Issue: September 1, 2009


As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino is a dedicated purist. He likes practical special effects, especially for a raw, blood-and-guts story set in WWII France like Inglourious Basterds - not a lot of digital manipulation and chicanery. There are some blue-screen shots, but not many. Tarantino even shot his film in Germany. So what are people like two-time VFX Oscar-winner John Dykstra and the crew at CIS doing on Inglourious Basterds? Keeping it real. Or, in some cases, surreal.

"It's less about making something on the screen that's indistinguishable from reality and more about making something that's representative of the story and moviemaking," says Dykstra, who was VFX designer on Basterds. "The movie has components of a period movie," Dykstra says, "and it's his reinvention of the history of World War II. It's a fantasy piece and the tendency is to make things intensified - almost surrealistic."

As Dykstra describes the effects work, it's like a period film with effects that seem less sophisticated and more in the spirit of that era.

"We had to put things in front of the camera and photograph them. When you get to the point where you can do anything, you have to be much more careful about what you choose to do. The way we approached this movie's visual effects was from the point of view of 'how can we photograph this for real?' It points out what you can do with contemporary technology using 'legacy' VFX techniques. A huge component of the work in this movie involves mechanical effects."


A big fire scene in Basterds involves the premiere of a propaganda film at a Paris movie house to be attended by the German high command - even Hitler himself is expected. In addition to the theater, the black-and-white movie screen catches fire, as do some victims. You don't want to burn any actors, but Tarantino did not go for the obvious choice - CG fire. Rather, the objective was to photograph, in-camera, real fire and the screen's projected image. However, a typical fire's brightness would blow out the projected image.

"The mechanical effects guys came up with flames that were aggressive and had the proper scale but weren't as bright as real fire," Dykstra says. "It's chemistry at work!"

Still, the crew had to make the projected image much brighter to work. To do this Dykstra and company put several DLP projectors together and ran them in sync from a single HD source. To get two more stops you have to use four projectors. "We combined that image with the fire as it actually burned." They achieved "a really properly exposed, highly detailed fire, but as you overexpose it you start to lose the detail. That was a huge challenge." Veteran special effects artists Uli Nefzer and Gerd Feuchter were key to the success of such sequences, Dykstra says.

In-camera effects were done by Lester Dunton and Wassili Zygouris, operating as a visual effects unit. 
For the grand conflagration in the movie theater, Dykstra and company could not treat the "people" and the "fire" as independent elements that "have no limitations. When you have to put both in the scene at the same time, you get real reactions out of the people. You had to choreograph everything so that it was 'practical.'" The real fire had to be controlled to the point that actors would not come out of character and flee the set.


"CIS did a terrific job for us," Dykstra says, on the film's compositing and blue-screen work as well as muzzle flashes and the regular object- and wire-removal duties. They added things too - characters were added and put together with location and on-stage photography.

VFX transparency goes beyond the execution of individual components, Dykstra says; their integration is of great importance. "Greg [Liegey, VFX supervisor] and the guys at CIS did a terrific job on little things which tend to get ignored like matching grain, adding highlights and lighting influences to characters in blue-screen elements."

Take a character standing by a blue screen window. "In a live-action set, you might have a window that's overexposed or blown out, but it acts as a light source. Greg did a terrific job of amplifying the interactive lighting that the director of photography [Robert Richardson] was able to achieve on set to match the brightness and balance of lighting as it was in the original location photography.

"We have stuff where it's a direct cut from a location shot of an actor standing in front of a window to a blue-screen shot of that same actor standing in front of the same window with a slightly different composition. So it was really challenging to make all of those matches work and to not have the kind of artifacts that are traditionally a giveaway for blue-screen photography.

"Anybody can pull a blue-screen mask at this point. Digital electronics have gotten so sophisticated that it's become something fairly pedestrian to do. You have so much control over your color and contrast. But matching the two pieces together, especially when one was shot in a daylight environment and another shot in an interior, requires real attention to the 'texture' of the film. You end up with mismatching grain structure, contrast anomalies and I really think the CIS folks did a terrific job of zeroing that stuff in so it was indistinguishable."