After college, Underdahl taught English for five years, at the same time cultivating a fascination with how art represents and contextualizes the human experience. “Growing up outside of Los Angeles you don’t really ever think of filmmaking as something you can actually do as a career, particularly since I grew up in a world where putting food on the table was the primary objective.
“I was 30 and did not want to continue in education as a career. I finally found the courage to pursue something I wanted to do instead of something I had to do. What I wanted to do was to build things. I didn’t know what that was going to look like, but I wanted to sculpt, weld, mold, hammer and paint. When I called an acquaintance, who was a special effects tech, to ask how one could get into doing what she did, she brought me out to PA on a couple of commercials. From there, it was making sure I kicked ass on every job so I could get the next gig and so on. Though I already had the aptitude and years of experience working with power tools, I learned a ton about being on set and working under production pressures while working in practical effects.
“The official break into the visual effects industry came when I ran into long-time friend Nancy Bernstein at a sushi restaurant downtown,” recalls Underdahl. “She was running Digital Domain at the time, and their miniature shop was crewing up for some big sequences on The Day After Tomorrow. Nancy asked if I wanted my name in the hat, and I leapt at the chance. It was on that show where I really started to learn lot more about materials and fabrication, and worked with brilliant artists who were kind enough to teach me the nuances of the job. I loved it. Every minute of it, even the motion-control shoots.”
With the rise in the quality of CGI, the modelmaker shifted her focus and became a digital effects coordinator at Digital Domain. “A team of about 10 artists had been working for several months on the building collapse beat in Stealth. We fabricated enough pieces to create two versions of the 30-foot replica to be assembled on top of a 30-foot platform so that once the bomb was set off, the building would implode and drop into a crater created by the explosion.” After seeing the end result during a monthlies screening, the producers decided to do the shot entirely CG. “It didn’t take much of a leap to see that the flexibility for filmmakers and the speed at which large-scale effects could be done [digitally] were only going to increase as time went on.”
An introduction to digital filmmaking took place for Underdahl by working with Clint Eastwood’s frequent collaborator, Michael Owens (Hereafter), and accelerated with Lana and Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix). “Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima needed to be photorealistic while Speed Racer was meant to be super arty and trippy. I got pretty excited seeing the breadth of applications of the medium.
“During the final delivery of Speed Racer, the Wachowskis and their VFX team would review dailies from other vendors like ILM, Sony Pictures Imageworks, BUF and Rising Sun Pictures in our screening room at Digital Domain. Seeing how much of the work was done elsewhere and observing the creative relationship between the directors and their VFX team, I started to realize I didn’t want to be a vendor and only see a slice, I wanted to see how the whole pie is made.”