How to cre­ate a crea­ture

Mike Cor­riero shares his knowl­edge for cre­at­ing unique con­cepts when tack­ling a range of ex­otic fan­tasy crea­tures

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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.

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