It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools — but even so, a Ghostbuster is only as good as her gadgets. Director Paul Feig and his fleet of technical wizards were faced with a daunting challenge upon accepting the job of rebooting Ghostbusters for a modern audience, and not just due to the much-clucked-about gender-swap. For production designer Jefferson Sage, a previous collaborator with Feig on The Heat and Spy, and prop master Kirk Corwin (currently at work on a Marvel production he’s not permitted to name), it was all about striking a balance between homage and innovation.
Sage and Corwin walked Rolling Stone through the technology of the new film, from the new PKE meters to proton packs that really work (or rather, would work, if ghosts were real) (which they are not) (as far as we can tell).
Yates and Holtzmann’s University Lab
The third-string school that sponsors the paranormal research done by Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) sets the pair of scientists up in some rinky-dink digs, and Sage knew the design had to reflect the modesty of their circumstances. The ghostbusters-to-be filled their space with, in Sage’s words, “a mishmash of found pieces, old boxes of lost parts, things they got on closeout at the surplus store.” The aesthetic had to be crude yet sophisticated at the same time; he trawled electronic salvage yards for the copper piping and banged-up hardware.
“Our director and designer fell in love with the look of actual physics labs,” Corwin added, “where there are expensive pieces of equipment, but they’re completely rearranged to make it work in a different way than they originally had it. We added frayed wires coming out of everything, we were welding things onto other things.” The laboratory runs on chaos; Holtzmann and Yates just know how to manage it.
The PKE Meter
The trusty gizmo that detects the presence of spectral activity was due for an update; Corwin reimagined the PKE meter (his self-proclaimed favourite prop) as a geiger-counter-type gadget with three glowing pink prongs that spread apart and rotate when a ghost is near. The meter was unique in that it was fully functional — not to catch ghosts or anything, but the machinery was legitimate. “Most movies will have you make what prop people call a ‘shell,’ something that you can cast and make a stunt version of pretty easily,” Corwin explained. “But [Feig] wanted a real, functionality-based design.”
Corwin’s meter could be turned on via remote and controlled to act up whenever the scene called for it, and his team spoke with professional physicists to get a clearer idea of how the realest possible version of such a device might look. Short of actually getting to the bottom of whether ghosts exist, it has the bona fide scientists seal of approval.
The Proton Pack
“We had talked about using the original proton packs as they were,” Corwin says. “But we agreed that it’s been 30 years since that movie, and the aesthetics of science and technology have changed. We wanted to make something that was our own.”
Dominating the earliest round of promotional posters, the redesigned proton packs gave the film a sense of individual identity from the start. Corwin wanted to retain the clunky look of the original proton packs, but updated it for the present with embedded meters and data readouts to give it a more high-tech edge. One of the consulting physicists drew up a two-page dissertation on science’s closest approximation of what a proton pack would actually look like that was passed around the crew as required reading, resulting in a more refined model for a detail-obsessed fan culture.
The new film also introduces a crude beta-version proton pack — as the women get better at bustin’ ghosts, the machinery grows more advanced. “You see an early prototype proton pack in the film,” Sage said, “they have to push it on wheels. It’s ineffective, and they don’t have the power right. But they return to that with more knowledge, refit the technology and make it smaller. They learn.”
Rowan’s Vortex Portals
The evil plot of snivelling nerd-villain Rowan (Neil Casey) hinges on eerie-looking vortex generators he strategically places around Manhattan. Corwin wanted this strain of technology to be distinct from the ladies’ gear, so he drew inspiration from old undersea mines from World War II and cherrypicked rusted-out, deteriorating metal plates from junkyards to construct it. And to properly communicate the spookier vibe they were going for, he rigged up the junk-hunks with blue LED lights for just the right unearthly glow.
“Rowan’s into the spooky, magical side of things,” Corwin said. “His base of knowledge is more arcane, and it shows in the way he builds these.”
Feig and his crew gave their Ghostbusters an infusion of new blood by arming them with such juiced-up artillery as a power gauntlet capable of throwing super-powered punches, a DIY shotgun that blows away spirits with a concentrated blast, a sort of handheld ghost wood chipper, and of course, the dual pistols that McKinnon so memorably slobbered on in the first trailer.
“We wanted something extra as a big surprise,” Corwin says. “The question was how to have them pull this out without it being obvious that they were re-introducing these items. We strapped two of the devices to the bottoms of the packs, they’d click right in and be out of the way. Holtzmann’s comes out of the inside of her pack. It was a good way to be badass without hauling around all that additional stuff.”