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How Ballad of Buster Scruggs pulled off its cutting-edge effects

Packed with CGI, the quirky Western anthology on Netflix is like the Coen brothers' own Marvel movie.

Ralph Ineson as "The Man in Black" in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may be a western, but Joel and Ethan Coen consider it their version of a Marvel movie -- because it's absolutely packed with visual effects.

You might not expect a Wild West-period movie to feature lots of high-tech effects. Yet the Coens' heavily stylised anthology film, now streaming on Netflix, actually has over 700 shots digitally enhanced in some way. Click through the gallery to see how it was done. 

Various visual effects companies worked on the film, including New York-based East Side Effects, which previously added invisible digital effects to films such as Creed, A Most Violent Year and the forthcoming Gemini Man. I asked Alexander Lemke, co-founder of East Side and one of Buster Scruggs' visual effects supervisors, to talk us through the film's six chapters and explain how the Coens used computer trickery to put a noose around James Franco's neck and rustle horses from Game of Thrones.

Chapter I: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The first chapter of the film sees the jovial gunslinger of the title take part in bloody gunplay -- until his death and transformation into an angelic ghost.

East Side

Alexander Lemke: There were a lot of cartoon effects in there. There's one moment where Buster shoots the barkeeper in the cantina and you see a ray of light coming through. Obviously it's totally absurd but it was a lot of fun. 

At the beginning we overshot our aim a little bit with the violence in the story, like when Surly Joe shoots his face off. We literally made versions where it's just a giant hole in the face and blood comes out, and [the Coens] sat there in reviews and laughed and said yeah, that looks great but it's way too much.

II: Near Algodones

In this story, James Franco plays a hapless bank robber who finds himself at the end of a rope.

East Side

Lemke: Obviously tying a noose around James Franco's neck would have been too dangerous, so we helped out. The special effects guy on the set and the costume department glued on a small noose, so for most of the shots he actually has a rope attached to him but it's not really tied around the tree, it's just hanging loosely. We painted out extraneous rope creeping out from behind his neck. Then at the end when the horse moves forward and the rope gets tauter and tauter, special effects made this other noose with a little fishing wire attached to it, like a collar around James' neck, and they would just pull the little fishing line. We shot plates of the rope on set and then either cut it out and tracked it back to James' neck, or we did a little CG on top to make it look believable.

III: Meal Ticket

For this melancholy yarn, Harry Melling plays a paraplegic thespian transported on Liam Neeson's broad back.

East Side

Lemke: I guess our biggest one was the Meal Ticket story. We had to change out Harry Melling's arms and legs pretty much throughout the show, and then come up with a really super complicated head replacement setup when he's being carried up the stairs at one point.

The easiest part was when he was almost like a statue propped on a chair. Harry was standing in the stage -- special effects cut a hole into the bottom of the stage and into the bottom of the chair so he was standing with his arms on his neck doing his performance. Then after each camera setup we went in and shot clean plates of the empty stage and of the chair, and then we used that to restore all the areas behind him. It was very straightforward, but it was important for me on set to be vigilant about shooting the clean plates because otherwise it would have been much harder.

But the one sequence that really was a lot of work was when Liam Neeson carried him upstairs into the brothel and we saw that whole motion of Liam putting him on the ground. So it was clear it had to be Liam interacting with a dummy, and we had to shoot a head replacement that perfectly fit all the movements. We were thinking maybe it's worth going for a CG head of Harry, but when he's turned to face the camera that would have been such a close-up face it would have been super-hard to pull off -- and also very expensive. So what we did was we tracked the motion of the backpack Liam was carrying, and then used that tracking data to reverse engineer it and feed it into a motion base Harry was sitting on while he was filmed by a motion control camera. It's really complicated. That gave us a blue-screen head of Harry and then using a lot of compositing techniques we are able to pop that on seamlessly.

Harry Melling filmed on a moving platform called a motion base.

East Side

That was months of work, I can tell you. It got really complicated with the motion base because if you do something with a virtual camera in the computer it always lines up, but in real life you have to deal with the real-life limitations of the equipment. When he's being carried up the stairs, the motion in the original backpack was so fast and violent we couldn't shoot it because the motors in the motion base couldn't drive fast enough. So we had to shoot at half speed and then speed it up in post to match it all together.

This took months of preparation, and then the actual shoot only took, I don't know, an hour or something.

IV: All Gold Canyon

In this story, Tom Waits plays an ornery prospector who encounters various beautiful landscapes -- and a friendly owl. 

East Side

Lemke: The opening was heavily referenced to look like the opening of the film Shane. The whole story, except for when he's inside the hole, was shot on location in Colorado and Ontario and Telluride. That was up at 10,000 feet so the air was really thin. Obviously Tom Waits is an old man, he can't really climb up a tree, so we shot plates of him in Santa Fe in front of an outdoor bluescreen. That's really important because you're not using studio lighting to replicate sunlight but you're actually using sunlight on him so he's naturally lit and it blends together. Then we had production plates of background mountains so we placed that stuff behind him to make it seem like he's up in the tree.

V: The Gal Who Got Rattled

In this heartwrenching segment, wagon train settler Zoe Kazan faces marauding attackers on horseback. 


Lemke: Surprisingly most of the wagon stuff is shot for real -- they actually had 15 wagons on set. But there was still a couple of duplications needed, some matte painting work and some really complicated CG horse work to augment the real life stunt work. I think there's two horse falls that were done by animal trainers, but what the Coens wanted is the horses step into the prairie dog holes littered around the landscape then break their legs, and you couldn't do that for real. That had to be a very specific violent animation so it was believable. We went out and tried to find other reference material for horse falls -- the stuff I mostly found was racehorses breaking their legs, really horrible stuff.

Joel and Ethan knew how hard it is to make believable CG animals, so early on they compiled a reel of digital horse stunts they found in other recent films. One of the sequences was the Battle of the Bastards from Game of Thrones, and we thought how about we just reach out to the company who did that? That was Iloura in Australia [now Method Studios]. Building a CG pipeline from scratch is an enormous amount of work, and in our case it was literally only four shots of CG horses. CG is something that scales -- the more shots you are working on with CG the better.

VI: The Mortal Remains

For this gothic final tale, CG horses pull a stagecoach into the unknown.


Lemke: The Mortal Remains is practically all shot on bluescreen, made to look very artificial, like a stage play almost. This was a challenge because [the Coens] had a hard time describing what they were after. It didn't really reference Westerns so much as other classic films like Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, which has this really artificial set design. And for the moving background in the carriage they were referencing Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist, in which there's a train sequence which is clearly rear projection but it doesn't bother you. It didn't really matter what was happening outside -- that's not what the film was about.

I was around for the whole shoot, and at some point very late in the schedule I jokingly said to Joel, hey, today is actually the first day for me where I don't have anything to do in terms of visual effects. He was like my god, we never had that before. And it's true for them it was really a big visual effects film -- they were joking it was their Marvel film basically.

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