Aaron Campbell '92 (Fine Arts)

Creating movie magic

Aaron Campbell
Aaron Campbell admits he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into nearly 20 years ago when he accepted a gig on the night shift at Buena Vista Visual Effects.

The position offered no paycheck, no job security and very little training. But Buena Vista was part of the Disney empire, and the young Campbell had always loved its legendary art and animation.

“They showed me to a computer and asked me to play around with computer animation, although it wasn’t called that at the time,” Campbell says.

The digital revolution in animation was just starting, and Campbell was on the front lines with an early-generation Pixar computer and youthful energy that helped him learn quickly.

Shortly after, as computer animation took hold and software was developed for mainstream PCs, he transitioned to the design program Autodesk, and in 1999 joined Sony Pictures Imageworks as a senior technical animator.

Campbell has used Autodesk for the past 18 years, creating elements like the mechanical tentacles for Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, the muscles for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and dynamic hair and cloth simulation for Arthur Christmas.

“It’s pretty much the industry standard for what we do,” including modeling, simulation and three-dimensional animation, Campbell says, and is the foundation of the character setup work that adds the “skin and muscle” to the rigs and puppets that animators will use to suspend reality on the silver screen.

In Zookeeper, the Sony comedy starring Kevin James, Campbell did character setup for a dozen talking animals, from lions and monkeys to elephants. The work might appear easy in the realm of special effects in suspense and disaster movies, but looks can be deceiving, he says. “You not only have to make an animal look realistic when it speaks, but you’re also working with live action, which is always tough,” Campbell says.

Currently working on the Sam Raimi prequel to The Wizard of Oz, titled Oz: The Great and Powerful, Campbell likens his current project to his technical work for Alice in Wonderland, merging live action and special effects seamlessly, like enlarging Helen Bonham Carter’s head or creating a cool, Cheshire smile on a cat.

Oz opened March 2013 and you can see his other current work in Hotel Transylvania, a Sony Pictures Animation film which opened nationwide in September 2012.

Campbell created the dynamic hair rig for Dracula’s daughter, Mavis, in this rollicking romp about a lodge where monsters, ghouls and witches seek refuge “from the persecution of humankind.”

Not bad work for a proud Hornet who grew up in Upland and came to Sac State for the school, the city and the rowing on Lake Natoma.

He found general art and graphic design to his liking, and under the tutelage of Professor Gwen Amos he turned that interest into a vocation that, 20 years later, still surprises him.

Campbell says the current rage toward 3-D digital films likely will become the mainstream of special-effects filmmaking in the next few years. Many live-action films are shot with 3-D cameras in the expectation a 3-D version will be released, he says.

Another trend that will continue, Campbell says, are the video games, websites, social media and mobile apps that accompany most animated and special-effects films.

He’s found himself working with younger designers, developers and programmers, often sharing his success stories with them.

“It’s different thinking that I’m one of the older guys in the business now,” he laughs. “I couldn’t have predicted where this would go, but I love what I do and no two days are the same.”

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of Sac State Magazine.