Aaron Sims has been an integral part of Hollywood’s creature and monster movies for decades, working behind the scenes to bring to life some of the most recognisable characters from digital and pre-digital films, with a sprawling IMDB list covering concept design, special effects, visual effects, makeup, director, producer, and even actor! I was fortunate enough to see him speak and demonstrate his process at CG Futures, and I’m finally getting around to posting about it.
Aaron was inspired by illustrations and movies, playing with a super 8 camera as a child and creating naive VFX by mucking around with the tape after recording. After high school he moved to California and worked on movies, doing make-up effects and building creatures. In the days before the mass proliferation of digital effects, he was creating the illusion of translucent skin effects on creatures by building up layers of paint, such as in his work on a film I (and many others) loved, Gremlins. He was deeply embedded within industry, designing creatures for the big screen on paper and in clay, when around the mid 1990s films like Jurassic Park started hitting the screens at a faster and more impressive rate. This was a huge breakthrough and gamechanger for the VFX industry, requiring a radical shift in workflow and technique. The existing and ‘old guard’ of visual effects workers had to embrace the new possibilities or get left behind. Many at that point retired, judging themselves too old to learn what probably seemed to them quite alien and inaccessible. Aaron of course, still being quite young and eternally keen to evolve, started playing with Softimage 3D software and learning how to move his skillset from practical into digital.
Around that time the late Stan Winston, Academy Award-winning special and makeup effects creator started a VFX company, putting Aaron Sims in charge of it. At the time, the world was quite different. There was no Youtube, no online tutorials, people were just figuring out how to do all of this stuff in-house. Winston challenged Sims to work out how to concept design on the computer, forcing him to be experimental and shift his mental gears from the tactile analogue to the world of largely conceptual screen-based digital. This was a time when computing power was castly different from today, and computer software comparitavely clunky. Eventually, the advent of 3D-printing allowed Aaron to again touch and walk around his designs, and since then the rift between digital and analogue has grown progressively smaller.
These days Aaron heads up Aaron Sims Creative. The proliferation of available techniques and technologies give filmmakers options on whether a creature on screen would be a guy in a suit, composited stop motion, models, CGI, some combination of techniques. Aaron talked us through his company’s process, which he calls ASC Sketch to Screen.
This process goes through a workflow covering storyboards, concept art, keyframes, building models, assets, rigging, and creating previsualisations of the characters moving through a set.
Phase one- Script breakdownFor ASC’s work on the Stranger Things Demogorgon, there wasn’t much direction on the creature. The main requirement was that it should not have a face. Not an easy design obstacle if you think about it.
For ASC’s work on the Stranger Things Demogorgon, there wasn’t much direction on the creature. The main requirement was that it should not have a face. Not an easy design obstacle if you think about it.
Phase 2- Inspiration
Looking at creatures online, trying to find things that meet the brief. The Demogorgon’s mouth was based on a snapping turtle. Also looking at the translucency and texture of the skin, all sorts of details, a miss mash of research and reference.
Phase 3- Conceptual phase
Concept sketches- pumping these out to check if they’re going in the right direction, sometimes you don’t show the director, or if so then giving the thinking behind it. This leads to a completed concept design in 3D. This phase also includes a character and environment layout or key scene, asking how do the characters function, move, and interact. The example was given of the Demogorgon tearing through planes of reality (and Winona Ryder’s living room wall) in Stranger Things season 1. These ‘keyframes’ are key moments of a film and are often delivered as digital paintings, fleshing out the story and moments, otherwise known as iconic moments, or beat boards. The aim here is to make sure the characters are designed so they function and do what they need to, and also includes motion studies and pre-visualisation tests.
Phase 4- 3D modeling
Put them on turntables to see how they look from all directions.
Phase 5- Rapid Prototyping
3D printing and painting a physical piece which lets the studio pitch for money with something tangible and allows the investors to think of merchandise and toy opportunities.
Phase 6- Animation
Once they have a rigged model, they can see how it moves in short animation tests. Things like walk cycles, tests that are in keeping with the character’s personality and also testing things like practicality of a model in movement.
Phase 7- Previsualisation first previs at test low resolution, not
The first previs test is at low resolution, neither coloured or lit. This test gives the director an idea of what’s possible while still at a relitavely low-cost stage, allowing ASC to take notes for revision before they go ahead with final high poly renders. Once a shot is locked in the visual effects team adds lighting and layers of effects to knock the final shots out of the park.It was truly inspiring.
Below is a brief look at a small number of steps of Aaron’s process, from his demo where he took a photo and turned it into a cool creature within just a couple of hours, with the aid of Photoshop, photobashing, texture wrapping, the liquify tool and two cups of coffee. Pretty amazing to do, particularly with a room full of people watching, and even more when forced to use a PC when you’re normally a Mac user!
Step One- take photo
Step Two- Add textures, distort features
Step three- Finish design