Despite years of speculation about casting a new Ghost Rider under the Marvel banner, with big names expressing interest in the role (Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and Norman Reedus), the Ghost Rider movie remains in development hell. And it might make more sense to put Blade and Ghost Rider in their own timeline within the Marvel multiverse, separate from the Earth-616 in the movies. But what the Ghost Rider movie needs to be a success, more than anything, is to go in the opposite direction of the current trajectory of Marvel movies and embrace practical effects.

Physical effects are everything to a Ghost Rider movie. This is a character that is an experience — both in terms of how he travels and in his presence in front of the camera. We have to see a physical puppet, with a burning skull in the camera, in the same shot as the actors. It is a character that cannot exist well with CGI; to make it real, practical effects are the only way to impact the audiences with the visceral feeling of real flames, a real bike, and a tangible protagonist.

The Impact of Practical Effects

TriStar Pictures

Fantasy and sci-fi films rise to the challenge of the question, “How do we shoot this?” Without it, we get movies where action unfolds passively in front of us without cinematography/composition, and we get that alarming sensation that we are watching a video game. When you saw Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, they each only contained few moments of computer graphics (three and a half minutes in T2, and six minutes in Jurassic Park). Everything else was done, and done well, with real props and animatronics.

Related: Why Practical Effects May Be Better Than CGI

Having a physical puppet with live flames cannot be mistaken for anything other than real. Everything would be illuminated by the flickering light of the fire: it will reflect in puddles, in the windows of buildings, on the chrome of the bike, and on the bodies of cars. The Ghost Rider cannot be played in his supernatural form by an actor without CGI over the actor’s head, and more than any other superhero character, he needs to be realized with practical effects.

Unlike the Hulk or Iron Man, this character affects the surrounding environment with illumination. You need a real bike, you need a real skull, and you need real flames on the skull and on the tires.

How to Create the Skull and Flames


Given that Marvel cannot set an actor’s head on fire and have him ride a bike blind, we have to accept that the Ghost Rider can only be created with puppets. We need a physical skull that is also affected by the lighting of the flames. The skull will have to be a fire-resistant material, most likely ceramic. The burners might emit the flames at the neck, or the piping may run up the interior of the vertebrae into the skull and emit flames from the bottom of the skull, mouth and eyes.

The piping would connect to a fuel source in the chest cavity, which could be reinforced with steel walls in the event that the fuel tank were to explode during shooting (actors could additionally film scenes near the puppet with a glass barrier to ensure that they are not singed by errant flames). We are not sure what type of fuel the pyrotechnic crew would utilize, but we imagine a small canister, which may have to be changed more regularly but would be less of a threat if there was a catastrophic failure of the device within the puppet.

Backpack Puppet Rig

Orion Pictures / TriStar Pictures

The first two Terminator films are the best blueprint for Ghost Rider — skull puppets, bike and 18-wheeler stunts, and immolation — the ingredients we need in Marvel’s demon biker movie. James Cameron and Stan Winston broke new ground on all the innovations in animatronics that would be needed to bring Ghost Rider to life.

Related: Why Stan Winston is a Pioneer of Modern Special Effects

In Terminator, Stan Winston Studios created a backpack rig which only consisted of the T-800 upper torso. The rig was worn on the shoulders of a puppeteer and filmed from the chest up of the cyborg. This magic trick allowed the puppeteers to give the torso a believable ambulation as if it had working hips and legs.

Ghost Rider could use a similar backpack rig, with the puppeteer wearing protective fire gear, and utilizing rod puppeteering for the arms, permitting the Rider to appear to walk. The rods connected to the wrists may stay out of the frame, but with today’s software, the rods can be removed from the shot.

Full-Body Hero Rod Puppet

Tri-Star Pictures

There may be shots in which the movie shows Ghost Rider from head to toe while standing. For these cuts, the movie would use what is called a hero puppet: a full-size, stationary puppet with minimal action. This was the technique used to capture the full-body T-800 in Terminator 2.

The sequence in which the fleshless T-800 steps on the skull of a child was created with a full-size puppet, beginning with a close-up of the steel foot stepping on the skull (the leg puppeteered with a rod outside the frame that was quickly removed) before panning up the deluxe puppet.

Tow Rig With Bike and Rider Puppet


To accomplish the scenes of the Rider on the bike with practical effects, the film will need a specially designed tow rig/trailer that cradles the motorcycle, so the tires can make contact with the ground. This set-up would also require a full-body puppet that has a wrist-twisting action and a flaming skull.

You cannot fake the reflections in windows or the bounce light on non-reflective surfaces as this thing drives on the road. The goal is to create this thing in the real world. It is a monster. It is a demon. The experience here is all about this comic book character being brought to life. It has to be alive on the road and in the wind.

How to Do the Building Crawl

Columbia Pictures

One of Ghost Rider’s abilities/flexes is that he can ride his bike up the side of a building (or sandstone tower if the setting is the desert). This has become part of the experience of being the Rider, like Spider-Man’s ability to climb buildings and swing through the city, or how Nightcrawler can teleport. If the movie is set in a city, the audience will want to see the Rider defy gravity and ride up the side of a skyscraper.

The method to create this illusion is to create the side of a building on the ground, turn the camera sideways, and tow the bike rig across the physical glass surface at night. The close-up tracking shot, with the authentic reflections in the windows, would then be inserted over a matching shot of the city or a computer-generated city background.

Stop-Motion, Augmented with Minimal CGI

Columbia Pictures

Some shots in the film are simply going to require an extra bit of magic, like when Ghost Rider is performing acrobatics on his bike. The bike can be towed across the face of a skyscraper on the ground, but to get Ghost Rider to crest the top of the building and land on the rooftop, it would require a stop-motion animated puppet.

Related: 7 Stunning Examples of Practical Effects in Recent Films

The stop-motion puppet could be outfitted with fiber optic lights to simulate the chaotic bouncing light of the flames, which would then be augmented with computer graphics in post-production — the only CGI flames allowed, due to necessity. As a tool to touch up scenes here and there, a light presence of CGI is not a bad thing.

How to do the transformation

Paramount Pictures

It would be easy for the director to turn the camera away and not show the actor turning into the Rider, to avoid CGI, but the audience will want to see the body horror — and there is no reason it cannot be done with a practical puppet. The director could go the route of the melting face from Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance. The effect at the end of Raiders uses gelatin figures that are melted in time-lapse when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant.

A more fiery method could be to char a bust of the actor as was done in the nuclear dream sequence in Terminator 2, in which Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) dreams of a nuclear bomb incinerating Los Angeles and the blast fries her as she clings to a chain-linked fence. The dream sequence was accomplished with a puppet that, for the quick flashes of film it appears in, looks identical to the actress. And modern-day versions of such effects would only look better than they did 30 years ago.

Film as Collage

Columbia Pictures

The challenge of getting the Rider in front of the camera will make or break this movie, the way that Jaws was shaped by the limitations created from its malfunctioning shark puppet. Necessity breeds innovation. The way to bring the Rider to life with these various puppets, combined with close-ups using a live actor, is to assemble the Ghost Rider from different shots. This is the way that movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park were filmed.

Movie making is, or at least can be, a collage. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The complete picture is assembled in the mind of the viewer as an impression made from the smaller pieces. Each cut/shot is a piece, and they are put in sequence to communicate action — this is the language of the camera.

Columbia Pictures

Computer graphics can be a great tool for fantasy and sci-fi movies, but the way such technology is used today is like an overpowered weapon, and without discipline, it can drain the soul of a movie. Without computers, we could not propose using rod puppets, wires, or a tow rig that would be in the frame — computers allow movie-makers to delete these objects, or to “fill in the gaps,” so to speak.

Removing rods, wires, puppeteers, or a trailer frame is easier and more cost-efficient than building a computer-generated lead character. But that matters less than the final effect: it will look real, which means it will feel real, which means it will succeed.


 Ghost Rider has the potential to be a cinematic classic by bringing the Rider to life with practical wizardry pioneered in the Terminator films.  Read More