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segunda-feira, 23 de novembro de 2015
Ghostbusters: meet the man behind the logo
Art director Michael C Gross worked with John Lennon, Stan Lee and Jim Henson. Then he accidentally created one of the greatest movie logos of all time. How?
It was at an air show in the Eighties that Michael C. Gross, designer of the Ghostbusters logo, first realised how iconic his creation was. “It was on the side of a B52 nuclear bomber, painted on the nose,” he says, still incredulous. “The Cold War was still going, and the Ghostbusters logo was there in black and white and grey. I looked at it and I laughed. I said to myself, ‘So when I look out the window and I see the horizon light up with mushroom clouds, I’ll know that over Moscow my logo is dropping a missile.’ That might be the strangest place I ever saw it.”
Gross is retired from the film business these days, living by the ocean in California and working as a nature photographer. Gravelly voiced and initially gruff, he nevertheless proves a lively interviewee, quick to praise collaborators and slower to take credit for himself. Perhaps that’s because in the Seventies and Eighties, Gross worked with some of the biggest names in the world as a designer and producer. His most enduring creation, to his own surprise if no one else’s, has proved to be the Ghostbusters logo.
Not that his his career prior to Ghostbusterswas exactly low-profile or uneventful. After dropping out of the respectable Pratt Institute in New York in 1966, Gross got his start as a graphic designer working on the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He came back and landed work for magazines like Esquire and Spy, and contributed to Heavy Metal, the cult French sci-fi/horror/fantasy/erotica title that was just launching in the US.
But by 1970 his day job was art director at National Lampoon magazine, where most of the original Saturday Night Live line-up – people like Bill Murray, John Belushi and Gilda Radnor – were getting their start. Gross’ offices were downstairs from Marvel Comics, so it was only natural to pop up and ask Stan Lee to recommend letterers or artists when his own freelance pool came up short, while Belushi’s wife worked under him in the art department.
Gross also took on some interesting freelance clients on the side. John Lennon was with Allen Klein’s record label following the break-up of the Beatles, and a fan of National Lampoon who worked there regularly gave Gross freelancing work for the label. “I don’t know if I want to put this in print; this is a very self-serving story,” he begins when asked about this period..”Somehow out of the blue [John Lennon] called me, and said we’d like to see if you’re interested in doing personal design for me and Yoko. Christmas cards, invitations, she had a book – any little project that came along that didn’t fall under the umbrella of the record company and that would keep them happy. Now I always have the feeling that we’re professionals, so I’m not going to act like a fan.
“I go to the house, and it was a little two-room apartment in the Village. The front room had a big American flag dividing that from the next room. And out comes some young male secretary or something, and he says, ‘John and Yoko will be with you in a minute’ and he left. So I’m just sitting there, and then I hear The Voice. And I’m like, ‘Holy shit, this is John Lennon!’ Then he goes, ‘Michael, come on in!’ So I push aside the flag and there they are in bed, watching some Black Panthers on the evening news. I’m kind of speechless but I say how do you do and so on. And John turns to Yoko and he says, ‘This is Michael Gross; he’s the art director of National Lampoon. We got the f_____n’ Michael Gross!’ And my brain is spinning! Isn’t this a little backwards?!”
Gross worked at nights on Lennon’s projects for a year and a half, watching him record and becoming friendly, while working by day for other clients. But sheer exhaustion eventually burned him out and he had to quit. Magazine work too paled, and Gross went into partnership on his own design firm. Pellegrini, Kaestle, & Gross worked for blue-chip names like Merrill Lynch, Mobil Oil and Simon & Schuster, but also younger firms like Henson Associates.
The company designed Henson’s logo and worked on Sesame Street, and were among the first to see Henson’s pitch for what would become The Muppet Show. “Jim Henson became a friend, and we sent over the kids to see Kermit,” remembers Gross. “I went to Henson’s big home in Connecticut one day to show him something to approve, and on the couch were Bert and Ernie. I said, “They look like welcome guests.” He said, ‘They should be; they paid for this house’.”
Tired of the daily grind of running a business, Gross finally set off for Hollywood in 1980, with no confirmed job and a family in tow, to pursue a childhood dream of movie making. Luckily, that work on Heavy Metal and National Lampoon meant he was known among the rising comedy stars in town. Within weeks of his arrival he was up for a job with Ivan Reitman on an animated anthology film based on Heavy Metal and imbued with the same anarchic spirit.
Despite going to the wrong studio lot on his way to the interview, and finding himself briefly starstruck by Alfred Hitchcock’s reserved parking space, Gross landed the gig. “I went into his office and Ivan says, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I told him, ‘I’m going to convert all this material from print to animation. I know a lot about animation’ – which was lying. But I became associate producer and art director; I even drew a lot of backgrounds, and I had to manage 8 studios in 3 countries. So that was my introduction to the film business.”
His fake-it-till-you-make-it debut was followed by an unsuccessful attempt to develop The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy with Reitman (“We just fumbled along for a long time, years. It’s a tricky thing.”), before Gross got involved with Ghostbusters, reuniting him with fellow Lampoon alumnus Bill Murray. Gross was an associate producer on Ghostbusters – a job title, he explains, that “is sort of meaningless now but in those days meant something”.
A minor crisis arose when the film was well into production, but the filmmakers still didn’t have the rights to use their preferred title - it was owned by Filmation after its 1975 children’s sitcom series The Ghost Busters. Studio Columbia, keen to release a teaser poster, didn’t know how to advertise the film without a title. Eventually, the creative team looked at the team logo Gross had designed as the solution.
“It was fairly simple; it was in the script,” says Gross modestly of the process of designing the icon. “Danny Aykroyd described it. But it was never meant to be the logo for the film or anything beyond simply being put on the side of the car as a prop, or on the uniforms or to hang a sign outside the fire station.”
Thanks to his graphic design background, Gross’ role already included hiring and managing the special effects team – among them animators, illustrators and concept artists. Art director John De Cuir Jr. was busy building sets “on an impossible schedule”, says Gross, and proved happy to share his responsibility with an established designer. “It was really generous as an art director, because a lot would keep that close to the chest. But after all, I was one of the producers so I did have some pull.”
Gross recruited creature design consultant Brent Boates from the art department to help him develop the look, and set about coming up with 20 to 30 variations on a ghost design. Their final version was a friendly-looking spectre, emerging in an almost 3D effect through the universal “no” symbol. Neither Gross nor Boates ever expected large-scale use, so the focus was a clean, clear image that would get the message across instantly. “We didn’t think twice about it. Put this on the uniform, put this on the car, move on, we’ve got things to do.”
Their effort to design an instantly recognisable, generically familiar ghost was almost too successful. Harvey Comics, who published Casper at the time, claimed that the logo was too close to their bad-tempered bully character Fatso, and later sued Columbia. “There are only so many ways you can draw a cartoon ghost,” shrugs Gross of the controversy, which was settled out of court.
But in the meantime, the logo took on a life of its own. Given Gross’ Madison Avenue background, he worked with the merchandising and marketing divisions of Columbia. “I involved myself with almost anything graphic on the film, including advertising. They wanted to put out a teaser poster for the movie – and this is why it become such an icon. They said, ‘Well, this logo’s great that you did. Why don’t we just blow it up and put ‘Coming to save the world this summer’?’ Suddenly it picked up its own momentum.”
The design’s particular appeal, however, was down to a peculiar kind of alchemy. “The film itself is something that we knew would be a hit,” says Gross. “We knew we’d own the summer, we knew it was good and we knew it would make money. But we didn’t know it would be a phenomenon. Nobody can project that. Considering the steam it’s picked up over 31 years it’s pretty incredible. I’m very proud to have my name on one of the classic films in history.”
After that runaway success – which was indeed as predicted – Gross executive-produced The Real Ghostbusters animated series, and worked on the Arnold Schwarzenegger/ Danny DeVito comedy Twins. He finally reunited with Reitman and the whole cast for Ghostbusters 2 five years later, redesigning the logo with a two-fingered V sign. “I did that too, yeah. A lot of people think it’s weird that we took the logo of the second movie and put it in the movie. One thing the fans asked was, why would they suddenly put that logo on their clothes and signs? Well, it could mean that we’re back in business.”
“I just watched it yesterday on television,” says Gross of the sequel, with what might be termed hesitant affection. “It has two problems: one was perception. It was five years later and in between we had 118 cartoon shows, so it was starting to burn itself out. There’s a lot of laughs; it’s a very funny movie. But the ending was always weak; we were never jumping up and down thrilled with that ending. We did a lot of reshoots. It had all this baggage that most sequels have where you can’t top the original – except maybe Godfather II – but you just hope to keep up.”
Gross went on to make more big-screen comedies, including Kindergarten Cop, Dave and Beethoven, before he finished his Hollywood adventure and retired to the coast. Now, he just laughs at the idea that he might be called back to tweak the design again for Paul Feig’s upcoming female-led Ghostbusters. “I’ve been out of the business for 20 years! I rarely speak to anyone from that period in my life and they certainly not telling me what’s going on. It’s a classic thing where, OK, here we go! Hollywood is making one more damn sequel. On the other hand, it’s 30 years ago; it’s a whole new audience. So I think we need to hold our breath and see if it’s any good.”
Whatever happens in the new Ghostbusters universe, the logo’s popularity seems only to grow. When students and teachers from Gross’ alma mater recently voted for the most iconic design by an alumnus of the Pratt Institute in its 125 year history, Gross’ Ghostbusters logo came out top – beating the Chrysler Building and the Scrabble board among other perennial favourites.
Gross himself still sees his design, and fresh variations on it, regularly. “People have tattoos of it. There are a lot of groups, organisations, in every state in America and all over Europe, and they make their own logos based on it, incorporating their state or whatever. They send me them; I’m looking at my wall, and I have about 60 or 70 patches and they’re all different.”
Still, he is philosophical about his own contribution to its popularity. “You can’t set out to create an icon. If the film were not successful no one would have looked twice at it again. If the film were successful but with a lesser logo, maybe they wouldn’t have picked it up and put it in the title. But it took off and everything had a life of its own. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
This article was originally published on 23 July 2015