VFX artist Aaron Sims and get his thoughts on Zbrush and the VFX industry in general. Aaron Sims’ career has spanned the many shake ups in the VFX industry and today he is the Art Director for Stan Winston Studio. As well as his work at Stan Winston Studio he is currently working on his own project, Tethered Islands. He has also recently completed two DVDs for the Gnomon Workshop detailing his character design workflow. In many ways, Aaron Sims’ career and skills are the perfect synthesis of the traditional and CG. I found his responses to the questions incredibly engaging and very thorough.
You have a long history with visual effects and a very interesting and diverse background. Can you fill us in on some of the highlights of your career and some of the different areas of the industry you have worked in?
Since I was a kid movies like “Star Wars,” “An American werewolf in London,” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing” have had a big impact on me and have influenced my desire to work in the film industry doing special effects. I started in the movie industry in the mid 80s doing special makeup effects. The first film I worked on was “From Beyond” and then “Evil Dead II” where I was working for Mark Showstrom doing design work as well as sculpting and painting. By the late 80s I started working for a person that inspired me when I was young, Rick Baker. That project was Gremlins II. I worked for Rick over 12 years designing, sculpting, and painting on many projects. After working in makeup effects for many years I started to think about new directions for my work. It seemed to me that we had explored the possibilities of the physical effect world. I needed some inspiring project or some change to happen if I was going to continue in this line of work. Then the movie Jurassic Park came out and changed everything. The computer-generated effects in the film opened my eyes to a new world. Once again I was inspired by something in the film industry, and like many others, started pursuing that part of the effects industry.
I made the change to digital effects when it started gaining momentum, and when it was available to me to learn, as well as use on a PC. By using the design and sculpting skills I learned in makeup effects, I was able to create images that inspired me to keep reaching for more. After a few years developing my digital skills I started to look for work in this new field. At the beginning of 2000 I found myself at Stan Winston Studios. Stan was interested in developing a digital department within his physical effects department. He had developed, along with James Cameron, the company Digital Domain which was separate from his makeup shop. When I came onboard it was to start a small digital department within his own shop that would use a lot of the artists and resources of the makeup division. This was a great opportunity for me since my background was makeup effects and digital was a new passion. I started by using the 3d tools as a design tool, where I designed the robots for "AI." From there I started doing small effects on the HBO developed show "Creature Features." At this time it was just me and I need more people to help the company grow. I soon brought on Andre Bustanoby and Randall Rosa to help develop the digital department. Now that a few years have gone by we find ourselves with a great team of digital artists and we have started growing and working on great projects in conjunction with the makeup effects department.
You work for Stan Winston’s right now. Can you tell us a little about what your day contains?
Well I'm the Art Director of both the Physical and Digital department, so my day is always busy, from designing creatures for films we're working on to doing digital shots. Many projects start with a 3d design that I have modeled and textured. From there I give the model to the rigger and animator to help sell the design, as well as work out any issues the initial concept may have. This model can then be cleaned up to be milled out for the physical department, and or used for our final model in a digital production pipeline. This becomes a very efficient process within both parts of the company.
"ZBrush is truely the most unique digital modeling package I've seen or used"
Where does ZBrush fit into this?
I use many different 3d programs to help serve my digital designing process. XSI has been the main 3d package of our digital pipeline at Stan Winston's. Only very recently I have started using ZBrush. This is truly the most unique digital modeling package I've seen or used. It has made a big impact at Stan Winston Studios, especially with many of the traditional artists like the sculptors. I myself being a sculptor found it to be the closest thing to working with clay in digital modeling software. I have started to use this as one of my main design tools.
You do visual development work as well as production work for Stan Winston’s as well as for your own project Tethered Islands. Can you talk about the differences between visual development and production work?
Well visual development can consist of many things, such as a quick sketch to a full-blown illustration. Production work is where you take the design or concept and flesh it out by executing it to the final work that will be seen on film. The way I work in many cases is to, first, design the concept in 3d. Then I work on how it will be implemented into the project by either doing test animatics or rendering out different poses in a computer environment. I then finalize my concept and commit it to the workflow of our pipeline and execute the final product, as much as I can. In many cases this will take more then just me to do the final work, from a rigger animator to finally a compositor who will help in the final stages. As far as my personal project Tethered Islands this has been just me and my writing partner Morgan Sims. It was originally meant to be just a short film, but has been slowly developing into much more.
What has been the most powerful part of using ZBrush in your workflow for both visual development and production work?
ZBrush has become an important part of the designing and production process. I start off by using ZBrush to design a concept. Once this concept is approved I commit it to the production pipeline, using the work done in ZBrush, and exporting it as a medium resolution model into XSI. I then export the details like textures and displacement maps from ZBrush into XSI, ready to be rigged, animated, and rendered.
What spurred your interest in ZBrush and when did you become involved in it?
When I first noticed ZBrush it was featured in some publicity done on the creation of Lord of the Rings. There was talk about how many of the digital characters were created using ZBrush. This interested me and I started asking around about this new tool. It was still a new software and when I looked into it and downloaded a trial version, I wasfrustrated at first with the way things worked, such as the layers and the interface. It seemed like there were nice things about it, but my first impression was that this is too different from what I was used to and I doubted my patience to learn a new software. After a short time went by I heard much more about ZBrush and started really seeing great work coming from the software. So I looked into it again. Version 2.0 was released and found myself intrigued by what was possible. I found the time to really understand the program and saw what everyone was talking about. Soon we started using ZBrush at Stan's to design with. This is now one of the important parts of the pipeline at Stan Winston Studio.
What do you eventually hope to do with Tethered Islands?
Tethered Islands has been an ongoing project for a while now. It is constantly developing and changing. I haven't been able to spend as much time on it as I would like, however I'm hoping to clear my calendar early in 2005 in order to devote more time to it. My writing partner and I hope to finish the story line soon, developing it into more than a short film.
How have you used ZBrush for this project?
When I first started my project Tethered Islands it was all XSI. But recently, after using ZBrush at Stan Winston Studios, I have started using ZBrush to design and detail all my creatures for this project. I realize now that a lot of my early characters design all in XSI are nice but they don't have all the subtleties of what I have been creating in ZBrush. Most likely I will go back and redo all the other characters using ZBrush.
There are some very cool creatures on your web site, have you explored ZSpheres much?
I see the potential of Zspheres, but never had the best luck with them. Because they're based on a chain it seems to me that rotating a Zsphere in one direction has too much influence on the child of that Zsphere, but there is no easy way of seeing this without previewing the mesh results and going back and forth. Still being new to Zbrush, I know there is probably a way around this problem, but for now I start off like many other people, roughing out a model in some other package then importing the model as an .obj file and working with ZBrush to form and detail my model.
"I feel ZBrush will always be recognized as an important part of the digital software collection."
Do you consider ZBrush to be a modeling program, a texturing program, both or something else entirely? Perhaps something hideous and meant to be kept in the basement?
ZBrush has been a detail modeling and texturing package that I use along with XSI. As the program advances and changes I'm sure it will become a bigger part of my toolset. I feel ZBrush will always be recognized as an important part of the digital software collection.
As an artist with such a strong traditional background who has made the transition to CG, what comments could you share for other artists looking to pick up CG tools?
Since I started using digital tools I have always tried to convince artists of what can be achieved in the computer with all these new programs. It may be possible that some traditional artists are intimidated by the computer and the programs that they see. It seemed that no matter what I created and how often I showed the processes, some artists saw a technical hurdle to climb. I noticed once I showed these artists ZBrush their eyes lit up. For some people it was the first time that a digital tool made sense. It is truly the closest program to sculpting in clay. ZBrush has made the process affordable as well as facilitated a creative workflow that is very attractive to many artists.
What has been the most helpful aspect of coming from a traditional art background for your work in the computer and in the industry? Specifically, how has having a background in physical effects affected your CG work and your character designs?
The most helpful part of being a digital artist with a traditional background is knowing what works in the real world, like weight, balance, and form, as well as the subtle details of a character. As a painter and a sculptor there are many things about digital tools that make producing art so much easier then sculpting and painting. Having the ability to work with symmetry tools to rough out and detail your model quickly is amazing to me. I have to say there is nothing like sculpting with clay or painting with a paint brush, but working with digital tools have its rewards, and speed is one of them. As an artist speed is very important to translating what is in your head into whatever medium you're working in. This is something I learned early in my traditional art. The longer you spend on something the more you lose your original idea of what it was, or what you wanted it to be. I feel having the background as a traditional artist has helped me understand exactly what it is I need to create and how to find as many shortcuts to that goal as possible.
What do you consider to be the most fundamental difference between ZBrush and traditional 3d programs?
The biggest difference between ZBrush and other 3d programs is the idea of building a quick form that can be detail in a more artistic approach. Most traditional 3d programs are based on a slow and technical modeling approach by building or draw polygons one by one. Even with all the new tools to help speed up this process, it still is not as easy as what ZBrush has developed.
You have some DVDs coming out from The Gnomon Workshop in February, I hear. What are you going to be covering?
I recently finished doing some DVDs for The Gnomon Workshop that will be released in mid to late February. In them I cover many of the different techniques I use when designing characters for the film industry using 2d and 3d software such as Photoshop, XSI, ZBrush, and Deep Paint. The first DVD is based on designing just character heads. The second DVD is on designing an alien character; from drawing the design in Photoshop, to modeling, texturing, and finally building an environment that the character will be rendered in. These DVDs cover many of my techniques for how I achieve my designs. I hope it will help and inspire other artists.
If you had the Pixolator himself locked in a room for half an hour what would you ask him?
There is just one thing I would say: Thank you for the creation of a tool that has made the transition from traditional to digital both possible and even comfortable for many artists around the world. It has just started to make what I think will be an enormous impact on the digital front.