Secrets of 'Ghost in the Shell' special effects

Scarlett Johansson's new film blurs the line between humanity and technology. The effects are a dazzling combination of live-action and cutting-edge CGI.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
2 min read
Watch this: Ghost in the Shell Movie Trailer

"Ghost in the Shell" is one of the year's most visually stunning films.

Scarlett Johansson stars as a cybernetic cop whose human brain and robotic body blur the line between humanity and technology. The film similarly blurs the line between live action movie-making and cutting-edge computer effects.

Director Rupert Sanders oversaw the effects with VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron and effects pioneer John Dykstra. They drew on the original manga and 1995 anime "Ghost in the Shell" and built their own contemporary vision of the story's futuristic setting.

Critics haven't warmed to the film. But they agree the dazzling visuals are a real highlight. Click through the gallery to see behind the scenes of the effects extravaganza.

'Ghost in the Shell' special effects gallery

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A water-filled courtyard fight scene and the climactic Spider Tank sequence familiar to fans of the anime were recreated with complex layers of digital character animation, computer-generated environments and simulated explosions, gunfire damage and destruction. All of this was added to green-screened live-action footage.

Recreating the courtyard sequence in all its water-y glory meant building a completely computer-generated environment blended with real stunt footage. The scene was further complicated by adding the invisibility effect of the "thermoptic camouflage" suit worn by Johansson's character.

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Scarlett Johansson filming a live-action fight scene in front of a giant green screen to which a futuristic cityscape was added in post-production.

Paramount Pictures

Effects house MPC, which won this year's visual effects Oscar for its work on "The Jungle Book", provided more than 1,000 shots for "Ghost in the Shell". Staff in Montreal, London and Bangalore developed new shooting techniques and software tools along the way.

Among the shots created by MPC are elements of the spine-tingling shelling sequence that shows the creation of the cyborg Major. Drawing on the animated film's iconic title sequence, MPC created a digital version of the Major's skeleton and musculature as well as the different types of fluid in which the body floats.

Watch this: How they built Scarlett Johansson's shell in 'Ghost in the Shell'

MPC was also involved in conjuring the movie's futuristic city. The visual effects team created a library of futuristic buildings and highways teeming with simulated crowds and vehicles. Among the towering skyscrapers are giant advertising holograms, dubbed 'Solograms'. MPC made some 372 Solograms and other holograms to fill the city.

To create these holograms -- or photoreal volumetric displays, to give them their proper name -- the filmmakers shot actors with a custom-made rig of some 80 high-definition cameras, each running at 24 frames per second. MPC then developed new software and tools to reconstruct, process and manipulate the huge amount of 3D data generated.

A special camera rig was also used for a scene in which the Major's virtual self explores a rival robot's memory. More than 125 DSLRs captured the actors frozen mid-movement so they could be recreated digitally.

"Ghost in the Shell" is in theatres now.

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