Episode 312 — UNDERGROUND RAILROAD — VFX Supervisor
Dottie Starling is a Visual Effects Supervisor, CGI artist and digital modeler. Through both her freelance VFX career and her work with production houses such as Cinesite, Asylum, and Wildfire VFX, Dottie has worked on countless blockbuster motion pictures including Titanic, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 007’s Die Another Day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Ocean’s Thirteen and Tropic Thunder.
Dottie has also worked with digital effects on the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave, Oldboy, Selma, and the New Orleans-filmed television series Scream Queens. She has recently finished supervising Amazon’s original series Underground Railroad directed by Barry Jenkins.
In this Episode, Allan McKay interviews VFX Supervisor Dottie Starling about the path to becoming a Supervisor, the most crucial skill for the job, the challenge of creating visual effects that support the story (and the director’s vision), as well as her experience supervising Amazon’s original series Underground Railroad directed by Barry Jenkins.
Dottie Starling on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1151154/
Dottie Starling’s Interview in Post Magazine: https://www.postmagazine.com/Publications/Post-Magazine/2021/May-June-2021/-I-The-Underground-Railroad-I-VFX-supervisor-Dot.aspx
Underground Railroad on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6704972/
[03:23] Dottie Starling Introduces Herself
[04:25] The Path to Becoming a VFX Supervisor
[05:29] The Approach to Underground Railroad
[08:01] Working with VFX Vendors
[11:58] Visual Effects as a Supportive Part of Storytelling
[17:35] The Challenge of Creating Realistic Fire
[22:18] Advice for VFX Artists on the Path of Becoming Supervisors
[25:40] The Evolution of TV
EPISODE 312 — UNDERGROUND RAILROAD — VFX SUP DOTTIE STARLING
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 312! I’m sitting down with Dottie Starling, the VFX Supervisor for Underground Railroad, the Amazon original series. We discuss the work done by ILM, DNEG, Crafty Apes, Refuge, Zoic. We talk about almost 20 minutes of fire and pyro effects and the challenges with a show this big.
Dottie has a massive career! She’s worked on Titanic, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 007’s Die Another Day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Ocean’s Thirteen and Tropic Thunder; 12 Years a Slave, Oldboy, Selma, Scream Queens.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:04] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[26:50] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH VFX SUPERVISOR DOTTIE STARLING
[03:23] Allan: Thanks again, Dottie, for coming on the Podcast! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Dottie: Hi, it’s Dottie Starling. I’m VFX Supervisor for The Underground Railroad, as well as a number of other projects.
[03:35] Allan: A lot of different projects! Starting out, did you always think you’d be moving into a creative role?
Dottie: It’s part of what I was planning, but I wasn’t planning to be in film. I planned to be an architect. My first film was Fifth Element and I moved into their miniature and art department. My first two films were The Fountain and Titanic, after that. Once I started in VFX, I planned to stay in it. But I come from a 3D background. I started out lighting, texturing, modeling.
[04:25] Allan: That’s great! I love that! Usually, the background of a VFX Sup tends to differ. But it’s usually from comp or from a DP background. For you, moving into that role, what was your trajectory?
Dottie: I was always a generalist when I was doing it. I got lucky with my first two films to work with Mark Stetson. At Digital Domain, they were filming all the visual elements on stage there. So I’d hang out with all those guys, the camera guys, the lighting guys, the model makers. The way I did it was by staying a generalist and then lighting supervising, and CT supervising; then digital supervising and moving into being a VFX Sup. But I would always teach myself anything I needed to know. Or, at least, try to.
[05:29] Allan: Stetson and I go way back. I worked with him in Sydney on Superman Returns. In terms of Underground Railroad, can you give a bit of a backstory about the show and some of the challenges you’ve experienced?
Dottie: The show was about her journey and wanting to be outside the condition [the character of Cora] was in. It’s very much character driven. When I started to talk to Barry [Jenkins] about how he saw the story, it was always a supporting role. It was about making these places that didn’t really exist. But they had to be magically really, so that you buy into them. One of the first things he said was that you didn’t really know if these places exist. He told the extras that when he was a kid and heard about it, he thought, “Wow! There are trains underground. Now, I’m actually getting to do that!” It’s that magical realism of that sort of space. The tough thing was to make something look so real but then have it have ephemeral qualities to it, so it might pull you out of it. That’s how we started. And that’s how I described it to all the vendors: You have to make something that’s so real looking that you might say to yourself, “How?”
[07:24] Allan: I love that! In the early stages, how did you get involved on the show?
Dottie: I got a call when I was working on a Marvel tv show, to go interview with Barry. It was with Plan B. I’ve worked on 12 Years a Slave and Selma before. They pulled me in to supervise. I started 9 months before shooting, on the prep. It was a long prep. We started in Savannah.
[08:01] Allan: In terms of the vendors, which ones were involved on the show?
Dottie: We used ILM to do the train hub and a lot of the train stuff, in the ghost town. We used Zoic to do the main shootout. It was just their key piece. We used Refuge out of Portland. They did a lot of great train smoke for us. And DNEG did some forest creatures.
[08:52] Allan: Love that! In terms of picking the vendors, what’s the typical process? How do you decide with which vendors to go?
Dottie: There were some vendors I’ve worked with before and so I know them. We bid it out to a lot of people. ILM came in through Amazon. I happened to know a couple of their department heads and I reached out to them. Crafty Apes also worked on the show. I’d worked with them before and they did two films for Barry. And they’re based out of Georgia. At DNEG, I know someone and they do great creature work.
[09:40] Allan: To talk about the church sequence, you had to riddle the place with bullets — and not do that practically. So how did that sequence evolve?
Dottie: We mainly had to work around the shooting schedule. We had little time to do everything. We knew we couldn’t do it practically. The church was over a hundred years old. There was a lot of stuff like that. And it was important to get Barry’s story points. We had 3 days to shoot that sequence, which is not a lot. When it came to post, it was also one of the last Episodes that he and his editor were cutting. So we talked about blocking it out with Zoic and their team; and there wouldn’t be a lot of time to do it. We blocked out the whole sequence but it was still in flux. I had to work with our VFX editor, to lock in every hit. We put exes in the tunnel. And they had to do a quick continuity. They had to do all the debris on the floor, all the glass from the windows. Some glass was practical, but we had to block it out and they had to carry all the VFX stuff through, continuity wise. But we also did it in a way to help them, because there were no green screens, even to the point of having to drag some blood on the floor. That worked well because Barry could see it.
[11:58] Allan: In terms of what you’re communicating to the vendors, what was the underlying message? I find that VFX often fights to be the star of the show. But finding it to support the story seems to have been really critical here. What was the message you’d communicate to the vendors?
Dottie: I think you hit on it. But also, we had to tell Barry’s story. Looking for those moments, for example in Episode 101: how what she might think or how her eyes are reacting to something so surreal — but you want to believe it. We did simple things. We pulled references from other shows, like Chernobyl. When they’re on that bridge and there is all this dust that’s magical, but it’s so bad for them, at the same time. We did the same thing. When she sees the train approach, we see the light of the train approach — which is all real — but there is this particular way it falls that’s so soft. It matches her expressions. There is a moment of this debris falling which is real. You can be in those two worlds but you’re telling Barry’s story.
[13:47] Allan: I want to get deep into some of these sequences. With your background, when you watch something, where do you find VFX falling apart?
Dottie: That’s tough for me to say. In general, it’s how things react in camera. When you have levels that are off or a feel that’s off, it pulls you out of it. It seems weird that that’s what pulls me out, but I do come from a camera and lighting background. It’s when it tries to do too much. For me, the job is to support the director and the DP. On Underground Railroad, James Laxton, the Director of Photography, and I would have conversations about these beautiful smoke filters. We did a test in which I had ILM recreate those. You can’t shoot with them, with the flare that happens in the lens. We have to put it back on top. We were going to do lens flare day at the start of the shooting. The show lives in both worlds. It all got stopped by COVID. I did pull plates and we shot with them, and had ILM match them. It’s working with the DP that sets it in. And that’s where I could see it falling apart.
[15:52] Allan: That must be the most fun day, to just go pick up a bunch of plates.
Dottie: It might be fun for us, but not for the camera crew.
[17:07] Allan: I know what you mean by the depth of field. I’ve seen some shows and it goes from in-focus to out-of-focus, to back in-focus behind. You can tell people haven’t had experience. But things like that can break your concentration. Was there any specific sequence that was more of a challenge?
Dottie: I think fire and the sequence I don’t talk about a lot. It was a tough scene in terms of brutality and it had to be. But you have to make it work together in the daylight. And it couldn’t fall apart at the start of the show. The guys at ILM worked on that from May  to January of this year. It’s also a tough one for artists to work on because of the amount of time they had to spend looking at that image. It came together in the end.
[17:35] Allan: In terms of the town burning down, it was a long sequence. Can you talk about creating fire and playing it out for consistency?
Dottie: It comes down to Barry shooting this like it was on a long film which is how he prepped too. He wanted to have it be malleable. We took the cut and blocked it out with the guys at ILM, in terms of how the fire would progress, how the flames would jump. We gave Barry a set of stills. He could lay in the progression. They were able to lay it out before we started work. Then we could talk about the smoke progression. Once we laid it out, we could go into the shot. It helped ILM in terms of the blue and green scenes, where they didn’t have to deal with roto. Barry and the editors could see where we were going.
[19:45] Allan: What were the challenges with CG fire?
Dottie: Exposure is one of the things, and the fine details. It’s the finite nature of fire. If you do it too fast, for example. We did partially burn one of those houses. It was a real set but they built a facade on one. It’s also the scale and the depth of what you’re doing: The ash coming on camera and the smoke behind the buildings.
[20:49] Allan: And overall, were there any lessons you’ve learned on the show?
Dottie: Um, it was tough. It was one of the best shoots I’ve been on. But it’s also because of the collaborative nature with Barry and his team. They’ve worked together for a long time. It’s also about listening instead of speaking all the time.
[21:28] Allan: In terms of the overall VFX, is there any area of technology you’re excited about?
Dottie: I think some of the virtual production and what people are starting to do with LED systems, and lighting. And the new way of using a green screen with lighting. Some of the stuff we talked about on set, in terms of the interactive stuff.
[22:18] Allan: For any up and coming artists, do you have any advice in terms of which areas they should learn?
Dottie: I think it’s about knowing how to ask a question to get something to happen and how to listen. To be on set as a VFX Sup, you have to know how to say things the right way. How to gauge things, and how much time things would take. It’s communication is what it really comes down to.
[23:26] Allan: I love that! I think communication is so undervalued. People have no idea how critical that is in VFX, with so many people relaying information all the time.
Dottie: I even tell people it’s like being a psychologist on set. It’s about learning how to say things and gauge personalities. That way you can get done what you need to get done.
[24:34] Allan: In terms of the info you’d try to capture on set — LiDAR passes, or photogrammetry — what do you look for?
Dottie: On Underground, we did a lot of LiDAR scanning. We do photogrammetry. We get lighting schematics. You get as much info as you can get.
[25:40] Allan: In terms of tv and how it’s evolved overtime, how do you feel it compares to film? Both budget and expectations wise?
Dottie: I think it’s evolved a lot in terms of limited series. Amazon treats it as film, in terms of scale of the crew and budget. I think the difference is how you approach it on the post time. You don’t get the same time as you would on tv. This is something that VFX houses have to address.
[26:28] Allan: For anyone who wants to know more about your or Underground Railroad, where would people go?
Dottie: To find out more about me, go to my IMDb. For Underground Railroad, just go on Amazon — and watch it!
[26:51] Allan: I appreciate your coming on the Podcast, Dottie!
Dottie: Thank you!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode! I want to thank Dottie for taking the time to chat. Please take a few seconds to share it with others.
Next week, I’ll be back with a solo Episode about different paths in your career.
Until then —
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