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VFX That Don't Stand Still

Janet Hetherington chats with Aaron Sims about his latest work on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Clash of the Titans and Green Lantern.

VFX expert and concept artist Aaron Sims' latest work can be seen in The Day the Earth Stood Still. He was also involved with the designs of Gort, the robot, the alien suit and the spaceship. ™ & © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

When it comes to science-fiction movies, there are some films -- such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Clash of the Titans (1981) -- that are so iconic and memorable that it could prove daunting for some to participate in their remaking. For vfx expert and artist Aaron Sims, the chance to work on the new versions of these classic movies was a challenge he could not resist.

"With today's vfx capability, there are no limits to what we can create," Sims says.

Within the industry, Sims is regarded as one of the most versatile concept artists working in films. Sims' multi-faceted approach to creature development and design has resulted in work on memorable movie monsters, including the re-imagined robot Gort from the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Sims was brought on board by the film's director, Scott Derrickson, and Sims was delighted to see modern digital techniques applied to update the influential classic film.

"There were issues with the classic," Sims says. "There were limitations to the suit and ship. With digital assets and tools, you can design anything you can think of. Gort won't be a guy in a suit; it will be totally digital."

Gort is the robot guard that protects the alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Sims was also involved with the designs of the alien suit and spaceship for the new movie.

"Designing digitally and in 3D allows me to do many different ideas," Sims says. "There can be many, many iterations." Sims' has found that his background in vfx does help when working with -- and advising -- his clients, who ultimately make the final decision.

"I can help them with those choices because I have a background doing both make-up effects and digital work," Sims notes. "Because I do work in 3D, I can allow for the production company to use my 3D model to do the moving storyboards or give that to an effects house to start doing some early R&D. I still work out the designs."

The upcoming Green Lantern won't be the first time Sims has designed green heroes. On The Incredible Hulk he created over 100 different Hulk designs. Courtesy of Aaron Sims. © 2008 Marvel Ent. Courtesy of Rhythm & Hues.

Indeed, according to Jeff Okun, the overall visual effects supervisor on The Day the Earth Stood Still, "Gort proved quite challenging. He "was originally conceived as an alien creature that walked on four legs and then folded up into a kind of totem pole or idol." But it was decided that this was too far removed from the iconic, monolithic robot, so they reverted closer to the original Gort in a more modernistic way. The Aaron Sims Co. was one of several groups that contributed to the new Gort, which is entirely CG and which fires a destructive swarm instead of laser beams.

Sims is working on more alien and suit designs for the forthcoming Green Lantern movie, based on the DC Comics superhero. "We're starting from the ground up on this one, and we're trying to be as contemporary as possible," he says. Sims would not confirm which aliens he is designing, but those familiar with the comic book know that Earth's Green Lantern is just one of an intergalactic corps of heroes who each possess a power ring to fight evil on their home worlds and in outer space. "The suits for the aliens are all different," Sims says, "but they're all green. They're overwhelmingly green. Defining the uniform green -- the proper shade -- is part of the process."

Sims is already familiar with designing green heroes. "On The Incredible Hulk, we looked at all different shades of green," he says. "We even looked at gray. I think we did over 100 different Hulk designs to provide options."

The Aaron Sims Co. provides character designs for film, TV and videogames. Those designs may range from concept sketches of a character (including good, old-fashioned pencil sketches) to fully rendered images or 3D models that can be integrated into a scene, or utilized for previs. Sims notes that fully-textured 3D models can save vfx from rebuilding designs while protecting the filmmaker's vision by utilizing approved designs for the actual animation and previs, a process used recently on The Incredible Hulk and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

Sims provides character concept sketches to fully rendered images or 3D models that can be integrated into a scene, or utilized for previs. Above is his work for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. © Universal Studios.

Sims' creative approach to concept design using digital technology has had significant impact on the industry. Development teams from Softimage have advanced aspects of their software based on Sims' creative use of the product. Sims has also inspired many current techniques used by artists and designers in the entertainment industries. Sims enjoys an ongoing partnership with Alex Alvarez and the Gnomon School of Visual Effects with respect to a series of instructional DVDs.

"Since I own my own company and am a designer, I'm able to work with directors that respect, and to do things that are fun and different," Sims says. "As far as working with directors, it's always different every time. I prefer to work one-on-one with a director because there's clarity there, and once you have a committee, it can be difficult to get a lot done. The director can then convey the ideas back to the production team. That seems like the smoothest way to work, especially when the director has a very clear idea of what he wants; we can come to something that everybody's happy with and it's up to that director to sell it to the team."

Sims says that on The Incredible Hulk, the designs he created on computer were immediately used for previs. "They could see what the movie was going to be like before they even started going to the effects house," Sims says. "Then, the effects house used my models to build on. It gave the director [Louis Leterrier] the ability to use my design in 3D before committing to it, so he and I worked together and massaged the model until he was happy with it."

Sims and Leterrier have reunited on Clash of the Titans, where Sims is putting his digital design talent to work on a variety of creatures, including the monstrous Kraken and the snaky-haired Medusa. "I'm working on new characters and revisiting old ones," Sims says. Again, Sims' 3D designs are being used for previs and will be manipulated as necessary.

Sims' tools of choice are ZBrush, Photoshop and XSI. Sims says he likes the flexibility and enjoys using ZBrush because he can do "virtual sculpting" with it. "It feels very comfortable," he says.

As for treading on the vfx path of Ray Harryhausen, Sims comments, "I'm a big fan of Clash of the Titans and have always been impressed by Harryhausen." As it did when Sims was young, Harryhausen's work inspired Sims to pursue new ways to achieve vfx.

Sims has been busy as well on other projects, including -- X-Men Origins: Magneto, based on the Marvel Comics' X-Men arch-nemesis and the horror thriller The Unborn -- both directed by David S. Goyer. Sims has provided character designs, but he also brought his vfx background into play in a very hands-on way. "I helped David with the creatures, and I went with him to the vfx house and act as art director to give advice," Sims says.

While Sims is enjoying working as a character designer on high-profile movies, which also include Will Eisner's The Spirit, directed by Frank Miller, he has not lost his own pioneering spirit.

Sims has two new projects with director David S. Goyer, X-Men Origins: Magneto and the horror thriller The Unborn (above) for which he provided character designs and art director advice. © Rogue/Universal Studios.

"Early on, I started to integrate myself with a lot of the industry as far as what I do, so I hear what's coming up," Sims says. "I'm good friends with designers for software that I use quite a bit -- Softimage -- so they always tell me what they're going to integrate and ask me questions about what I would want. A lot of that does influence what changes -- it's the artist dealing with the software companies themselves and giving them the advice of what they would want in this tool to make it better. That's part of the evolution of it."

"Other stuff I find out through reading websites or talking to technical people that I know," he says. "I'm always looking online to find out what's coming up; I go to SIGGRAPH and other conventions that talk about it.

"I'm not territorial when it comes to ideas, "Sims confides. "I have met many artists who are that way, and don't want to give their secrets away because they feel like their jobs will be in jeopardy. On the other hand, I feel like I'm going to constantly evolve and if I only know this one thing, then I will fail.

"I'm always interested in the experimental, in the R&D, of something I want to incorporate," Sims says. "Sometimes there's an effect you can't do. Right now, it's difficult to design humanoid characters. When it comes to creatures, we can nail it. However, while people may be hard to do right now, that day is going to be in the past."

Janet Hetherington is a writer, screenwriter and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.