Dissecting an Encounter with the EPA

In the process of doing a little clean-up on my computer, I recently came across an analysis I had done in school for the blocking/setup of Peter Venkman's first encounter with Walter Peck in the original 1984 film. It was an exercise in dissecting a scene from a film to determine how blocking, camera setup and composition, lighting, editorial, music and directorial choices impacted the overall effectiveness of the scene.

Going back and re-reading it, I'm actually still fascinated with the findings and thought I'd share them with the masses... so here you go, here's my original essay from December of 2002 (and the scene courtesy of Ghostbusters.net for reference). 

I chose to analyze this particular scene from “Ghostbusters” because it was one of the first things that I noticed after learning about analyzing the beats of a scene in class. It was an interesting realization to me because “Ghostbusters” has been a film that I have greatly admired and respected (and viewed countless times) and had never really noticed the structure to it like this before. It also adds so much to the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist that I had not really caught onto and makes their rivalry that heats to the climax so much more memorable.

There is one beat to the scene really, however since there are two separate levels to the scene it could be said that there are two separate beats. The first beat hits the moment that Venkman tells Peck that he may not see the storage facility. It turns the tables, suddenly Peck goes from running the show to having resistance to his request. On a sub-level to the scene, the beat hits when Peter realizes that he’s being accused of fraud (not to mention there’s a hint that he knows that he’s operating without the required permits). This beat comes the moment of Peck’s monologue that accuses Venkman and the Ghostbusters of polluting with noxious gasses etc.

The scene proves to be more of a serious note in an otherwise light and goofy comedy. While “Ghostbusters” isn’t exactly a National Lampoon film, it is a very light and genre pieced blockbuster comedy. It is lit very lightly and vibrantly. The actors quip funny lines frequently. This scene fits well into the film because it highlights the smart-ass remarks of Venkman adding some comic relief to the tension.

The pacing of the scene is very casual and slow at first. The shots are a bit longer and since they are wider shots, they seem to be orienting the viewer as to their surroundings and the characters before they get into the thick of things. There are brief pauses between the characters’ lines at first. Then it begins to pick up pace as the two realize that they both have other motives behind the meeting. The actors begin to read their lines quicker after the line “Why do you want to see the storage facility?” Peck realizes that he’s getting nowhere and will continue to go nowhere and begins attacking. It is a gradual process, however.

The scene begins with a wide shot as the two characters are introduced to each other. It quickly cuts to a tilt that reveals the “slime on the suit” gag. Then cuts back to an even wider shot to not only establish Peter Venkman’s office once again (it appears earlier in the film when Peter first meets Dana Barrett) but to establish the casual, and ordinary meeting of the two characters. The first close up is the first moment that a hostile line is spoken. When Peck asks, “What exactly are you a doctor of?” in a very sarcastic and inquisitive tone is the first moment we are drawn into a close up. A close, but high angle on Venkman as he answers the question shows that Venkman didn’t expect the attack at first.  As the questioning continues, Peck walks away to turn his close-up into a medium shot (which then cuts back to a new setup medium shot of Venkman in the exact same placement as Peck). Then it’s back to a close up as Peck asks “May I see the storage facility?” Venkman says no and immediately it cuts to a 2 shot where the actors are on the same level, the same plane, worthy opponents for each other. Back to even closer shots of both filling the frame intercut with 2 shots where they appear to be right in each others’ faces (as the tensions get high toward the end of the scene). Again, on the same level on the same plane. Venkman stands to take dominance in the scene (fills the frame with a tilt up to an Extreme Close Up) which is immediately matched in an identical shot by Peck (tilt up to Extreme Close Up mirrored to Venkman) to show that indeed, these two will be butting heads on the same level again.

The main character (Venkman) achieves his goal of pushing Peck away with the activation of his defense mechanism that is established the moment that the character is introduced. He knows that he is superior to everyone else and quips wisecracks at the expense of those below him. As Peck threatens with unlicensed waste handling, Venkman’s objective quickly goes from schmoozing with the government official to threatening law suit and trying to push his adversary away.

As far as acting methods go, the actors begin casual. As it becomes apparent to their characters that there are tensions between the two of them and that they will be facing off against each other, they begin limiting the space between them. Both are unwilling to budge. While Peck (William Atherton) was quick to walk away and present the conversation with a comfortable distance, as soon as Venkman (Bill Murray) resists, they are in each other’s faces fighting for dominance in the scene. The movement of Peck as he sits down to look Venkman eye to eye pits them on the same battlefield, then at the end of the argument, Venkman stands to become dominant and Peck quickly counters getting to eye level again. Again, neither of them are willing to back down.

In addition to the actual dialogue in the scene, actions that the actors take (for example, Venkman is slouching in his chair during the beginning of the conversation fidgeting with a paperweight) show their perspectives on the conversation. In addition, costume direction plays an important role. Venkman is sloppy, worn from working hard, slime covered. Peck is dressed in a nice suit with a power tie. Their hair is also the same polar opposite. Venkman’s is unkempt while Peck’s is neatly arranged. Without the dialogue, we immediately have a sense of the roles each character takes.

As far as shot composition and cinematography go, again the entire scene is lit very evenly and very brightly. The shots are setup to associate Venkman with chaos, clutter, and disorder (the desk in front of him is messy, behind him an empty potato chip bag and more of a mess). Peck is associated with straight lines and order (he is shot with the walls and the file cabinets behind him. Both are very heavy metaphors for their personality.

There is little foley to the scene and there is no music added.

Judging from the final edit, it appears that there were 12 setups. 3 of them included a pan and a tilt, 2 of them tilted up to follow the characters, 1 moving pan became a planned 2 shot of both characters. The editing seems to be a simple back and forth from character to character. Again, it seems to speed up and move to the tighter and closer shots as the tensions between the two characters grow. As both of them become familiar with each other, the audience becomes “closer” acquainted with the two of them. The pacing also mirrors this concept. It grows faster, with the lines being read quicker and the cuts getting more frequent toward the end of the scene. It builds the tension, deepening the argument between the two characters as they get further and further into it.         

The scene seems to be from Venkman’s point of view. Obviously, since it begins casual and friendly we are led to believe that this was what Venkman was expecting from the encounter. Had the scene been from Peck’s point of view, I’m sure that it would have been less friendly and more confrontational from the start. Peck was there to stir up trouble and it took a while for Venkman to catch onto that. Then again, when the EPA comes knocking at your door, it normally just isn’t a friendly chit chat is it?