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August 17
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

FOLLOWING THE TUNNELS AND TRACKS OF ESSENTIAL HISTORY IN THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

By TREVOR HOGG

Magic realism was achieved by lighting and photorealistic effects.

A network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists that enabled enslaved African-Americans to escape to freedom during the early and mid-19th century provides the title for a novel by Colson Whitehead that has been adapted into a 10-episode limited series by Amazon Prime Video and filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight). The figurative becomes literal in The Underground Railroad where actual steam engines and a vast system of tunnels make an appearance aided by the expertise of Visual Effects Supervisor Dottie Starling (Selma).

After the coronavirus pandemic caused the production to shut down with three days left in shooting, causing a delay in post-production which commenced on May 2020 and concluded in March 2021. Working from home in Atlanta, Starling orchestrated the visual effects work by DNEG, ILM, Crafty Apes, Refuge VFX and Zoic Studios that amounted to over 1,000 shots that convey a sense of magic realism. A look book assembled by Cinematographer James Laxton (If Beale Street Could Talk) was given to the vendors. “Barry, James and I discussed in prep how they were going to do the lighting and how visual effects would play into that,” states Starling. “We wanted to keep things so real looking that you didn’t know if you were in a fantasy world or not. In Episode 101, you’re looking from Cora’s [Thuso Mbedu] POV down this train tunnel in this ephemeral lighting and magical stuff is falling. When the camera is on her from the train’s POV, we did things as if the train was actually coming. Those two would play against each other.  A lot of it played into how James had his gaffer light things and what filters were used on the lenses. We would then recreate that in our visual effects shots.”

Production Designer Mark Friedberg and his team built 250 feet of train tunnel.

“We wanted to keep things so real looking that you didn’t know if you were in a fantasy world or not. In Episode 101, you’re looking from Cora’s [Thuso Mbedu] POV down this train tunnel in this ephemeral lighting and magical stuff is falling. When the camera is on her from the train’s POV, we did things as if the train was actually coming. Those two would play against each other.  A lot of it played into how [Cinematographer] James [Laxton] had his gaffer light things and what filters were used on the lenses. We would then recreate that in our visual effects shots.”

—Dottie Starling, Visual Effects Supervisor

Magic realism was achieved by lighting and photorealistic effects.

The town burning amounted to 18 minutes of screen time.

“There was retiming all through the show because it is something that Barry and his editors like to do,” states Starling. “We were doing a lot of stuff at 50% to 60% speed, which is quite a difficult thing to get to look right when you’re close up on your main actor.” The editorial turnover was different from episodic, notes Starling. “Barry cut it as if he was putting together a 10-hour film, so nothing was completely locked. We had some stuff start locking in December 2019 and January 2020. The episodes with the burning town and the shootout at the Valentine Farm were among the last ones to lock. It became quite the task. Barry, his editors and I talked about how I was going to pace this, because with a pandemic going people were trying to figure out crews and how to schedule things. We looked at what were our big sequences, like the Train Hub and Ghost Tunnel, and I was able to get semi-locked cuts. I spotted those with the vendors and was able to work out the bids in terms of cost and how much time they needed to temp and final it. We were able to back-end that calendar process with editorial. It was a two-prong approach.”

“Production Designer Mark Friedberg [Joker] and his team built 250 feet of train tunnel, so we LiDAR-scanned everything and then ILM and Refuge VFX did the extensions for us,” remarks Starling. “We shot at the Georgia State Railroad Museum, so we were actually pushing or pulling a train engine through those tunnels. We would add all of the steam, residual smoke and break emissions. James was shooting with smoke filters that give an ephemeral look to all of the lighting and created beautiful halo flares.  Sometimes we had to do a lot of visual effects in the tunnels and match the photography.” Tests were conducted with ILM to make sure that the filters could be digitally replicated. “We showed Barry and James how the [CG] filter blooms light in a way to affect the actors. It helped us too because the blooming lighting makes you feel the heat and atmosphere without having to do full-on smoke simulations for every shot.”

One of the hardest scenes was the brutal killing of Big Anthony (Elijah Everett). “It’s something that I don’t talk a lot in terms of visual effects because of the nature of it,” states Starling. “It was something we had to watch in regards to the people working on the shots because they’re quite hard to look at. It was the worst of anything that we did. As for the rest of the sequences, we tended to shy away from making them too bloody or gory.”

“The biggest challenges were maintaining the reality and letting [filmmaker]  Barry [Jenkins] work the way that he does. Magic realism is magic in the eyes of Cora [Thuso Mbedu] –  that’s where the portraiture plays into it too. When I work on a TV show it’s about the director and his team and seeing how they see the world. The toughest thing was giving Barry the world that he saw.”—Dottie Starling, Visual Effects Supervisor

ILM had to create ash simulations for the town burning as well as different layers and colors of smoke to add depth and scale to the shots.

Another difficult task was having a burning town onscreen for 18 minutes. “It’s fun! I like creating frames and setting a pace to something because fire was going to play in time over all of these shots. We did have one building that burns throughout the whole thing, but ILM had to burn the entire town. Some flame and smoke elements were shot that could be used along with simulations. ILM had to create simulations for the ash. We had layers of different colored smoke to add scale and depth to it. There is one drone shot where we see the whole town starting to burn, and ILM had to build CG trees, smoke and flame simulations. We had LiDAR scans of the town for ILM to work with, but it became a major CG shot. It started in May 2020 and finished in February 2021.”

The fire was a combination of practical elements and simulations.

Post-production work on the burning town began on May 2020 and finished in February 2021.

It was important for the visual effects team not to interfere with the way that filmmaker Barry Jenkins likes to work.

There is portraiture quality to the imagery captured by Cinematographer James Laxton.

“We did have one building that burns throughout the whole thing, but ILM had to burn the entire town. Some flame and smoke elements were shot that could be used along with simulations. ILM had to create simulations for the ash. We had layers of different colored smoke to add scale and depth to it. There is one drone shot where we see the whole town starting to burn, and ILM had to build CG trees, smoke and flame simulations. We had LiDAR scans of the town for ILM to work with, but it became a major CG shot.”

—Dottie Starling, Visual Effects Supervisor

Squibs were used for the opening of the shootout at the Valentine Farm. “Because we were shooting with extras and a 100-year-old church structure, squibs couldn’t be utilized on the large guns because it was too dangerous,” explains Starling. “Once we got outside, it became editorial adds for some of those hits. I knew how big that sequence was going to be, so I wanted to make sure that one vendor did the majority of that work. Zoic Studios did all of the hits inside and outside of the church and the muzzle flashes on guns. We talked to Barry about whether the blood hits on people were through-and-throughs or not. All of the blood and debris on the ground as well as the broken windows had to be tracked. We tried to avoid roto as much as possible. We took the cut, laid it out and marked where the hits were going to be. Zoic Studios also knew what guns were firing. It was timed to an editorial cut before they started doing any of the work.”

“The biggest challenges were maintaining the reality and letting Barry work the way that he does,” notes Starling. “Magic realism is magic in the eyes of Cora – that’s where the portraiture plays into it too. When I work on a TV show it’s about the director and his team and seeing how they see the world. The toughest thing was giving Barry the world that he saw.” After working on 12 Years a Slave, Selma and The Underground Railroad, a comedy might be in order for Starling. “I am working on Matilda for Cinesite in Montreal, which is a lighter show for me!”


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