

And while the little hedonistic hunk of ectoplasm may now be unknown to today’s children, there are rumblings of another Ghostbusters movie (GB III?), which might bring the character back to his former glory. But then, there are always rumblings. In today’s crowded movie market, it could take some pretty darn inspiring design work to bring the Ghostbusters concept back to life.

We’d love to hear from animators, cartoonists, illustrators or artists who’ve developed characters for comics, graphic novels or other projects. Have any cartoons from your childhood influenced your own illustration style? Who are your animation heroes? Let us know in the comments below.