The Star Wars art direc­tor re­veals all

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Aaron McBride may now be a worl­drenowned art direc­tor and con­cept artist for films such as Noah, Re­venge of the Sith and Iron Man, but he owes some of his suc­cess to his wife – and a cer­tain snack food.

At the time he was a con­cept artist at ILM – where Aaron still works – and had been as­signed to pro­duce some de­signs for first Pi­rates of the Caribbean film. “One of the chal­lenges was com­ing up with a look for the de­com­pos­ing, cursed zom­bie crew,” he says. “The direc­tor, Gore Verbin­ski, said ‘I don’t want th­ese to be bloody zom­bies – I don’t want them to be just skele­tons. They need to look alive but de­com­pos­ing. They can’t look like a fresh kill.’

“So I had just taken a train trip across coun­try and my wife had packed me some snacks for the jour­ney. One of the things she packed was Turkey Jerky. It looks like hu­man skin; it’s ba­si­cally dried, des­ic­cated flesh. I spent three or four days on the train look­ing at that stuff…”

Thus, when the art depart­ment asked him ca­su­ally enough if he could just work up a con­cept for one of the skele­tons as part of his two-day gig on the film, some­thing clicked. “There was a su­per­mar­ket down the street and I said ‘Do you know what, I’m go­ing to go buy some Turkey Jerky. I’ll be right back.’”

Long story short, Aaron ended up be­ing art direc­tor for the film. “It was a bit of a leap at the time. It was kind of in­tim­i­dat­ing – es­pe­cially be­cause the su­per­vi­sor of the show was John Knoll, who in­vented Pho­to­shop, and a lot of the con­cepts I was do­ing were in Pho­to­shop. So it was a lit­tle daunt­ing do­ing con­cepts for the guy who in­vented the pro­gram!”

Aaron says he learnt a lot, though, about what an art direc­tor ac­tu­ally does – turns out it’s much more than just be­ing in charge of de­sign. It in­volves stay­ing with the project through pro­duc­tion, sit­ting in dailies with the an­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sor and other CG artists, of­fer­ing sug­ges­tions as to how the shots have turned out. “It’s mak­ing sure the aes­thet­ics stay faith­ful to what the direc­tor and the pro­duc­tion de­signer want for their film.”

That was just one of the many stages on the jour­ney of the lad who grew up in Mys­tic, Con­necti­cut: a pretty re­mote place that couldn’t re­ally ful­fil young Aaron’s thirst for movie magic. “There wasn’t much ac­cess there. There was maybe just one comic book store you had to drive quite a ways to. I grew up pre-in­ter­net, preFace­book, so you didn’t re­ally see a lot of con­cept art for movies. The only thing that was out there was the Art of Star Wars stuff. That re­ally got me go­ing, but I was won­der­ing how to do that. It seemed so far away from where I was grow­ing up and the aca­demic sub­jects I was do­ing.”

ma n on a mis­sion

The Avengers was a lot of fun – I got to de­sign the Le­viathan that the Hulk punches

but he’d give me lower pri­or­ity stuff in case it didn’t work out.”

Since then he’s worked on a might­ily im­pres­sive range of films: Mi­nor­ity Re­port, Rango, the Pi­rates of the Caribbean fran­chise, many more. “The Avengers was a lot of fun – I got to de­sign the Le­viathan that the Hulk punches,” he en­thuses. “I was al­ways a huge fan of the Hulk. When I was young my mom would only al­low me to watch an hour of TV a week, so I used that hour ev­ery week to watch the Lou Fer­rigno Hulk TV show.”

Then, of course, there is his beloved Star Wars. Aaron worked on Episodes I to III, and while he’s re­luc­tant to talk about the crit­i­cal re­ac­tion they re­ceived at the

time, he’s in no doubt about how much he learnt and what enor­mous fun it was.

“Grow­ing up, I had heard all th­ese sto­ries of what peo­ple thought of the way Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader had fought. It was ex­plained in in­ter­views about how Vader had fallen into a vol­cano or he had been burnt some­how. That’s why he looked as he did un­der the black ar­mour. When you’re kids that’s al­most like heresy. You kind of the­o­rise with your friends and you’re not quite sure what’s canon and what’s not.

“I was one of the art di­rec­tors on the bat­tle on Musta­far, which was the lava planet in Re­venge of the Sith. So I was re­ally ex­cited to work on that: ‘Oh, this is the scene ev­ery­one has been talk­ing about!’ It was a thrill; I got to work with a lot of the guys in the model shop who had worked on the orig­i­nal tril­ogy, in­clud­ing Steve Gaw­ley and Lorne Peter­son. He sculpted the as­ter­oid that the Mil­len­nium Fal­con hides on in Em­pire!”

So he’s busy... but has he also been work­ing on Star Wars Episode VII and be­yond? Pos­si­bly, pos­si­bly not; un­der­stand­ably, Dis­ney (now own­ers of ILM) is strictly con­trol­ling the amount of in­for­ma­tion it re­leases about the new films be­fore their re­lease. Doubt­less we’ll get to see con­cept art and other de­signs in due course, but don’t hold your breath.

artist turns writer

For the mo­ment, and out­side of his film and com­mer­cial work, Aaron has an­other labour of love in ges­ta­tion: his graphic novel, Tóraidhe. As you might ex­pect, this is a glo­ri­ously il­lus­trated dark sci-fi tale, with ev­ery page look­ing like a breath­tak­ing piece of con­cept art. Aaron wrote the story and di­a­logue him­self, and the cur­rent plan is to get the first is­sue out in early 2016.

“I re­alised early on that I had to build things in CG if I wanted to re­use them over and over again,” he says of the pro­duc­tion process. “The first pieces I did tra­di­tion­ally: sketched them out, then scanned them into a com­puter and coloured in Pho­to­shop. But I was so nit­picky about ev­ery lit­tle thing that I re­alised if I needed to draw th­ese over and over again I’d be dead in the ground be­fore I ever get any­thing done. So that’s why I worked with CG, be­cause of the rep­e­ti­tion.”

Aaron’s star-bound tra­jec­tory con­tin­ues, then, and he couldn’t be hap­pier. “Look­ing back into it now, if you don’t know how to get into a ca­reer, then a good, in­tense work ethic will get you any­where,” he be­lieves. “And it’s fun to have your own world to play in with my graphic novel. I can cre­ate this world and play with it for story ideas. I’m sort of do­ing my dream right now.”

I got to work with a lot of the guys from the orig­i­nal tril­ogy

HAM­MERHE AD Con­cept art for Mac­cus in Pi­rates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Ol d Wounds Aaron wrote and il­lus­trated this story for Star Wars Vi­sion­ar­ies, a col­lec­tion of con­cept artists’ work. Da vy Jones The ten­ta­cle-bearded bad­die of Pi­rates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

dead trees “Keep your eyes shut. You won’t want to re­mem­ber this to any­one… least of all your­self,” is how Aaron cryp­ti­cally de­scribes this scene from Tóraidhe.

Aaron’s con­cept art for the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter as voiced by Johnny Depp in the 2011 film.

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Con­cept art for the Hulk’s face-off against the Chi­tauri Le­viathan in the 2012 block­buster The Avengers.


One of the many im­ages from Aaron’s long-awaited graphic novel, which he’s also writ­ing.


Tw ilight com­pany Aaron painted the cover art for Twi­light Com­pany, a novel by Alexan­der Freed, in­spired by EA’s hugely an­tic­i­pated Star Wars Bat­tle­front game.

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