Dykstra Talks 'Inglourious Basterds'

VFX guru John Dykstra discusses what it was like working with Quentin Tarantino on his wild World War II opus, which stars Brad Pitt and his merry band of Nazi hunters.

The climactic burning of a French cinema posed the most daring vfx challenge, involving the appropriate fire and projected screen image. All images courtesy of Francois Duhamel/ The Weinstein Co.

Check out clips and the trailer from Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds at AWNtv!

For Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds represents the culmination of his love of World War II buddy films, the French New Wave and spaghetti westerns. This is old-school moviemaking, to be sure, about revenge set in an alternate history, in which Jews band together to assassinate Hitler, structured in a very formalistic fashion. And to design the visual effects, he appropriately called on an old master: John Dykstra (Hancock, Spider-Man, Stuart Little, Star Wars). In this exclusive interview, Dykstra describes what it was like collaborating with Tarantino and CIS Hollywood.

Bill Desowitz: I had a blast watching Inglourious Basterds; it must've been a blast making it. What was it like working with Tarantino for the first time?

John Dykstra: Oh, yeah. It was fun -- we had a good time. The thing I like about working with Quentin Tarantino is that he has a fresh approach to filmmaking and is unlike any of the other directors I've worked with.

BD: How so?

JD: It's just that he's passionate about the making of his film, and, as you can see, he makes it in a structure that suits him. And the thing that's great about it is, whether you agree with the structure or not, it's consistent. Now I happen to like this film, but I can see how others might not: it's broken up into pieces -- small vignettes. But the thing that's interesting to me is that he's got the courage of his convictions and he makes his scenes that are long with the tension building up over a long period of time as opposed to keeping things moving at a really fast clip, which is a courageous thing to do.

BD: He's very much a classicist. But the way he often goes over the top can be frustrating.

JD: The trick is this: I think you also become aware of the fantasy aspect of the film as you move on. He's always been about telling his story his way, and it's a fictional piece, an alternate history.

Although Dykstra stood 30-feet away, he got what they call sunburn from the radiant heat.

BD: So tell me what it was like for you to work on this particular film and the visual effects challenges.

JD: From the get-go, what we always do is translate the written word into something visual and, of course, Quentin's great to talk to because he's a total visualist in the way he conceives of the storytelling aspect. So we were trying to figure out how to impart the presence of this character in this scene in the theater in a way that would impactful. His initial idea was to have Shosanna's image on screen and have the fire consume the image. Well, by traditional standards, you would set about doing that by shooting the screen and then shooting the fire as a separate element and doing an optical composite to put the two pieces together. But he wanted very much to have that happen in the environment with the audience watching the actors, the stunt people and the extras. So it was a challenge because, technically speaking, fire is very bright and if you want to have fire with any detail in it, you have to expose it in an f/8 or an f/11. And when you do a projected image, you’re limited by the brightness of the projector, and, of course, that usually is in the realm of an f/4 or f/5. So it was trying to figure out how to create this image in situ, which was one of his prerequisites, or at least that's where he wanted to start, and make all of the components synchronize. And we had to figure out how to make the screen burn at the rate that you choose to have it burn and have it start at the point you want it to start and have it integrate with the action of the image that's being projected because it's all happening at one time.

BD: So what was the solution?

JD: We worked hand-in-hand with the special effects guys and we came up with chemistry to make a screen that would be opaque and flat enough to be able to project onto and get a credible image, and, at the same time, burn in a consistent fashion. Not only in terms of how quickly it consumed but also how quickly you could ignite it. So we worked and worked and worked on getting control of the burning of the screen. In parallel with that, Lester Dunton, who was in charge of specialty projection, and Wassili Zygouris, who was the projectionist supervisor, figured out how to get projection that was bright enough to compete with the actual fire. So we also worked on the materials component of the screen burn to see if we could find something that would burn less brightly and with more color. So, as you can see, there were a lot of components and trial and error.

That was combined, of course, with the conflagration that happened after the fact. Not only did we have to burn the screen in sync with the projected image but we also had to create the fire that existed behind the screen once the image had been consumed. So from my point of view that was also a big undertaking. It was incredible: we had a big set on stage in Rudersdorf, which is a cement factory in the Eastern part of Germany. And we had this great big rostrum set up, and on the rostrum there were around 15 technicians each with their own set of values running to a giant propane gas tank outside. And that whole package, then, was choreographed timing wise to the projected image… And the wall of fire was divided into component pieces. It was quite amazing, but I stood 30-feet away from it and I got what they call sunburn from the radiant heat.

They filmed on a big stage in Rudersdorf, where they set up a large rostrum with 15 technicians with valves connected to a giant propane gas tank outside.

BD: The sequence turned out brilliantly. What is some of the other vfx work in the film?

JD: There are greenscreen composites in that opening sequence in the farmhouse, and CIS did a terrific job of doing that composite work [under the supervision of Greg Liegey]. And then we did a ton of removing wires, getting rid of equipment that was in the shot, getting rid of breathing that wasn't supposed to be there when somebody was dead. That kind of stuff.

BD: So there was no CG?

JD: That's right: there was no three-dimensional stuff for this movie. We did everything in traditional composite and overlay approach. Now the trick is -- and it's the same issue that Quentin had with using "digital" for projection -- he wanted to make sure there were no digital artifacts in the compositing, because the image had to be digitized and then brought back to an analogue medium, and he was very concerned about the digital intermediate because he didn't want the movie to feel like it had been electronically manipulated -- and EFILM did a great job of that. The trick was getting the grain, the contrast and color to match up. The 3D stuff is hard to do, but you do about 95% of it in a mechanical way. You've gotta make sure that you've rendered the object with enough resolution so that it'll stand up to close scrutiny, and then you've gotta make sure your texture maps are fitted properly and aren't scratched and there's no tearing and then the compositing step: the lighting and integration of the material obviously done in the digital environment has to be done in the computer; we did most of that practically. And then the final put together is the big issue: shooting indoors and outdoors, of course, and combining scenes on the cut that were lit with daylight and with incandescent light is always a challenge.

BD: What about the bar shootout?

JD: We added shots and muzzle flashes and took wires out and took a few people out who were in the wrong places. The other big issue, although CIS wasn't involved, except for composite purposes, was Shosanna's face on the smoke [in the movie theater], and that was done with the same group of people in Berlin that did the fire stuff. They did a terrific job with creating in the theater environment a dense wall of smoke on which we could use our high-powered projectors to actually project the face and enough stop and depth of field to keep the face sharp enough so it was recognizable.

CIS Hollywood contributed compositing work to the bar scene, which also required muzzle flashes, wire removal and some continuity fixes.

BD: Sounds like a nice throwback for you.

JD: Oh, yeah, Quentin was essentially making a film of that era. And, again, the great thing about Quentin is that if you can give him examples of what it is you're planning on doing, that's really what works best for him. Showing him a product or at least a product that's at least far enough along that he can see how it's going to work goes a long way in convincing him that that's the way you should do it. Once he's convinced, he gives you the latitude to structure the process the way you need to in order to get the final result. And that's done all with conversation. He understands the visual language enough that you don't have to do 20 different variations on a theme for him. He has a holographic understanding of what he wants to do with a scene: meaning, not only does he understand tactically what has to be done to achieve mechanical and dramatic results, but he also has a strategic overview -- on the fly.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.