Saturday, 7 May 2011

Wildlife in the Star Wars universe

The Star Wars films are great adventure movies, but you wouldn't think that there was much biology going on, would you? The Star Wars universe is obviously swarming with intelligent creatures from many different worlds, and these worlds must equally obviously be filled with animals, but you do not get to see many of those. it's not what the films are about. In the second film there was the 'tauntaun' on the ice planet Hoth, and as a hairy mammal-like animal with the body plan of a bipedal carnivorous dinosaur that was an intriguing invention. Otherwise, not many in the early stages came across as great exobiological inventions. In fact, quite a few some could not be taken seriously at all: just think of the gigantic snake-like animal living in an asteroid (in a vacuum!), large enough to have the Millennium Falcon fly between its teeth. Or take the 'Sarlacc', a carnivorous monster buried in the sand on Tatooine: all you see of it is a gigantic mouth in a pit in the sand, reminiscent of an antlion but scaled up to a gigantic level. Its very existence implies that there are lots of rather stupid animals ready to stumble into it maws. No-one would take such a creature seriously from a biological point of view, and no-one should; it's not what the films are about. Still, there is a book about the animals in the Star wars universe, showing someone cared. It is called 'The Wildlife of Star Wars. A Field Guide', by Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau. Terryl Whitlatch has been working as a 'creature designer' for several of the Star Wars films. Typing her name into Google results in so many hits that I do not need to provide many links. Still, here is one with a video interview, and here are two on character design (one and two). The 'Wildlife' book first came out in 2001. I had somehow missed it completely until recently, when a reprint was issued. I found another book of hers showcasing other work, not related to Star Wars: 'Animals Real and Imagined'. The Star Wars book seems to have many creatures in it that did not appear in the films as far as I know. I have to be careful here, as the three newest films (I, II and III) did not make much of an impact on me, aimed as they seemed to be at children. I suspect that most of the animals in the book were not in the films at all, which would imply that Ms Whitlatch had more or less free reign in designing them. The sillier animals such as Giant Space Slugs of over 900 meters long, and the above-mentioned sarlacc occur in the book, should you wish to know more about them. The animals that I assume to be Ms Whitlatch's inventions were much more to my liking. In a way they conform to the general exobiological theme of Star Wars. In it, intelligent beings are almost always humanoid, with two legs, two arms and a sort of alien-looking head that is rather larger than the standard Earth issue human head. The films started when digital creature design did not exist, and alien design followed time-honoured principles, involving actors in rubber suits. Hence the big heads. Ms Whitlatch's aliens more or less follow such principles. The book deals with life on several planets, but you will not be able to determine their planet of origin by looking at their body plan: an animal could come from one planet as well as from the next. Whereas nearly all intelligent beings are humanoid, animals also share many design principles with Earth animals. Quite a few are 'mammaloid', meaning they look a lot like mammals with odd heads. There are also plenty of aviforms and reptiloids, as well as combinations of designs. It is interesting to compare this design strategy with that of Mr Broadmore's Victorian Venusian life forms discussed recently: these were specifically designed to evoke a sense of displacement, i.e. of 'alienness'. Instead, Ms Whitlatch's life forms might be just around the corner. That makes them more believable, but inevitably less alien. Regardless of the degree of their 'alienosity', the animals are all superbly well drawn, with an intimate knowledge of animal anatomy and behaviour. The 'Animals Real and imagined' book contains drawings of existing animals in addition to fantasy ones, proving once more that Ms Whitlatch is a very skilled artist. I will go through a few of her drawings, scanned from the two books. As I did not wish to damage the books, I had to crop some drawings a bit, for which I apologise (you could all get the books yourselves...).
Click to enlarge; copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.
These are Motts from the planet Naboo, revealing how mammalian their body plan is. The way the legs fold, the number of joints, the general shape of the head, all these things say 'earth mammal'; 'ungulate' in fact. But look at the ease with which their poses are captured, and the green thingy walking away from the motts is much more 'alien'!
Click to enlarge; copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.
Also from Naboo, these gullipuds are, as the text says, amphibians. They resemble puffer fish or indeed, some Earth amphibian in being able to inflate their bodies. I like the sense of humour in this and other drawings.
Click to enlarge; copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.
The tree-dwelling Shaupaut. This is another mammaloid. Its elongated fingers are apparently used to 'fish' for avians flying by.
Click to enlarge; copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.
These animals are apparently extinct. They are labelled as stalking birds from Alderaan, and are obviously modelled on large African ground living birds, called 'ground hornbills'. These walk in rows over open fields, hoping to disturb smaller animals so they can be caught and eaten. These birds are doing the exact same thing.
Click to enlarge; copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.
These flying animals are urusais, and while they are members of the same species, there is an enormous difference in anatomy: the male is the one sitting upright balanced on its tail. It has four wings, while the female admiring him only has two. Now that is a rather fundamental difference. I doubt that any animals on Earth take 'sexual dimorphism' to such extremes. You would think that such large differences in shape would result in the two sexes being subjected to very different evolutionary pressures, with resulting different sets of genes for male and female bodies. Earth's insects may be thought to have two sets of bodies as well, but there the two act in different stages of life. It is an interesting concept to have something like that defining the two sexes. I have my doubts however that the differences can go so far as a having different numbers of wings. The text says that their span is about two meters, which means that they must be very heavy. Their bodies and thick tails look good, but do not appear to be designed to save weight. Light bones? A heavy atmosphere?
Click to enlarge; copyright Design Studio Press
This one is not from the Star Wars book, but from the other one. It represents one of the few designs that I do not really like. The reason is that it reminds me too much of the six-legged forms in Avatar that I discussed earlier. Like the Avatar animals, this one does have six limbs, but not as three pairs with their own characteristics, but as one pair of hind legs and two pairs of identical front legs. In fact, their muscle anatomy shows the same problem as Avatar's thanator: the front limbs are, like those of Earth mammals, connected to the axial skeleton almost entirely by muscles. Note that the two sets of muscles seem to run through one another...
Click to enlarge; copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.
I would rather end with something I like better: the Nuna from Naboo, which is a very interesting and humorous drawing. The one on the left is a male, inflating his wattles and hissing to underline his dominance. You can see how well Ms Whitlatch combines animal anatomy with the expression of emotions. The emotions are very readable to us, which is probably not at all would you would expect from alien life forms. Then again, emotions help tell a story, and that is done very well here.


j. w. bjerk said...

I agree Whitlatch's art is amazing, and elevates the rather mundane creature concepts into something very much worth looking at.

I don't know about the specific origin on these creatures, but the star wars movies (especially the latter ones) were made with tons of creature/alien/ship concepts. Only a fraction made it to the screen. And there have been a myriad of novels written-- so the fact that you didn't see these creatures in the movie doesn't mean Whitlatch made them up for this book.

Luciano N. Ribeiro said...

Hello there!
First let me say that I greatly admire your blog and your creatures. But it is funny to notice that, when it comes to reviewing creatures from others you seem to consider the level of similarity with Earth organisms and the level of 'alienness' not only as separate concepts but rather conflicting ones. I always considered as a general rule that the most 'alien-looking' of aliens are usually the most believable ones.

I do understand your points about how evolution and biomechanics make many alien concepts flawed and hard to believe; and I also acknowledge your emphasis that deeming something biologically unrealistic doesn't mean you shouldn't appreciate it. But if you think about it, many aspects of Earth life are somewhat 'flawed' and could conceivably be improved. Our one-way respiratory system, as opposed to your Fuharan one, is actually a classic example; as is our 'upside down' eyesight as opposed to cephalopods.

Still, my belief is that any lifeform evolving on an alien world will be fundamentally different from Earth life (and I do believe lifeforms of sorts could evolve on practically any place in the universe, following biochemistries that are so wildly different, we wouldn't even be able to comprehend them). I've read a few pages of The Wildlife of Star Wars in a local library and found the creatures to be wonderfully illustrated, but much less realistic than, say, Wayne Barlowe's aliens for example. Yet the space slug, which you've readily dismissed as impossible, interested me for being silicon-based. That fact alone doesn't mean it could exist of course, but it means we shouldn't disregard its possible existence based on its massive size or environment, before considering that maybe somewhere there is a biochemistry that works on these conditions.

Anyway, I certainly don't mean to condemn or criticize, I'm simply presenting these views; I have deep respect for you and for this website. By the way, English is not my first language, so I apologize for possible mistakes. Keep the good work! ;- )

Luciano N. Ribeiro said...

PS: Oh, and sorry for the ridiculously long comment...

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

J.W. : it would be very interesting to learn where all the creatures came from. I usually try to inform people whose work I wrote about that I have done so, but have not contacted Ms Whitlatch yet.

Luciano: thank you for these valuable insights. I don't think you have to worry about your use of English, but others should judge that, not being a native speaker myself.
Your ideas deserve careful thought. You mention three concepts: 'alienness', similarity with life on Earth, and believability. I would place 'wholly alien' and 'Earth-identical' as two end points on one axis of a possible graph, an axis that could possibly be labelled as 'similarity to life on Earth'.
On the other axis we could place 'believability', with 'utterly silly' as one end point and 'totally believable' as the other.
The two axes form a nice graph (I might just use this in a post at a later date).
Life on Earth would be in the corner of 'totally believable' and 'Earth-identical'. Those who design alien life want their creations to end up in the corner of 'totally believable' and 'very alien'.
The corners to avoid are the two other ones, both 'not believable' (i.e. not on Earth nor anywhere else).
One type of argument to place a design there is because it breaks fundamental physical laws (breathing in a vacuum, legs that do not fit size, etc.). Another type of argument is that we are asked to belief in something without any support. The odder a statement is, the stronger the evidence for it should be. I had read that the space slug is supposed to be silicon-based, but on its own that argument seemed like a 'deus ex machina' to me, or, in other words, the designers ask the viewer to believe in their design without evidence.
Please feel free to comment on the above.

Evan Black said...

As an avid Star Wars fan, I'm going to try my best to not geek out too much about this post. 8)

First, a couple points of correction: the tauntaun was featured in the second film, not the first. Also, the "Numa" of Naboo you feature here is acually called a Nuna.

Terryl Whitlatch's work is phenomenal. I own both books you've mentioned in this post, and have enjoyed both of them. Most of the creatures were in fact not explicitly present in the movies, and many were based on concept designs for each movie. Terryl Whitlatch's own work was featured most in Episode I on the planet Naboo, where the forests and swamps are heavily populated with her creations.

Sigmund, you mentioned that you'd like to know where the different creatures come from. Given my familiarity with Star Wars I could go through the book and cross-reference each example with other sources to give an itemized list of whether each species is based on previous concepts or an original creation from Whitlatch herself. I think you may find that your theory about her own creations being generally more plausible will be well founded.

Luciano, thank you for your comments. I too feel that alien concepts shouldn't be summarily dismissed, especially since our own knowledge on the possibilities of life in the universe. But it's that distinction that I think is often unspoken in these discussions. Life "as we know it" and life "as we don't know it" are two different approaches to contemplating xenobiology. With the first, we use Earth life and familiar biophysical processes as something of a measuring stick for creative and well conceptualized aliens, something with which I think Sigmund is wonderfully adept. The other is a much less explored field, presumably because it requires a much more in-depth knowledge of a broad range of sciences. That combination of breadth and depth means that very few can speak with scientific certainty, but it also means that any products of such speculation have purely theoretical bases, and are difficult to "prove" as plausible. Thus the "truly alien" aliens out there are few and far between, and by definition don't match up to life "as we know it."

But this is an entirely different concept as what you've pointed out, Luciano. You mentioned the imperfections of evolutionary development in Earth examples as evidence to support alien concepts; the comparison just doesn't resonate logically.

I'd love to see more exploration on the subject of the two axes of similarity to Earth life and of plausibility.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hi Evan,
the mistakes (which film the tauntaun was in and the typo in 'Nuna') have been corrected.
I need a bit of help with the verb 'to geek out' though; is it a good thing? I found 7 meanings here:

Evan Black said...

The meaning I used for "geeking out" is closest to definitions 1, 3, 4, 6, and 8 of that link (decidedly not those involving marijuana). Whether or not it's a good thing I think is a matter of perspective. If, to use the relevant example, someone were to regard my considerable knowledge of Star Wars to be unusual and disturbing, then if I shared too much of it with them it would be considered a negative thing. If, however, that someone didn't mind my enthusiasm for the subject then it wouldn't really be so bad a thing. Speaking from experience, there are only a few forums where my familiarity with the franchise is looked on as a boon, so I usually refrain from holding back.

Luciano N. Ribeiro said...

Thanks for the responses, Sigmund and Evan! You got some very valid points there

Sigmund Nastrazzurro:

"The odder a statement is, the stronger the evidence for it should be. I had read that the space slug is supposed to be silicon-based, but on its own that argument seemed like a 'deus ex machina' to me, or, in other words, the designers ask the viewer to believe in their design without evidence.
Please feel free to comment on the above.

You're probably right here. Perhaps being a science fiction reader and amateur writer has made me get a little bit used to rely on the concepts of "alien biochemistry/ physiology" as a sort of deus ex machina. I admit that's bad and thank you for pointing it out. In my defense, I can say that creating a deeply detailed and completely believable alternative biochemistry is not only a hard task (and even harder to judge whether it works or not, as Evan points out) but also risks deviating too much from the point. Whitlatch could have taken all the effort to write all about how the space slug's silicon cells get energy, built silicon protein-analogs and stuff like that, but that would make the whole book rather... well, for me or you it wouldn't be boring, but most readers are just not interested. When I write a sci-fi story, I only go as far as to describe the outside appearance, psychology, and the most important aspects concerning metabolism (unless of course if there's a detail that's relevant to the plot!). Now, if I ever decide to create a speculative zoology worldbuilding project like yours, I will describe everything, I promise :-) Well, first I would need to take some art lessons, LOL

Luciano N. Ribeiro said...

Evan Black:

"But this is an entirely different concept as what you've pointed out, Luciano. You mentioned the imperfections of evolutionary development in Earth examples as evidence to support alien concepts; the comparison just doesn't resonate logically."

Indeed, I got two completely different points mixed up carelessly, that's inexcusable. I was actually making two different statements:

1 - That I believe life evolved in other places will probably have a completely different biological make-up. So when it comes to fictional ETs, I tend to prefer those with a non-Earthly biology. However, as you correctly pointed out, these are almost impossible to be considered believable or unbelievable, given our lack of knowledge on that field. In most cases, we can only go as far as judging whether or not it is "internally consistent". For example, given that the space slug is supposedly silicon-based, we should avoid saying something like "the space slug is impossible because there wouldn't be enough food available for it, or any sort of air for it to breath". We just don't know if it would be possible for a titanic silicon creature to consume asteroids or to live without breathing. But we could complain if the creators stated something about "space slug DNA" for example, because DNA does not contain silicon and would likely be damaged by exposal to space radiation. So in this case we do have enough info to judge, albeit crudely. When food and breathing is concerned, the field is so speculative that we must be careful with our opinions. BTW they never did mention breathing or DNA I think, that was just for the argument's sake.

2 - My other point is totally unrelated, and I'm sorry for the confusion. We often deem alien designs unrealistic when we find biological problems with them. We often look at an alien creature and say "oh, that's unlikely, this being would have serious trouble eating" or "walking" or "reproducing". But if an alien scientist were to imagine a human being, wouldn't he also say something like "oh, that's unlikely, that thing is all erect, how would it deal with body balance?" or "that breathing system is inefficient". Yet, we exist, which proves that life can and do find its ways around difficulties like that. The giant pit monster from Star Wars VI would surely have trouble finding enough animals to feed upon. But how do we know? C3PO did mention that it takes decades to digest food, that suggests a pretty slow metabolism! Maybe it releases scents in the air to attract prey like a kaiju-sized venus flytrap. These are poor examples I guess, but you get the idea :- )

Evan Black said...

Excellent points as well, Luciano, and your point makes sense now that it's separated out.

I too appreciate internal consistency, even among such whimsical works as Star Wars. I think Whitlatch does a good job of adding what plausibility she can to the "sillier" creatures in the book. For example, the sarlacc benefits from cooperating with anoobas, desert pack hunters who drive herds of herbivores toward the exposed maw. The anoobas trap prey as they swerve to avoid the hole; the sarlacc gobbles up any who fall in. What started as George Lucas saying, "Let's toss our heroes into a hungry, tentacled pit monster" has had enough details added to it from multiple contributors over the years that I can suspend enough disbelief to enjoy the show. That's the core of this matter: suspension of disbelief. Just as Sigmund talked about in his blogs about Dune and the sandworms, when biology takes a back seat to a deeper, unrelated plot then its implausibilities are somewhat forgivable. However, there are those of us who find it enjoyable to analyze that plausibility (or lack thereof) any way. ;)

Luke said...

Personally, I'm a big fan of stories where biology drives the plot, like District 9. I can still enjoy Star Wars, though :) .

Evan Black said...

Unfortunately, the plausibility of the biology that drives the plot of District 9 is pretty flimsy too, IMO. I mean what are the odds that some random fluid accidentally turns a human into a completely unrelated alien life form, but keeps the individual alive as it does so? That kind of complete physiological reconstruction involves serious bodily trauma, and the movie does a good job of suspending disbelief, but I'm surprised nobody ever points out this detail, especially since it's such a crucial plot point.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

From an email by Metalraptor Maximus:

"By the way, I have seen most of the creatures mentioned in your Star Wars article before this book came out. They could be older, but I first encountered the shaak, ollopom, pom hopper, geejaw, nabooan tusk cat, narglatch, yobshrimp, nyork, urusai, bogwing, faynaa, daggert, peko-peko, clodhopper, veermok, tookie, ikopi, hrumph, nuna, shaupat, gullipud, saw-toothed grank, shiro, and chuba in the Star Wars video game Star Wars: The Gungan Frontier. It was an actually rather educational game, breaking down complex ecological lessons into a format understandable by a little kid (or, at least, when I saw it).

I looked that up on Google; it looks intersting! -SN

Davide Gioia said...

To me, the entirety of Star Wars species and planets could only represent the result of a HUGE event of panspermia and terraforming...

Davide Gioia said...

By the way, Joschua Kn├╝ppe has made some redesigns of the creatures to make them more plausibly alien, I thought you may like them

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Davide Gioia:

I think the panspermia event in the Star Wars universe had its origin in the low cost of rubber masks that you could pull over an actor's head. But, staying in-universe, yes, there must be something like that. I suppose The Force had something to do with that.

And I could not have a look at Joschua's designs, because I would have to accept Facebook nosing around in my private life, which I try to resist.