SUE ROWE: VFX SUPERVISOR IS THE PERSONIFICATION OF DETERMINATION 1

SUE ROWE: VFX SUPERVISOR IS THE PERSONIFICATION OF DETERMINATION

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By TREVOR HOGG 

Images courtesy of Sue Rowe, except where noted. 

Sue Rowe, Visual Effects Supervisor, Scanline VFX

Animation has become a family tradition for Scanline VFX Visual Effects Supervisor Sue Rowe. Not only was her husband also involved in the industry, but one of their two daughters studies the craft at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Rowe’s love for the arts was furthered by the creative expertise and chauvinistic attitude of a particular educator. “I grew up in Bridgend, Wales which is on the coast, beautiful and rugged. I had a brilliant art teacher who used to say things to me like, ‘You are OK, but you’ll go off, get married and not have a career in this.’ I thought even then, ‘I’m going to show you that I’m good at this.’ One of his words of advice was, ‘Draw what you can see. Not what you think you can see.’ I use that with my compositors. ‘Study real life. Go outside and look at the horizon. That tone at the bottom is not going to be the same as the one at the top.’” 

Despite growing up surrounded by engineers, Rowe was still exposed to the arts. “My mum would take me to the theatre once a year to Cardiff or London. I remember seeing Madame Butterfly and literally crying because of the music and visuals,” Rowe reveals. An iconic talking bear was a career inspiration for the teenager. “I wrote a letter to FilmFair saying that when I grow up that I want to be an animator on Paddington Bear. They never wrote back but I persisted!” Other influences were the Dune books and cinematic adaptation by David Lynch, as well as Pixar shorts Luxo Jr. and Tin Toy. “Just the excitement of seeing something so visually unique and wondering, ‘How did they do that?’” 

Rowe found Roland Emmerich and Volker Engel a joy to work with during the making of Independence Day: Resurgence (2016).

Rowe found Roland Emmerich and Volker Engel a joy to work with during the making of Independence Day: Resurgence (2016). 

“As a visual effects supervisor, you have to have at least three plans cooking in your head every time you’re setting up for a shot because someone will throw you a curveball and you can’t stand there in the middle of the stage and say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll come back to you.’” 

—Sue Rowe, Visual Effects Supervisor, Scanline VFX 

The aspiring Disney animator got a Bachelor of Arts in Traditional Animation at University for the Creative Arts at Farnham. “I used to build the sets and model armatures. That was my first step into the world of filmmaking. At the time, hand-drawn and stop-frame animation was not a good market, so I decided to take a Master’s in Computer Animation at Bournemouth University. My whole life changed after that. The visual effects industry was beginning to blossom in Soho. I went from hawking my way around companies trying to get work to getting offered a job on the spot. I chose Cinesite because they had a bar!”

Despite being employed by Cinesite as an animator, Rowe had to learn how to be a generalist. “I had to model, rig, shade, light and then animate; that was definitely a calling for me to end up being a visual effects supervisor because I loved all of the sides of filmmaking. The thing I didn’t know that I would love was reading script, walking onto a set and having a director ask, ‘How do we do that?’ I’m a big planner! As a visual effects supervisor, you have to have at least three plans cooking in your head every time you’re setting up for a shot because someone will throw you a curveball and you can’t stand there in the middle of the stage and say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll come back to you.’”

Rowe holds an Oscar with the Cinesite team.

Rowe holds an Oscar with the Cinesite team. 

For over 20 years Rowe was part of the U.K. visual effects industry working on productions such as Troy (2004). (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

For over 20 years Rowe was part of the U.K. visual effects industry working on productions such as Troy (2004). (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.) 

A career highlight for Rowe was being the co-production VFX Supervisor with Eric Brevig on The Maze Runner (2014). (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

A career highlight for Rowe was being the co-production VFX Supervisor with Eric Brevig on The Maze Runner (2014). (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox) 

“There are female visual effects artists out there, but not many of them are going to the next level. We need to support other females and elevate them, and give them the confidence so that they can obtain these jobs and responsibilities. If there is nobody ahead of you who is doing it, it becomes harder to see yourself in that position. I love the Geena Davis quote, ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ … It’s amazing we’re encouraging people to go for those roles.” 

—Sue Rowe, Visual Effects Supervisor, Scanline VFX 

A career highlight for Rowe was being the co-production VFX Supervisor with Eric Brevig on The Maze Runner (2014). (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

A career highlight for Rowe was being the co-production VFX Supervisor with Eric Brevig on The Maze Runner (2014). (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox) 

Visual effects have become more prevalent. “We did visual effects on 20 to 30 shots [in 1994] and by 2012, John Carter had 800.” The industry has become more globalized. “So many of the companies now are in different time zones. It’s a blessing and a curse that I can start my day talking to London and finish speaking to India.” Rowe has experience both as a studio and facility visual effects supervisor. “When Eric Brevig and I did The Maze Runner, the budget was not huge, but every pixel counted and looked amazing. What I love about being in a facility is being surrounded by smart people and new technologies. I like to dip in and out so that I can get the best of both worlds.”

A scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

A scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.) 

Netflix has purchased Scanline VFX, which positions Rowe in the heart of the content surge. “Streaming means that you are turning around movies and series in shorter periods of time,” remarks Rowe. “That is always going to be a challenge because we want to give our best work, which probably means working longer hours to fill that need for new content.” Audiences are extremely savvy. “I sit next to my teenager and she’ll go, ‘Mum, that didn’t look good.’ We expect so much from streaming because we’ve been delivered such quality work. I don’t know if you could ever change that.” What has not changed is the foundation for making the most believable digital imagery. “If I get asked, ‘How should we do this?’ The first thing I say is, ‘What can you do for real?’ That’s where you need to start. I have huge respect for special effects teams and art departments. We should be wary of a digital solution for every time. Cinesite had its own miniature division called the Magic Camera Company in the U.K., and I loved going down there. I saw the Hogwarts scale model which was 40 feet high. Real talented artists who have perfected their art: why wouldn’t you go to them to get the best possible movie?”

Rowe stands among fellow colleagues at Cinesite in 1997.

Rowe stands among fellow colleagues at Cinesite in 1997. 

Rowe has given presentations about the visual effects found in John Carter (2012). (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Rowe has given presentations about the visual effects found in John Carter (2012). (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures) 

Rowe poses with Patrick Stewart, who presented her with the Panalux Craft Award at the Target Women in Film and Television Awards.

Rowe poses with Patrick Stewart, who presented her with the Panalux Craft Award at the Target Women in Film and Television Awards. 

Rowe on set in Utah with John Carter screenwriter Mark Andrews.

Rowe on set in Utah with John Carter screenwriter Mark Andrews. 

Rowe with director Andrew Stanton at the premiere of John Carter in 2012.

Rowe with director Andrew Stanton at the premiere of John Carter in 2012. 

Sheila Duggal and Rowe take part in the “VES Tools for Change” Seminar.

Sheila Duggal and Rowe take part in the “VES Tools for Change” Seminar. 

The (1999) TV adaptation of Animal Farm saw Rowe go from being a digital composite supervisor to visual effects supervisor at Cinesite. “Angus Bickerton was the Overall Visual Effects Supervisor and I learned a lot from him,” acknowledges Rowe. “It was done in conjunction with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. A lot of the talking animals were animatronics, and we would do some mouth enhancements. I spent three months in Ireland shooting that, and one day it rained so much that our set flooded and we had to get evacuated!” Historical preservation took place while makinga remake starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. “We had to come up with some ideas about what the nut house would look like. I was looking at a beautiful old Victorian hospital in East Dulwich that was being knocked down; it is gone now but exists forever in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!” A favorite experience for Rowe was working with filmmaker Andrew Stanton on John Carter. “Andrew elevated my role so I became a joint visual effects supervisor during the making of the movie. One of my favorite assets that Cinesite built were the flying machines that had beautiful reflective scales on their wings because they fly using light.” 

A particular cinematic sequence still haunts Rowe. “It is from Event Horizon and the number was M25_005. Richard Yuricich and Dave Stewart did a motion control shot that starts outside of the spaceship, goes in through the windshield, travels through the center of the spaceship and back out the other side. It starts fully CG, goes into a model miniature, then a live-action plate, and I had to smooth all of these things together. I literally worked on that shot for six months and haven’t watched Event Horizon since!” However, the experience was not entirely bad. “There is a haunted house moment when the spaceship Lewis and Clark is just outside of Neptune, so the environment around it is full of electrical storms. I hand-painted and hand-animated the lightning strikes. This was before you could Google, ‘What does lightning look like?’ I remember thinking about the timing of it and trying to hear it in my head. I look back on that shot and think, ‘We did well there.’” 

Conducting visual effects presentations are a necessity for Rowe. “I quite often do them to get exposure for women in animation and filmmaking. There is a report that has come out recently in Variety about the lack of female representation, especially in visual effects. I’m sure it is to do with unconscious bias. Unconscious bias means ‘employ that guy who was at university with you or a guy who is a friend of a friend.’ We should be aware of this and open up the field to all. There are female visual effects artists out there, but not many of them are going to the next level. We need to support other females and elevate them, and give them the confidence so that they can obtain these jobs and responsibilities. If there is nobody ahead of you who is doing it, it becomes harder to see yourself in that position. I love the Geena Davis quote, ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ I’m married and have a family; those things didn’t stop me. Recently, I got an email from someone who saw me do a talk at a local school and she had just started a job at Framestore. It’s amazing we’re encouraging people to go for those roles.” 

Positive influences have been Warner Bros. Executive Vice President, Visual Effects Anne Kolbe and Visual Effects Supervisor Volker Engel. “Anne has been a great supporter, while Volker nurtured me on Independence Day: Resurgence and gave me a chance to succeed. Angus Bickerton encouraged me to go for what I wanted early on, and I still talk to Eric Brevig when I have a challenge because he’s good getting at the root of the problem and coming up with a solution.” 

A particular tool has captured Rowe’s imagination. “What I am excited about in virtual production is when you can achieve stuff in-camera, and the developments there have been exponential. It takes some planning ahead – the craft always benefits from planning! I am particularly excited in unusual developments in virtual production. I see great strides being made there with techviz and real-time storytelling. One area I am interested in harks back to my roots in traditional animation. I can see VP and traditional animation being the future of storytelling very soon.” 

Bringing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the big screen in 2005 with filmmaker Garth Jennings was a lot of fun for Rowe. (Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment)

Bringing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the big screen in 2005 with filmmaker Garth Jennings was a lot of fun for Rowe. (Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment) 

“If I get asked, ‘How should we do this?’ The first thing I say is, ‘What can you do for real?’ That’s where you need to start. I have huge respect for special effects teams and art departments. We should be wary of a digital solution for every time.” 

—Sue Rowe, Visual Effects Supervisor, Scanline VFX 

Rowe has been described as tenacious. “If somebody says, ‘No, I can’t do it,’ I think, ‘I can and I will. I’m just going to find a different way of doing it.’ That has stood me in good stead in visual effects because people will tell you it’s not possible to shoot it or that’s going to be too expensive. I will find a different way around it. I’m very pragmatic. If I can find a way, I’ll encourage everyone else to join me on that trip. There have been lots of times when I would not let things go to make sure that it looked as good as possible.” 

A successful visual effects supervisor also has to be a good communicator. “I have to be able to speak in various languages to different people. I take the brief and disseminate that information out to all of the teams. You have to be organized and love detail because you can’t bluff. And enjoy some of the technical aspects. You have to able to delegate and trust other people. The thing that I hope never changes in my life is I still love my job! I get excited reading a script and imagining how we’re going to do it. I love working with teams of people and encouraging and getting the best out of them. At the end of the day, what a privilege it is to be making movies.” 

Rowe worked on Space Jam in 1996 as a digital compositor for Cinesite. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Rowe worked on Space Jam in 1996 as a digital compositor for Cinesite. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.) 



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