Glen Eytchison was deep in the planning stages of his next theatrical production when he got a phone call from Industrial Light & Magic. It was early 1989, and employees at George Lucas’s famed visual effects house needed to create a painting of a 16th-century Carpathian warlord that could come to life for director Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters sequel. They had to do it fast: The movie was due to come out in June. Could Eytchison help them?
Living paintings were something Eytchison knew well. As director of the Laguna Beach, California, show Pageant of the Masters, he had, at that point, been creating tableaux vivants—three-dimensional sets containing actors that were lit to look like flat paintings and would, at the right moment, shockingly come to life—for more than a decade. “We’re the best at it,” he tells Mental Floss. “No question about it. There’s no one any better in the world.” Eytchison was also a Ghostbusters fan whose idol was ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren—so, of course, he said he’d help.
What followed was a whirlwind month in which Eytchison and his team created a painting that would terrify moviegoers, sewed together Vigo the Carpathian’s costume, built a physical set of the painting, and shot footage of Wilhelm von Homburg as Vigo—complete with warlord outfit and facial prosthetics—stepping out of that set to fight the Ghostbusters. Eytchison, his crew, and ILM had no idea that their creation would become an iconic movie villain ... or that a lot of their living painting wouldn't ever make it to the big screen.
When he flew up to meet with Muren at ILM’s headquarters, then located in San Rafael, California, Eytchison intended to talk them out of using his services. “When all is said and done, the Pageant is about wood, unbleached muslin, paint, and light,” he says. “It’s not easy—in fact, it's very difficult—but it’s based on common sense: Eliminate the shadows and the set will look flat. I didn’t want them to go, ‘We’re paying this guy and that’s all you have to do?’”
But Muren wasn’t having it. “There’s no question we could figure it out, but you already know how to do it,” he told Eytchison. “Why should we waste our time?”
So Eytchison officially signed on and took a look at the script, while Muren and the ILM team outlined what they wanted their living painting to do. “They wanted him to be convincing as a flat painting in the early museum scenes where he’s being restored,” Eytchison says. “Then they wanted him to come to life and start speaking his lines, and they wanted that to be a really shocking moment.”
Eytchison knew he could pull that off, but first, he had to tackle the most pressing issue: Creating the artwork on which he would base his living painting. “Some of ILM’s best people had produced some really brilliant and beautiful paintings, but they had all been rejected by Ivan Reitman,” Eytchison says. “They showed me a stack of paintings; Ivan had said that they were 'too Conan.' So our first task was to create a composition that would work for Ivan, and also work for us technically. It also had to work for Wilhelm von Homburg, who had already been cast as Vigo.’”
Eytchison knew they had to get started right away if they wanted to finish in time. So he asked ILM to send a matte painter down to his home in Southern California, where the Pageant’s costume department came prepared with books from their library. “We spent the day doing research to determine what a 16th-century Carpathian warlord would look like and what he would wear,” Eytchison says. “And while they were looking at costumes, I was looking through books of painters from that time and in that geographic location so we could match the look and feel of the period.”
After the team had compiled a number of samples, the next logical step would have been to spend a couple of days creating a painting to show to Reitman, but Eytchison decided to do something a little different. “We got a blackboard and we painted a background on it,” he says. “Then we painted several versions of each element—skies, trees, the burning castle, the throne of skulls—on separate layers of acetate.”
ILM representatives came down to Burbank, where Ghostbusters II was shooting, and went with Eytchison and executive producer Michael C. Gross to Reitman’s trailer, where they presented the painting. “I set it in front of him and said, ‘This is what a 16th-century Carpathian warlord would wear in battle,’” Eytchison recalls. “And he said, ‘I like it, but I don’t like the tree.’ And so I took the tree cel out, and put a different one in.” Reitman experimented for a while, testing different combinations and elements, and changing the positions of the acetate layers until he had a composition that he liked; then, Eytchison taped everything down. The meeting had taken just 15 minutes.
Eytchison took that composition, along with the reference material and photos of von Homburg, to a painter named Lou Police, who has created art for everyone from Warner Bros. Television to Walt Disney Studios. “We only needed one meeting with Lou,” Eytchison says. “He dialed in immediately to what we were going for. I was able to say, ‘The sky on this painting Ivan really likes, the patina on the armor in this painting he really likes, and the skulls he really likes in this painting.’ We gave the guy a stack of reference material that we had taken out of art books and circled and pointed arrows and pointed at stuff, and he said, ‘I know exactly what you want.’”
A few days later, Eytchison had the painting of Vigo the Carpathian in hand. He photographed it and sent it to ILM and Reitman, who approved it immediately. Things were off to a great start. There was just one problem: Eytchison knew their original plan wasn’t going to work.
There’s a big difference between creating a living painting on stage, where the nearest person is 40 feet away, and creating one for a film, where the painting is blown up across a huge movie screen with the audience sitting directly beneath it. “You're going to see every pore on his face—every imperfection,” Eytchison says. Which is why he knew that Police’s painting, as good as it was, would never be an exact match for von Homburg’s actual face. They would never be able to believably switch between the painting and the set for the scenes where Vigo talked to Dr. Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol) and ultimately stepped out of the painting.
Fortunately, Eytchison had a plan: The source painting would be used as a reference, but he and his crew would build the set, place von Homburg as Vigo in it, and photograph the whole shebang. Then, they’d blow up the photo to life-size and treat it in such a way that it would look like an oil painting, and that’s what would be used on the Burbank set. “That way, when he came to life, all I had to match was what we had already done,” Eytchison says, “as opposed to taking a painting of a guy and trying to match it exactly.”
ILM agreed to the plan, and Eytchison and his Pageant of the Masters team got to work. Rather than fly everyone up to San Rafael—which didn’t make financial sense—Eytchison opted to build the set in Southern California and ship it upstate.
Many things had to happen very quickly. “We asked ILM to send us the cast of von Homburg’s body, which they did, in a big wardrobe box,” Eytchison says. “It came in three pieces, and we put them back together.” While Skipper Skeoch and Marci O’Malley were building the costume using the mannequin, Richard Hill was designing the set, then constructing it with the help of John Clancy. Simultaneously, Judy Parker was creating the structural elements of the set, like the skulls, which she sculpted from Styrofoam. Both the costume and the set were painted by David Rymar and Leslie Turnbull. “You need to use a similar texture on the background and on the foreground elements, and on the costume and the skin, because it’s the texture that’s going to make everything merge together as one piece,” Eytchison says. “That’s why the set painters are also the people who painted the foreground element and the costume.” Diane Challis Davy provided additional supervision of the physical production.
All of the elements took about two weeks to construct. Everything was shipped up to ILM, where the crew set it up in a light tent, which would help to eliminate shadows. Using a stand-in for von Homburg, Eytchison spent hours tweaking the lighting and getting rid of shadows to make the set look as flat as possible.
When von Homburg arrived, ILM’s Mike Smithson applied make up and prosthetics to his face (which he had designed along with Tim Lawrence). Then, the actor was inserted into the set, which was about 4 feet deep. They spent the next week taking the photo that would be blown up and turned into the oil painting on set, and shooting tests of Wilhelm speaking, moving, and stepping out of the painting.
Reitman wanted von Homburg to deliver his lines while standing perfectly still, with only his mouth moving. “We used several techniques to help him, including building a simple armature behind him to give him reference points and support, but he was having a tough time of it,” Eytchison says. “We were also dealing with the big reveal, where he stepped out of the set and onto the stage floor. It was an awkward move for Wilhelm, and he never got it quite right.”
Despite everything, Eytchison thought the results of their month-long sprint to create the effect looked fantastic. “I’m usually the one who is most critical of our work,” he says. “But when we saw the dailies, I thought the effect was going to be really interesting, and with a few modifications to the set, we could make Wilhelm more comfortable stepping in and out.” But not everyone agreed.
Though Eytchison was very happy with the results of the “test” shoot, something about it—Eytchison still isn't sure exactly what—just didn’t work for Reitman. “Ivan changed the entire ending,” Eytchison says. The director decided to replace the living picture scenes with a visual effect of Vigo’s disembodied head floating over a river of slime. At the end of the film, the villain doesn’t step out of the painting, but disappears from it, then reappears in the scene. Eytchison and his team weren't called back for the final shoot, which is why Vigo looks so different at the end of the film.
It was a shame but, Eytchison says, that is the nature of the film industry—and he knew that going in. “I wished we had a little more time with Wilhelm to work out the bugs, but I realized that Dennis and ILM were dealing with hundreds of issues,” he says. “There were a lot of people working on it—other people at other jobs in other departments whose needs also had to be considered. And when all is said and done, you have to trust that the director knows best.” Eytchison, a director himself, understood that.
Still, Eytchison is proud of the work he and his team did. “The fact that we managed to get it up there at all—I was just so pleased and impressed that we were able to work so quickly,” he says. “And Dennis Muren, Ned Gorman, and the rest of the crew at ILM were incredible to work with. They made us feel like a part of the team from the moment we arrived, and it was much appreciated.”
Since Ghostbusters II, Eytchison has created tableaux vivants for more movies—including Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West (1999), as well as for Broadway shows like Hairspray and The Will Rogers Follies, and for television series and commercials. But Vigo is still his most popular creation.
“I get fan mail about Vigo,” Eytchison says, who has been at his craft for more than 40 years. “That’s a long time, and Vigo is the one thing that just keeps coming back. I get more attention for Vigo than I get for almost anything else I’ve done.”
The two paintings of Vigo survive. The photograph done up as an oil painting glowers out over a hallway at the San Francisco offices of Lucasfilm and ILM. Lou Police’s original hangs in Ivan Reitman’s home.
A version of this story ran in 2015. It has been updated for 2021.