Ghostbusters is one of the most iconic movies of all time—it was the most successful comedy of the 1980s, by far, and that’s an objectively true statement—it was the #6 grossing movie in that decade, behind (in order) E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Return of the Jedi, The Empire Strikes Back, Batman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (box office figures from Box Office Mojo).
The question arises, Why was it so successful? Strictly considered as comedy, it doesn’t hold a candle to other movies of the era, such as Night Shift, Better Off Dead, Vacation, Airplane!, just to name a few. Aside from the obvious charm of its lead actors, Ghostbusters succeeds because of its scale, its status as a movie that’s both scary and funny (like Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein) in which all of Manhattan Island takes a righteous beating.
As it happens, Ghostbusters employed the talents of two of the nation’s leading matte artists, being Matthew Yuricich, a veteran of the trade who had worked on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Logan’s Run, Point Blank, Blade Runner, and North by Northwest, and Michelle Moen, called by Richard Edlund, the movie’s visual effects supervisor, “one of the best, if not the top, matte painters in the business.” A movie as successful as Ghostbusters benefits from key contributions from every corner, but if you wanted to argue that the movie’s matte artists were as responsible for its success as its actors, I wouldn’t argue.
Film is obviously a 2-D medium most of the time, which is what allows for the possibility for jaw-dropping visual trickery such as this. Taking in scenes like this, or scenes from Star Wars and Blade Runner, the mind knows that the images aren’t actually possible but it never occurs to the viewer that maybe somebody could paint a landscape that detailed and specific. But people can do that very thing—they’re visionaries who are responsible for some of the most indelible images of cinema history.
Many of these photos come from the indispensable blog Matte Shot.
Here we see how the shot is a combination of three different elements.
Here’s Yuricich working on the painting directly above.