Sue Rowe: at Cinesite, working on the John Carter blockbuster
With a love of film and big ambitions, she found a way to combine art and computers and became a VFX supervisor
Sue Rowe is doing what she always wanted to do. "I love hand-drawn animation," she says. "It's still my passion. I also like math and physics, the technical side of things. I'm very comfortable with both animation and computers."
This combination of skills has served her well. Since 1994 she's worked at Cinesite (London, UK), one of Europe's largest full-service visual effects (VFX) facilities, where she's a VFX supervisor.
Rowe works in traditional animation, computer-generated animation and compositing. "I was one of the founding members of the company," she says with pride. "When I started there were about twenty of us and now we employ over 300 people."
One of very few women
One of her core strengths is working with ease alongside production supervisors and directors, especially on large productions. "There are very few women in this field," she reports. "I'm the only woman VFX supervisor that I know of in Europe."
It's only in the last few years that she's become completely confident with herself and her role, she admits.
"When you walk into a room, sometimes the only female you see is either the star or the person doing the catering. I used to walk on the set and people would ask me, 'When's your boss coming?' I learned to explain, 'That's me.'
"It's important to find your balance right away because people will push you around if you aren't sure of yourself. You make enemies or friends in one day of filming!"
Special effects for major studios
Cinesite does special effects for major motion picture studios including Warner Brothers, Paramount and Walt Disney Pictures. The group recently completed post-production on Disney's John Carter, based on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs story of a Civil War captain who gets transported to Mars and becomes involved in a war among the planet's people. "For sheer complexity, it's one of the largest projects we've ever worked on," Rowe says.
Rowe has been involved in many of the company's key productions, including The Golden Compass, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, X-Men: The Last Stand and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Golden Compass was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in the U.S. and by the British Academy of Film & Television Arts.
Reading scripts, shaping scenes
"My responsibilities depend on where a movie is in the production process," Rowe explains. "I get to read the scripts early on and start thinking about shaping scenes. My favorite thing is going on set and telling them how to shoot everything.
"Usually we have a few months' preparation before we start shooting, so I can prepare what I need and what the visual effects are going to be. When I'm on set I'll generally have a team of about seven people, from a producer to 'green screen' people. When the cameras are rolling and you have 150 people just staring at you when there's a problem, you have to think on your feet and trust your instincts.
"Shoots generally last three to six months," she says. "Then for a year afterward I'm in my darkroom getting it looking perfect."
Hours in screening
With John Carter almost finished, Rowe is now spending hours a day in the screening room, reviewing the work that's been done and thinking about what shot improvements can be made. "My job is fooling the viewer into believing that this alien, computer-generated environment was shot on film," she says.
For example, they did hundreds of shots to make locations in Utah look like the plains of Mars. "We created the Mars City of Helium in a warehouse in northern London. It took a year to build."
"You have to love film" to ace this work, she says. "You have to have incredible attention to detail and also a good sense of humor. I spend eight hours a day in the dark, sitting in front of a twelve-foot screen. Then I have to go back out and be a good communicator to get the best out of my team."
The size of the project meant Rowe headed Cinesite's team of seven highly experienced VFX and sequence supervisors. These seven supervisors have all led large teams of creative folks at Cinesite on past blockbuster projects, she explains. For John Carter, Rowe oversaw the work, but "everyone played their part in making the work a success," she says.
Cinesite often relies on freelancers who move from company to company throughout London. Strangely enough, there are no concerns about intellectual property. "We find it beneficial to work with different people," Rowe explains. "We all pretty much use the same software so you can go somewhere else and they'll have a similar way of working. By learning what worked at other companies you get a hybrid and hopefully more efficient way of doing things."
Rowe compliments her team as a hard-working group. "I push them pretty hard sometimes," she admits, "but when you're passionate about something you just want the best to come out."
Rowe grew up and went to school in a small town in Wales. Both her father and brother are engineers and her father hoped she would be an engineer too. But she loved art and films. "I had big ambitions, and found a way of combining arts and science by becoming a VFX supervisor. My journey to get there was via animation," she says.
She earned her 1990 degree in animation from the West Surrey College of Art and Design (now the University for the Creative Arts). She worked as a cell animator for children's TV for three years, becoming more and more interested in computer graphics. "I remember thinking that I need to get into this digital stuff because pretty soon my job is going to be taken over by computers. I could see it happening."
She went back to school for a 1994 MA from Bournemouth University, and started at Cinesite later that year. "Talk about being in the right place at the right time," she says. "I found myself in a newly started company with a lot of passionate and enthusiastic people."
"So often, you find people who just love art and are flummoxed by computers, or you find people who love computers but they don't know how to animate. One of my unique selling points is that I can do both," Rowe says.
She certainly can. Rowe won the 2008 Panalux Craft Award from Women in Film and Television (WFTV, London, UK), recognizing her work as a woman in the male-dominated film industry. She and her team were nominated for an Emmy for outstanding special visual effects for Into the Storm, a 2009 HBO film.
She's looking forward to the opening of John Carter this year. "I really feel quite privileged to have worked on this," she says. "The visuals are awesome and the story is great. It should appeal to everybody. I think even my dad may go and see it."
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