Episode 179 — Aaron Sims Creative


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Episode 179 — Aaron Sims Creative

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 179! I’m speaking with Aaron Sims, the Founder of Aaron Sims Creative. I’m really excited for this one! Aaron and I discuss his career history as well as his company Aaron Sims Creative. His resume goes on forever: from Wonder Woman to Logan to Wrath of the Titans, to Clash of the Titans, to the Planet of the Apes franchise, to The Amazing Spider Man. I think this is going to be a lot of fun.

Moving forward, I’m going to be updating my blog, YouTube and Instagram a lot. So make sure to check out my website regularly: www.allanmckay.com.

Let’s dive in!


[00:38] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Here is the thing: Most of us think that we can put our latest work on our reel, add some music — and get the job. A lot of us aren’t aware that the majority of reels sent to a studio are skipped through and sometimes never even watched in the first place.

Everything we’re taught about being an artist is wrong! Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write a book from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. I want to:

  • Give you the formula to be the obvious candidate for the job;
  • Tell you how to build a reel and put it up on YouTube — that brings studios to you!

You can get this book for free right now! Whether you’re in design, film, tv or games, go to www.allanmckay.com/myreel!


Aaron Sims, the visual creator behind some of this generation’s most unforgettable cinema creatures, began his career over two decades ago as a special effects makeup artist. His pioneering techniques in the world of visual effects influenced the face of character and creature design in Film, Television, Games, Previs, and VFX early on in their application.

Aaron Sims Creative [ASC] was formed in order to bring together a wide range of the world’s most talented concept and visual effects artists and create memorable characters, creatures, VFX, costumes, and key scenes. Aaron’s unparalleled skill and dedication to consistently creating stunning content for all platforms of visual entertainment has made ASC a premiere entertainment studio. Since its founding, ASC has worked on feature films like It, Wonder Woman, Logan, Wrath and Clash of the Titans, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Amazing Spider-Man and many, many more.

In this Podcast, Aaron talks about transitioning from special effects makeup to digital effects and starting his own company, the importance of learning and adapting — and how to stand out as a VFX artist in today’s industry.

[02:49] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Aaron: Hi, I’m Aaron Sims. I’m the Founder of Aaron Sims Creative (ASC). We’ve been in business since 2005. It’s been quite a few years.

[03:04] Allan: How did you first get started? Did you always imagine yourself in a creative field or did you discover it later on?

Aaron: I was always interested in the entertainment business in some way. My father was an animator but he mainly worked for a military company. But I got to experiment with animation and visual effects early on. I never had the patience for that. I focused mainly on illustration. I knew I would be a creative. I was living in Texas so there wasn’t much out there. I realized I had to move to California or New York. I decided to move to California right after high school and pursue my education [there].

[04:34] Allan: Just to touch base, what was it like for you to move to a different city right out of high school? People do need to go where the work is and immerse themselves in that environment, but it’s so intimidating to do that at a young age. But it’s also pretty impactful!

Aaron: For sure! It was exciting and scary. My family is still in Texas and no one has really left. I was the one who left in the 80s. Luckily, I was able to find a career and make a good living. But I was intimidated and not sure which route I was going to take, I just knew it was some form of art. My dream was to work in films, but I tried to be realistic. So I thought I would be an illustrator [or a matte painter].

[05:58] Allan: How did you break into the industry? Did you get any resistance in the beginning?

Aaron: My high school friend and I used to make short films on Super 8 which was pretty crude. He was always into makeup effects. He found a career. I was pursuing an education and worked at Tower Records doing their displays. I got a call from him that he was doing this film From Beyond with monsters, would I want to help design some of these characters? It’s one of the things: It’s who you know. The door was opened! There were all these creatures [in the film] and I helped design them. And the showrunner on the show asked me if I ever sculpted in clay. I sculpted one of my designs and he said, “You’re pretty good. You might as well keep going with some of the other stuff.” I realized this was my way in, even though I never thought of that as a career as a kid. I was lucky because in the 80s, especially in Los Angeles, there were so many places [to work]. There were people working out of their garage. The second film I worked on was Evil Dead, which I didn’t realize how big it would be.

[08:32] Allan: That was a pretty low budget film at the time!

Aaron: It was really low budget! It was fun, I learned a lot. I’ve worked on some sequels. I’ve worked on Nightmare on Elm Street.

[08:50] Allan: What did you do for that one?

Aaron: I was working for Steve Johnson who was a really well known makeup effects artists, really talented! He had me help with those souls pushing through Freddy’s body. (I don’t know if you remember that scene.”)

[09:15] Allan: I was probably 7 or 8 at that time. I was pretty obsessed with horror films at that time. I’ve see that to death! I remember exactly what you’re talking about.

Aaron: Those were actually actors and the performers were pushed up against this stuff. But there were also these little arms coming off of Freddy Krueger. I was helping with that and a few other things. But that eventually lead me to Rick Baker which was a multi Academy Winner. I was able to work on Men in Black with them.

[09:58] Allan: That’s so cool! What were some of the highlights of your career prior to starting ASC?

Aaron: It’s the curveballs that happen in the industry that you don’t expect — and you have to change and evolve with them. One thing I learned when I moved to California that I would be to stay open-minded about my career. I knew it would be art related, and I would’ve loved to do creatures. I could do so many more things! What I realized was that every few years, there would be a major change. In makeup effects, it was simple when I started. It was just prosthetics. Then it became animatronics (the Jurassic Park dinosaurs). And you had to keep evolving to stay alive. It was something I learned early on. Some people have issues with big changes because they need to relearn everything. What I’ve learned it that the tools are the only things you need to learn — but you’re still the same artist. And that’s what was so exciting about the evolution of technology. Now here at ASC, we’re doing visual effects and I taught those myself after Jurassic Park. And now I’m getting into VR and AR. I get excited about learning something new — but I also want to stay relevant. I want to change with it.

[12:04] Allan: That’s brilliant! I’ve interviewed a few animators who were at Disney and then Pixar happened. Even they had a resistance to drop the pen and pick up a mouse. Do you think you’ve adopted a mindset that helped you adjust?

Aaron: I think personality has a lot to do with it. I’ve always been able to adjust with my career. What excited me about that was I never got too bored doing the same thing for too long. When a new thing comes along, I’m excited and I’m wired that way. A lot of people are wired differently. They feel like they have to start all over to learn these new crafts. And that’s of course true! But another way to look at it is if you have the creativity, you’ll be able to learn it. A lot of the software that’s out there right now was made for artists to use, not for technicians. There are people who specialize in writing software but even for them it’s creative. It’s got to be exciting because they create something that never existed before. We have people here who write our pipeline so it works efficiently.

[14:29] Allan: That’s such a critical thing! I could segue in so many directions when we talk about pipeline. When you look at smaller studios (vs bigger studios), the pipeline often gets neglected. That’s where a lot of problems happen. The shift happens when they take a look at how they can streamline everything. That’s where putting more emphasis on the management and organization and workflow makes a lot of difference.

Aaron: It’s so true! A lot of companies were built from the ground up. With ASC, it was just me working from my house on my own. Then it grew to 30-50 people. The biggest hurdle was the efficiency of the pipeline. One aspect is dealing with clients. When they change something, you have to adapt in the time that they need that change in. We learned that the hard way. We do need the pipeline and infrastructure that can adjust; and creating new technology that helps not only us but other people in the industry.

[16:37] Allan: That’s so great! Do you want to chat about that? When ASC came about, how did decide it was time to build your own business?

Aaron: Yeah, I worked for 20 years with different make-up effect companies. Then I went to Stan Winston’s and I headed their digital department. We started a visual effects company. It was a difficult challenge. Stan actually helped create Digital Domain with James Cameron. And then they backed away. He always wanted to have a small visual effects component to his business. It was exciting for me but there were also a lot of hurdles, with the way the industry was and how they deal with companies. Stan was known for the special effects makeup, so when it was hard to get the shows [just for the visual effects]. That’s the hardest part for a company to break out of what they do — is breaking out of that mold. Studios don’t want to take a risk and it makes sense.

[19:03] Allan: But like you said, you’re creative no matter what area that’s in!

Aaron: So getting back to why I started my own company, I was getting frustrated. We were doing some fun and bizarre stuff (like Sky Captain, World of Tomorrow). Those were a lot of fun to work on! But then we worked on other shows where we designed a creature but we couldn’t take it all the way. It was also new for Stan. For myself, it was a time I was feeling stagnant. It was time for me to move on but I didn’t want to leave the industry I loved. The only way I could control it is to go out on my own. And it was the perfect time. In 2005, special makeup effect weren’t as big as they were in the 80s but they were still used in almost every film that needed a creature. Visual effects were slowly making their way in, but the studio didn’t know where to go. They needed to hire a designer to figure out what each creature looked like. It was a really interesting time, and I got lucky to make the change at the right time. I started my company and I thought it would be difficult to build a career from scratch. But the directors already knew my name. Then I started getting these jobs: I am Legend, Incredible Hulk, Mummy 3. And they started overlapping so I started hiring artists. And then I grew from there and we kept expanding.

And then about 3 years ago, we started focusing on visual effects. We would send our designs to a studio and then they would send it to a visual effects house. No offense to the artists, but they would often change it a little bit and that would frustrate me as well. So why shouldn’t we take our design to the finish? And that’s the idea of designing something from the ground up and helping the script and sometimes the writers. And through that, we ended up influencing the look of it, doing the previs, doing that sketch to screen. And we worked with the creatives from early on to make sure the design was done efficiently.

[21:26] Allan: I love that! When you have two different companies — and they’re at a different stage of their development — it can be a challenge. Your way allows for continuity. And you started at a time when there were these giant shifts.

Aaron: We’re going through those now too, with AR / VR. We just did a project called Chain. It’s a VR experience based on The Christmas Carrol, but it’s a darker version. It’s an incredible experience and it was done with an actor. An actor can see your individual reaction and react with you. That way if you go back, you will have a different experience every time.

[26:03] Allan: I think that’s so cool! Nobody seems to want to do any VR that’s light and fluffy. What has your experience been so far with AR / VR?

Aaron: This experience has an emotional story. We used Unreal which is a gaming software. It’s a great software and I think eventually, it will be used for films. It has realtime rendering. We’re pushing it as far as it can go. That’s a lot of fun to find the solutions. On Stranger Things, we designed the Demogorgon and the upside down world. It’s tv so it’s a different monster, with time and budget. We had to use some practical. Like, when it slimed, we had two different people doing a visual effects ultra slime and someone looking at the animation against a black wall doing the movements of the mouth. We ended up using that because we got hundreds of different options. Those are the things we think about when we do visual effects.

[28:33] Allan: Can you talk about your production experience on Stranger Things?

Aaron: I worked with the Duffer Brother before, on a film called The Hidden. We did some designs in post. We often become the fixers. Right after that, they got Stranger Things (which had a mock name at the time). There was very little information. They asked us to design a monster. In the script, it was described as tall and slender and it ate people, and it had no face. I asked if they had any ideas, and they said, “No, just do something cool.” It allowed us to be creative, like giving it a flower mouth. We helped with the upside down world. They wanted to embrace the 80s on every level, the music, the feel. They wanted a guy in a suit. But it wouldn’t work: You can’t have him break through a wall and be what we designed. So we did a test of the model we designed. They saw it and asked for help with all the effects. On the last episode, it was mostly all CG. It was a great experience because it evolved as it went. It was cool to be on it from beginning to end.

[31:51] Allan: How often do you get creative freedom in that way?

Aaron: I wish there were more opportunities like that. We worked on Ready Player One with Spielberg. There were so many creatures, we were working for 3 years on that. We had to create some iconic characters from the 80s and some that were based on Spielberg’s designs. The tougher ones were the main characters. We did hundreds of designs of those. We worked closely with ILM. We would start creating the assets, to ILM’s specs within their pipeline.

[33:22] Allan: Wow! That’s awesome! To talk more about Ready Player One, having that freedom to dig into the past, what was the process for that? How did you seek out all that reference?

Aaron: A lot of it was given to us. We were given some characters to re-envision. The Iron Giant, the Mega Godzilla. Then, there were others that we would make up names for. Each artist had a name for each creature. It was a complete Nerd Fest! There were some games from the 80s. It was a lot of fun!

[34:37] Allan: I’ve got to re-watch it to catch all the references. Every time, you catch new things you planted in there. That’s so cool! You have such a vast history, working on so many iconic films, it’s hard to pick and choose. What was the process like to work on Wrath of the Titans?

Aaron: I worked on the Wrath and the Clash. Clash was a lot of fun to work with Louis Leterrier. We worked together on The Incredible Hulk. We worked together on a few shows. There were always leaps and bounds on the next show! It was a pleasure to work on and understand how the film was being created visually, based on the director’s point of view. I think Jason and the Argonauts was my favorite. But it was really cool to recreate and reinvent this stuff. Medusa was always such an iconic character through time. I was just in Denmark and went to one of the museums. There were so many Medusa sculptures. They were so powerful! The tiers of the emotions that must’ve been felt by the artist! I felt the emotions of the artist as he was creating it. A lot of it was about focusing on Louis’ version and he had to hone in all the designs we’ve created.

[37:19] Allan: It there an official look for the Kraken?

Aaron: As far as the mythology of the Kraken? Well, there are these paintings. And Harryhouse’s version was a sea creature. So there is material to start from, but we had to go a lot further because so much of it was so simplistic. We actually had some simple Kraken designs which were more octopus like. But there was a version that had all these versions combined. So we had to modify it.

[38:29] Allan: That’s so cool! What’s the typical process for when you approach a projects, from conceptualizing to completion? Do you see a lot of references?

Aaron: Definitely! It’s about getting all the information upfront and absorbing from a filmmaker’s point of view of what they really want, reading the script and asking the questions. And then it’s about finding references. Even for the Demogorgon there was a lot of the stuff. Like the inside of its mouth was based on a snapping turtle’s mouth. There are these membranes that push the food down. There are really nightmarish types of patters that are created inside that mouth. Looking at nature is something we always do because it’s what we identify with. If it’s too abstract, it’s hard to emote a feeling. Every client wants something new. There just so many new ideas. It’s all about the way you combine them. If you can’t identify with them and they don’t provoke emotions, they’re useless in a way. But a flash of teeth will be enough evoke fear.

[41:10] Allan: You’re right. The things people identify with, they just need a glimpse of. So teeth means sharks.

Aaron: And that’s part of the process. With Stranger Things, we nailed the design on the first week. But with The Incredible Hulk, we worked on the design for almost a year because it was such an iconic character. It was Marvel’s first film. It also depends on the project. But once you get past that first design, we’ll take that character and start putting it into the key scenes / moments in the film so we can start to understand how that character looks in the film (before they spend any money). Then we use 3D programs and they become an asset. We use Zbrush which is almost like digital clay. It’s the closest to clay in the digital world. It’s a great tool and we’re able to create robots, monsters and humans. We’re able to pose the light using KeyShot which is a really great took for rendering Zbrush models. A lot of the creature designers use them. Even car designers will use it. It’s part of the process too. Everyone has gotten so spoiled with the designs, so the pencil sketch aspect of it is pretty much abandoned. A lot of the clients will look at a sketch and say, “It’s interesting, but what will it look like?” They expect to see a finished piece.

[44:16] Allan: I think you’re right. In a lot of ways, there have been some innovative tools that give you the interactive aspect. We had Pixologic on the Podcast talking about Zbrush (www.allanmckay.com/73) and how a traditional artist can work on the computer. It’s interesting in a lot of ways. Before you’d have to model everything polygon by polygon.

Aaron: When I started at Stan Winston’s, I might have been the first one to design a 3D creature using a software. I was hired to start Stan’s visual effects department. There were some expensive computers and software. (It was called Softimage. This was before Maya.) We set it up and I was going to do an animation test. All of a sudden Spielberg’s project A.I. came in and Stan wanted me to design some of the robots. I did some of the sketches of the most advanced A.I., the Specialists. Spielberg liked the design and wanted me to design the robot. I was intimidated at first. But then I found that I was able to do it pretty quickly and I was working with the textures. NURBS had it’s own uB’s which is how the textures got wrapped. Ultimately, I ended up doing the design in a couple of days. And then I was able to give him 20-30 variations. When Stan saw what I had down, he started jumping up and down like a little kid. We showed it to Spielberg and he said, “Whoever designed this is designing all the robots!”

[48:17] Allan: Wow! That’s awesome!

Aaron: There was no one else doing it. It wasn’t in anyone’s pipeline to use an animation program to design with. And that was before Zbrush. I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own. And when Zbrush came out, it wasn’t 3D and then it became 3D. The original robot from A.I. was interesting and fun. It was kind of exciting!

[49:30] Allan: It’s been a while! There have been so many evolutions with modeling but they’ve always been so rudimentary. Zbrush made it more intuitive. I imagine that your initial design tool would’ve been pretty heavy at the time.

Aaron: The fact that it was robots, they didn’t have a lot of curves to them. Throwing the textures on resonated the most with me. I wouldn’t risk designing something. But the computer makes it easy. Some of the random experimental textures were used in the movie.

[51:30] Allan: Can you talk about the ASC Masterclass?

Aaron: What we found a lot of times with Gnomon (I’m actually about to do a Gnomon at Art Station piece on creature design) was that people would get a lot of great education at Gnomon. But there were some methodology aspects that we’ve come up with at the company: Here is how to think about what you’re doing and what we do as a company. One aspect is our branding. But the other aspect is to educate other people who want to work for us. It does help. We experimented with it. The biggest problem with me is that I like to do so many things at once, it’s hard to find the time.

[53:18] Allan: Yes! That’s a major problem for a lot of people. How important do you think it is for artists to understand some aspects of the business, as opposed to being allergic to it?

Aaron: I think it’s important to understand so no one is taken advantage of. Visual effects is an industry that doesn’t have a lot of protection for the artists. Here, we have a great HR department and we inform everyone on how the company runs. It’s good for people to have an idea. But the most important thing for an artist is to accomplish what they seek to do. When you come in for a job interview or you have something you want to excel at, make sure you get to do it all the way through — and also become something unique. Depending on what we’re hiring for, artists having a unique style — and having that on their reel — is what we look for. We do a lot of hyper real stuff, but we have a few artists who do some of the more cartoony stuff. Having a specialty is good but also being able to do some realistic stuff, if working for us.

As far as the advice for people looking to join the industry, there are so many resources! Art Station is great. Having your own site and showing your stuff at conventions or contents helps. We also do some contests on Facebook. We allow for some other artists to do a contest of some of the characters we’ve done. We judge them and send them a signed print. Those are the ways of getting to be seen. It’s a different world out there. It’s become competitive. It’s competitive for us as well, but we’re a design heavy visual effects house. That’s the one thing that makes us stand out.

And anyone interested to seek employment here, we have a link on our site (https://www.aaronsimscreative.com/jobs/) or [you can do it] through our Facebook.

[58:17] Allan: Just to touch on that, what are some ways artists are able to stand out? What could be some of the unique ways?

Aaron: It’s one of the things: We have a lot of creature designers.

  • We look at creature designs all the time and the ones that tend to stand out show that there is a lot of work that went into them. We’ll look into them.
  • [We also look at artists] that can do environments or key scenes. Key scenes are important because they bring a character to life. We do that more and more as of recent. That’s become 40% of the job — are the pitch pieces. Most of it are the key scenes so that studio gets the idea of what the movie is.
  • What would be great is to combine them. Those are the ones we have trouble finding. So if you’re out there — and the designs don’t have to be photo real — we’re looking for you right now. But the demand changes all the time. We do have a lot of good modelers and asset creators.

[1:01:09] Allan: What about branding? What are you thoughts on that for artists or freelancers?

Aaron: I think it’s a great way of getting to stand out. Any way you can do that — be it through your website or contests, or Art Station — is great! Part of it is doing interviews or Podcast. They get your name out there.

[1:02:21] Allan: One last thing you mentioned earlier is artists being able to see a design through. Can you elaborate on that a bit more? You were talking about junior artists doing tutorials and those are often unfinished. Is that what you meant?

Aaron: Yes, sorry I didn’t clarify! There are times where you learn a portion of what you need to achieve but you don’t do the rest of it. Having a job and keeping it takes the ability to complete a task. Sometimes, you have to have the experience to know to do that. For a smaller company like ours, being a generalist is a great way to be. If you know at least a piece of something, you can understand the needs: You’ll know what the character needs to look like for the lighting department [to do their job], or for the modeling department.

[1:04:22] Allan: I think that’s the best advice! I’ve always said that when you’re starting out, you need to be a generalist first before figuring out what you’re gravitate toward more, to become a specialist. Where can people go to find out more about your studio?

Aaron: We have a website: https://www.aaronsimscreative.com. And at the bottom of the main page, you’ll see all these tabs to [our social media and] Facebook. One thing I didn’t talk about is 3D printing that we do. There is a section for that on our website. Which is really fun for me because so much of may background is in practical work.

[1:05:49] Allan: Are you planning to sell the designs of the characters you’ve created?

Aaron: Whenever there is a pitch, we often create several characters that are realized and 3D printed. Many times that helps sell and green light the film. In the 90s, we did it naturally. We’d design the characters in clay and they went a lot further.

[1:06:45] Allan: I want to thank you for taking the time to do this! It’s been a blast!

Aaron: Yeah, Allan! Thanks for having me on! I look forward to listening to many others!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Aaron for the time to chat. I will be back next week with Part II of Goro Fujita’s interview. (Part I can be found here: www.allanmckay.com/177.)

Please make sure to check out my website for a lot of free, high value content: www.allanmckay.com.

I’ll be back next week with the next Episode. Until then —

Rock on!