The Gatekeeper and the Keymaster

Among the vast array of creature effects that Entertainment Effects Group had to arrange for Ghostbusters, a rather large role had to be filled by the Terror Dogs: Gozer the Gozerian’s loyal servants, whose purpose is to open the portal that allows the travelling entity to set foot on a new world to conquer.

The concept of the Terror Dogs evolved throughout script drafts. Originally, a creature named ‘Zuul’ had strayed out of its rightful time and place, and was being held captive by the Ghostbusters’ employer (in turn, another transdimensional entity). This ‘Zuul’ happened to be a favoured pet of Gozer, the ruler of the sixth dimension, who seeked to recover it. This concept, along with others, was discarded in following drafts, with the introduction of another Terror Dog and the “servant to Gozer” idea. Michael Gross commented: “the concept of the Terror Dogs changed considerably — both in the way they fit into the story and in their design. In earlier drafts, they were sympathetic creatures from another dimension — sort of ‘strangers in a strange land’ — who were terrified of Gozer and trying to escape him. They took the form of human beings and went to the Ghostbusters seeking help. By the time the script reached its final form, however, that idea had been completely reversed.”

Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters scripts did not describe the creatures in any way, save for the label ‘Terror Dog’ itself — which would become a commonplace nickname for the characters on set. As such, there was a fine degree of liberty on what appearance these monsters would eventually take. A concept art team began exploring a number of different iterations, all liberally inspired by the simplistic label of ‘Terror Dog’. The artists involved included Bernie Wrightson, Thom Enriquez, John Daveikis and Robert Kline.

Concept art by Bernie Wrightson.

Associate producer (and Ghostbusters logo designer) Michael C. Gross related: “at some vague early spot, the Terror Dogs were thought of as something from the other side, as being from the ghost side — and that’s when we didn’t know what the ghost side was. Were we talking about life after death? About some other dimension? That was always a problem for us to sort out, so the dogs went through many design changes. At first, they looked like something that resembled long-dead dogs, quite close to what a real dog might have looked like after it had been dead for a while.” The idea went on to distinguish a slender corpse-dog (which would possess Dana) and a fatter one (which would possess Louis).

The design process hit several dead ends, including toad-like and dragon-like versions, before reaching a clear direction. “Gradually, they started to move closer to what they became,” said Gross. “Vicious, predatory kinds of animals that precede the coming of Gozer. As we went through the concepts, we changed the visualization of the dogs completely, from something that John Landis might have used in Thriller, to lumbering silly creatures, to their final form as somewhat frightening, imposing beasts.”

Thom Enriquez’s Terror Dog design.

This initial phase of the design process culminated in a drawing by Thom Enriquez, portraying a bulky gargoyle-like hound with a large gaping mouth, wavy horns and glowing red eyes. This concept was translated into a small-scale maquette by Kurt Conner.

Harold Ramis poses with Kurt Conner’s maquette of the Terror Dog.

Head of ‘ghost shop’ Stuart Ziff hired Randall William Cook, a veteran stop-motion animator, to devise the stop-motion part of the established idea. Upon arrival, Cook was presented more than half-a-hundred different conceptual iterations of the Terror Dogs. “They became a jumping off point for the design of the Terror Dog,” said Cook. “All of Thom’s drawings were really wonderful, but the one initially chosen seemed to have a lot of Forbidden Planet influence in it — the Id monster in particular — and there were a lot of problems with it. For instance, the way the creature’s mouth was drawn — wide open — it could not have been made to close realistically. I also thought the legs were a bit too stubby for something walking around on all fours. Basically, while the illustrations were successful as such, they had a stylized quality about them that would have been difficult to turn into a more naturalistic rendering.”

Cook realized that the supposed muscle structure of the Terror Dog as it had been designed would never have looked realistic as a stop-motion character, so he redesigned it from the ground up. Reference from nature proved crucial to the process: iguanas, hyenas and bats were among the main points of reference.

A Ron Croci rendering of the Terror Dog design.

It was Richard Edlund that suggested a basic silhouette aesthetic for the design, which Cook realized by basing it on weight lifters. Cook said: “The Terror Dog is basically a real tough, swaggering, macho animal — and Richard proposed that I give it a big barrel chest and a tight, bulky behind. So I patterned it after an overly-developed weight lifter, like one of the guys you might see hanging out at Venice Beach pumping iron all day. I just put him on four legs instead of two. I was looking for something that was riiculously macho, and incorporating that into a bestial form was not that big a stretch of my imagination.”

The final Terror Dogs retained a few traits of the original Enriquez drawing and maquette — including the curved horns and glowing red eyes, but evolved into more organic-looking beings, with mammal-like jaws, reptile-like paws and wrinkled skin.

From the onset, it was decided that the Terror Dogs would be brought to life with a combination of full-size puppets and quarter-scale stop-motion animation. Initially, there were discussions on a suit approach, but those never went beyond an idea. Instead, the Terror Dog scenes were split between those that could be filmed with a full-size puppet and those more complex ones that required the stop-motion version — for example, shots of the creatures running or ramming through walls.

Linda Frobos at work on the full-size head sculpture.

With the whole plan in mind, Cook sculpted the quarter-scale stop-motion puppet, and supervised a team of sculptors that scaled it up to full-size, at the same time as the smaller version was being realized — to ensure accuracy and continuity of appearance. Said sculptors involved in the life-scale sculpture were Mike Hosch, Linda Frobos, Steve Neill, Steve Johnson and Mark Wilson. At this stage, the hounds were nicknamed by the crew ‘Brutus’ and ‘Cleo’. The only difference between the two creatures was that the male (Vinz) had longer horns, allowing the crew to use the same body moulds for both hounds — something that also applied to the puppets.

“Watching them sculpt the two sizes of dogs at the same time was really amazing,” said Gross. “Normally, you would finish the stop-motion dog first and then build the large ones based on that; but because we didn’t have time, the two had to be built simultaneously to be a perfect match so they could be intercut. As a result, Randy would sculpt the small one in absolute detail, down to every bump, notch and wrinkle, while in the next room, Mike and the others were sculpting the full-size one. They would come into Randy’s room, measure a detail on anything from the leg to the eye to the bone structure, scale it up and then do it on the big one.”

“What was remarkable about it was that when they were finished, both sizes worked for their individual purposes,” Gross continues. “The big one worked in terms of being believable on the set, and the little one worked as a stop-motion puppet. Both could be intercut and we couldn’t tell them apart. There was virtually no difference between the two. I was really impressed.”

The quarter-scale dogs’ leathery hide was cast in foam latex and polyfoam by a team led by Gunnar Ferdinandsen and Richard Ruiz, which also included Rob Burman. The same team collaborated on moulding the skins for the full-size versions. The stop-motion armature inside the puppets was instead provided by Doug Beswick.

Animating the short sequences featuring the two stop-motion hounds was an arduous process. Leading a crew composed by cameraman James Aupperle and assistant Michael Hoover, Cook worked sixteen hours a day between the failures of the available equipment, which led to a lot of time being wasted. The puppets were animated against blue screen, and then composited onto the corresponding footage.

In the meantime, the full-size Terror Dogs were already being deployed on set. They were built in two variants, both with a fiberglass understructure ensured structural solidity. The first version was built to meet the time constraints was a stunt variant, which only had a broad range of movement, including blinking eyes, and was used for wide shots. Its feet were locked off on the set floor so that only the shoulders and the head could be moved.

The other version, which had more time to be completed, featured full head articulation, including snarling lips and tongue, moving nostrils and blinking eyes, as well as a breathing function and curlable fingers and toes. It was — of course — employed in insert close-up shots of the beasts, which would only be filmed later in production. Since there weren’t close-up shots of both monsters in the same frame, the crew was allowed to build only one hero dog — and could simply swap out horn sets to portray Zuul or Vinz Clortho, depending on the shot.

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For a more realistic appearance, the close-up dog was covered in Schram foam. “It bends like real skin,” said Ziff. “It’s very elastic, but it’s also heavier than the foam latex, more difficult to paoint, and it deteriorates more quickly when it’s exposed to air. So it was a tradeoff for us, but I think that ultimately worked well.” The hero dog was painted by Margaret Prentice through very long working days.

The stunt versions of the creatures were used on elevated sets, allowing the puppeteers to fit inside structures custom-labeled as ‘treehouses’. Each stunt Dog required two operators — one inside the puppet to move its head and shoulders, and one outside to operate the eyes. The puppeteers inside the creature, to synchronize their actions with the rest of the filming scene, had at disposal a monitor and a headset. They also had air tubes to breathe fresh air and hoses to ventilate the puppet and keep internal temperature at reasonable levels. “It was really strange to be inside there,” said Harrison Ray, one of the puppeteers “like you were a lone astronaut in a starship cockpit somewhere out in deep space.”

The headsets were essential to maintain synchronization. Assistant Duane Clark, together with Cook and Ziff, stood behind the camera relaying instructions. “Working on the set,” Clark said, “we would stand back near the camera and have to communicate with people inside puppets that were literally a hundred feet away. As a result, responses were sometimes not immediate, and if there were any problems with the headsets, then it became a real hassle — because to convey instructions directly meant going up behind the set and climbing up into the scaffolding.”

Cook added: “the director would talk to me and say he wanted more or less movement, or perhaps even a precise movement. We had already rehearsed with the puppeteers a number of potential cus that might be used, because we knew they would be basically reacting to Gozer and the Ghostbusters. At that point, they were more observers than participants in the scene, more stage dressing and not meant to take center stage.”

Despite that, there were complaints about the Terror Dogs looking “lifeless” on the Gozer’s Temple set. Michael Gross related: “based on our schedule, all EEG could give us was long-distance, limited dogs. The good-looking, close-up dog would not be ready until February, and we were going to shoot on the big set in December. The limited dogs were always meant to be in only one or two quick cuts — and remember, by this point in the movie, the audience has already seen the dogs run through the streets and burst out of Louis’ apartment. I didn’t think anyone was going to suddenly stand up in the theater and say: ‘hey look! Limited dogs!’ They were always just meant for background. But then, when you get them up there and start working with them every day for five days and see all the dailies, after a while, it became: ‘Jeez, look at the dogs. They look dumb and terrible.’ Everyone started getting down about how much they looked like puppets all of a sudden. Well, when we did the final cut, they were used for just what we said they would be — a few, quick background shots. They looked terrific, too, and worked well with the close-up dog intercut with them.”

The hero dog was filmed during second unit photography — primarily on the elevated set of Louis’ apartment and the hallway outside it. For certain sequences, the dog could be mounted on a wooden gimbal. Where the stunt dogs only needed two people each, the hero dog require about seven times the amount of operators working in synchronization. Otherwise, the working conditions were about the same as with the stunt dogs — but with a finer degree of difficulty.

Harrison Ray noted: “the close-up dog had a fiberglass body which made it more difficult to move aroun. Also, when they were shooting scenes that involved sound, they also had to shut off the blower inside the puppet — so I couldn’t get as much air up in the chest cavity. […] They set the dog up on the floor of the living room without the benefit of any air being piped in. It was just a quick shot of the beast after it’d crashed through the bedroom door and landed in the middle of Louis’ buffet table. Besides the fact that the blower was shut off, they also stuck me up in there without the video hookup, so I couldn’t see — and without a headset, so I couldn’t hear. Instead, Ivan yelled directions to me through a megaphone. He probably had the thing right up to the head of the dog so I could hear.”

Petrified Terror Dogs (actually full-size props constructed in lightweight foam) are shown in the aftermath of Gozer’s defeat. Associate producer Joe Medjuck said: “Originally, we were going to have the Terror Dogs simply transform back into Dana and Louis – just like the first transformation. But Ivan came up with the idea of charred bodies that could be chipped away, revealing Dana and Louis inside. It was a much more imaginative way to bring them back and it created some suspense because, for a moment, Venkman and the audience think Dana is dead.”

For more pictures of the Terror Dogs, visit the Monster Gallery.

About the monster philologist

I'm always bored and monsters were the first thing to entertain me

Posted on 16/03/2020, in Movie Monsters and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thank you so much for this article and the amazing photos!! I am currently in the process of making a terror dog costume to celebrate the new movie this summer and this is such amazing reference and inspiration!

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