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April 2014
Issue: February 1, 2007

'GHOST RIDER' DIRECTOR MARK STEVEN JOHNSON

By: Randi Altman

HOLLYWOOD - Mark Steven Johnson, the director of Sony Pictures' Ghost Rider, grew up reading and collecting comic books. "I've wanted to make this movie forever," he says of the VFX-heavy film based on the '70s comic book series. "Ghost Rider was always my favorite character; he was the coolest looking because he was part monster movie, part superhero and part Evil Knievel. And when you're a 12-year old kid that's pretty much the coolest character ever created."

To get the look he needed from Ghost Rider, Johnson turned to Sony Imageworks' visual effects guru Kevin Mack, also a big comic book fan.

"You have to throw your trust into the visual effects supervisor," says Johnson. "You have no choice. That is why that is such an important hire. Meeting Kevin was ideal because he is so smart… he has such a big brain… and he understands this stuff so well. But he also knows how to explain it. He breaks it down into real simple terms."

Johnson also liked that Mack was an artist. "A lot of these guys will say, 'Well this is how it looks.' And I'd say, 'But it looks weird.' And they'd say, 'That's the way the body would look if it was falling from that height.' And you're like yeah, 'But it's weird!'

"You can have all the theorems in the world you want explaining to me why I should like it, but if I don't like it, I don't like it. And Kevin is an artist and he goes more with his eye and his gut and his heart than he does with his brain, and that is invaluable because then you are talking artist to artist and it makes it so much easier."

KEEPING IT REAL

He says that as a director, the hope is that people will give you what you want, but you also hope they will give you more than you asked for. "And that's what these guys at Imageworks are like."

As an example he points to a hero shot, where Ghost Rider and his "Hellcycle" jump off the roof of a huge skyscraper. "I had him speeding toward the end and doing a right angle and going straight down with the camera following him," explains Johnson.

"The artists came back and said they tried something different and if I didn't like it they'll throw it out and try again. They had him crashing through a parapet and ramping up into slow motion and using his chain to fastening himself to the building and literally pulling himself back. It was fantastic and it was not what I asked for; it was so much better than what I asked for. That's your dream. To have people who are going to bring it back and come up with something even better than what you asked."

Johnson also points out that a lot of the Imageworks guys were motorcycle riders, which helped the process a lot. "They are comic book fans and they are riders, so they understand that the little things make it feel real, like that he leans appropriately when he corners. So he does all these supernatural things, but it's the little moments that you go, 'Yeah, that's what your body does do when it corners quickly.'"

He gives an example: In one scene, Ghost Rider rides up this huge bridge with the cops chasing him and "everyone has their guns out and there's helicopters and if you watch there's his hand just revving that throttle, keeping the bike going. It's little things like that that make all the difference." 

THE FIRE

For one-third of the film Nicolas Cage's character is the Ghost Rider - the devil's bounty hunter, roaming the streets at night on his Hellcycle and collecting evil souls  — and his bike and skull are on engulfed in flames.

"This was a tough one because we didn't have anything that makes the usual CG character shine," describes Johnson. "We didn't have any eyes or lips or wrinkles — all those things that make a great CGI character we didn't have. We just had a blank slate. So my goal for Kevin was to really help the fire become an extension of his personality, to show different moods and character traits, to get everything across we couldn't do with the usual facial features we were missing. So it was more than just making the fire look real, it was making the fire become a part of who he is."

But in addition to the fire, the Ghost Rider "had to look spot on…. when Nick would play the Ghost Rider it was important that his body language also tell you a lot. One thing that helped was taking dental castings of actor Nicolas Cage's teeth and then having Imageworks composite that onto the flaming skull.

"Nick would look at it to and go, let's [use] my skull. Isn't that cool. It's Nick's skull that you're seeing."

Imageworks created fire simulation software based on Maya and Houdini for all the fiery effects.

THE SOUL MIST

For the showdown at the end of the film, Imageworks used their own particle systems to create an effect for The Wraithes, which are decrepit, flying mummy corpses who exude an inky black vapor, or soul mist. They are all CG, modeled and designed in Maya and ZBrush. They fly around and are summoned to enter and merge with Black Heart, the main villain, who at the end of the film transforms into a demonic figure.

"I knew we were going to spend so much time and money on Ghost Rider and I wanted to make sure the other villains could hold up," explains Johnson. "The thing with Ghost Rider is he is so cool. He's such a great looking character and is such a bad ass - he's got a flaming skull and spikes and chains and a Hellcycle and a Hellfire shotgun. He is overwhelmingly cool, so to come up with something as good as he was a real tough challenge, and we didn't want it to become a monster movie where everything was just monsters on monsters."

So that was the challenge for Mack and his team: to help Johnson come up with a look for the other villains that wasn't just CG, that wasn't just make-up, but make them threatening in a different way.

"The thing that Kevin and I discussed a lot was that often was scares you is stuff you can't see. So we wanted to make sure our villain Blackheart was cloaked a lot in shadows. And the idea Kevin came up with was that once Blackheart transforms at the end of the movie and becomes his ultimate beast self, he would actually carry this blackness — that Kevin called Soul Mist — with him."

THE HIDDEN

"I always see these movies where you have a great superhero and the cops shoot him and nothing stops him, and it's boring," says Johnson. "And I knew that Ghost Rider going after people wouldn't be much of a challenge, so I wanted him to go after these fallen angels, who are these rebel angels who were thrown out heaven and have been hiding in the elements for so long that they have actually become their elements."

One of them is made of dirt, one is made of water and one is made of wind. "And that would present a different challenge each time Ghost Rider went to battle. So he had to use his brain to defeat these things. And that was great, but it was also a huge challenge because each one was a very different visual effects and a different look. I wanted to keep things from getting boring and always make his fights more difficult than the last."

These characters never actually appeared in the Ghost Rider comic book, they were invented for the film.

"One of my favorite science fiction movies of all time is the second Terminator film that James Cameron did," says Johnson. "I love the effect with the T1000. No one has really done much with that since, so I thought what if we took the T1000 vibe and put that into different elements and put it in wind, water and earth and then figured out how would you fight something like that. Each time the Ghost Rider goes to war, what he tried last time doesn't work. And his greatest weapon, which is a penance stare, doesn't work because these demons don't have souls. That was the fun of it. Figuring out what are his strengths and how do we take these strengths away. And that leads up to the very end of the movie - the final battle with Blackheart, our high noon, if you will."

MAKING MOVIES

So Ghost Rider is Johnson's third film as a director. His first the drama Simon Burch and the second was also based on a comic book, called Daredevil. Does he prefer VFX films over dialogue-driven fare?

"I love them both but I love this film because you get to do everything. Visual effects films are incredibly hard movies to make and I never appreciated how difficult they were until I got into it. You have all the things you would do on a normal movie plus all this tech stuff. There was so much to learn. It was sort of a crash course."

Ghost Rider was shot on film, but has Johnson ever considered going digital?

"Absolutely," he says. "I considered it for this movie, but ultimately my DP, Russell Boyd, wasn't comfortable with it. And that's all I needed to hear, I needed my DP to be comfortable as well. We are all headed that way, it sure feels, but we're not quite there yet."

But Johnson did opt for a DI. It was done at Efilm with colorist Steve Scott. "He was a huge part also of the process. He was instrumental at helping us maintain everything we'd created, but at the same time also help it. He used to be a compositor and visual effects artist himself."