Friday, 6 May 2016

Terryl Whitlatch's Creature Design

Click to enlarge; copyright Design Studio Press
 This post is about two fairly new books by Terryl Whitlatch, both with 'creature design' in the title: one is 'Principles of CD', and the other is 'Science of CD'. I have kept an eye on her work since I posted about the wildlife of the Star Wars universe, back in 2011. I expressed my admiration for her technical skills, but had a few reservation on other matters, and wondered whether or not I would feel different this time. When a book on creature design comes out with 'science' in the title, it will definitely get my attention. So, is the title correct and is there science in there? Well, yes. And maybe no.

The 'yes' part of the answer concerns animal anatomy. 'Understanding animal anatomy' is in fact the subtitle of the book. The book does cover the subject, by presenting many animal species three times: one as a drawing of its skeleton, one with muscles attached, and one with skin, hair, flukes, etc. The book is strongest on mammals, although there fish, amphibians and dinosaurs as well. However,  anatomy is presented from the artistic viewpoint only, so do not expect joint design principles,  biomechanics or similar matters: that's not what it's for. The drawings are excellent, as always. There are several extinct mammals in there, that are all very convincing as impressions of what these animals could have looked like. I wish Ms Whitlatch would illustrate a book on extinct mammals: it would be wonderful. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Design Studio Press
Here is an example of her work at its very best. This is a Diplocaulus, an early amphibian with an odd head. What Ms Whitlatch has done is to have the animal float immobile in some pond or lake, completely submerged. In doing so she immediately evokes a newt, which I think shows genius.

Click to enlarge; copyright Design Studio Press
The 'maybe no' part has to do with imagining new animals. In these books, most fall into the fantasy or mythology category, combining bits of one animal with bits of another. That is not something I distilled from the animals, but something stated in the books: the donor animals providing the original parts for the new chimaera are usually named in the book. The results can be fascinating to look at, although my impression was that the result is much more about the effect on the viewer than about creating a viable animal. The dog/fish hybrid shown above is an example: it is funny to look at, but does not make much sense as an animal. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Design Studio Press
I discussed this particular design before, but as it is in the new books as well, I will show it again. It shows the common theme of doubling or tripling front legs if you need an animal with three or more pairs of legs. It is apparently hard for illustrators to come up with something else (see my earlier posts on Barsoom animals or Avatar's hexapods). In common with these forerunners, this animal's legs are placed very close together resulting in little, well, leg room.

Creature design in games and in Hollywood seems to have very little respect for biological plausibility, something I have discussed several times in the blog, with irritation as well as sadness. I used to think that this was simply a sign of the complete indifference Hollywood has towards facts of any nature, regardless of whether the facts have to do with history, astronomy or biology. But over time the discussions by readers in this blog made me change my mind. I expect that there is purpose behind the negation of facts. I expect the people high up, who make such choices, to be fully aware of what their audience prefers, and that is close to what they know already. The artists and experts might wish to go much further, but might be reined in lest as otherwise the audience might be dragged from their comfort zone. Of course, by never challenging the expectations much the whole process becomes self-fulfilling...

Click to enlarge; copyright Design Studio Press
Back to the books; here is a similar design, this time for an animal with seven pairs of legs. I like the smooth progression of the phase of the movement. However, once again we see that the front pair is copied: there are no less than six 'front' legs, leaving just one other design for the hind legs. The legs are again close together and their musculature seems suitable for such an animal with just four legs, rather than fourteen. Perhaps you argue that the creature belongs on a world with high gravity requiring lots of stout legs, but the tail design does not fit with a high gravity (it is a long unsupported structure that would need much force and appropriate skeletal adaptations to keep it horizontal and there aren't any: the spines point downwards, not upwards where you would attach ligaments to keep the tail suspended).

Click to enlarge; copyright Design Studio Press
Finally, here is another one in which mixing animals magically has its disadvantages (I am to blame for the parts of the image being cut off; the book did not fit in my scanner). Its head looks like a ceratopsian's with mammoth tusks attached. Spectacular, yes; but wouldn't the tusks be in the way when the animal tries to reach food with its beak? Actually, the part that drew my attention initially was the elbow joint of the front legs, correctly placed at the height of the underside of the body. That angular form really conveys a big elephantine shape very convincingly.

In conclusion, the books show many excellent drawings. They represent some of the best of this particular school of 'creature design', involving people mixing various Earth animals together. This makes their shapes 'natural', and in turn this makes them instinctively believable. However, for anyone with a trained eye, the mixture also abolishes any notion that the animals might have evolved biologically. It may be just me, but that effect detracts from their believability. I can suspend disbelief as well as the next person and so enjoy these creatures very much; but I generally prefer designs that evoke an evolutionary rather than a mythological background.   

Will I take up blogging again? Maybe; I will write the occasional post, but still think it is better to devote the time I have for The Book. It is progressing steadily and has sixty pages completely ready (if you ever write a book, do just that and write it; do not paint a book). I will keep you informed every now and then. Here is a titbit: mixomorphs are now haplodiplontic beings in which both stages are complex multicellular lifeforms, albeit different ones...


Evan Black said...

I own both "The Wildlife of Star Wars" and "Animals Real and Imagined" by Whitlatch. I've considered buying the "Science" and "Principles" volumes, but have found the costs prohibitive. I, like you, enjoy her artistic style, but my taste for truly different plausible life forms is left largely unsated. Her work could be considered a master class in realistic representation, but like you said there's not much by way of novelty.

Are these books worth adding to my collection, or are they just rehashes of what I already have from her?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hi Evan,

There are new forms and drawings in the books, but the themes are the same. If you are looking for shapes not found in large vertebrates, then these books will not help you find them.

The books are a showcase of the results of her art, not a course on how to get there. She does offer an online course though, that seems aimed at students as well as at teachers of art:

Part of it is free as far as I can tell, and there are pdfs you can download. I get the impression that the course is designed to produce animals of the 'Earth vertebrate type'.

Jan said...

Hello Evan, I am very glad that you did not give up on blogging.
Concerning the thickness of legs, could not be it explained by less efficient muscles or skeleton structure? Still, for an amphibian it does not seem to be very hydrodynamic shape...

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...


The number of legs and their thickness could indeed be explained by a different balance between the force of gravity and the forces keeping a body up, including bone and muscle strength. But nothing else in the design suggests that the balance differs radically from that on Earth: if it were, I would expect a different tail, head, etc.

Unknown said...

I have a few pet peeves about creature illustration, be it pure fiction or speculative (dinosaurs, for example).

One is the use of color that is fine tuned to human vision. Purple and yellow are dynamic to the human eye, but unless humans or a close cousin is hunting this animal, how do you explain the choice? It is the equivalent of always making intelligent alien species in movies humanoid to an often absurd degree. At least in a drama there is a convenience factor. What is the reason for color bias in a book?

The other thing that jumped out at me was the emaciated appearance of the quadrupeds. Should we be notifying the ASPCA in this alternate world of a potential hoarding/abuse situation? Basic fact is that when you look at animals that exist in gravity, when they are healthy you can't see pointy bones. Zebras for example are robust animals. Sleek fur, round haunches, enough muscle to bust a lion's jaw while outrunning her. Does life ever favor angles over curves for external structures? I can't think of one example--even tree trunks are round. Humans invented pointy things and boxes. We are the only wackos those structures appeal to--much like the color wheel.

Unknown said...

I have to add that given our remarks about Hollywood midway through, I have a highly unlikely film to recommend:

Jurassic World

I expected this movie to be completely devoid of any science whatsoever. It is, to an extent. But there is also a discussion amongst the designers of the park about exactly what you said: they haven't actually created dinosaurs but genetic "Frankensteins" that look the way visitors find pleasing and expected based on picture books, etc. What impressed me was that I felt the filmmakers were able to relate their own experiences in creating fiction to that of scientists trying to get their ideas funded or even noticed within academia.

Ignore the redhead and the new uber-saurus and the film has some genuinely enjoyable ideas. So, if you see it on HBO it may be worth the watch.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Elizabeth: that is an important point: the colours of animals should make sense from their point of view, meaning relations with other species an within their own species. And all that is filtered by available pigments, texture effects, and visual systems of the species in question.

I also liked your point about the skinniness of many animals ion the books (although there are some fat ones about, too).

I have seen Jurassic Park and was mostly disappointed by it. The story never pulled me in, so to speak. The writers were clever in anticipating the audience to be blasé about 'common' dinosaurs and commenting on that in the film. But I am one of those people who would be much happier with a film showing dinosaurs only, without motor cycles or guns. And before anyone says so, I prefer dinosaurs in such a film not to speak!

Anonymous said...

I'm confused about Elizabeth's point on nature never favoring angles.Spines are certainly not curvy. I'm not going to list every spiny animal don't worry, but what about spines in plants too, of which there are an abundance? Spider webs can also be extremely angular, and I haven't even gotten started on geodes and minerals.

Anonymous said...

I don't really mind the mish-mashing of unlikely animal parts together to create strange and unusual fictional creatures. But what truly bugs me is when the parts make said creature less functional: take the dog-fish from above: its fish shape and finned tail would make it awkward on land, while its vaguely mammalian head and limbs contradict the fish streamlining underwater.

Basically, think of such mix-and-match critters as similar a platypus: it's commonly described as a cross between a beaver, an otter and a duck, but is its own creature despite convergent resemblances of its features to these three unrelated animals. Its duck-like bill, unlike a duck's horny beak, is soft and leathery and contains sensory organs. Its beaver-like tail, unlike the scaly propulsion-device of actual beavers, is a fur-covered fat storage. Its otter-like body has knuckle-walking forefeet and a gait similar to a reptile.

So all in all, you have a strange-looking creature that while borrowing traits of various other animals, is its own unique creature, perfectly functional in its natural habitat.