Tuesday 24 November 2020

Book Review: Fundamentals of Creature Design

This is not the first book review in this blog (there were at least nine previous ones) and it is also not the first post about creature design. You could say that speculative evolution, the focus of this blog inasmuch it has one, is mostly about creature design, so is there in fact much difference between the two? 

Click to enlarge; copyright 'individual artists'

The book ‘Fundamentals of creature design’ starts with a section 'How to use this book', stating that the book is aimed at those who wish 'to create believable fictional beasts'. Again, that should include those interested in speculative evolution. Still, reading this book made me think that there are differences between the worlds of speculative evolution and creature design. 

But first, the book itself. It has a soft cover and has no less than 286 pages. It is published by 3dtotalpublishing, a company I think consistently combines high production standards with high quality illustrations. The cover mentions four artists whose work is included, but the work of many more is included, whose work is also good to excellent. The book is divided into 7 chapters: research and imagination, functionality and adaptations, anatomy, general design principles, creature design in the industry, design processes and a gallery. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Alex Ries

The chapter on research and imagination is written by Alex Ries, whose work on the Birrin should be well-known. If not, have a look here. The Birrin-project is a long-standing one; I wrote about his work in this blog back in 2009. In the present book, Alex Ries makes the excellent point that nature on Earth provides an endless array of examples that help inspire new creations. He is not the only author in this volume making that point, but I would say that he does something else with it than the others do. He extrapolates, as do the others, but he departs much farther from Earth life than the other authors. In doing so he succeeds in designing alien lifeforms. He alters the Bauplan of his creatures so they are not at all close to that of Earth reptiles, mammals or other vertebrates. The four-jawed and four-eyed heads shown above are a good example of that. (In fact, Furahan hexapods and the Birrin were given a similar head arrangement by coincidence -although the four hexapod jaws evolved from an original six jaws.) Most of the others artists stayed closer to Earth schemes, so their creatures are largely alternate mammals or reptiles rather than alien species. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Brynn Metheney

The next chapter, on form and adaptability, is by Brynn Metheney, whose work has also appeared previously on this blog, in 2011 this time. She makes the point that form should follow function, asking where animals live, what they eat and whether they are male or female. I like her flowing lines and sense of shape as much as I did in 2011. There is an occasional animal with six limbs in here (see above), but most are regular tetrapods, whose legs in particular could easily belong to some real Earth animals: successive segments bend forwards and backwards in the ‘zigzag’ pattern of mammalian legs. Also front and hind legs are easily recognisable as such. 

I do not think think there is an animal with a truly alien leg design in this book; see the last post on zigzag legs here. Admittedly, I am still struggling with the finalisation of just that aspect of Furahan hexapods, and have been doing so for quite some time. And if you do manage to draw unearthly legs, the animal will tend to look ‘wrong’ (but alien). 

This pattern of sticking close to the design of Earth animals is a common theme in the rest of the book. The chapter on anatomy, by Dominique Vassie, makes that point expressly, containing muscle sketches of groups such as primates, dogs, cats, horses, whales, but also myriapods and insects. There was something here that surprised me, and that was advice on how to blend anatomies of different animal groups. I had noticed that tendency in creature design before (see here and here). I was surprised then and now about that, because biological evolution simply cannot mix birds with mammals, for instance, to produce new species. Of course, there is convergent evolution, and that results in similar solutions to similar problems; but evolution does not stitch the front end of a badger to the hind end of a boar, as was done here. Or does that simply mean that creature design is not all that committed to biological evolution? 

The chapter on general design principles focuses on the artistic side of matters, and that is welcome, although one chapter cannot obviously do justice to all the various artistic styles. The chapter gives advice on matters such as a sense of scale and the use of detail at some parts of a painting but not others. The points made here are all valid. Overall, the design principles are not so much aimed at producing the most biologically plausible animal, but more at evoking associations in the humans watching the images. Soft and round shapes help evoke cuddliness, and sharp jagged edges give a more aggressive appearance. There may be a biological truth in that, in that animals with lots of teeth and claws are probably more dangerous than those without. But in biology such messages can be tricky: a cat, or tiger, for that matter, may look all soft and fuzzy at rest, but when it gets angry even a house cat suddenly has more teeth and claws than you thought possible. Such deceiving appearances are absent here: if an animal is to look dangerous, you can tell. Mind you, I have also altered the shape of some Furahan animals to convey a message to human observers. 

This is where my review becomes a bit critical, but please realise that the observations that follow only hold from my peculiar point of view. I am a scientist who happens to be able to draw a bit, and what I like to see are biologically plausible organisms, with a form that makes biomechanical, evolutionary and ecological sense. If the speculation takes place on another planet, the results can indeed resemble Earth life because of convergent evolution, but it is unlikely that the resulting animals could ever be mistaken for Earth mammals or birds. The discussions on the speculative evolution forum, and the often very knowledgeable and insightful comments on this blog, show that people engaged with speculative evolution usually take their biology and plausibility very seriously.


Click to enlarge; copyright Dominique Vassie

Click to enlarge; copyright Edin Durmisevic

That may be the heart of the matter: if speculative evolution is like ‘hard’ Science Fiction, then most creature design is like Fantasy, where the laws of nature take a back seat. There is no hard border between the two realms. The inclusion of the Birrin in fact shows that the two worlds fit well together. Mind you, the Fantasy element is much the stronger one in this book. That Fantasy focus explains why the book contains creatures such as a a giant insect-like beast that can carry humans, although its legs are biomechanically unlikely to allow it to stand, or a human-bear hybrid in the form of a were-bear. Both are biologically implausible, but in a fantasy setting, that's fine.

Click to enlarge; copyright Brian Valeza (I could not scan a part of the image at the left; sorry for that)

Click to enlarge; copyright Kristina Lexova

The book is filled with brilliant images such as the ones above, and I enjoyed it immensely. The above examples are random examples. It does exactly what it set out to do. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in designing animals for a Fantasy setting. I also recommend it to those who wish to draw better life forms in a Speculative Evolution context, but just remember that it is not primarily a guide on how to design life forms with a systematically different Bauplan and evolution. That would require a different book, one that may not exist yet. I wonder if there would be a market for such a book...

Monday 9 November 2020

'Ulla sanguisuga' at work on a plant louse (a work in progress)

At some 120 pages, The Book is steadily progressing, slow as ever, but getting there. I thought I would let you have a peek at a recent painting. The Book should show at least some of the myriad small animals that make up the bulk of Furahan animal biomass, and so I painted a few. But after that, the final series of paintings will probably show big hexapods only! 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

What you see here is just a fragment of a painting, and it is even more limited in that it only shows the head and neck of the most important animal on the painting. I turned the layers containing the other parts of that animal to invisible, so there will be something left for The Book. That head belongs to a 'lice eater', an insect-sized animal of the type usually labelled as 'wadudu'. Wadudu are reminiscent of arthropods, but they have a mesoskeleton, not an exoskeleton. Admittedly, the difference in skeleton type is only obvious for the largest wadudu, the size of mice and sparrows. 

Anyway, this 'lice eater' carries the scientific name of Ulla sanguisuga. It should not be difficult to work out where the inspiration of that name came from. 

Its prey consists of 'plant lice'. That is not a clade, but a simple group designation for all the little animals that make a living by sucking plant sap. The plant is question belongs to a major plant clade called the 'poliochromes'; they have a photosynthetic pigment that absorbs light across most of the visual spectrum, explaining why these plants are generally dark grey. 

To mimic the effect of macro photography, I first painted the entire scene as I would normally do, and then rearranged everything in layers that represent distance to the imaginary camera. I left only one layer in focus, and blurred to varying degrees. We now have depth of vision on an imaginary planet; you would think that photography a few centuries into the future would have done away with such blurring, but no, here we are...