|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.