• CGSociety Artist Profile - Aaron McBrideCGSociety Artist Profile - Aaron McBrideCGSociety Artist Profile - Aaron McBrideCGSociety Artist Profile - Aaron McBride
    hen Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead
    Man’s Chest visual effects art director Aaron McBride visits his hometown, he walks into a bit of irony. “I grew up near Mystic Seaport, which has restored buildings and ships from the same period as Pirates,” he says, referring to the 17-acre National Heritage site in Connecticut where 500 antique ships, from tall ships to whalers bob in the water of an authentic 19th century seafaring village.


    The irony extends to his workplace. McBride’s state of the art office at Industrial Light & Magic sits in a new brick building designed to blend with the period architecture of the Presidio, a former military post that guarded the entrance to San Francisco Bay. In the 19th century, the post flew the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States.

    So, how did McBride swashbuckle his way from a mystical East Coast childhood to a magical West Coast career?
    “I grew up drawing,” he says. Encouraged by art teacher Diane Seltzer at Pine Point, an arts-friendly private school, he spent his childhood drawing as much as possible.

    And, when his enthusiasm for art waned in high school, he discovered animation. “Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid came out,” McBride says. “The Disney renaissance. Filmmaking in general. I grew up on Star Wars. But, Beauty and the Beast inspired me to go back and start drawing again.”

    Thus, McBride majored in experimental animation at the Rhode Island School of Design. There, he drew inspiration from the strange worlds of the brothers Quay, the pioneering work of Norman McLaren, and European filmmakers. “We looked at a lot of stop motion and experimental animation from the Eastern Block,” he says. “Beautiful stuff.”

    A splash of reality hit when he graduated in 1996 and started his career.
    Not as an animator or artist, but as a production assistant for MSNBC’s Edgewise, an innovative news show hosted by John Hockenberry, a former NPR reporter and current Dateline NBC correspondent. “I got the job right as they were starting up,” he says.

    “I was kind of a runner. I’d run errands, pick up things, sometimes go on location, sometimes call and do pre-interviews with people they were considering interviewing.” Although the guests were interesting, when a producer connected McBride with Colossal Pictures in San Francisco, he jumped ship.

    He didn’t find easy sailing in San Francisco, though. Colossal hired him as a freelancer on commercial jobs - he did in-betweens for Coke commercials, for example. So, to make ends meet, he took a day job at Kinkos. His break came, as often happens, not through his freelance work at Colossal, but because he continued to pursue his passion - drawing.
    “I wasn’t in school, so to keep my drawing skills up to speed, I went to open drawing studios.” He says. “You pay five bucks or so to draw quick figure studios for two hours.” One night, the man running the studio offered to show McBride’s portfolio to his stepson, Alex Laurant, who was the visual effects art director at ILM for Saving Private Ryan.

    After interning at ILM for a few months, he got a job as a production assistant in the art department. “As a production assistant, you do a lot of scanning and printing, but they give you little opportunities,” he says. “You get practice runs here and there and they evaluate you based on that.

    And, they see whether you can function in a production environment. Filmmaking in school is so different from an environment in which you have deadlines and quick changes based on what a client wants. They see if you can handle that.”

    He could. And, David Nakabayashi, visual effects art director for Artificial Intelligence: AI, noticed. “Nak gave me my first break,” McBride says. “He let me do a lot of paintings for the underwater theme park in AI.”
    The fledgling concept artist also traveled with vfx supervisor Scott Farrar to create storyboards on set for Steven Spielberg.“I storyboarded walking through Rouge City for effects placement,” he says, “showing how we would extend the background.”

    In addition to the theme park paintings, which were based on Chris Baker’s storyboards, McBride drew architectural elevations and plan view of the rides for the model shop. He hadn’t studied architectural drawing, but he had learned the basics from his father. “My dad comes from a construction background,” he says. “I had him on speed dial.”

    He called his Dad into play for his next project, Minority Report, as well. “I got to play urban planner for that one,” he says. He designed how the roadways fit into each other and traveled up the sides of buildings; he fit hanging garages onto the sides of high-rise buildings in Washington D.C. “One of the interesting things is that often in movies set in the future the old buildings are replaced with shocking new glistening skyscrapers,” he says. “But, Spielberg thought there would be building codes for Washington D.C.,” he says.
    “They would keep the historic landscape.” So, he had to thread a futuristic highway system through the old districts and integrate futuristic buildings that complemented the existing architecture under the watchful eyes of Farrar and Spielberg. If he added small details to the giant buildings to provide scale, they’d want to know what function the details served. “I’d call my Dad and say, ‘I have this thing right here, what could that be?’” he remembers. “My dad would answer, ‘OK, that might be something you’d use to channel rainwater.’”

    From Minority Point, he sailed onto The Hulk where he drew concept art of the water father changing form. Until this point, McBride had worked primarily on architectural and set designs, sometimes on designs built in the model shop as well as in the virtual world.

    “It was so cool,” he says of the model shop. “Any time I’d start to lose steam on a project, I’d just go to the model shop and get reinvigorated and motivated and inspired to do stuff. What they do is so amazing.” But, knowingly or not, he had steered a straight course toward a career as a visual effects art director.

    After The Hulk, McBride again worked as a concept artist with visual effects supervisor Farrar for Peter Pan, creating storyboards of the children flying through the streets of London and concept art and paintings of Captain Hook’s pirate ship, the Jolly Roger. It’s no wonder that John Knoll tapped him to work on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl.

    “I was supposed to work on Pirates for a week,” he says. “I did a couple illustrations during that week and ended up working for the rest of the show. John Knoll gave me a shot, my first gig as an art director. It was a great experience.” Since then, he was a visual effects art director for Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and, most recently, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

    So what does the Art Director actually do? Sometimes he starts with pre-existing concept art from other artists, as he did for many crewmembers on the Flying Dutchman. Sometimes, he originates the concept art, as he did for others on the cursed crew. [See Aaron McBride in Action on Pirates.] “In that case, I start with rough sketches that go to the director for approval,” he says. “Then I work tighter and tighter until I have photoreal illustrations. In the end stages of this design process, I work with photographic textures and reference and run the illustrations to the visual effects supervisor for their approval and feedback. They take the illustrations to the director.”

    His work doesn’t stop there, though. He sits through dailies watching for anything that pushes the effect or character too far from the original, approved concept. He works with the model shop.

    On Sith, for example, he and concept artist Yanick Dusseault and Erik Tiemens, supervising designer for the sequence, each took a section of Mustafar to visualize lighting in the fiery environment for the fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin. And then, McBride worked with the model shop as they built the miniatures. “The level of detail was so beautiful,” he sayd. “They trick your eye. You get used to the scale of the room and then you see something in a different scale and think, ‘This can’t be.’ You feel like you’re 40 feet up looking down.”

    Even though he must have one of the best jobs on the planet, McBride continues pushing into new artistic waters. He wrote and illustrated a short graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics’ “Star Wars Visionaries.” A paintings published in Spectrum 9 was exhibited in a retrospective show at the Society of Illustrators; he’s created collector covers for “Star Wars: Insider” magazine.


    On the walls of his office now, though, hang the large, intricate photorealistic illustrations he created for Davy Jones and his crew. Although he illustrated skeletal pirates for the first film, the sequel was his biggest creature show, one that he worked from November 2004 through June, 2006. Time to dump the buckets of seaweed and pull anchor for a short vacation.

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  • CGSociety Artist Profile - Aaron McBride continued ...CGSociety Artist Profile - Aaron McBride continued ...
    Where did you begin on Pirates?
    Crash [McCreery] and the director, Gore Verbinski did the initial creature design pass to establish the 15 Flying Dutchman characters. They were all digital except Bootsrap Bill who was accomplished with makeup and prosthetics. From those, I generated photorealistic illustrations, a head study and a full body study, of the 14 digital creatures to interpret what they would look like in a real world environment for the modelers and viewpainters. We wanted a few more creatures so we wouldn’t see the same ones all the time, and I generated concept designs following sketches Gore had done for Wheelback, Ratlin, Old Haddy, and Angler. We ended up with 18 hero guys and 32 variations.
    What was the process?
    During the look development stage, while Gore was shooting I’d do artwork and he’d do sketches. It was cool. He sketched a lot on the first [Pirates] movie, too. We’d get sketches on a napkin or whatever he had near. We’d call them Goregrams. It’s great when the director can draw. You totally get what he wants. Some of the creatures evolved more than others during the look development process.

    For Wheelback, we had to decide what type of wheel is sticking out of his back. For Ratlin who had tarp of sail canvas over his face and rigging rope on top of that, I did an illustration to get buy off from Gore. We had to consider what he looked like in profile, from different angles, how the joint in his hand would work, how his face fused into rope and sailcloth. We’d pass those illustrations to Gore and then to the modelers and viewpainters.
    What were the design goals?
    The concept is that the longer they’re on Davy Jones’ crew, the more encrusted by sea barnacles they are. We didn’t want it to look like the evolution was a comfortable marriage of sea life and human. We wanted it to be painful infection, a painful distortion. Often in mutations, there’s asymmetry. So, we didn’t have any bilateral symmetry. Geoff Campbell’s [creature supervisor] modeling crew made modular pieces of sea life and they used ZBrush to get hyper detail. Since all these guys would be completely CG, we wanted to give them forms that couldn’t be accomplished with prosthetics. Gore wanted to take them further, to make their sea life more recognizable.
    Can you give us an example?
    I got a napkin from the Caribbean with a sketch Gore had done of a guy with head in a shell and a picture of a conch shell. So I generated artwork for Hadras from that.

    And Maccus, the hammerhead shark guy. The initial concept was that he had one side of his head coming out of his eye but the rest of his head was more human. He had a hat and hair. From far away in silhouette, it didn’t read right away that he’s mutating into a hammerhead; it wasn’t as obvious. When I was generating the photorealistic illustrations, Gore sent a sketch along to make him less human in his head. We flattened the back of his head so it’s obvious you can’t fit a guy into that suit. From profile, he looks like smooth backed hammerhead shark. We also flattened his nose. For that, I looked at reference of rugby players and boxers who had noses smashed in. And, everything sort of points toward his brow ridge like a shark. Also, we made his mouth, muzzle and jaw distend. These are things that couldn’t be accomplished with a guy in suit.
    Did you change other characters?
    Gore really liked the performance of the actor standing in for Penrod, so he wanted to incorporate more of a human face into the creature. Another example of incorporating more of the actor because Gore liked what he was doing, was Wyvern, the guy coming out of the wall. The actor playing him [John Boswell] had a beautiful voice and weathered face and he was so commanding in his performance. Also, we tried to work in more negative spaces so that he couldn’t have been accomplished by a guy in a suit.

    Penrod originally looked more like a sand flea. John Knoll had the idea we should split one of his legs into two legs so it looked like the lobster aspects were taking over on one side. On his human side leg, we put gaps in his calves that you could see though, so it looked like he was beginning to pull apart. It gave him more of a mutated look than a comfortably evolved look.

    At one point, I looked at Maccus’ back when I was looking of photos of a lobster for Penrod. I noticed that the underside of the lobster had segments with legs sprouting out, and it kind of looked like a spine. So I tried an illustration of the underside of a lobster erupting out of Maccus’s back with lobster legs reaching out. It looked so painful and disturbing, it bothered me. I thought, “Oh, that might be kind of neat.”
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  • CGSociety Artist Profile - Aaron McBride continued ...
    Did you start from concept drawings on paper?
    Yeah, Crash sent drawings on paper. We scanned a couple for the background guys. For Olgivey, Palifico, Greenbreard and Crash, we worked directly over his designs, also for Quittance and the twins. For guys like Maccus we worked a lot from photos of the actors on set. It seemed that when we wanted to incorporate human features of actors on set, we worked more from actors’ head shots.



    What about Davy Jones?
    For Davy, Crash had illustrations before an actor was cast. When I first started doing the photoreal illustrations of Davy Dones, they were talking about casting Christopher Walken, so I tried to do things that incorporated his facial features like his piercing blue eyes. Then when Bill Nighy was cast, I looked up publicity photos of him. I referenced Crash’s original drawings - he’d done costuming, the meat of what Davy Jones was - and then worked in Nighy’s features, his chiseled high cheekbones, the angles of his face. I worked with Richard Miller in the model shop who was sculpting a maquette. I would take photos of the maquette and paint on top of that while referencing photos of Bill Nighy.
    How did you create the photoreal illustrations?
    For a lot of it, I would go out and take photos of sea life. It helps being close to San Francisco Bay, but my desk started to smell like low tide. Greenbeard had a latticework of hanging seaweed, so I’d grab seaweed and bring it into the department in big bucket, take photos with my digital camera and bring them into Photoshop. I grafted that over Crash’s illustration to interpret how his illustrations would work in a photorealistic environment.

    For reference, I used photos of acne infestations, carbuncles, diseases. For the inside of Clanker’s mouth I found a website that shows mouth diseases from chewing tobacco. His tongue is oyster meat.
    Did you stay involved through modeling?
    We would go to dailies twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday. They’d put up the artwork I’d generated side by side with a turntable of the model. Hal [Hickel, animation director], John and I would make comments about how to retain more of Crash’s initial designs and Gore’s sketches. Sometimes, I would paint on a frame to show how to stay true to the initial design; I’d paint to cut a more interesting profile or break up areas that got too simple. One character in particular was Hadras. The artwork I’d generated had his face very squeezed into the shell as if you took your hands and pushed the cheeks and squished the mouth together so it felt like his face was spilling out of the shell. But in the early turntables, his face looked flattened like a shovel hit his face. I wanted more of a feeling of a shell barely able to contain his face. So I grabbed profile and front views from the turntable and drew in the shapes to make his face bursting out of the shell.

    Another was Maccus, making his head flatter so you couldn’t fit a guy into it. I took a frame of his head and played with variations - does he have a fully formed eye on both sides, or fully formed on one side and lump just starting to form on other? I sent 10 variations to Gore. He combined two and sent back a sketch on another napkin.
    Did you stay involved through production?
    When we started to viewpaint things, we changed a couple of the creatures. We weren’t sure what Olgivey’s face was made of, so as we moved into look development for viewpainting the colors and textures, I painted coral with grimy coat over a frame.

    Another was Penrod. He was difficult to achieve, because he had a human face, and the closer you get to human in the CGI realm the more you notice the unrealistic qualities. So we went back and forth, giving him a human face but with carbuncles and crusty features around his face. Then we took lobster textures and transitioned them from around the edges of his cowl and down his forehead, temples and sideburns so it looked like his skin is slowly calcifying and hardening into lobster plates. Then I went to shot dailies every day as they ran through all the shots. If one of the characters looked strange, I’d go back, take a frame off our server, and paint on it to try to figure out how the lighting or textures might look more interesting. Then I’d run that by John [Knoll]. If he approved, he’d pass it on to the technical director as a guide.
    Did you work on anything other than Davy Jones and his crew?
    I also did artwork for the Kraken. Crash had done a full body Kraken. But, because we mostly see the tentacles, I did super tight photorealistic illustrations of what their tiny details look like, which are large to everyone else. And, I did artwork for the Kraken’s maw that we see in close detail at the end. I added barnacles and had sea life growing in it. I wanted this thing to look ancient, like it was from a prehistoric era, and had war wounds, scars, scar tissue. In some of the artwork for the tentacles, I had dead skeletons wrapped in harpoon lines. There’s one shot during the second Kraken attack when a guy chops a tentacle as it’s going by. You can see a dead skeleton wrapped with rope and a harpoon arm still stuck in it. It’s funny because Mark Siegel, one of the modelers, reworked one of the skeletons from the first movie and wrapped him in some line.
    Did you work on any shots directly?
    Towards the end when things get crazy I help out by painting elements here and there. That’s sort of triage. There’s a shot when we’re first introduced to Davy Jones, when he comes aboard the scuttled ship. The shot starts underwater. We see his crab leg hit a plank. A week before we finaled, Gore wanted the plank to split apart like it was hit with a knife. So, I painted an element of a plank splitting and the compositors turned it on when the crab leg hit the plank.
    So one final question, do you like your job?
    Yeah. Oh, hell yeah. This is really a fun job.
    Related LinksAaron’s website
    Industrial Light and Magic
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