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Aaron Sims: Previs and Visual FX Design

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CreativeCOW presents Aaron Sims: Previs and Visual FX Design -- Film History & Appreciation Feature

Aaron SimsAaron Sims
Los Angeles, California
CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.


Born in Texas, Aaron Sims began work as a concept artist in California in the mid-1980s. His career in the movie industry started when he designed the creature in From Beyond, a 1985 film based on an HP Lovecraft story. Next came Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II. Soon after he started working with Academy Award® winning effects geniuses Rick Baker and Stan Winston.

Aaron Sims talked to Creative COW about his work on the much-lauded TV series Falling Skies, as well as summer VFX hits Amazing Spider-Man and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Sims is also working on a feature-length version of his short Archetype.


Aaron Sims
Aaron Sims
Defined with a broad stroke, a "concept artist" helps the filmmaker realize both characters and environments for his movie. A character concept artist - which is what we are known for at The Aaron Sims Company - designs a character to be unique and iconic for a film property. A concept artist can also work with production designers to create worlds. The majority of our work here is character-based, from Hulk to Green Lantern, Planet of the Apes... but we also help production designers envision their worlds. In addition to working with production designers, we also work with VFX supervisors and can fall into the category of VFX design; we'll work hand-in-hand with them to help realize what something is going to look like, prior to spending millions making those effects.

Sometimes we'll work with producers and are hired on as artists to help pitch a project early on, before they even have a director attached. Many times the studio wants to see a broad range of concepts of what the film could look like early on, even when its just a seed of an idea, without a script. Sometimes they even come back to us after the movie is shot, to rethink something that wasn't realized enough in preproduction, or production.

Falling Skies is a very cool show. We're working with Zoic Studios, which does the show's VFX. Zoic contacted me to help them realize some of the aliens in the series. Obviously, since Steven Spielberg is the Executive Producer, he had final say, but the design went through Zoic based on what Spielberg wanted to see. We were hired early on, before it was shot, to figure out what the aliens and ships should look like.



The Kraken, from 2010's "Clash of the Titans."


My company has over 10 artists in house, all with unique styles. This allows us to be able to give the studio or any show many different looks and concepts. On shows like Falling Skies, I'll have a few artists working on it at the same time. This allows for our clients to choose from different parts of the artists' different styles to contribute to a final look. This type of collaboration is very common.







Scenes from "Archetype." Please click on individual images above for larger view.
On The Amazing Spider-Man, I was hired to work with the director Marc Webb to help realize the design of the Lizard, who is the main villain of the film. I also helped the costume designer Kym Barrett with Spider-Man's new suit to get approval from the director and studio. This Spider-Man movie is a re-thinking of the whole concept; he is slightly younger, thinner and based on a different comic book, the Amazing Spider-Man.

On Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, we helped the director Timur Bekmambetov see these VFX shots before the VFX companies actually went forward. They'd shot green screen plates, and we were hired to envision what those scenes would look like, so the VFX company would have a template of what they were going to complete. We did this on some of the big action scenes where there were big VFX and a lot of the actors were on greenscreen.

Previs gives the director an idea of what can be realized. We can help after it's shot, using previs as a template for where the geography will be. It's almost like a matte painting, but it's a still for the director to approve and then send to the VFX house.

We're working now on G.I. Joe 2; we were brought in early to help the concepts of the characters and also do some vehicle design. We're also helping with the title sequence. We have contributed to the film all through the beginning, the middle and now the end. It's great to be needed throughout the process of a film.

I've always wanted to be a director myself. As a child, I did many VFX-heavy short films. When Jurassic Park came out, it was like being a kid all over again. I was very inspired to learn computer animation, but at that time it was untouchable because ILM was the only one doing digital effects at that level.

While there wasn't much literature about digital animation at the time, soon books and software became available to help me grow in the field. I started to educate myself. I thought that if I'm going to stick with the effects industry, this is the way it's going to go. I also felt that if I learned this, I could make a film. I had high hopes that I could sit in my room and make an entire movie. Then I realized it takes a lot of people to make create complex animation.

It wasn't long before the software started getting better and faster, as well as the computers. It's now possible for just one person to do an entire short.

Getting into make-up effects and visual effects helped and gave me the driving force to do my own ideas. It wasn't until I developed my own company of VFX artists, I was able to create my own shorts.

The idea for Archetype was something I'd wanted to do for a while. It really came to fruition one day while I was working as production designer on Insidious with director James Wan.

We went to a police station set which included an interrogation room. I started daydreaming about a robot that thought he was human, being interrogated by a human who wants information about a weapon he has. That seed of an idea was all I needed to start thinking about the short teaser.

While it took a lot of time and help, completing the short was a very exciting and fulfilling experience. Once I decided to release it, I did a whole campaign on Facebook starting on January 1, 2012, announcing I would release it on Jan. 20. To generate anticipation, I would post an image a day and discuss different elements of the short.

When I released it on January 20, it got almost 100,000 hits the first day and then just started to accelerate. Less than a few weeks later, I started getting calls from the major studios. I ended up having meetings with many of them who were interested in making a feature film version. So within three days we found the home for it at FOX. That was pretty exciting.

Now we're into the script phase. If all goes well we should start making the feature soon.



Gort, the giant alien robot, from 2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic.


In the meantime, I' m running the company and working on my next short, Tethered Islands, another original idea I've been working on for over 12 years. This will be a big space opera. The idea is to do the same as the Archetype short and sell it to make a feature. The short film format is a powerful tool; it can help convey story, character and give a visual glimpse into a big concept that could be made into a feature film.







Archetype by Aaron Sims



Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.

Title image Medusa art from The Clash of the Titans (2010)



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