Episode 364 – Filmmaking in Unreal – Aaron Sims

Episode 364 – Filmmaking in Unreal – Aaron Sims 


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-Manand many, many more.

In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Visual Creator and Director Aaron Sims about creating in Unreal Engine, his journey working on short film THE EYE: CALANTHEK; working against creative constraints, perfectionism and knowing when to let the project go.

Aaron Sims Creative Website: https://www.aaronsimscreative.com

Aaron Sims on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0801267/

Aaron Sims Creative on ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/aaronsimscreative

Aaron Sims Creative on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/aaron-sims-creative

Aaron Sims Creative on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aaronsimscreative/

Allan McKay’s Podcast with Aaron Sims: http://www.allanmckay.com/179/

The Eye: Calanthek by Aaron Sims: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kXWNfW9ia8&t=1s



Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 364! I’m interviewing the Creator, Director and the Founder of Aaron Sims Creative Aaron Sims about creating in Unreal Engine, his journey working on the short film THE EYE: CALANTHEK; working against creative constraints, perfectionism and knowing when to let the project go.

I’m super excited about this Episode! We get into a lot of great subjects. By the end of this Episode, you will see why Unreal is the way of the future.

Let’s dive in! 



[01:11]  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? 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 The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[53:55] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!



[02:52] Allan: Allan, thank you so much for joining the Podcast! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Aaron: Hello, everybody! I’m Aaron Sims. I’m the Founder of Aaron Sims Creative. We’re a design VFX Company. I’ve been in the industry since the 80s. 

[03:20] Allan: How did [your short film] THE EYE: CALANTHEK come about?

Aaron: Once I started getting into Unreal, I wanted to push what could be done. I started doing teasers and I’d show them to the Epic team. They asked me if I wanted to help them out on one of their projects. My short was part of that project. I have so many sci fi stories I wanted to try out. What you saw in THE EYE, it was all in Unreal. It was about an alien attack. But because of time, things fell apart at the last minute and we had to rethink the project. We had 6 weeks left. With live action, anything that can go wrong – will go wrong. I had to pivot and figure out how I was going to make this short in time. I came up with a story over a weekend, the Epic team helped me out. And I decided to do it all in Unreal. We started there. 

[06:40] Allan: How much time have you been spending in Unreal at that point?

Aaron: My studio has been using Unreal and I was seeing from the team the potential. But I didn’t understand Unreal until a few years later. But then I started seeing what people were doing in Unreal and I was blown away. I worked with Wes Ball on a project (that didn’t go through) and he inspired me as a Director and Filmmaker. At that point, I realized I had to learn it. Then in 2020, the pandemic happened and jobs dried up a bit. At that point, I decided to learn it. It took me a little bit. After I went over that hurdle, I figured out how easy it was – and I was blown away. From that point, I haven’t stopped. I started developing a project with creatures under water. That’s when I started seeing the potential. I was hooked! Then I started pitching other ideas. Since then, I have been nonstop. For THE EYE, we did a test. I was also experimenting with mo cap. I rented out a suit to see if I liked it. It opened up a lot of ideas about what I can do. With all those tests and experiments, I felt confident to do the eye. It was daunting to create a short in 6 weeks. I was using the untested Unreal Engine 5. But I was blown away with the lighting, and the control rig. I was excited about what we could accomplish. 

[12:17] Allan: I love that! I caught up with Wes Ball last year (www.allanmckay.com/304). It’s fascinating how technology is changing the work flow.

Aaron: We’ve been using it for different function. I tested out previs in Unreal. But that’s the cool thing. It’s not just one tool. It’s multi-faceted. You can scan stuff. It’s amazing!

[14:03] Allan: I can’t wait to nerd out about it!

Aaron: A lot of work went into it. We’ve been all thinking, “How can we get out of the CPU rendering?” As an artist, it makes it a lot more creative. I love being able to manipulate things in real time. 

[15:24] Allan: Is there any specific technology or other things that caught your attention?

Aaron: The metahumans is one aspect. Deepfakes is pretty scary in terms of what you can do with! I think there is a bandwidth of what my brain can handle. Right now, it’s about the aspect of how we use Houdini and bring it into Unreal, as long as you get the shaders. So nothing too new, for me. But there are also some new tools. Surface water is one of those I can’t wait to break through! 

[17:53] Allan: I’m really excited whenever I see shows with water or oceans. Water sims is such an intensive thing. But it’s impressive we’re getting to that place.

Aaron: Even the metahumans in Unreal are a leap forward. Their rigged system takes it to another level. But there is something about characters that excites me. Having the ability to bring a character to life is exciting, but it’s the uncanny valley that we’ll have to break through at some point. That’s the toughest one! 

[19:50] Allan: When you were approaching your film, what were the limitations, outside of time?

Aaron: There were some limitations but I felt confident about body and hand motion capture. We didn’t have face wear. I tried some tests with my iPhone. The main character is in space, so we gave her a mask. Lipsync is the toughest thing anyway. I’m glad we went with a mask on the face. As of right now, we’re working on another project and we’re trying to perfect the lipsync. I’m glad we decided to go with the mask! The other part was: How many effects should we have and how are we going to achieve them? That’s one area I hadn’t had much experience with! I’ve been diving into the effects in Unreal. You can purchase things from the marketplace that are a good start. The creature was going to be minimal but we had to design and rig it. I was treating it as an alien. I’m glad I made that choice. We did do some tests with creatures. We also tested some slime and tried with geo. That was enough. So we came up with some interesting solutions. 

[24:28] Allan: It’s one of those difficult things to tackle!

Aaron: I think part of the success was due to coming up with some simple solutions. With my career with makeup effects, it’s about tricks. In VFX, people try to outdo. But it takes the viewer out. Not overthinking it is how I approach things. 

[26:00] Allan: Less is more! Our imagination will come up with something way more scary that what we can create!

Aaron: I agree. With Alien and even Jaws, showing less is more terrifying. In my practical days, I can’t imagine having to build a shark that could move under water.

[27:30] Allan: Do you miss those days of practical effects? These days, anything is possible. In the old days, it was about showing less. 

Aaron: I don’t miss being on set and waiting around, or building things I lost sleep over. But there was fun back then! I miss sculpting. Painting on a computer isn’t that much different than painting on canvas. But scupting you can’t replicate in the digital medium. I’m not a patient person. I don’t like to do the same thing twice. I felt like in my past I would wake up and thing, “I don’t want to do this anymore”. We worked on Gremlins, and we had to make a lot of them, and they all looked similar. The redundancy of that was creatively draining. It’s interesting: the one thing that I miss is the teamwork effort. It’s exciting to be together to create something. I’m glad to be where I am now. It’s a fascinating time. With live actions, things always go wrong. A lot of the time, the accident won’t make people happy. You don’t want a Director yelling at you. I’m excited I experienced it and I learned a lot. I’m trying to eliminate stress from my life. Now I feel I can do all of it and create a story. I also work from home and I can create it all myself. Reminds me of when I was a kid. I’m a recluse and it feeds into that. I feel more comfortable in my own world.

[33:26] Allan: Virtual production has created a massive shift. Where do you see it all heading?

Aaron: I think there are so many places that it can go. It allows artists to create whatever they want. I’m excited to see where artists take Unreal. I was always interested in realism. At a certain point, you want to make people watch something they don’t know it’s CG. For me, I want to create something as photoreal as possible. Make people believe that all these things are real. We’re creating a short right now that will be the beginning of a feature. I want to push the boundaries of what can be done. Virtual reality had some legs for a while. I like the idea of it. I think there is a future in augmented reality. 

[36:55] Allan: I’m excited for the future! With CALANTHEK, you created a trailer as well.

Aaron: We were pitching it to Epic, it was the same weekend I created a story. I also created a teaser to see if it were feasible. It was one to pitch to them. I do this for myself, as well. I did one for a project called Dive. I did a teaser for a feature we were going to do. It’s amazing how quickly things changed and they changed my approach. And whatever walls and challenges I have, I try to figure it out. For the most part, I am proud of what I was able to do. I know I can even do better when I have more time. I’m pretty excited about where we’re going. I do it that way for myself. I didn’t have to show it to Unreal. But I wanted to justify it. 

[41:38] Allan: Knowing you only had 6 weeks to do this, did those constraints work in your favor essentially? 

Aaron: Absolutely! Having your own project with no deadlines is your worst enemy. You may spin wheels. Having restraints did help me. Even with the 6 weeks, we were able to deviate from the story. We realized we needed a better ending. It didn’t take long. I found myself making changes and tweaks, even with the time constraints. When you don’t have a deadline, you can take all the time. A lot of the projects we work on have a deadline. I’m used to that. I ask artists how long a task would take. I want them to tell me. Then, we stick to that. It’s great to have time restraints.

[44:27] Allan: What was the size of the team?

Aaron: The total was probably 10-15 people at any given time. A lot of it was done by a small team. I focused on doing the mo cap and the team helped with the character. There was no time to do concept art. It got down to 4-5 at the end. It wouldn’t be possible in traditional VFX. And it would cost a lot more! That’s what convinced me to move forward in Unreal. 

[46:46] Allan: What is it like to do your mo cap in your living room?

Aaron: We had it set up in our office because of the virtual reality projects we had done. We weren’t set up as a mo cap studio. But it was a big space. What’s great about the blue tooth and non-optical versions, it’s worth the money. It’s already paid for itself. To be able to do it in the living room, it’s amazing. The range is pretty amazing! We would trace and test it out. I was pretty amazed! And it can create obstacles and be accurate. Now, we just got the facewear. But there will still be some key framing. That’s easy to do though! That was exciting. With my background being a creature guy, I wanted to see where else we could go. I also did some puppeteering. I’ve had fun and I’ve been able to apply it.

[51:55] Allan: The film is being really well received. Do you want to talk about that?

Aaron: I’m happy that I was able to do it. It was a daunting task! And it’s being well received. A lot of people don’t realize it was done in a short time. We put it into a lot of festivals. But the main thing I’m excited for is telling the story of a character that is really loved.

[53:47] Allan: Congrats on your success!


Okay, what did you think? I want to thank Aaron for coming back to the Podcast.

Next week, I’m interviewing Orion Tait, the Creator of BUCK. 

Until then – 

Rock on!


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