The Star Wars art director reveals all
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.
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.