VFX Compositor Sam Zhang talks working on Apple TV+ hit ‘Dickinson’ from the beginning

Growing up in Xuzhou, China, Sam Zhang was fascinated by superhero movies. She was amazed how real everything looked, from a teenager shooting spider webs across New York City to the God of Thunder shooting lightning from a hammer. She knew she wanted to one day make “movie magic” such as this and became immersed in the world of visual effects.

“I thought working on movies and tv would be an exciting career. It was also a good fit for my skills as I really like computers and technology, but am also pretty creative. Compositing was a great way to combine my interests,” she said.

Now an industry-leading compositor, Zhang has been a part of countless award-winning films and television series starring some of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars, including best-selling pop star and actor Selena Gomez and comedic icons Steve Martin and Martin Short in Hulu’s hit Only Murders in the Building, and Academy Award Winners Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto in the new Apple TV+ series WeCrashed.

“I feel very grateful to have had the chance to accomplish so much this early in my career. The VFX industry has a lot of opportunities for people to grow and I was able to take on a lot of responsibility despite being much younger than our most advanced artists. It is exciting to have a job where others can see just how much you have accomplished year after year,” said Zhang.

WeCrashed is not Zhang’s only contribution to Apple’s popular streaming service. For years, she was a part of Dickinson, one of Apple’s first original series, which came to an end last year. Starring Academy Award nominated actress Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson tells the story of budding writer Emily Dickinson, who uses her outsider’s perspective to explore the constraints of society, gender and family in the 19th century.

“I really appreciated how they portrayed the relationship between Emily Dickinson and her best friend/girlfriend, Susan Gilbert. LGBTQ+ representation in the media is very important, and being part of that community myself made working on this show an extra special experience. Both characters were well-written and their story was complex and compelling, and I loved having the opportunity to be a part of such a powerful piece of art,” said Sam.

At the time when Zhang came on board, Apple TV+ was still in its early stages, not a major competitor of Hulu and Netflix. Zhang was intrigued by this, knowing that helping to create outstanding shows would be an even greater accomplishment as it would allow the service to gain popularity.

“We had a really cool sequence this season that involved a time traveling garden pavilion. The work was split across a team of three, and I was in charge of all the CG dust and electricity, along with keying and adding rain elements to several shots. It was crucial that we collaborated closely, as we could accidentally save over each other’s work. The electric sparks were all hand drawn 2D elements and I was tasked with making them look real, splitting it up into many different layers so I could tweak the cores and glows of varying sizes and then merge it all together. When developing the look, it was also decided that we should add some 3D magic dust to give the scene a more mysterious feeling. I had a great time collaborating with my coworkers on this unique scene,” Zhang described

Working with MoleculeVFX, Zhang was invited onto the project by compositing supervisor Rick Shick, who knew he needed to have someone as talented as Zhang on the team. It was a very large project, where a single episode would have hundreds of shots that needed work. When a show is this large, it is very difficult for one compositing supervisor to cover all of it. Therefore, Shick needed Zhang to review shots, give artists feedback, and approve shots that were ready to be sent to the client, helping to oversee the entire project.

“Working with Sam is delightful. She’s now a seasoned compositing artist and can be trusted with many shots to work on her own. She’s a very thoughtful and diligent worker, but even more so she’s wonderfully kind and witty. Sam is great at what she does because she has an amazing eye for what looks real and delivers above our expectations. Shots are in good hands with Sam as she really cares about delivering excellent work,” said Shick.

Dickinson came to an end last year, but it had a profound impact on its audience and on Apple TV+, which is now a leading streaming service around the world, with an estimated 25 million subscribers. Zhang is proud to have made her mark on the series, and references the experience as a highlight of her career.

“I worked on all three seasons of this project. I feel like I grew up alongside this show, becoming a leader and having newer artists come to me for help. I will always remember this experience and the impact it had on me as an artist,” she concluded. “Emily Dickinson has so many beautiful poems, she deserves more recognition as an excellent female poet and a feminist. This show draws people into her story and gives them another perspective to learn and get to know her more.”

Photo by Jiahe Xiao

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