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From the Matrix Trilogy to Harry Potter to Sundance - A Leadership Talk with Sarah Dowland

headshot of Sarah Dowland

If you remember the visual effects in the Hungarian Horntail from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and in the Matrix Trilogy, then you are already familiar with Sarah Dowland’s work. The visual effects producer turned award-winning documentary filmmaker recently sat with FUTURE NOW Founder and CEO Peggy Kim to discuss her unexpected career journey. 

Dowland’s latest and proudest career achievement occurred just a week before when her film, Sue Bird: In the Clutch, premiered to sold-out audiences at the Sundance Film Festival.  “This, for me, was just a dream,” she said. 

The film follows the life of Sue Bird, one of the greatest women's basketball players of all time. She won two NCAA championships at the University of Connecticut, four Olympic Gold Medals with Team USA, and three WNBA titles with the Seattle Storm. She retired in 2022 after a remarkable twenty-year career. 

It was her leadership and activism on and off the court that inspired Dowland to tell her story. 

“I really wanted to do whatever I could to get her name out there because I felt like she should be a household name. She should be in that pantheon of great American athletes,” Downland explained. 

Sue Bird: In the Clutch is a story of growth and transformation, not only in Bird’s personal and professional life but also in the greater scheme of women’s sports. 

“Through that lens, it was telling a coming-of-age story of the WNBA… It was telling a story about women and their journey, culturally, over the last 20 years,” said Dowland.

And, the audiences at Sundance were rapt.

Sundance holds a special place in Dowland’s heart, especially as a lifeline for independent cinema as it showcases and celebrates smaller films and diverse stories. “Sundance, for me, epitomize[s] everything about independent filmmaking.”

Dowland experienced a full-circle moment when she looked out into the audience and saw her mentor, the renowned award-winning documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney. It was Gibney who had given her her first break in the documentary world over a decade ago. 

Growing up in Australia, Dowland embarked on her professional path in journalism, eventually finding herself immersed in the world of visual effects at Animal Logic, where she contributed to projects like The Matrix Reloaded. As the industry burgeoned, Dowland rode the wave of opportunity, witnessing Australia's rise as a creative hub for international productions.

“Because the foreign exchange rate was attractive to American studios, they started investing in films to be made in Australia. And that started a whole cottage industry, and before I knew it, I was on back-to-back films,” Dowland said. 

She learned from industry professionals who were “generous and smart with their knowledge.” They were “prepared to share their knowledge and knew they needed to do it in order for them to grow.” 

Dowland worked on the cutting edge of visual effects in filmmaking, eventually moving to London, and then, New York.  But, as she continued to rise through the executive ranks, she increasingly missed the daily trenches of the creative process.  She longed for a change.

Dowland was an Executive Producer in the film division of Framestore, the visual effects company hired by Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions to oversee the graphics package for his documentary film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.

"Meeting Alex was a matter of timing,” she said. Dowland had always wanted to work in long-form documentaries, and Gibney was looking for someone with animation and graphics knowledge to join his next project, “Zero Days,” about the world of cyber war. He hired Dowland to leverage her skills, integrating compelling graphics and animation to bring the story to life. The film won a Peabody Award.

Looking back now, Dowland realizes this career opportunity proved pivotal, as collaborating with Gibney gave her “free schooling from one of the best.” She further emphasized, “It meant working alongside a luminary of the industry; somebody who gave me this short track to knowing how to do a deep dive journalistic documentary and all the things that are involved in that, from the legal side to the access side.”

As Dowland noted, relationships can make or break a career. It was only due to a chance meeting with Gibney that her career trajectory changed and she moved to “the next part of [her] journey.” 

“At the time, I was just so busy trying to prove to him that I was worthy of this position that I don’t think I had a moment to reflect then,” she said, “but I can tell you when I stood on that stage at Sundance… and I looked out and I saw him in the audience, I absolutely knew that there was this direct thread between that opportunity 10 years ago and where I was standing at that moment, introducing my own film.” 

It was also through Jigsaw Productions that Dowland initially connected with Bird’s team. While she was finishing up another project, the company was approached by the executive producers of the Sue Bird project, who were looking for the right producing partner to do a film. Dowland pitched her approach to the story to Bird herself and got the green light, starting a 3-year-long filmmaking process. 

Initially, the concept was to follow Bird through her year of retirement in 2021. The story would focus on the reality of “retiring from the only thing you’ve ever known when you’re still a relatively young person,” Dowland shared. It seemed a solid plan. 

However, when Bird played in the Tokyo Olympics that year, “I was getting a sense that she wasn’t going to retire,” Dowland said. She was right. 

While this was good news for fans, for Dowland, it meant having to recraft and rewrite the film. The main challenge she faced? “I wasn’t getting any more money. Just over half of all of my shoot days were already gone in a season that now didn’t matter.” 

Fortunately, Dowland had been through difficult scenarios on her previous project, The Innocence Files, and knew how to handle things. “As a director, you really need to have that creativity to go, ‘All right, how can I re-tool this story: what have I got, what haven't I got, what are my must-get pieces, and what can I sacrifice in other areas of the budget if I really have to.’” 

Limitation breeds creativity and often uncovers new aspects of a story.  As Dowland put it, “I love the process of the story revealing itself to you. You go in thinking it’s something, and then it reveals itself to be something else that’s richer.”  

Still, while Dowland relished the challenge, it posed financial problems. Since Bird did not retire in the time frame originally planned, the budget had to be stretched over 3 years as opposed to the scheduled 12–15 months. “People don’t talk about the economics of making docs, [but] that is the honest truth.”

While in the past Dowland would work on two projects at a time to ensure a more secure income, she made the “calculated risk” to dedicate herself fully to the Sue Bird project. 

“I didn’t feel that I could split my attention, especially because of the story challenges,” she explained. She told herself, “If I do it right, that will be what’s more important,” trusting that the final product would become a calling card for more opportunities to come.    

In the process, Dowland followed her own advice of having “passion and perseverance." 

When choosing a topic to explore, Dowland urged aspiring filmmakers in the audience to “pick something that you are passionate about… that resonates with you.” Her reasoning? Filmmaking “will take a long time. It will take perseverance…You will need some other kind of driver that is compelling you to tell that story” despite the “many other life-practical forces that will point to doing something else.”

Additionally, Dowland recommends young professionals to “work with the best people possible… If you have someone you admire or a company whose work you admire, try and work for them.”  

Reflecting on her career, she shared, “I selected and sought out quality people and companies to work with.” 

One of Dowland’s final pieces of advice was to “learn how to take feedback.”

She explained, “I can’t improve it unless people are willing to be honest,” and they can’t give feedback unless “I’m willing to receive it in that way.” 

On a film set, where cooperation is paramount, the ability to give and take feedback is critical to success.

And, as any good filmmaker knows, it does “take a village. You are never doing anything independently.” Without an honest and accountable team, Dowland might never have made it to Sundance to share Sue Bird’s story with the world. 

Sundance celebrated the entire filmmaking team and elevated every person who contributed to the project. “Having Sue there and watching her get the stage and the platform that I was really hoping the film would provide” was everything.



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