Episode 294 — Dickinson VFX Supervisor – Lotta Forssman
Episode 294 — Dickinson VFX Supervisor – Lotta Forssman
Lotta (aka Charlotta) Forssman is a VFX supervisor based out of NYC. For nearly a decade, she has been part of Molecule VFX and has worked on shows like Ballers (HBO), The Good Cop, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None (Netflix). She has been a Supervisor for Apple TV’s Dickinson since Season 1.
In this Podcast, Allan and Lotta talk about the path to becoming a VFX Supervisor, how to communicate with other creatives about visual effects; her experience as a woman artist in the industry and some of her projects, including DICKINSON for Apple TV+.
Molecule VFX Website: https://www.moleculevfx.com
Molecule VFX on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-molecule
Molecule VFX on Twitter: https://twitter.com/themoleculevfx?lang=en
Molecule VFX on IG: https://www.instagram.com/moleculevfx/
Lotta Forssman on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3247959/
Lotta Forssman on LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/lotta-forssman-79326490
[03:14] Lotta Forssman Talks About Starting out in the Film Industry
[12:38] The Path to Becoming a VFX Supervisor
[20:40] Lotta Talks About Her Most Memorable Projects
[27:59] Lotta Discusses Her Work on Dickinson
[35:36] The Process of Delivering a Shot, from Script to the Final Draft
[42:45] How to Communicate with Clients About the Visuals of a VFX Shot
[51:31] Being a Woman Artist in the VFX Industry
[56:17] Lotta Gives Advice for Artists Who are Starting Out
EPISODE 294 — DICKINSON VFX SUPERVISOR — LOTTA FORSSMAN
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 294! I’m sitting down with Lotta Forssman, a VFX Supervisor at Molecule VFX. I’m super excited about this one. Lotta and I talk about her projects (Dickinson, Ballers) and her experience as a Supervisor.
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Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:09] 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!
[1:13:11] 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 LOTTA FORSSMAN
[03:14] Allan: Lotta, thanks so much for doing this! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Lotta: I’m Lotta Forssman, VFX Supervisor at Molecule VFX.
[03:37] Allan: Typically, I’m always asking guests about how they grew up. Did you always picture yourself being in a creative industry or did you fall into it later on?
Lotta: I fell into it later on. I was always a big film fan, but I grew up with parents [who were] accountants. I never saw film as a business I could be in. The first time I realized this was something that I could actually do and work with was in college. I went to college to study Media Studies, and then I quickly changed that to Video Studies and Film because they had a lot of extracurricular activities that allowed me to dive into things like editing, camera operating for a football team. I realize this was a whole industry I could work in! Before I didn’t know that was something I could actually do.
[05:18] Allan: What about your trajectory? How did you move into doing this as your profession?
Lotta: Back then, I thought I’d go into production and set design. I wanted to build beautiful worlds. I think it happened naturally. When I graduated college I got my first internship (which was in Sweden) at a live studio game show. I sat down with the producer and she asked me what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to be in the art department. She let me sit in those meetings but she was also the one that pushed me to post-production. Then, it just snowballed from there. I found passion while I was going. I ended up doing a lot of editing and motion graphics, some Nuke compositing. Then I became a junior compositor. I just continued working. Now, I realize I’m still building worlds and I get to work with production designers.
[07:22] Allan: I love that! I find it so common. Most people think they’ve wasted all this time. But most of the time, you’re leveraging all the life experience you’ve had so far. It’s just your foundation.
Lotta: And it’s a lot about being open to opportunities that led me to where I am today, and being open to different things and learning new things. It’s been a pretty wild ride, even after I started doing compositing. I got a job at Molecule VFX as an artist, 11 years ago. I kept switching between Nuke compositing and motion graphics, and some editing. Because I knew Final Cut and After Effects, I ended up doing their VFX editing which pushed me away from being an artist. I learned a whole new managerial side of visual effects. And that led me to coordinating, then associate producing and producing. Then I started dealing with clients and going to sets. It’s an odd journey. Now, I’m back on set and I’ve completed the circle. Being on set is where I really feel at home.
[09:49] Allan: I love that! I want to dive into how you started at the Molecule. I love that you interned in Sweden. Were you just seeking any opportunities you could get?
Lotta: I was born and raised in Sweden and in Europe. I wanted to go to school in the U.S. My dad lived here with his then wife. I ended up going to Pittsburgh and Ohio for college. I stayed for 4 years, graduated and went back to Sweden. I got this internship. I knew I wanted to come back to the U.S. and be in New York. I just packed my bags and left, without a job or an apartment. My mother said, “You’ve got two weeks and if you don’t get a job, come back!” And I got a job and I’m still here.
[11:24] Allan: How do you feel about having these constraints and accountability? Did that help you?
Lotta: It did! I’ve always worked, even when I was in New York in the beginning. I kept getting paid internships and working as a waitress [on the side]. I really wanted to be here and it made me a hard worker.
[12:38] Allan: In general, when you landed at Molecule, it sounds like you’ve pivoted into different areas. You didn’t have this narrow tunnel vision. You got to see every aspect of production. But how did you land that first job?
Lotta: I remember when first I got a job there, I was a freelance artist. I was at another company, also freelancing and that was running out. A friend asked if I wanted to do some compositing. It was a nighttime rotoscoping shift. That was my first 2 weeks at Molecule. They invited me back for the day shift. I became a part of that team really quickly. I’ve sat in different chairs at the Molecule and I’m grateful that [the company] saw something in me and helped me advance. Now, I know the ins and outs of a project. Even on the last season of Dickinson, I did some comping. I would do a budget. I produced for a while. It feels good to know all the aspects of a project. But I’ve always been that type of person: I want to know every single thing to help this thing run.
[15:46] Allan: It seems you’ve had all these opportunities to try different areas. Did you ask for those different experiences? Or do you think people see the opportunities for you?
Lotta: I think it’s been a combination of both. I’ve had people who’ve seen things in me or in my work. They see where I could fit in. But I’ve also seen opportunities and where I needed to fill in. It’s also about having the eagerness to learn. It’s a combination of being there and being eager to move up, while people have my back.
[17:57] Allan: What’s your opinion about the VFX industry in New York? People tend to be more generalists. How important do you think for artists to have a general understanding of the pipeline?
Lotta: I think it depends. I personally think it’s good to know what the person getting your shot is going to do with it, so you can help set it up for him / her. If you know you a bit of comp, it helps communication. I also respect people who are so specialized. I prefer to be able to talk to everybody about what they do and to learn their language. It helps me communicate. Then I can fit in better, if I know what the other pieces are bringing. But people who set out to be the best at what they do, I understand that. As Houdini artists, you don’t need to understand budgeting.
[20:40] Allan: I love that! Learning how to speak everyone’s language, it gets easier to work with everyone. What have been some of your most favorable / challenging projects?
Lotta: I think that some of my favorite projects are usually the ones I’m on right now. I get really passionate about the projects that I do. I love Dickinson! I’ve been on [the show] since the beginning. It’s also creatively so different because you’re blending reality with a fantasy, within a period piece. Ballers was another one. I did five seasons and it became a family. I grew up on that show and transitioned from a producer to a VFX Supervisor. I will forever cherish that project. There are so many I’ve worked on that I do love! It’s the team that you get to work with: the more collaborative the experience, the more you end up loving it.
[22:40] Allan: I definitely want to dive into Dickinson more. But can we talk about Ballers first? How did your role change from the beginning?
Lotta: On Ballers, Season 1, I was a producer. I started going to set but Ballers was in Miami at the time. On Season 2, I went to Miami. Come Season 3, the show moved to LA; but LA for Miami. The VFX job grew because we needed to sell LA for Miami. That’s when I got to know the team better. By Season 5, it felt like we were part of a team and we got to contribute some amazing pieces. From Season 1 to 5, we became more and more involved and it was a collaborative experience.
[24:51] Allan: Do you think that towards the end, having a longer show, there were more ambitious shots?
Lotta: Yeah, I think Season 5 wasn’t as big as Season 4. There was a little bit of a variant in the amount of VFX work we did. The more got to tile, by the end I was tiling the entire Rose Bowl with a drone. So things like that grew. I think they had us as collaborators so it was really fun.
[26:13] Allan: It’s pretty obvious when there is that relationship shift. Do you ever notice it?
Lotta: I do. This is what I love about certain shows, when that shift happens. And sometimes, it starts out like that. You aren’t a vendor, you’re part of the team — you’re part of the crew. Dickinson was like that from the start. They included me in meetings in early prep. They still see me as a department head and include me in meetings. Even right now, I’m working on a show for Netflix and it immediately started with us being not just a vendor. That’s the most fun I had, when I got to become a team member. That’s when the best visual effects happen as well, because you get to prep from the beginning.
[27:59] Allan: What is Dickinson and can you walk through the history of how you got involved?
Lotta: Dickinson is an Apple TV show about Emily Dickison. It’s a wonderful world that Alena Smith created. It’s a juxtaposition between real and fantasy. It explores the life of Emily Dickinson through her poetry and her mind. For a VFX Sup, it’s a wonderful project because you’re blending reality and fantasy really seamlessly; and you get to be really creative. You do a lot of research about the time period and recreating that world.
[29:12] Allan: What type of sequences do you typically do?
Lotta: There are a few different aspects. One of them is rebuilding the world that she lived in. We do a lot of set extensions. Her house is an important element, as well as her brother’s house. It’s a famous house in Amherst, MA, and we obviously cannot film there. On our sets, we have shipping containers that are half-house that we take over. We are changing the world by moving it around her. Her immediate little neighborhood is one of the things we create. Beyond that, we have different sequences. We had ghost horses. Death comes up in a carriage drawn by these horses. That’s a big one and they come back every season. Beyond that, we do a lot of period cleanup. We bring her poetry to life with a ghostly font. It’s a visual that keeps coming back as well. There is a Nobody is another figure that appears. We keep our Houdini artists very busy on the show. We had to extend hedges in one Episode. We had to create a printing press which was probably my favorite shot of the Season last year. There was a collaboration between departments. The art department built a printing press that was on wheels and we brought in a crane. We’ve tiled people, printing presses; we’ve added CG attachments to the printing press. This was one of the great visuals last Season. These are the best scripts to read!
[32:42] Allan: I was going to ask if it’s getting to a point where it’s cheap and straight forward enough to find a visual effects solution, rather than having to build something.
Lotta: Maybe. In some shows, most definitely! I like the line between what’s real and what’s visual effects not so obvious and blur it. I like to get what I can practically and then enhance it from there. I like being able to add to it. I like having the textures of real items and blend that with CG and Houdini simulations.
[34:27] Allan: Agreed! I think in 2000s, everyone went in the direction of a greenscreen. There is that visual disconnect.
Lotta: There was a discussion if we should do a printing press. But you do need to have an actor interact with them and grab pieces that were real. It feels more active.
[35:36] Allan: Can you walk through the process from receiving the script to delivering the final shot, for Dickinson?
Lotta: Sure! When I get the script, I break it down and budget it. I do a lot of research. If it’s something that’s really creative, I start with mood boards or reels of previous things I’ve created or other people have created before. It’s about getting into the creator’s head in terms of what they want. A lot of the prep is getting the feel of what the creatives want and like. For example, for the ghost horses, how can that look? I started with images of different ghosts and smoke, and horses. One picture that resonated with everyone was a face made out of cigarette smoke and that picture sat with us all the way through. My initial goal is not just planning how to shoot it, but also getting the feel of what they want to see down the line.
Then I go on set and make sure everything is getting shot correctly. I have my Plan A, but I always have my Plan B and C in my back pocket. You do more problem solving on the spot. But a lot of the work has been done prior to arrival to set. We have a lot of matte paintings and extensions, so I take a lot of pictures. When we get everything, hopefully we have a good base and all the building blocks. We have to have a clear vision of where we’re going. For a lot of Dickinson, we worked with our matte painter and our comp and VFX team. It’s a collaborative workflow. Everyone does their thing and we deliver it to the client.
[40:30] Allan: This is why it’s good to have the lay of the land. It’s also about empathy: The more you understand what the client wants, the better chances you have to deliver the job!
Lotta: The nice thing about getting on shows where you become part of the team is that people start trusting your ideas. You do get to contribute visually. It is a collaborative effort, even on set. If you’re a person who insists on making it your way, you aren’t collaborating with the whole team. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. You’re delivering what the writers have written. At the beginning of the show, you need to figure out what they’re looking for and you have to get on the same page.
[42:45] Allan: I find that for me, when I speak with clients, in the beginning you have to understand what they want. Do you have go-to questions to extract that information?
Lotta: I think a lot of it is about a certain tone of something. It depends on the visual. One thing I always do is try to ask questions with images. I try to make mood boards and present them because a lot of the time, it’s easier to look at the pictures and see which one the creators gravitate toward. I do a lot of research about different effects to steer certain questions. Then you have to understand the tone of the script. If you read “ghost horses”, you may wonder if they’re angry or dangerous. But then you read the whole scene and you understand they’re kind of ethereal and cool. You look at who Death is (which is Wiz Khalifa in this show, which is the coolest Death you could have!) You have to understand the tone and the story and what they want out of that effect.
[45:14] Allan: You’ve mentioned that you try to get it back on the box, with comps.
Lotta: I think that’s super important but I don’t always find the time to do it. If I can, I will help out. Right now, my shows tend to have a bit of an overlap. I’m not always able to do post, solely. Right now, I’m prepping Season 3, while I’m shooting another show. If we’re doing late nights and I’m there, I’ll take a shot and help out. It’s also important for me to do certain things on set, like mockups or simple things here and there. I try to stay connected throughout the whole project. I do miss the time of putting on headphones and getting into a shot. Now, I have clients calling me all the time. It’s rare that I get time.
[47:27] Allan: If I’ve done any of this work, I’d love to be able to just listen to some music.
Lotta: Sometimes I miss rotoscoping. That was really nice! I’d sit down and put on headphones and listen to podcasts of music.
[48:12] Allan: I’ve been thinking about how so many IP’s are moving to tv. These days, the budgets are there and the format is actually better. What’s your experience been like, with commercials versus tv or film? Are you finding that they’re comparative?
Lotta: I have been doing mostly episodics. My experience lies mostly in that. But I have big respect for all three mediums and the pros and cons that come with them. In tv, I like the pace of it and the amount that you get to work on. It’s incredible to get all 10 scripts for the season and you get to be a part of a big story. I like tv a lot! When working on features, it’s also been like to be that much more focused: prep, shooting, post. TV has a lot more to juggle. I appreciate the quality that tv now has and the budgets it’s getting. I love both and both have their challenges.
[51:31] Allan: You’ve been in the industry for a long time. Have you noticed a shift in the industry as a woman? I find that in Japan and Australia, it’s still mostly male dominated.
Lotta: I’ve seen it change a lot in the last few years. You see more and more women in different roles, as well as diversity in all the departments. In the beginning, I felt the need to prove myself more as a Sup (than maybe some of my male counterparts). I’ve been mistaken for a wardrobe designer a lot of the time. I definitely feel that there has been some time where I’ve had to prove myself because I didn’t fit the mold. At the same time, I have had a great experience with my job; and love that it’s becoming more diverse. Being a VFX Sup, you get to make a lot of creative input which is why I think it’s important that everyone gets invited to that table and to contribute. That way you get to have diverse content. Different backgrounds will bring different visuals. I was excited about the fact more women are doing this job, and it should be more! But it’s going in the right direction!
[54:23] Allan: I love how much things have changed in the last few years. There are all these amazing creative opportunities coming up. Now, there are so many people flooding in and people are more aware of the industry. For a lot of us, there wasn’t a clear process and we didn’t think of visual effects as a stable career. Now we look at it as a bankable, steady-ish job.
Lotta: And that’s definitely a question I got in terms of stability. “Is that really stable?” It’s really nice that it’s becoming a career choice that’s stable.
[56:17] Allan: Just to touch base on that, do you have any advice for people starting out and how they can fast track their career?
Lotta: I think it’s super important to manage yourself and your time, and not be burning the midnight oil too often. Otherwise, you aren’t going to be performing as well. I tend to work late hours too and I still have to remind myself to manage myself. You have to be the best you you can be. As for other advice, having a network and getting to know people is really important. A lot of opportunities come from people who liked working with you already. You have to have great relationships with people. You have to also be a person you yourself would find pleasant to work with. It’s really important! At the end of the day, you want to create a team with great collaborators. This is how you get asked back to shows: not just for your talent but also being great to work with. It’s also important to love what you do, in order to be healthier and happier. I’m lucky that way because I really love being a VFX Sup. It’s always been important to me. I love problem solving and always learning, and reading, and knowing more.
[1:01:01] Allan: What do you tend to gravitate toward?
Lotta: I’m not really typecast as a VFX Sup. I love all kinds of visuals and I love to contribute to stories. I do love when I get to blend fantasy and reality. One of the projects that got me excited about VFX was Big Fish. I remember seeing that popcorn scene. There was beauty in that magical realism. Which is why Dickinson fits me so well. That and its historical aspect, even with building her house and what her house looked like. Period piece and fantasy is something I really gravitate toward. I also love His Dark Materials.
[1:03:38] Allan: I haven’t heard anyone bring up Big Fish as inspiration before.
Lotta: And I love being that invisible person on set, or working on shows where you don’t know visual effects existed. I like shows where people don’t know I was there.
[1:04:41] Allan: In terms of things you’ve learned, what are the things you tend to research in your spare time?
Lotta: I read a lot of interviews and listen podcasts with other VFX Supervisors. You don’t get to work with them that often. Anytime I get to chat with other Sups, I learn from what they did. Two of my best friends are also VFX Sups. Also, expanding beyond VFX [is important]. When the lockdown happened, I bought a book about cinematography. I like getting to know other aspects of filmmaking. I tend to try to read and chat with people. One thing I love doing is watch the before and after and breakdowns.
[1:07:09] Allan: Interviews are really valuable. Even the talks I’ve attended, I’m like, “I’m about to go do that, and you’ve just saved me 6 months of mistakes.”
Lotta: I think it’s really important to learn from people’s mistakes. You don’t have to figure it all out yourself. It’s been done before.
[1:08:05] Allan: What was the title of that cinematography book?
Lotta: The book is Cinematography: Theory and Practice by Blain Brown.
[1:08:07] Allan: The last question is related to COVID and how things are going? How did you pivot during that time?
Lotta: We’ve been super busy. The biggest change is that we’re all working remotely. That was a little crazy. I was delivering Dickinson’s Season 3. I was so focused, I thought I’d be back in two weeks. I was working remotely. Now we’re setting up remote platform. I’m really impressed with what Molecule has done, in terms of setting up a virtual office in a way. I miss being in the office but it’s been great to see how we pivoted. Visual effects have been able to adapt really quickly. On set, we started coming back in the fall. That world is very, very different. I’ve been on set since November. I’ve finished two shows, I’m on my third and prepping my fourth. You work with shields and masks, and you get tested and you keep your distance. But it’s nice to be able to go back to work, and to see all this content being created. And we’re now able to solve a new set of problems with old methodologies. It’s just a bit of a different way of reading scripts. Now when you see a crowd scene, you know you’re going to tile it because for now, we aren’t going to get a hundred extras sitting around. We’ve been busy and it’s been nice to get back into it.
[1:11:36] Allan: I find that interesting how game shows do crowds. It’s such a surreal time right now. Where can people go to find out more about you?
Lotta: Molecule has a website (https://www.moleculevfx.com) and an Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/moleculevfx/) page. We try to post all the shows we’re doing. I’m also on LinkedIn and happy to connect with people there.
[1:12:53] Allan: Again, Lotta, I appreciate your taking the time to chat!
Lotta: This was a lot of time! Thank you!
I want to thank Lotta for taking the time to do this Podcast. I hope you enjoyed this Episode and how much Lotta has shared.
Next week, I will be talking about my conversation with the Director of DOOM Eternal.
Until then —
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