THE MEG: Sue Rowe – VFX Supervisor – Sony Pictures Imageworks

In 2014, Sue Rowe explained the work of Method Studios on THE MAZE RUNNER. She then joins MPC and works on INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE and LEGEND OF TARZAN. In 2016, she joined Sony Pictures Imageworks and took care of the effects of THE MEG.

How did you and Sony Pictures Imageworks get involved on this show?
VFX producer Steve Garrad called us back in 2016 and asked if Imageworks would take on the third act. He and I had worked together in the past and he knew that Imageworks would have the fire power to pull off 300 or more quality shots. He also knew that there would be many changes to the awarded sequence, as the third act is notoriously hard to lock down. I read the script and went out to New Zealand in September 2016 for a two-month shoot.

How did you approach the work on Meg knowing that the 3rd act is always the hardest to lock down?
Steve and Adrian de Wet (VFX Sup) work smart, they are on the client side now but both come from a facility back ground so they know both sides of the business. We knew the way to get the third act sorted was to get Jason Statham, the Meg and multiple CG sharks quickly into the director’s cut. We took on the challenge and together, we worked on rough turnover knowing that shots may get cut.

How did you plan for this?
To protect our budget and avoid artist burnout, we decided on a new approach. We would work using Mayas latest version of Viewport 2.0. Hardware renders are fast but the new release of Viewport had fog, transparency and spotlights so we could create good looking shots very quickly. We cut out the need for lighters to render passes and for slap comps. We only had teams on Match move, rough roto and anim-layout.

For example – the first studio screening only used our hardware renders, meaning we saved time and countless artist hours in lighting and comp. The anim renders still looked good; the fog gave us the impression of water depth, we added spotlights to the water surface and added simple geo with transparency for the bubbles and particulate. The animators blocked in first pass anim on the Meg and Gliders. Once the sequence was approved, we moved into look dev and locking off “hero shots.”

How was the collaboration with director Jon Turteltaub and VFX Supervisor Adrian de Wet?
Jon is a classic Hollywood director – he loves the art of storytelling. He will tell you that this is all he cares about. He trusted Adrian completely on the execution of the VFX shots. The shoot was intense but fun. One day while shooting in the diving tank Jon turned up dressed as a Lobster – he stayed in the outfit all day!

What was their approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
Jon was involved in designing the Meg, he wanted it to feel prehistoric but have the look of a great white. Once the design was agreed upon, Adrian was determined to keep the shots of the Meg dark and mysterious.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
I always work very collaboratively with my VFX producer. It’s a real partnership. We bid shots together and discuss approaches to the shots turned over. Fiona Crawford builds a good team, the artists respect her and I felt really supported by her extensive experience. Of course, there are times as a VFX sup when you have to have difficult conversations. It’s my job to make sure the images look as good as they can, it’s the producers job to make sure we work to budget. We discussed many tricky topics but always came out of meetings feeling that we had made the right choices. We also made sure we had plenty of laughs.

What are the sequences made by Sony Pictures Imageworks?
The third act covered these sequences:

  • Crew Overboard
  • Evac ship
  • Gliders Launch
  • Helicopters Collide
  • Jonas Pursuit
  • Megadeath
  • Sanya Bay

Can you tell us more about the previz process for the final battle?
There was some early previz for the final battle by Halon– they called the sequence Megadeath. Halon set us up with some iconic shots! We took over once rough cuts were turned over. The anim renders looked so good that we were able to bridge the gap between CG previz and finals so that Jon could cut his film.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the Meg?
The Meg was designed and built by Scanline, they had been involved in the Film for over 10 years! The model was very good quality. Now we had the model it was time to add the muscles. We used Ziva, a physically based muscle simulation tool. To use this tool, you must build the skeleton of your character to be anatomically correct. It takes some time to set up at the start of the show but the results are very good. It allowed our Animation team to concentrate on character work whilst the CFX team concentrated on making the muscles ripple. The look I was after was that of a thoroughbred race horse. You know when you see a race horse shudder or twitch and you can see the muscles all connect with each other? It visually tells you of the muscular power of that animal. We employed the same idea for the Meg. We had shots right on her shoulder – we called it ‘Gill cam’. We added a muscle contraction from her head to tail and it made her look like a really powerful beast. A shark of this scale needs to feel dangerous and we exaggerated the flex in her muscles -Well that’s how I imagined a Megalodon would look!

Can you tell us more about her animation?
Imageworks animation supervisor, Craig McPherson, was a genius at adding subtle but powerful moves. He bought some great ideas to the project. My favorite is the way the Great White sharks nip and bite each other when they swim in a “shiver “of sharks. There are a few shots where you see hundreds of sharks attacking the Meg, we used “Massive” to control the seven shark variations.

The animation team were clever and they let the tools do what they could but then added on top of this some hand animated hero shark action. These shots turned out to be some of my favorites. We used research of Hammer Head sharks in the Cocos Islands to see how they would swim in a group. It’s mesmerizing stuff.

How did you manage the challenges of the underwater lighting and colors?
We carried out some underwater photography research early on and observed that the colours change dramatically once you are below 40ft. The light rays cannot travel at this depth, so colours change. For example, red becomes green – which is very cool – but his was where we had to cheat – when the MEG is gutted by Jonas’s glider, the water fills with red blood, we tried being visually accurate but it tells a much richer story to have deep red blood in the water.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the underwater environment?
The underwater environment was very simple in the end. We built the geo in a modular way – only 15 types of rocks, we made an undulating sandy surface and sand banks. The trick to this was covering the environment with hundreds of corals and kelp. No two rocks looked the same. We used a Sony tool called Sprout – which we showcased at Siggraph in 2017. It allows fast, interactive work flow, placing instances – in our case corals. We could literally paint on the rocks, it was very fast and efficient to art direct. Daniela Hasenbring and Jeremy Hoey were my key artists for this underwater plantation!

How did you work with the SFX and stunt teams?
The SFX and stunt teams on set were excellent. They were integral in making this show. For example, the SFX team ran the motion base for the Gliders. They were able to move in five directions and tilt to near 90 degrees. This meant Jason could really throw the glider about, giving the sequence a real sense of physicality. The glider could dip and rotate but it was ultimately static in the center of the studio. We had a 100ft techno crane on 60ft of track so the camera moved in and around the glider. Stunts were great buddies with Jason – they were with him underwater in the tank and on the EVAC ship when it blew up. The stunt team, which included a 10-year-old girl, jumped off a burning ship 20ft into the water. No harness’ just skill! We did a few cool shots above the water where the helicopter crashes and explodes on the deck. We added smoke, fire and shrapnel to the shots to add an extra sense of danger. In one shot the CG propeller hits the camera. It looked great in 3D.

Can you tell us more about the digi-double creation for Jason Statham?
Imageworks created Jonas and SuYins digi-doubles. Jonas needed to be a LOD A- high level with animating facial features and full cloth simulations. His head was shaved – but getting the stubble on his chin took some perfecting! Imageworks has some of the best modelers and look dev teams I have ever worked with – the finished product was excellent. We used the doubles in many cases where the live action footage necessitated more violent moves.

The fight ends with a beautiful shot of the Meg and Jason Statham outside the water. Can you elaborate on it?
The most complicated shot by far was “The Breach” the moment when Jason Statham attempts to kill the Megalodon. The shot was not in the original script, it came about as an idea while we were shooting in NZ. Jon showed Adrian and I footage of a whale breaching the water, he said. – “there ya go, that’s what I want!” I tracked down the you tube clip and we re-did it using our CG Great White shark in CG water. The results were really promising. When I returned to set in December Adrian showed Jon the clip, he loved it and his confidence was gained. Hats off to the whole team – driven by Joe Pepper and Craig Fifarek.

Can you explain in detail about the water simulations and interactions?
As a team, we were all aware that this was going to be the hardest shot in our sequence. Technically the simulations were very complex, but the fear of the Meg not looking real was our deepest concern. The trick is to keep the action busy. At the Apex of the breach the Meg is only a few feet from camera. The water clearly runs from the Meg’s nose over her gills, her mouth is open so we simulated the water running off her teeth into her mouth and back out of her open Gills. Jonas becomes a digi double so that we could simulate the water as it interacted with him jumping off the Meg. We had a core team of about 5 artists on this run of 3 shots. I admire them all greatly, they are a tenacious team who I hope to work with again.

This shot is in slow-motion. Does that affect your FX and render work?
Yes, we shot the live action at 96 fps. We then simulated the CG shark and the water at 96 fps which was tricky. The forces had to be faked for sure. What was correct wasn’t always what looked good. The water needed to run from the Meg’s nose to her tail and interact with the Blood (which was simmed at a different viscosity). Jason did the middle section of the stunt himself. He was an Olympic diver and is very happy in the water. We used our digi double to affect the water as it runs off the Meg over Jonas. Also, the start and the end of the shots are the digi double for safety. There is a wonderful moment when we cut to under water and we see the Meg hit the water on her back; blood flowing. The FX, comp and look dev teams made this shot look spectacular. It was the first shot in and last shot out!

The Meg dead body attracts a lot of sharks. Did you receive specific references for this sequence?
We did our own research into shark behavior, Jason Greenblum was our CG sup. He collected hours of footage. Jason and Craig McPherson found excellent reference of Great White’s swimming. As a test we added our CG Great White alongside the live-action footage. It was a good exercise to see how little energy these killing machines actually expend. They conserve energy where possible and their eyes are cold and dead!

We also looked at footage of Hammerhead sharks swimming in a “shoal” in the Cocos islands. Did you know a shoal of Sharks is called a Shiver! Isn’t that cool? We studied this footage to give us an indication of shark behavior for our AI simulations in Massive.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I like the sequence of shots where Jonas steers his glider into the coral tunnels to escape from the Meg. The headlights catch the coral covered rocks in the darkness. It looks beautiful! The underwater rocks were made very simply (perhaps only 15 types of rocks). Then these were cultivated with corals and kelps using our in- house tool called Sprout. Daniela Hasenbring and Jeremey Hoey were the driving force behind this. They allowed me to art direct where I wanted corals, kelp or sand bars knowing that they could efficiently populate the environment and the results are gorgeous. With very few types of assets we created a whole underwater world.

What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
Lighting the underwater environment was a lot of work. Jason Greenblum led a very strong lighting team. We used Bi directional Path tracing for rendering the water to get the physically accurate caustics on the surfaces and the underwater “God rays”. Once we had a few hero shots designed, we had a touchstone of images to guide us. The movie may be about a huge shark but the artistry is right there in the way it looks photoreal.

Is there anything specific that gave you some really sleepless nights?
I thought the water simulations would keep me awake at night but Joe Pepper and his FX team set us up early on for a win. Imageworks has a great resource in its R&D teams who can be put on a show at the beginning of production. The thing that actually caused us sleepless nights was CAVITATION! Cavitation is the term used for the bubbles that are ejected from the propeller of a Submersible. The blades spin so fast it actually boils the water. We had perfected the simulations early on, however, in the last month of the show Jon Turteltaub decided he preferred the look of the bubbles rising up rather than being propelled behind. We had to break physics again! I saw the film last week and Jon was right, the bubbles surrounding the gliders give it a more dynamic look. We had to re-sim many shots in the last few weeks but we pulled out some clever ways to solve the problems!

What is your best memory on this show?
Shooting in New Zealand was great fun. I loved Auckland, the onset team there were really professional and we had some good laughs.

How long have you worked on this show?
I started shooting in November 2016. We completed the project 12-months later.

What’s the VFX shots count?
Just under 300 – were taken to final.

What was the size of your team?
150 artists and production staff.

What is your next project?
I am working on an exciting project for Netflix. Can’t say more than that, but I am loving it!

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Sony Pictures Imageworks: Official website of Sony Pictures Imageworks.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2018

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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