Sunday 24 April 2011

Three years on

More than once in the three years I have been writing this blog I thought there were no more interesting speculative biology projects to be found on the internet, but each time I was wrong. Will the supply dry up? Perhaps not: there are more and more exquisitely detailed Z-Brush monsters, but mostly those are orcs, dragons and the like. In other words: they are not very interesting from a biological point of view. The reverse situation can also be found: well-thought out projects with artwork that does not do it justice. I guess I will simply have to wait and see how much content I can find to fill the 'allied matters' component of the blog. The number of page views slowly went up over time, which is rewarding.

So how about the 'Furahan biology' component? There is progress, if you account for the glacier-like advance of a very large project that you do not really have time for. Then again, in the last three years I got to grips with InDesign, Photoshop, Painter and XBrush (not that I am proficient in any). The most noteworthy skill I am trying to acquire is digital painting, which is the most needed one. I think I need to do some 10 additional illustrations of the "It's a fish" type, and then I will have some 15 two-page spreads to show to potential publishers. An example of those can be found in the New Hades book shop on the Furaha site: got to the brand new 'Living World Series' and you will find the 'Encyclopaedia of Furahan Wildlife' (also shown here). I aim to use that lay-out to present the book to publishers.

Rough tetropter animation; copyright Gert van Dijk

It is not difficult to think up many new animals or plants; many forms that I have now could do with some adaptive radiation. But my interest is mostly aroused by more complex puzzles. As an example I will explain the struggle to produce a good tetropter flight animation. The basic principles have been outlined before (start here to work back in time), but for good measure I have repeated an old animation above. As you can see the animal is shown from below, and the four wings move to and fro while rotating. They also move through one another, because the animation uses stiff planes for the wings: it is not good enough. I want a better one firstly, because I am curious: I wish to see what a spotted farfalloid looks like, when its beating wing reveal electric blue surfaces at one point in their cling and flap cycle, and bright orange ones the next! The second reason is that I would like to paint a variety of tetropters -talk about infinite variety-, and getting the perspective right of four warped surfaces in complex motion can be done by hand, but would be easier to manipulate by computer. I will break the problem into pieces:

Problem 1: defining movement
The wings can easily be modelled as surfaces in Matlab. These move through the wing cycle, meaning there are different requisitions for movement around the x- y and z-axes. To control them I wrote editing programs, now nearly done. The surfaces cannot remain simple planes throughout the movement cycle, but will have to be bent and warped. The animation above shows where I am now, meaning at the phase where all the 'warp factors' have to be tweaked to get it right. What you see here represents 'untweaked warping' though!

Problem 2: exporting the wings
The 3D program I am most familiar with is Vue Infinite. I had already written a program to convert Matlab patches to obj. files, which helps. But I then stumbled upon a new program, ad that was the imported wings for successive frames did not end up at the same spot in the scene. Apparently Vue calculates the mean of all x-, y- and z-coordinates to calculate the centre of an object, and if the object changes shape so does it centre. Well, I can counter that by shifting the object each frame to compensate. This needs work...

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Problem 3: texturing the wings
Obviously, the wings will need interesting patterns on them as well as partial transparency. That, as well as bump maps, proved to be in the obj. definition and could be manipulated.
Here is a rough example of a warped wing with transparency and all in Vue.

So now you may understand why it has taken such a long time to put up a 'Flying with...' page, along the 'Walking with..' and 'Swimming with...' pages: the tetropter flight animation has to be ready first, and that is a big job.

Saturday 9 April 2011

"A Venusian Bestiary", in Which Greg Broadmore Illustrates Monsters Before They Are Gracefully Slaughtered

"By golly, that's a splendid specimen! Blast its head off so we can turn its legs into umbrella stands, what?!"

This is not a literal quote from Lord Coxswain, but it might perhaps be one, suggesting a somewhat utilitarian and egocentric attitude. Lord Coxswain is a character from the 'Dr Grordbort' universe, in which Victorian style people (well, men, really) travel to Venus and have a jolly good time, helped by rayguns designed by 'socially inept boffins'.

Here is a short video to set the atmosphere: "Venus is doomed part II" (also found on YouTube or on the Dr. Grordbort page. As you can see, Lord Coxswain's attitude is that the last surviving animals of a species had best be bagged quickly, lest some other fellow acquire it for a foreign museum, and that wouldn't do, would it? Hence, Coxswain and his fellows -good chums all- take a healthy pleasure in shooting anything alive, animals, natives, whatever.

The person behind this yarn-ripping steampunkish universe is Greg Broadmore: a painter, creature and prop designer working for Weta in New Zealand. If neither 'Weta' nor 'Greg Broadmore' rings a bell, let me remind you of the dinosaurs and other creatures in King Kong, District 9 and other Weta work. Absolutely brilliant illustrations. In fact, Mr. Broadmore's work has featured twice before on this blog: once as a riddle animal (also here) and once when the King Kong book was discussed. He now develops the 'Dr Grordbort' universe, which has already yielded two books, rayguns you can buy (really!) as well as some stuffed Venusian insect-analogues that you can hang on your wall (really! Here's one and another).

I think his creatures are fascinatingly creative; he does dinosaurs, insectoids and various other stuff, and all of it so lively and so extremely well painted. There is also quite a lot of his material to be found on the internet. The 'Dr Grordbort' pages show that particular universe, and besides that he has his own website with a few galleries of work. If that is not enough he was interviewed at some length (part one and part two) on a website on creature design that most of you will probably like a lot even without Mr Broadmore's work on it.

In fact, those links should be enough to make this post worthwhile, but let me add a fairly large series of paintings on Venusian wildlife (these are not all). In time-honoured fashion I shall present my ramblings on what I think of their anatomy. The images were all taken from the sites mentioned above and are presented at a nicely large size, so be certain to enjoy them as best you can.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

The shallow-beaked grogan's four columnar legs suggesting a large size (Venus' gravity is about that of earth, so relationships between body mass and leg diameter should resemble those on Earth, assuming bones of equal strength. I like the neck design: like limbs, necks could consist of a few large segments instead of a larger series of small ones. The 'biramous' (split) design of the front legs is also interesting, and is a basic characteristic of Earth arthropod limbs. Having part of the limbs fused must call for some dextrous motor programming, as I wrote earlier.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

I cannot immediately think of a purpose for the sail on the back of this thingy, and in such cases sex is always something to keep in mind; perhaps the sail is a prop to impress its mates. The arms functioning as jaws are rather nice. Again, such designs work well in Earth's arthropods, and there is no reason to assume they would not work on bigger animals. But are there no eyes? Or are the spots arranged in a row along the head all eyes?

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

A large knuckle-walker with switch-blades for toes; is it a predator or are those for defence? It does not look particularly fast, so to be a a predator its prey should be very slow. The other Venusian beasties look quite athletic, so I would guess it's a herbiore or omnivore. There are more 'headarms' here, and I think there are eyes. lots of them.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

Now this one needs some explaining. Its body is slung low, and the legs zigzag a lot and are splayed, meaning that this stance calls for lots of energy. It could be a jumper, but it looks very large for an ambush predator. The whole front looks like a giant mouth, with the four black prongs resembling canines. This time I really see nothing looking like eyes. Not having eyes is probably a very unlikely event in animal evolution. Eyes seem to evolve so easily and must convey such advantages that it is hard to think of a reason to stop them evolving. All you need to start is some light sensitive tissue, some movement ability and the most basic of nervous systems, and you are off (unless there is total darkness).

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

Ooh, another jumper: Unwin's double-backed shrovel. The viewpoint does not suggest great size, and the Grodbort pages show it to reach knee height. It is wonderfully alien.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

This one reminds me a bit of an okapi: that must be the sloping back and the colour pattern. I wonder why there is a segment of both the hind and front legs that cannot do much mechanical work as depicted, because these segment more or less double up against the next segment. Then again, perhaps that is the point: these segment don't do anything in their current stance and are not supposed to. Once unfolded, they might be used to advantage, and this is just their 'fold after use' aspect. Well, if it isn't true, please admit that it is a nice idea.
Again, no eyes, I think. Barlowe tried animals without eyes (Darwin IV in Expedition), and I thought that that was a mistake, particularly if you do have bioluminescence.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

Ha, some action! Coxswain in motion against the dimple backed vroxel! As I said, the feet, once divulged of bones and cleaned of flesh, do make excellent umbrella stands gracing any home.

Click to enlarge: copyright Greg Broadmore

More action! But just wait a minute... That's not a Furahan rusp, is it? (rusps are on the land page or directly here). It might be; it could be! What! We cannot have people like Coxswain murdering Furahan animals left and right!? That's no way to behave! Is he mad? The murderous swine! Stay off my planet!