Take #03 // Ghostbusters (1984)
In this interview the late graphic designer and film producer Michael C. Gross discusses his much loved creation, the No Ghost symbol, the iconic logo that was the public face of the Ghostbusters in and outside of the films.
With the recent release of the controversial all female version, the logo is, once again, literally everywhere. And that’s a good thing as, for my money, it is not only one of the finest logos created for film but one of the greatest bits of graphic design ever, self-contained and perfectly formed, it says everything about it’s parent film that one needs to know.
Which is no surprise as influential graphic design was his stock in trade. Aside to No Ghost also branded that other perennial graphic designers favourite, the 1968 Mexico Olympics. He was also a long serving AD for National Lampoon magazine, a gig which led to Ghostbusters but had already allowed him the opportunity to produce another classic graphic work, the much imitated “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” cover.
Mr Gross sadly passed away last year and so to have been able to discuss his much loved creation with him directly was a real privilege. The following is an excerpt from a larger discussion on his work in general but it provides a great insight into the creation of what has become modern icon.
FM: Ghostbusters feels like it was one of the first films where a logo from within the production design was used externally as a symbol in it’s own right (outside of the comic book Superhero genre perhaps?). Was this something that the production specifically set out to do? If so, where did the idea come from?
MG: The introduction of No Ghost to sell the film was an accident. We didn’t have the rights to the title Ghostbusters (that belonged to a company called Filmation). We tried lots of other titles (Ghost Breakers etc) in the meantime. While Columbia was negotiating and we were filming, a teaser poster was needed…hence the “Coming To Save The World This Summer” poster with just the No Ghost logo. We simply didn’t own the name yet. This is where having a well designed logo came to the forefront…if the logo had been poorly conceived and designed, it just wouldn’t have happened that way.
Do you think that the fact that No Ghost went on to become such a huge pop culture icon demonstrates that film-related graphics always have an iconic quality that the general public tap into? My theory is that because they exist within a theatrical context first and foremost, because they are created as a storytelling device, they somehow become more attractive than those created for a straight commercial purpose. What’s your take on that?
All such iconic images are happy accidents. You can’t set out to create one, they happen through exposure and success i.e. association with a “hit.”No Ghost would not be an icon now if the film were not the success that it was. But, if the logo had been poorly designed in the first place and the film was then a hit, would the logo have become such an icon? Maybe not. In our case we had a great visual device that was useful for promotion and advertising, a “bad” logo would not have been so useful to us.
Agreed. I think most people would agree that you had a great device but why is it that this seems so hard to achieve? Quite often graphic content produced for on-screen application seems substandard in comparison to that produced for the ‘real world’. Can you say why that is?
Because film logos are usually created by the movie’s art department who are primarily set designers, not graphic artists. A film logo only has to be considered within the context of the screen and story. Their purpose, first and foremost, is to serve the needs of the film. It’s just another of many elements needed for story telling. There is no real comparison to the real world outside of the film frame.
Meaning that when you and your artist Brent Boates started designing No Ghost you were aiming for something that just would look convincing as a company logo within the context of the film? That said, did you still look to the real world for inspiration? Was it important that the logo look like something you might find in New York backstreet?
Absolutely. When I was art directing at National Lampoon magazine, half the time I was designing parodies and they had to be perfect graphically speaking. Plus I was always a student (and teacher) of design, so I was constantly observing.
And did the logo have to be pragmatic in any way. I ask this because I read once that the Zorin Industries logo for the Bond film A View to a Kill had to look a certain way because the film borrowed an airship from the Fuji Corporation for some long shots, hence the logo created for close-ups had to look similar. I always wondered whether, because the logo feels so perfect, something like this might be the case with Ghostbusters?
Actually, logos created for films are never thought out to that extent unless the script is like ours was and specifically called for the logo to be on seen on cars, on buildings as well as on hand props etc.
As well as No Ghost you were also you involved in another iconic graphic project, the 1968 Mexico Olympics branding. How does the process of creating identity for fact differ to creating for film?
I just believe in solving graphic problems wherever needed (or the client requests) that‘s why my work is so varied. I have no “style”. I just solve the problem with the only skills I have.
And what is your preferred process for this problem solving?
A good meeting with the client (director?), a think tank session of designers and artists working for me, a series of roughs to show than if lucky implement. I think it’s the same for any commercial designer.
And finally, I have got to know, where is the most unusual place you ever saw the No Ghost?
Easy. On a girl’s naked butt…
From the moment that you saw that teaser poster you just knew that you had to see the film. It was clearly a blockbuster poster but it was somehow different as it didn’t say the name of the film it was just a logo and strapline. OK, the strapline was fairly familiar from the posters of a long line of hero films, from Superman to Bond, but having just a logo preceding it was something curious and something very modern.
Looking back now it seems hard to imagine a time pre-No Ghost, when its unique finely rendered form wasn’t visual short-hand for some brand of vanquishment. As a symbol it has become known just as much externally to the film through seemingly endless bastardisations and low-rent appropriations. We will doubtless all have seen it on the door of the average pest control company or maybe the local pizza joint…Hungerbusters anyone?
As the key art for a teaser campaign it was perfect. It said everything it needed to say in a simple and easy to understand manner with a refreshing lack of fluff and nonsense. In many ways this minimal approach to film marketing paved the way for the paired back but clever brand of advertising that we see everywhere nowadays. It’s still there to some degree in big blockbuster movies but is now more evident throughout consumer culture via advertising for sports, fashion and technology marketing.
No Ghost is at once irreverent, obtuse and straight-talking. We talk a lot about ‘tone of voice’ in design these days and this logo speaks in broad pre-Giuliani New York filtered through the counter-cultural savvy of Saturday Night Live. It captures the insouciant mood of the film and it’s characters perfectly. The Ghostbusters were a new brand of movie superhero and they had the logo to prove it.
n.b. “Will you guys relax? We are on the threshold of establishing the indispensable defense science of the next decade. Professional paranormal investigations and eliminations. The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.” – Dr. Peter Venkman