Exclusive: how the new Spider-Man was designed

We talk to legendary concept artist Aaron Sims about The Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Winston and creating creatures for Hollywood.

One of Hollywood’s pre-eminent concept artists, Aaron Sims’ CV includes such blockbusters as The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans, War of the Worlds, I Am Legend and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

The son of an artist himself, Sims moved to Los Angeles in the mid-eighties to pursue a career as a makeup FX artist, but it was his innovative design work that drew the attention of such industry giants as Rick Baker and Stan Winston.  It was while working with Baker that Sims was introduced to the fast-growing world of digital design; a technology that he embraced and quickly mastered. A few years later, he collaborated with Winston to create Stan Winston Digital before moving on to form his own firm, The Aaron Sims Company.

Sims’ recent projects have a massive profile – they include Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Thing, The Talisman and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He’s also co-founded White Rock Lake Production with partner John Norris to create his own projects as well. The versatile designer-turned-filmmaker recently sat down to discuss his work in the genre…

Who has the final word on a concept design? If you’re working with a particular director, it’s obviously easier to know what he wants, but what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen and each of them has their own recipe in mind?

That’s typically the way films are made these days: there are too many voices; too many cooks in the kitchen; a committee of people with their own opinions. After years of working with directors, you definitely have to cater to what they want, more than anybody else. If you don’t listen to them, they won’t be interested in you at all, so that’s the first person I always listen to. If the director wants one thing and somebody else wants something different, I’ll give them both. I will give them exactly what the director wants for his version, and then I’ll give them what the FX house or the production designer wants. On top of that, I’ll try to give them my own version so that allows for everyone to be happy and feel like they’re having their own say. If it was just me doing that, it would be incredibly impossible to do that many versions, but the benefit of my company is that I have other artists working for me that are able to do different things stylistically, as well as adhere to the needs of the different members of that committee involved in the process.

When you’re designing a film based on a long-established comic book property like Green Lantern or the Hulk that has been drawn by dozens of artists over several decades, how do you decide which one to base your work on? Or do you have to create a character that doesn’t look like any of them?

Those are the more difficult shows to work on, because of the nature of their history and again, the committee involved in them, because it’s not only the director but if it’s a Marvel property, they’re involved too. If it’s an old film that’s part of a franchise, everybody who has some history with it has some say in it. So I think, okay, this is a new and contemporary version of the Hulk, that’s only my one opinion out of so many. The Incredible Hulk was almost a two-year process because of that. We had to play with all of the different versions, so does he have short hair or long hair or spiked hair?  Is he green or grey? Which artist is he inspired by?  It was all of the above, so the process involved doing all of them until everybody, not only Louis Leterrier the director, but Marvel and everybody else involved was happy with it. It was one of Marvel’s first gigs as a production company so they had a lot to say and that wasn’t easy, because there were a lot of people at Marvel.

So with The Amazing Spider-Man, which you can’t really talk about yet, if you were hypothetically working on a certain lizard-like villain, how do you decide if you’re going to use the original Steve Ditko version or the modern-day Todd McFarlane incarnation? And what happens when each of those aforementioned cooks in the kitchen have their own personal favourites?

That one was very tough, because it was no longer Sam Raimi so it was a different director with his own vision and an assortment of different layers to get to something that needed to be decided even for Spider-Man himself.  We’ve now seen Sam Raimi’s version, which was very popular and well-received and made a lot of money, so do you break with that and start completely from scratch? People felt if they were revamping it, they had to start from scratch, so that was definitely a long process.

In some way, it was similar to The Incredible Hulk, because there was the film that had come out several years before, which was directed by Ang Lee, so how different do we make this one? And then you’re dealing with all the different variations in the comic books and within the fan base. To some extent, you have to ignore the fans as individuals; you have to look at them as a whole, because you’re never going to make all of those individuals happy. Somebody is always going to say, ‘That’s not the version I wanted to see!’ so it’s a difficult challenge. You never going to make everybody happy, so the main thing is to make the filmmakers feel they’re getting what they want and they’re able to express their own creativity in this process. Hopefully it will be commercial enough that it gets recognized.

If you’re working on a comic book-based project or a remake like The Thing or Clash of the Titans, there is always going to a very vocal fan base that is prepared to dislike whatever you come up with. Do you have to develop a thick skin after a while?

Yes, and that’s always going to be the case.  Luckily I’ve been doing this long enough and after working with people like Rick Baker and Stan Winston as a designer and hearing their critiques as well as everyone else’s, it’s really helped me to be able to grow past that and the fact that you’re never going to make everybody happy. There are going to be insults, and I can completely disagree with some of them, but everybody has an opinion and I just have to allow that to be part of the process.

You also have to have a thick skin to work with producers sometimes who don’t have the nurturing nature of saying, ‘Hey, this is really cool, but could you maybe do something else?’ They’ll sometimes just say, ‘This is awful!’ so I don’t take anything personally. Being a concept artist for the movie industry, I get to be an artist and hopefully have a bit of creative input in the direction of these things, but I can’t look at them as a personal aspect of my own art. It’s not a fine art at all. It’s a commercial art, so I have to get past that. That’s something I tell the artists I hire, because it’s hard for them when they hear a client say they hate something they did. That’s something I try to deal with as an art director with my artists: I have to become the conduit that helps cushion the blow to some extent, and compliment them before an insult.

When you’re designing a creature, do you have to know in advance if it’s going to be done practically or digitally so you can design it accordingly?

For the most part these days, many of the studios don’t embrace the physical aspect of it anymore. They typically feel that digital is the way to go no matter what the budget is, so that’s been the status quo for a while. For the most part, we always start with no limitations. Once the budget of a film is not enough to deal with the digital aspects, we have to figure out how to make that design work either as a guy in a suit or a puppet or something like that. A studio will usually say, ‘Don’t worry about the limitations; just come up with a really cool design and we’ll figure out how to make it!’ It’s always later on when they come back and say, ‘That has to be a makeup now, because we can’t afford it!’ That’s when you have to say, ‘Okay, how can we rethink it now that we’ve created this thing?’ but it’s actually not as difficult as it sounds.

The reason for asking that is I remember one of the makeup FX people on Clash of the Titans saying some of your designs for that film were quite extreme and pretty much had to be redesigned from scratch. But coming from a makeup FX background yourself, surely this is something you would always keep in mind?

It’s interesting that you mention that. A lot of the FX houses don’t want to be manufacturers of someone else’s designs so no matter what, they’re going to try to redesign it unless the filmmaker or the studio says, ‘This is the exact design; do not change it!’ Even if that’s the case, an FX house will come back and say, ‘We had to redesign it because of this…’ because they want to take ownership of it. I’m completely okay with that, because most creative people want to be creative. They don’t want to be a machine, so if they’re told to just manufacture something, they wouldn’t put as much of their own energy into the project if that was the case. So I understand the argument.

Is this job still fun for you?

Oh yeah. As you probably know, I’m doing a lot of things. I’m still designing, but I’m also producing and directing. I was production designer on Insidious as well as co-producer and that was really fun to work with [director] James Wan. I just love every aspect of filmmaking and I don’t want to limit myself to just one thing, but as a designer, I’ll constantly design, I think probably until the day I die.