<I>The Underground Railroad</I>: VFX supervisor Dottie Starling
Issue: May/June 2021

The Underground Railroad: VFX supervisor Dottie Starling

Director Barry Jenkins’ latest project for Amazon Prime Video is an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s slavery epic "The Underground Railroad". The ten episode limited series chronicles the desperate journey for slave Cora Randall, who seeks freedom from the South after escaping a Georgia plantation. 

Here, VFX supervisor Dottie Starling details the challenges the The Underground Railroad presented from a visual effects standpoint.

How did you get involved in this project?

“One of the executive producers that I worked with before through Plan B Entertainment called me while I was shooting a series in New Orleans and asked me if I would be interested. She thought I’d be a good fit based on the work I’d done with Plan B for 12 Years A Slave, Selma and sort of the type of work I do. So that was our first phone call, and then they had me fly out to meet Barry Jenkins in LA not too long after that. We did a short meeting with him and Dede Gardner and Mark Ceryak, one of his other executive producers at Pastel, and that’s how we got going.”

What were the series' VFX needs?

“For this project, at no point should it be a question of if you’re looking at the visual effects, it shouldn’t call itself out. That was one of the biggest things that Barry and I talked about. It had to be photorealistic, as good as James Laxton’s photography, which is saying a lot, because he’s a lot to live up to! That’s also the way I spoke to VFX vendors about it. When I hired a vendor, I explained that it may not be the most complicated visual effects work that you would do, although some of it was, but it was something that has to be so perfect that it sits into a shot and we don’t look at it as a VFX shot.
“It went everywhere from burning a whole town throughout one whole episode, to just subtly telling Barry’s story and letting other things like sound carry it out, to creating worlds that were never there and trains that were never underground, to the most horrific thing we’d ever have to do to tell Barry’s story, which was sort of difficult. We had to show some of the brutality, but measure it in a way where it wasn’t about necessarily showing the brutality but only including what was necessary to tell the story.”
Which studios contributed to the show and what tools were they using?

“We went through a number of vendors: ILM, Dneg, Crafty Apes, Refuge…who all used software within their own facilities, but it was mainly Nuke, Maya, Houdini, and I’m sure some proprietary software came in there as well. It all had to be operated and shown at 4K UHD, so it was high-end delivery in terms of VFX.”

How big was the team working on it?

“I don’t actually know the full numbers. It changed based on the work and how we were delivering the work to the team. Part of the difficulty with this was that all the episodes were being cut at the same time. We did lock a few earlier on, but it came down to a very close call in terms of a number of episodes that still had to be locked, which is not the normal way you do a TV series.
“Working with the vendor houses, I had to look at the estimated time it would take for them to do the work so they could budget a team, because COVID was starting through all of this. Part of the thing was that they didn’t want to bring too many people on, but they wanted to have their house stacked as they were getting more COVID-related calls for VFX. I had them look at the time it would take to temp something and then finalize something. Then we would back-in their time build-up based on that and set delivery dates that way. Again, it’s a very different way of doing VFX. Normally you get a cut, they spot it and you know your team is working on that one episode during that time.
“The team would also have to vary based on the type of work they were doing. Just like Barry talks about in interviews, there’s a particularly-brutal scene and you can’t keep the same person on something so brutal and so awful for the amount of time it took to complete the VFX, which was from May 4 until right around Christmas. That’s a long time to work on something like that.”

What are some of the highlights in terms of scenes involving visual effects?

“One of my favorite VFX scenes is the one where Cora meets Caesar in the train hub underground, and she’s standing there until she walks out to him and they dance. It’s a scene that Barry added in a couple of days before —Caesar wasn’t originally supposed to be there — and it’s so poignant in telling the story between the two of them. We got to create the whole background — the whole train hub — around them. Just like you might’ve thought she was really there, the moment Caesar is there you don’t know she’s there. To create something that is so realistic around them so your mind wants to think that they’re really there, that’s probably one of the scenes I love the most.

“There’s also this scene where she hears the train coming at first and we do this ephemeral, very light particulate that’s in the air, but then when you turn and you’re the train’s POV of her, we do a very rigid, very real looking dirt, dust and debris that’s falling from this approaching train. That’s something Barry and I talked a lot about — selling that first moment. 

“For me, it’s not the biggest visual effects stuff we did in the show but it’s the points that really stand out because they help Barry tell his story and that’s the way I like to look at it. Then there’s ILM, who did the whole town burning in the ‘Grace’ episode, and it is quite incredible what they accomplished. We hooked up into the drone shot and worked on that for a very long time. There’s also the scene that opens up the episodes where Richway is leading Cora into Tennessee, and the whole area around them is burning, and that’s probably one of the most epic shots that ILM was able to do for us. It took them from the beginning of May until the end of January to complete that one shot.”

How many VFX shot are there across the ten episodes?

“There are over 1,000 VFX shots in the show. A lot of those are period clean-up to make the locations we shot at look correct because there’s all sorts of wires and telephone poles. Barry wasn’t very big on blue screens, and based on the schedule, weather and location, you can’t pull in huge 20x20 blue screens. We had to move the set decoration around a lot. We’d see where Barry and James wanted to put the camera, and we’d move stuff to hide whatever needed to be hidden. There was also clean-up work to be done on the portraiture shots to make them look as still and quiet as possible. There’s also a ton of more traditional VFX shots, like the Valentine Farm shootout, which was almost all VFX due to how we were shooting stunts on the day. All of the ‘Grace’ episode is VFX. The opening of Episode 1 was VFX-heavy as well, but then you get into South Carolina, and you would never know what we did in terms of VFX. A lot of work was done to make things look period-accurate, and cheat where there would and wouldn’t be electricity.”