Sarah Dowland – Documentary Filmmaker

Last month I introduced a new element to the Creative & Co brand, when we held our inaugural Creative Soirée. The plan is to hold these bi-monthly events in store, where we will have a guest speaker discussing their creative life and careers. And what a day to start this on – International Women’s Day!

The campaign theme for the 2019 International Women’s Day was #BalanceforBetter. The aim for this year’s campaign is for a more gender-balanced world. Better the balance, better the world!

I was thrilled that our first guest at Creative Soirée was documentary filmmaker Sarah Dowland. Sarah is an Aussie, now living in New York, and we have been best buddies for over twenty-five years. She is currently directing on a Netflix documentary series and is the recipient of an Emmy Award and Peabody Award. Here are some of the highlights from our discussion about her fascinating career and the topic: “Women in Film”.

Question: You started your film career as a Visual Effects Producer in Sydney back in the 1990s, and early 2000s, when Fox Studios was booming. Can you tell us about those early days in your career?

I studied for a Bachelor of Communications at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney). At the time I wanted to be a journalist but all the cool kids were doing film so I signed up for that major. After graduating, I worked on some documentaries, corporate videos, and did a little bit of television work as a PA or assistant director. I worked on a commercial that had a lot of green screen material. I had heard of “digital” but my education had been in analogue. At university we did everything in the traditional way. I learned about spooling and splicing film, reading colour temperature, etc. And I’m so glad that I got that background because even though everything is digital now, that knowledge continues to inform my work.

I got my first real break in film at Animal Logic; a premier visual effect company who have won multiple awards, including Academy Awards, for their work. When I joined the company, it was the commercials department that earned most of the money. So, everybody wanted to work there. The film department was small by comparison and just starting to grow. People probably weren’t going after jobs like mine because they thought it was too technical or because they didn’t realise that digital would change the industry forever. I guess I was in the right place at the right time. What I enjoyed about working as a Visual Effects Producer, was that it blended technical and creative skills.

When I started at Animal Logic they were just finishing up on the first of the Matrix trilogy, so I got to see how that worked and what challenges they had to deal with. By the time the Wachowski’s secured funding for their next two films, Reloaded and Revolutions, I had more experience and was paired with Visual Effects Supervisor Lynne Cartwright. We went to San Francisco for the first few months of filming, It was on another level of film-making, that I had never seen before in Australia. In Reloaded there is a massive car chase sequence which we worked on. To shoot this highly complex sequence, they built their own piece of freeway on an old Navy base. They had amazing stunt drivers! There were so many visual effects shoots going simultaneously, it was nuts. I remember watching over an explosion shoot we had to do. One of the pyrotechnical crew members — with a finger missing — said to me: “Just remember to stand back. If it doesn’t go off in thirty seconds, stand even further back”!

Question: Like so many young Aussies, you left Australia to pursue your career overseas in London. After a number of offers of work, you decided upon a role at Framestore, a Bafta and Academy-awarding winning creative studio that offers a range of visual effects, production, direction and post-production services.

I was so lucky to work on the Harry Potter films – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), directed by Mike Newell. It was from Cuarón’s film that the series really took off. For its time, we did some great creature work on that film. I love working with animators because it’s a more tactile environment. In the case of the Hippogriff, the huge bird-like creature, I have vivid memories of our animators – grown men, mostly — acting out how this creature should move. They also have mirrors on their desks to help them figure out character expressions. It’s really fun to see how an animated character gets brought to life!

Question: After a few highly successful years in London, you decided to relocate to New York City. How was that experience?

Initially I found it difficult in America. It took me a while to get a work visa. I went to being able to choose the projects I wanted to work on in London to having nothing! I really had to start all over again. I spent quite a bit of time commuting to Los Angeles and meeting executives who might have work. It was definitely a challenge but I don’t regret the experience. I think working on big budget Hollywood films where failure is not an option and competition is fierce, is a tough environment to work in at times, but it also offers incredible opportunity to work on the cutting edge.

Question: You made a very conscious decision to go back study (Masters of Journalism, Harvard University) and to move into documentary making. You now work mostly for Alex Gibney, described by Esquire magazine “the most important documentarian of our time”.

My first job with Jigsaw Productions was We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, so topical! I was working for Framestore in New York at the time. Alex needed a way to visualise parts of the story that happened digitally. He also wanted to set a mysterious tone and vibe to bring the audience into this world of secret chats and classified information. The graphics had to be integrated, factually correct, and cinematic! I realised from this experience that I could use my graphics and animation knowledge to tell different types of stories. This led to me work as a Producer on Zero Days which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won a Peabody Award (honoring the most powerful, enlightening, and invigorating stories in television, radio, and online media). At Jigsaw I have worked as a Producer and Showrunner, and now I am directing on a documentary series for Netflix.

But none of this would probably have happened without the network of women I know in New York. For such a big city, I am surrounded by incredibly smart and talented women. We look out for each other, we recommend each other, and we hire women to be on our teams.

Question: A few of your women in film colleagues, made a documentary short in 2016 called The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem.

Caroline Suh made this documentary just prior to the #MeToo movement. I think it helped to shine a light on the imbalance of representation in Hollywood. Since there has been more awareness of this issue, my experience is that executives, production companies and networks are actively asking for there to be more diversity especially in roles that traditionally would have been filled by white men. And when they do, the success of these tv shows and films prove that audiences want to see that product. For my own role in this, I actively try to hire women. I love mentoring and finding ways to give someone a start or a pathway to enriching their career, be that a promotion or just finding out what they are good at.

About Michaela Bolzan

My name is Michaela Bolzan and I am the founder of Creative & Co. I am fascinated by the creative process and now want to explore it more by interviewing imaginative and innovative people across a wide range of occupations. My aim is to discover their passions, learn from where they get their inspiration, and begin to better understand their creative process.