Tuesday 29 November 2011

Animals of the Future? Allons-y!

This is a short follow-up to the last post, on the project of my French friends & colleagues: 'Demain, les animaux du futur'.

Messieurs Boulay and Steyer wrote that they were quite happy to see that the post had generated numerous pertinent responses, so there.

More to the point, they decided to provide a bit more information on their website in the form of two new videos, on on the 'Demain...' project and one on the terraforming of Mars. It seems that the firm of Cossima Productions is off to a good start. Here is a direct link to the page where you can see both videos. From there, you can also click on the 'YouTube' logos under each video.

Here is the one where Boulay & Steyer explain what the project is all about. Mind you, the quality of the video on this blog is less good than the version you can see on the Cossima site or on YouTube, so if you want a higher quality, use that route or just go here directly.

Yes, it is in French; do not act surprised, it's what people in France speak. Perhaps I can be persuaded to provide a translation, but right away I haven't got the time to do so.

Additional text (December 2, 2011): With a bit of help by Marc in figuring out what they said I translated the text of the video. Any errors are my fault.

Sébastien Steyer:
"Marc and I both love science fiction. Every time we saw what films and other works in science fiction offered in the way of an exobiological bestiary, we had a thing or two to say about it. So, instead of criticising the work of others, we wished to create our own universe and to imagine speculative biology in Earth's future.
For example, we designed a future flightless parrot, in which we envisaged a reduction of its wings up to the point where they disappeared altogether, with an accompanying lengthening and strong development of its legs. Bit by bit we came up with an animal we thought likely, ten million years from now.
This is no longer science fiction, it's more like 'fiction science'. It is a projection, but one taking known evolutionary, tectonic and climatological models into consideration."
Marc Boulay:
"Making a sculpture, regardless of whether of a past, a present or a future animal, involves an anormous amount of work in getting source material and discussions with scientists. That takes up about 90% of my time. The rest is applying that knowledge. Doing the sculpture takes up about 10% of my time. "

Saturday 19 November 2011

A future book on future evolution from France

Click to enlarge; copyright M Boulay / JS Steyer

Yes, there will be a new book on speculative evolution, a real proper book, that you can actually hold in your hands. It will describe life on Earth 10 million years in the future, or well after man. Future evolution on Earth is a branch of speculative biology I have hardly discussed in this blog, but I thought I would make an exception for this project. Do not run to the bookstore just yet, as the book will probably be published in the second half of 2012. This means you have about a year to brush up on your French, because that is the language it will appear in.

It will be entitled 'Demain: les animaux du futur' ('Tomorrow: animals of the future'), and will be published by 'Éditions Belin'. The authors, Marc Boulay and Sébastien Steyer, told me that they are currently working on the second of what will be five chapters. Marc is a digital sculptor and Z-Brush expert, who has an extensive knowledge of animal sculpture and whose work has featured on this blog before. Does anyone remember me posting on an exposition in Brussels where future animals were shown, posted in February 2009? Well, Marc proved to have had a hand in their design, as I later found out and discussed here, here and here. Sébastien is a palaeontologist from Paris, who does not limit himself to going on fossil-hunting expeditions in Africa and writing scientific papers, but took the time to write a -very readable!- book on 'Earth before the dinosaurs'. If you like that subject, you might wish to take a look the French or Dutch versions; an English version is in the works. Together with Pierre Godlewski they have formed a firm, Cossima productions, to produce not just the book but other projects as well, probably including a television documentary as well as a book. The idea for the project began in 1999 and is completely independent of 'The Future is Wild'.

So what will be in the 'Demain' book? Obviously, we do not know yet, but you can get some glimpses at the site of Marc Boulay and of Cossima Productions. Perhaps the animals that were once shown on their sites will appear in the book. As these sites have been shut down, only some hints remain here and there, including on my own blog.

Click to enlarge; copyright M Boulay / JS Steyer

I really liked Benthogyrinus. The accompanying text says that it about the only surviving amphibian, a descendant of the frog species Xenopus. It has developed glands to expel salt and now lives in the seas. It reproduces in its larval stage and exhibits profound sexual dimorphism, i.e., males are much smaller and are shaped differently than females. For more images on this animal please read the original post.

Above is a demo reel of Diatrymimum boiseï, obtained from the links above. It is a large predatory bird, that has not just lost the power of flight but has lost its wings altogether, bones and all. It evolved from a parrot (Psittacus). As you can see the authors did their homework: whereas most people would limit their skeletal studies to some sketches, in this instance the skeleton has been worked out in full 3D detail. From then on the video shows how the body is shaped, and after that there are some colour studies. The background, with iits light to dark gray gradient, is typical for ZBrush. As a whole the demo shows what can be done with ZBrush (if you are a very accomplished 3D artist, that is!). What struck me is that the femur (the thighbone) is not horizontal as in ostriches but is oriented much more vertically, making the limb much more reminescent of that of a predatory dinosaur such as Tyrannosaurus. Such dinosaurs can afford to have their limb in this position because their tails balance the weight of the front part of the body, meaning that their centre of gravity is near the hip joints, and as long as the feet are directly underneath the centre of gravity, the animal won't keel over. Ostriches do not have heavy tails, meaning their centre of gravity is well in front of the hip joints. In order not to fall the feet still have to be underneath the centre of gravity, and the ostrich does that by having its thighs in a more horizontal position than Diatrymimus. I think Diatrymimus gets away with this by having a short and rather small body.

And this demo reel shows more of Marc's ZBrush work. There are ants, Burgess shale animals as well as dinosaurs and other Mesozoic animals, but about 40 seconds after the start there are glimpses of animals that may well be future animals, but whether they are part of the project described above, I do not know. Perhaps the authors will let us know. At any rate I will keep you informed when the book comes out, hopefully a year from now.


Additional remarks (November 12 2011)

Marc sent me an email that he was happy with the post and added a file of a much better quality video. I agree that the videos I had shown you were not very good. The problem was not the source material, which was excellent, but in getting that quality here on the blog. The Google blogger program alters videos and shrinks them to fit one and the same size. Unfortunately, I cannot therefore replace the videos above with better ones. But what I can do, and should have done, is to point out where you can find better quality ones.

Both videos can be found on Youtube: here is the Diatrymimus one, and here is the 2010 demo reel.

Marc also added some other images for you to look at:

Click to enlarge; copyright M Boulay / JS Steyer

This is D. boiseï again, this time with lots of details of the head. I suppose that readers will have noted the development of teeth-like structures, lost by its bird ancestors a long time ago? The two commenters so far drew attention to the lack of feathers. I can understand how feathers might be lost on the head for predators: many vultures have unfeathered heads. But there is as yet no explanation for the total loss of feathers elsewhere on the body. We will either have to wait for the book, or perhaps Marc or Sébastien will take the bait and write a comment...

Click to enlarge; copyright M Boulay / JS Steyer

And a new species as well! It is called 'Spatamagnalis ruber'. If memory serves me right, a 'spata' is a short or broad sword, and ruber is definitely 'red'. Apparently, there are more flightless birds in this future. And featherless too... is it the climate?

Saturday 5 November 2011

From the IFB archives (1): the 'schaatsbeest'

Every institute has archives. You cannot have a proper Institute with a capital 'I' without them. The 'Institute for the Advancement of Biological Studies on Furaha, Nu Phoenicis IV', also known as the 'Institute of Furahan Biology', or even shorter as the 'IFB', definitely has archives. You might think that the IFB, being a virtual Institute, would have virtual archives, but that is not the case.
I have a stack of old sketchbooks and loose sheets of paper containing sketches that I have amassed over the years. As archives go, this one is a right mess, as the papers are not in any order and the dates of the sketches and studies are not indicated. Some sketches contain the earliest appearances of animals that were later painted, others are just doodles, some contains ideas later incorporated into something else, and some show designs that never made it. I thought it might be interesting to show a few of those sketches, and will start with an example of the latter kind, one that nearly made it into a painting, but became destined for non-existence. So here is the world's first peek at the 'schaatsbeest'.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This is probably its very first appearance. I must have felt the composition was good from the start, as it hardly changed afterwards. In fact, I still like it. I wrote 'schaatsbeest' next to it, which is Dutch for 'skating beast'. For this post I decided to leave its name in Dutch rather than translate it into English. There are animals names in Swahili and French besides English on Furaha, so why not one or two in other languages? On the remote chance that you might wish to pronounce its name correctly, the 'ch' in the beginning is like the 'ch' in 'Bach' as Germans pronounce it, which is NOT 'bahk'. The 'aa' is like the 'a' in 'father' but longer, and the 'ee' in 'beest' is like the 'ay' in layer (if you think this is silly, remember that you English speakers are the ones who messed things up with your great vowel shift). Anyway, the schaatsbeest is ice sailing, also known as 'ice yachting'. If you do not know what ice yachting is, have a quick look at the Wikipedia entry, or here for photographs of present-day ice sailing.

Click to enlarge; source here

Just to be on the safe side, here is an example of a historical type of ship used in ice yachting. As you can see, the process is like sailing, but instead of a hull making its way through water there are skates allowing it to glide over frozen rivers, ponds or lakes.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

And this may well have been the second sketch. Together with the first one it allows the beast's anatomy to be discerned: it has six legs, of which four are used to skate on, and the other two look like the front limbs of a mantis (this may very well be the first time that this particular configuration came up). There are four sails, derived from wings. The animal is sailing into the wind, which means that the wind is coming from in front and a bit to the side. This type of sailing requires the sails to be very taut, and results in large sideways forces on the ship, so ships sailing into the wind typically tilt over to the leeward side. The schaatsbeest undergoes the same forces, and in this case the two skating legs on the windward side are tilted right off the ice, where they help act as a counterweight.
The point of this second sketch was to work out the perspective. If you look carefully, you will see that the animal throws a shadow on the ice, indicated by vertical stripes, and below that you see its body mirrored in the ice (the perspective of a mirror image is easy, once you understand that you should act as if there is a second object behind the mirror). In this case, the mirror image allows the viewer to see the underside of the animal. I thought that this would make for an interesting composition.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This sheet of paper shows more takes on the same idea. I used to sketch multiple images right through one another at the time. I was playing with the sails and had a first look at colour. The colour sketch at the top shows a completely different kind of sail, reminiscent of a schooner rig. The bottom sketch shows two pairs of sails while the two other sketches show fused sails, with a mainsail at the back and a jib or genoa in front.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Here is a pencil sketch showing the schaatsbeest from in front. The odd object at the left is a squarish 3D arrow indicating the wind direction. The animal allows its body to be tilted, but uses its front limbs and the windward skates to balance it. Its head is held perfectly horizontally. The sails are also moved towards the vertical. I think that the thick lines where its back meets the mainsail masts were alterations to allow it do that with sufficient force. The small sketch towards the right show it sailing squarely before the wind, where it does not tilt and spreads out its four sails to make the most of the wind.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Finally, a very large pencil sketch. It looks like it is drawn on parchment, but that is only because I needed to manipulate the image for the pencil lines to show up at all. I had made a cardboard model, put it on a mirror, and based the sketch on that. That explains the thinness of the limbs and the lack of any perspective drawing guides.

I stopped development there. In hindsight, I may have been right to do so. While I still like the composition, almost enough to pick up the design again, an ecological point of view suggests this animal to be in trouble. It is obviously quite well adapted to move around on expanses of flat ice. Are these then around from most of the year? What does it find there to eat? The animal would probably be very clumsy on dry land, and its modified wings will not allow it to fly. Oh well; back into the archives, I guess.