An interview with movie concept artist Aaron Sims

Aaron Sims is one of the most innovative and versatile concept artists working in films today. To industry insiders, he is revered for his multi-faceted approach to creature development and design. To audiences, he is the genius behind many of today’s most memorable movie monsters. Here, we find out his creative approach to concept and the adventurous spirit that spurred him on to found his own studio.

The artist

Q: What is your favourite 3D software?

"Having a background in practical effects, and sculpting in clay for so many years really makes me enjoy ZBrush. It is my favourite 3D program when it comes to modelling and virtual sculpting.

"Before that I was a huge fan of Softimage - but now I mainly use Macs, and unfortunately they never made it for that platform. Also, it seems everyone uses Maya within the industry, and so I have embraced it as an animation program."

After years of sculpting in actual clay, Sims favourite 3D software is ZBrush

Q: Describe your ethos in 10 words

"I'm a passionate artist for the entire process of film-making."

Q: What do you aspire to?

"I always aspire to be better than I was the year before. I always try to devote my time and life to the things that betters myself, and the things that will help to inspire others."

Q: What first inspired you to become an artist?

"I had many inspirations as a child, but my father had to be my first. He was both an artist and an animator. I watched him as I was growing up always embracing new technology. When I saw the film Jurassic Park, I was immediately interested in CG because I was so impressed with the dinosaurs, and I desperately wanted to know how they created them.

When I saw Jurassic Park, I was immediately interested in CG

"At that time, there wasn't much information on CG, but I absorbed anything I could get my hands on to learn about it. Later, luckily, there were quite a few tapes and books on the market."

It was when Aaron Sims first saw the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that he immediately became interested in CG

Q: Where would you say you draw your inspiration from?

"Anywhere and everywhere. I often find inspiration through movies, video games, and other artists around the world. It seems anytime I Google a reference for a project, there is always something on the internet that I find inspirational."

Q: What's your favourite film?

"Star Wars has to be my favourite film, for so many reasons. It just blew me away when I was a kid. At that time I had never seen anything like it, from the characters and aliens, to the distant worlds and spaceships. Star Wars was the first film that took me on a journey to a galaxy far, far away."

Q: What's your favourite CG animation?

"CG is one of those things that seem to always get better. As audience members, we are always amazed when we first see something new; but we soon become jaded when we see new effects that make the ones from before look less convincing. Still, for me, the first Jurassic Park 'T-Rex in the rain' scene continues to amaze me; but there are too many favourites now to list."

Q: What's your favourite video game?

"I'm a big fan of first-person shooter games, especially if I'm fighting aliens or monsters. Halo, Mass Effect, and Gears of War are just a few that I enjoy playing, as well as the back-stories."

Q: Who's your favourite artist?

"I really don't have a single, favourite artist. There are so many that I like, for many different reasons. But I would mention both HR Giger, for his inspiring Alien design; and Syd Mead, for his amazing outlook on the future."

The studio

Q: When exactly was The Aaron Sims Company created?

"I founded The Aaron Sims Company in 2005, after two decades of effects work with Rick Baker and Stan Winston. When I started it was just me, working from home. Then I moved into offices on the historic Warner Brothers lot in West Hollywood.

"As the workload increased, I needed space to house the artists that would work with me on the various projects. In June of 2012, we had to move to an even bigger space to accommodate the workload."

Sims worked as concept art director at Stan Winston’s studio for 2005’s Constantine

Q: How many people work in the studio?

"There are usually 10 artists that work in the studio and a few others that are more freelance, as the workload increases. The number goes up and down depending on the projects we’re working on."

Q: How have you developed?

"As someone who has worked in design for so many years, I realised early in my career if you want to stay current in your industry, then you have to constantly reinvent yourself. Adapt what you know to the current, and always try harder to outdo yourself."

Q: How has your studio progressed in the last few years?

"The studio has grown from concept and design work to pre-viz and VFX. The movie industry is tricky and I feel we always need to reinvent ourselves to stay [relevant].

The movie industry is tricky and I feel we always need to reinvent ourselves to stay relevant

"Although this is true of all businesses, the film industry changes the way it makes movies almost every year. So the addition of pre-visualisation and VFX to the company allows us to be more involved throughout the project and cut costs, or just be used for one of our services, depending on the need."

Q: What do you bring to the CG industry?

"As someone who has spent many years creating effects for both make-up and CG, I feel I approach the design process in a unique way that has helped many of the films I designed on. I do my best to communicate with the director or team by explaining the thought process behind the design, what it really means and how it will work within the real world.

"With the help of my talented team, we often do motion studies to help illustrate the design. This ensures the design works before production even begins and [avoids] the possibility ofhaving to redesign something because it wasn't thought out."

Q: What work do you take on?

"I take on anything that's given - even the projects that are different from the status quo, or similar projects to ones that I've done in the past. I'm always up for a new challenge."

Q: What's the next step for you and your company?

"The next step for my company is to continue evolving the art process and how we execute it by creating and developing new tools that help us design and create effects, and to create our own IP."

The work

Q: What was the first piece of commercial work the studio did?

"The first job at my company was the film I Am Legend (the 2007 sci-fi movie directed by Francis Lawrence)."

The Aaron Sims Company’s first work was for Francis Lawrence’s 2007 adaptation of I Am Legend

Q: Which piece of work would you say you're most proud of?

"There are so many projects that I'm very proud of, and all for many different reasons. But the one I really feel I had a lot to offer in many capacities was my short film Archetype. It embodies the aspect of so many things that inspired me as young man, such as Star Wars. A robot that's in no way human, yet you feel for it."

Q: What's the latest with the Archetype feature film?

"Making movies takes a lot of time - years in some cases. It takes even longer if the concept isn't well known, like Archetype. This is an original idea and with that comes the risk of whether or not people will go see the movie - if they're not familiar with the notion, there is a chance they won't go.

Making movies takes a lot of time – years in some cases

"The good thing about films like Archetype, and taking the time to make it, is that it allows us to really focus on the story and script to make the film the best it can possibly be. We are currently working on a great script that I know will excite people. Hopefully we'll be starting production sometime later this year."

Sims’ short fi lm Archetype focuses on a giant combat robot named RL7, which malfunctions during a mission

The industry

Q: What studio's work do you most admire?

"I'm a huge JJ Abrams fan. His studio Bad Robot produces amazing and inspiring work. I'm also a fan of the pioneers at ILM for really blazing the trail for what we see on the screen currently.

I'm a huge JJ Abrams fan. His studio Bad Robot produces amazing and inspiring work

"In fact, both ILM and Weta have always pushed the envelope in VFX work. They are responsible for some of the most incredible and memorable VFX, and have so many talented artists that are continually creating really amazing work."

Q: What advice can you give to aspiring 3D artists looking to break into the industry?

"The only advice I can give is that you must work hard and then put your work out there for all to see. If you have talent, and others see it, there is a good chance you will find work.

"There is a lot of competition in the movie industry, and being a CG artist is very much a freelance business, so keep in mind that work may come and go. Always remember that it is difficult work and you will spend long hours in the office, but it’s worth the time and effort."

Q: How has the industry has changed since you first started?

"The film industry is always changing, and always will continue to evolve. When I started in the 1980s, most - if not all - creature effects were done with make-up and puppets. It was Jurassic Park that changed everything, opening up a new world of what one could do with VFX, but it also helped begin to eliminate the need for animatronics and puppets - and even some makeup effects.

When I started in the 1980s, most – if not all – creature effects were done with make-up and puppets

"It is really hard to say what will happen with VFX artists and companies. Many companies are going out of business, and outsourcing is becoming more prevalent. Right now the VFX community is coming together to bring attention to how artists are frequently overlooked, even though they [make] enormous contributions to major blockbusters. I hope more attention will be paid to this portion of the industry in the very near future."

This article first appeared in 3D World magazine issue 173.

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