How to create a creature
Mike Corriero shares his knowledge for creating unique concepts when tackling a range of exotic fantasy creatures
Use Mike Corriero’s tips to design fantasy beasts.
Engineering a fictional creature involves understanding a complex set of components that define the essence of a particular design. If you recognise the construction of any object, whether it’s architectural, mechanical or biological in nature, you’ll notice that they all share many of the same key elements that help bring them to life.
In this workshop I’ll cover some of the more important tips to keep in mind when you’re concepting your own creature or monster. These are areas of design that can be applied to many different forms of art, but a few are more specific to engineering a concept that’s meant to move, eat and breathe.
A strong conceptual creature should relate to what we know of existing species. Some of the best designs are those with some familiarity. There needs to be a knot that helps tie together the gap between the real and the fictional. This way of thinking raises questions that will support the reasons for a creature’s existence and the purpose behind its design. These tips are a set of guides to refer to, from the start of the sketching phase all the way through to a polished beauty shot.
1 thumbnail exploration
Thumbnails are essential for quick ideation of the basic shapes, proportions, gesture and overall implied concept. They can be as loose or as detailed as you like. They’re also helpful when producing variants of a similar idea. Leave enough room for interpretation so that your imagination can take precedence over reference material. Whether they’re gestural, contour lines or silhouettes is of no real importance – whatever you’re most comfortable with is all that matters. This stage of design helps you think outside the box while quickly producing an array of concepts.
2 colour and pattern theory
Look at real-world animals as a source of colour and pattern reference. The trick, however, is not to copy any one specifically, and to mix and match patterns and colour schemes from a few different animals. So if you apply the colour scheme that you find on a bird and combine it with the pattern of a snake, you can pull elements of what work in reality and add them to your fictional concept. Try disregarding the colour of patterns. This will enable you to more easily see the break-up in values that create the spots, stripes, and mottled light and dark designs that produce those markings.
3 Symmetry and asymmetry
Symmetry is generally better when something needs to perform certain high-functioning tasks, such as running or flying. However, there’s a lot to be said about a creature that’s asymmetrical because it provides a more original structure. This in turn opens up new possibilities for the purpose of that asymmetry. Just try to counterbalance the weight distribution. An asymmetrical creature gives the viewer more to look at and a sense of something less Earth-based, so it’s natural that we’ll be drawn to it. The majority of life forms on Earth are symmetrical. Symmetry just makes sense, it’s easier to understand and it’s more convenient in a structural sense.
4 A question of aesthetics
Visually pleasing colours, shapes and patterns can form the basis for a captivating and aesthetically dominate design. When touching on the subject of aesthetics we don’t need to worry about functionality, plausibility or anything other than what looks appealing. If you find something visually stimulating as a still image, that’s the aesthetic design process at work.
5 silhouette and proportions
Silhouettes and their proportions enable us to identify a species from any distance. A good example would be spotting a giraffe at dawn and recognising the species without needing to see any distinguishing features. So a unique silhouette is key when conceptualising a fictional creature. The proportions of the head, torso, length of the limbs and tail or other characteristics help to enhance this aspect of a design.
6 real-world relations
Keeping a design close to real-world animals is something you’ll see regardless of the genre. The reason it’s important is that it makes it easier for the viewer to relate to something they’re familiar with: something they can easily understand even if it’s completely alien to their knowledge. A similar body structure, horns, eye or tail to an animal from our world can help fill in that gap between the viewer’s relation between our species and what you’ve created.
Learn the names of the major bones, how joints function and what tasks muscles and organs do
7 Know your anatomy
Studying all types of animals – vertebrates and invertebrates – will improve your skill set, but within those two skeletal groups there’s a huge range of surface anatomy. Mammals differ in such vast ways from birds, just as birds differ almost on a completely alien level when compared to a jellyfish. Learning the names of the major bones and how joints function or what tasks certain muscles and organs perform will be invaluable when creating your beasts.
8 relevance and reference
A smart way to use reference is to study the action, gesture, basic shapes and functions, then adapt it to your project. Pay attention to the framework of what’s going on in your references, rather than trying to copy them. In producing altered versions of the references you’ll learn about anatomy, posture, movement and aesthetics, while also understanding how they can be manipulated and still remain plausible.
9 surface texture
The surface texture enables the viewer to classify the creature. It also provides an aesthetic visual and helps identify what sort of habitat or climate the creature might live in, and whether its skin texture is used for defensive purposes or sensory purposes. Try breaking up the size of the surface texture and directional flow, so that it follows the underlying anatomy.
In most good designs, there are elements that will flow from the head all the way to the rear
11 ecosystem and history
What does your creature eat? Depending on the answer, that’s something that will alter the structure of its teeth. If it’s a male or female then this may play a role in its colouration, its size and whether it has horns or longer fur. Consider where it lives, how long it’s been living for and what it has endured. There may be traces of cuts, broken horns or a missing tail or other wounds it picked up throughout its life. So when weighing up design choices, think of where your creature lives and how that ecosystem has affected its current state.
10 ensure that the design flows
In most good designs, there are elements that will flow from the head all the way to the rear. In an aesthetic and functional sense it helps to provide a repetition of distinct shapes and colours. These may be anatomy traits that perform important tasks, or colour schemes that are meant to attract mates or warn away predators. If you decide to add a prominent feature on the tail for example, also consider adding a hint of that same shape or colour on the head. This will give the concept a more cohesive flow.
12 decide on the creature’s Purpose
Always question what this creature does and why it exists? Every design element should serve some purpose. If it has a crest atop its head, horns or antlers, they’re all there to perform various functions. The scale of a creature is also relevant to things such as colour, flight, diet and weight distribution. So when you’re thinking about what might ‘look cool’, question what the point of the anatomy would be used for. It helps to watch wildlife documentaries and to read up on the behaviour of animals – this will improve your design choices.
14 character and personality
Whether a creature is more humanoid or animalistic, consider its personality or temperament. Is it docile and of low intelligence, or does it portray expressions and posture that expresses a lot of hostility, fear or rage? These are things that are common among animal groups such as primates or felines and canines. To communicate such attitude to your viewer and to define such characteristics, study what sort of real-world animals are capable of facial expressions or how the posture of an animal explains what it may be thinking.