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...

40 comments:

TheWingedScourge said...

Hmm, trying out "alien" limb designs is tricky, given that it's too easy to just slap vertebrate legs on an alien creature and reverse the knees to give a more "alien" feel. That said, won't convergent evolution inevitably just go with a similar design of "appendage that can support large weight" regardless of anatomical origin? Would it make sense to have no limbs at all and rely on other means of propulsion (ballonts and tentacle walkers quickly come to mind but as their blog posts show they're highly unlikely)?

Unknown said...

>There was something here that surprised me, and that was advice on how to blend anatomies of different animal groups.

>because biological evolution simply cannot mix birds with mammals, for instance, to produce new species

If I had to guess, I would say that what they likely mean, by "blend anatomies", is to take distinct structures, and find a way to get them to work seamlessly.

ie the werebear, for example, seems to have the sheer muscle mass and body of a bear, but also has the pronating (and shoulder) abilities of humans...to say nothing of *which* finger on a bear should be the thumb (/panda joke)

-anthony.

ps: the giant insect image, stated that insects can't get big because of their breathing system; while an oversimplification of all the factors involved, its a starting point that (for some) will involve further study of whats involved.

just some guy with a moustache said...

Hmm...blending anatomies is interesting and all, but while not as unlikely as it sounds still needs to come together to form a functional creature.

For example: there is an animal that convergently evolved a probing beak like the kiwi, the defensive spines of the hedgehog, the long barbed tongue of the anteater, the digging claws of the mole and the young-storing pouch of the marsupials. As much of a hodgepodge as such a critter would sound, it's a very real animal that is very well suited to its environment: the echidna.

So perhaps it's not too absurd to imagine an alien animal evolving traits quite similar to those of earth animals. What does need to be taken into consideration is whether the bauplan of the native clade could reasonably evolve in such a way: and whether such mixes of convergent features make the creature functional in its lifestyle and habitat.

I, Anthony (but not Docimo) said...

I see their idea of trying to "evoke" a feeling or a theme but clearly that seems to clash with biological plausibility at times: take "Expedition" for example, which comes up with truly bizarre and surreal aliens but gives them questionable anatomy (like the total lack of eyes on all creatures or the "limb fusion" of the gyrosprinter), or in trying to evoke an earth animal's feel, go too far in that direction and just end up with "space horses", "space dogs", etc. (like Avatar infamously did).

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

TheWingedScourge: I certainly think that there are only a few ways to design a leg in such a way that it makes sense. The zigzag pattern and the way the shoulders/hips are fastened to the body (loosely or solidly) are at least open to choice. Think about the arguments about ceratopsion front legs, sticking out or not; there seem to be some odd choices there. But I definitely expect legs 'as we know them' on alien animals. But not literal dog or pig legs.

Anthony: there is an image in the book on how to blend the front end of a badger and the hind end of a boar. Given that premise, the artist tweaked both and did a hood job. But 'blending animals' was meant quite literally.
And it is good to see some factors being considered; pity that gravity was apparently overlooked.

Just some guy: all true, and I did make the point of convergent evolution. But that does not start with blending tow existing animals.

'Other Anthony' (nice quote). yes... I lamented the tendency of designers to stay close with what the audience knows more than once. I also understand that the need to appeal to the audience affects the designs. But I do wonder whether the audience wouldn't also like to see some more alien designs. They're not given the chance as matters stand.

Hazel Mae said...

Given that the need to appeal to audiences is a factor, which keeps most aliens in film look too familiar, it's probably a story-wise decision to take convergent evolution to the extreme while trying to at least make them fantastical, with varying results.

That said, the film "Arrival" is interesting that it designed its sapient alien species, the Heptapods, as looking completely inhuman: they are radially-symmetrical, seven-limbed starfish-like aliens with no recognizable human features, and yet their intentions, behaviors and personalities are very well evident to even have the audience empathize with them. So given Arrival's popularity it would be interesting to see alien designs diverge more from the familiar, while still keeping audience appeal and emotional impact to the viewers.

Ankole Watusi said...

Honestly, convergent evolution isn't even an excuse to make alien species look like earth ones because "they fill the same niche". Aye-aye lemurs are the Madagascan analogue of the woodpecker, kangaroos are the Australian analogue of Africa's zebras and antelope, and the flamingo and the blue whale are both crustacean-eating filter-feeders, and yet they resemble nothing alike save for said adaptations that allow them to procure said niche food source. So if a dominant clade of flying animals were to exist on a different planet, why would they look like Earth's birds at all, except solely for the ability to fly?

Abbydon said...

An important distinction to make is the creature being designed may not have actually evolved. In the fictional world it could have been deliberately created (by science or magic depending on the genre) and therefore ecological or evolutionary constraints may not be relevant.

However, it is still necessary to consider physics if it is to look "realistic" in some way. Of course, the presence of magic could effectively change the physics of the world but it is rare that it changes it so much that it doesn't resemble reality. The important thing is for a fictional world to be internally consistent in my opinion even if it is different to our world.

Anonymous said...

on the topic of size can a rodent the size of a horse exist

Unknown said...

yes they did, and they were called beavers
-anthony

Ronald Rump said...

The real issue here is how far you blur the lines between "fantasy" and "sci fi", and along the middle there's a fair amount of acceptable breaks from reality. Yes, the process of gene transfer and evolution doesn't work the way the Zerg from StarCraft portrays, but it works in-story to play them as an unstoppable ever-changing deadly force. Yes, the presence of symbiotic "midicholrian" microbes giving the Jedi powers of "The Force" is completely beyond science and may as well be straight up magic, but still Star Wars is recognized as one of the greatest works of science fiction. Yes, the Na'vi of Avatar look improbably humanoid and convergent, but given that the plot is tailored to have the main hero fall in love with one of them, would you rather see him romancing a four-eyed hexapod with chest nostrils?

And yes, even "hard sci-fi" is justified taking these acceptable breaks from reality. At the end, what matters is a story that works, with biological accuracy just being the yummy sprinkles atop the cake.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hazel mae; Arrivbal is indeed a good example of 'alien' aliens. At first, their good intentions were not all that aobvious, I thought. That was part of the plot though. Perhaps film makers who need aliens with immediately obvious intentions and personality traits go for obvious visual clues, and if mystery is called for, the aliens are inscrutable.

Ankole watusi: that is a good point: there is little or no reason for all characteristics of an animal to converge, if the selection is on one aspect only.

Abbydon: in the 'suspension of disbelief', there are apparently complex rules about which parts of a thought experiment are allowed to rest on fantasy and which are supposed to follow rules.

Anonymous/Anthony: yes, they can and did. Also, have a look at the evolution of horses (not that they evolved from proper rodents).

Ronald Rump: also good points. Are you saying that, the better the story is, the easier it is to suspend disbelief?

Jason said...

Another factor people play with to factor in "alienness" are eyes. The question is, how do the placement or number of eyes make sense? Does an eye have to look like the familiar spherical eye or can it be any oddly shaped organ that simply is able to make images? Perhaps it can see with heat instead of light? There is apparently a real life fish with concave eyes, so it's probably worth noting regarding eye shapes.

(Also, Anthony, what country do you live in where there are beavers as big as horses? Cause I ain't getting anywhere near there, that is legitimate nightmare fuel) T_T

Unknown said...

well, Jason, the USA was their home: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castoroides

also...concave eyes? *that* is nightmare fuel to me.

-anthony docimo.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Jason: Before you think about the placement of eye, have a look at the design of eyes. Eyes evolved many times and with a fascinating array of different principles, even including mirrors! I recommend Land & Nilsson's book "Animal eyes'. I cannot check it right now, but what do you mean by a concave eye? The human eye looked from the outside is spherical, so convex, but the retina can also be described as a hollow cup, or concave. That may not be what you meant though.


Anthony: even though said beavers were in the USA area, neither Jason nor anyone else need fear getting near to one.

Unknown said...

a thought...would the publishers of this art book be suitable for publishing The Book?

-anthony

shrimp larva said...

behold, concave eyes fish. sweet dreams everyone:

https://alphynix.tumblr.com/post/161899306693/look-at-the-eyes-on-the-deep-sea-fish-ipnops

no tigers in Africa said...

Given the prevalence of cyclopses in fiction and creature design, would it be feasible for an alien organism to evolve visual organs but only one? there is the obvious disadvantage of not having a spare eye but might there be an advantage to just one (or at least, odd-numbered eyes)

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anthony: possibly...

Shrimp_larva: very interesting animals. In most papers the photosentitive plates are described as flat rather than concave, though. It would seem that these animals have given up trying to form an image with the light they perceive.

no tigers in Africa: a camera eye has a limited field of view due to its nature, so if it is advantageous for an animal to see more of the world, it pays to have multiple eyes pointing in various directions. The ocelli in a faceted eye also point in a specific direction, but because there is no aperture the filed of view is less limited. You could have a circular eye around the head (or elsewhere). Nearly all spidrids have multiple eyes offering 360 degree vision in the horizontal plane, and in some the four eyes actually touch forming such a continuous 'eye band'.

Abbydon said...

The advantage of a single eye is that it allows a larger eye for a fixed head size. A larger eye can have an improved resolution over the same field of view than a smaller eye and is also better at gathering light. In contrast two (or more) eyes can cover a wider field of view and/or provide depth information via stereo.

It is possible for a single sensor to produce a 360 degree image using a catadioptric (lens + mirror) imaging system. A normal camera eye pointing straight up at a curved reflective surface (i.e. a hemisphere) will be able see in all sideways directions. The addition of a hole (and lens) in the middle of the reflective surface produces an even larger field of view.

I haven't considered whether a biological system could evolve this in a series of beneficial incremental steps or whether a suitable reflective surface could be produced though.

timothy said...

is abbydon also working on furaha or their own spec project? if so where can we see it

Abbydon said...

There are a lot of ideas in my head and some of these are written down in notes scattered across my computer. Due mainly to comments on this blog I recently started my own blog called Exocosm which covers "astrophysics, astrobiology and speculative evolution". Unfortunately, work and family commitments have made it more challenging to post weekly than I had originally hoped. I have produced a brief outline of my project describing Khthonia but there is plenty more to say.

aig said...

So everyone keeps thinking how creatures would evolve on other planets but what if on a habitable planet, with life, there were no "creatures"? Multicellular life exists in plenty but mostly as plant like photosynthesizers or fungi-like decomposers but nothing remotely resembling an "animal". Would such an ecosystem be feasible?

Unknown said...

the three "Gardens" {eras} of Edicaria, yes, it already happened, aig.
-anthony

POPZILLA said...

Has Abbydon's Kthonia ever been featured prominently in this blog? Love the idea of life evolving on a planet tidally locked to a binary pair of red dwarfs. Are there any large animals there or is it restricted to like, little "bugs" and "algae"?

Abbydon said...

My blog is the only place anything is written down about it other than in short comments on blogs, forums and Reddit. It would be impolite to hijack this blog to say more about it, so I can only suggest that you subscribe on Exocosm to ensure you are notified when I eventually post more information.

However, I will say that I was interested in blurring the animal vs. plant distinction and a tidally locked planet with perpetual sunshine on one side seemed a good place to do that. Back in May I even hinted at this in a comment on this blog in an post about plant-animal combinations.

It's a plant! It's an animal! It's a bitroph!

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Abbydon (13:05): "The advantage of a single eye is that it allows a larger eye for a fixed head size"That seems logical, but some insects have extraordinarily large eyes for their heads, so I wonder whether the eye/head size ratio is a strong factor governing the number of eyes. Perhaps it is, perhaps the size of each eye if governed more strongly by the need to catch much light or have visual acuityr; the factor for having multiple eyes may be determined by how much of the 360 by 180 degree world needs to be monitored in combination by how much of the world one eye can monitor. As always, there are many factors to consider with not much evidence to base the choices on. Just as well, now e can have fun.
I like the catadioptric system; most unusual. It almost begs for an animals to be designed around it.

timothy: no, Abbydon is not working on Furaha, although his recent guest posts did result in a Furahan species, acknowledged dutifully.

All remenining posts: already answered... Kthonis has not featured ion my blog yet, other than calling attention to it. Perhaps, one day. Do not underestimate how much work goes into some blog posts: some call for some serious reading, followed by programming, producing images and writing. I nearly gave up several times over the years.

Pig-Fil-A said...

I find it weird how artists often try to convey "alienness" by adding extraneous body parts like lots of limbs and lots of eyes, even though such body parts cost lots of energy to grow...I wonder how feasible it would be to go with fewer body parts instead. Earth has tetrapods, Furaha and Pandora have hexapods...imagine if a planet had a dominant para-vertebrate clade with only one pair of limbs, i wonder how that'd work out?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Pig-Fil-A: Interesting idea. It would be easy to get distracted by matters such as that two legs might be beneficial in terms of building materials, but not in risk of injury etc. Such cost-benefit considerations seem to suppose that there is a choice. But I think your point is one I would agree with and that is that the basic Bauplan does not normally offer any choice: you get two, four, six legs, or whichever number is part of the Bauplan. I can see how limbs are taken away from locomotion (e.g. centaurism) but adding limbs seems unlikely (although a high but variable number of legs is part of the Bauplan of rusps).
So what happens if two legs is a fixed constraint?
Some animals may develop the ability to stand on one leg, to free the other one for manipulative purposes, but it will never be easy to do much with the free leg while standing on the other, even if you equip that leg with long and strong toes to improve stability. Manipulating food, or prey, or predators, or mates must be done with something else than the legs. I guess that a mouthpart or any other organ that is mobile may be recruited for such purposes (tongues, ears...).


snake with legs said...

How hard is it exactly to gain additional appendages or parts, as opposed to losing or modifying existing ones? You mentioned that rusps have varying numbers of legs, and I remember hearing of mutant fruit flies with a "duplicated thorax" mutation that gives them an extra pair of wings, so would it be possible for an alien animal to randomly have a duplication mutation that gives it an additional set of limbs, which if it proves beneficial in some way becomes more common in the population?

Serina had an interesting take on the "vertebrate with extra limbs" concept: the tribbets are three-legged land fish with two forelimbs and one hind limb, but one group called the handfishes shortened the "arms" and "leg" but lengthened two fingers on each hand and two toes on the foot, eventually coming to use them as six separate limbs. Thoughts on that concept?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Snake with legs (appropriate name for this question by the way): All I can say is that such major changes seem to be extraordinarily rare on Earth, at least now. Seeing that Earth group have different numbers of limbs, here must have been initial variability when these Bauplans developed. Once settled, they seem to stay settled. But is that a universal feature or one that is fixed in time and space?

When I said that rusps have variable numbers of legs, I assumed that their genetics allowed for a master gene controlling all aspects of a body segment, skeleton, vasculature, etc. There are metabolic consequences too. It seems Earth animals do not have the freedom to play around with limb numbers. I should probably start studying how the number of limbs in centipedes and millipedes is controlled.

Jean-Pierre Boulangerie said...

For that question about two-legged alien clade: perhaps elephant-like trunks or prehensile tails (or maybe even both!) can aid for grasping food if "centaurized limbs" are otherwise needed. This would be interesting if any such creature develops intelligence and tool use...

tessa said...

wait, don't scorpions have 8 limbs plus two pincers while other arachnids like mites, ticks and spiders have just the 8 legs. what's going on there. how were limbs added

Unknown said...

i think the pinchers might be pedipalps and thus not technically limbs
-anthony

Abbydon said...

Scorpion claws are pedipalps which are a limb between the walking legs and the chelicerae (often called jaws or fangs). Legs, pedipalps and chelicerae are all limbs that have become specialised for different functions and they are common to all arachnids. Spider pedipalps are smaller than the legs but you can still see them if you look closely. In contrast, camel spiders are another group of arachnids that have large pedipalps like scorpions.

The Pandalorian said...

Land animals have size constraints in vertebrates being the mass that limbs can support an in arthropods being the efficiency of their oxygen intake. But what about aquatic ones? Why do blue whales max out at 34 meters and never bigger? Could aquatic arthropods reach much bigger sizes (say, swimming arthopods that breathe with gills filling a shark or dolphin niche?)

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Jean-Pierre Boulangerie: Those would be odd, interesting and alien indeed.

tessa / Anthony / Abbydon: even if you recruit mouth parts to become ‘limbs’, the original question can be rephrased as ‘how can the number of legs change in evolution?’ I had looked for answers in centipedes and millipedes, thinking that these groups would be likely to yield an answer. Well, hints, yes, but no more than that yet...

The Pandalorian: Animals with a large size need an effective system to get oxygen and nutrients to cells and carbon dioxide and waste products away from them. The tracheal system of insects is probably a system that limits size. Even though some insects can actually pump air in and out of them, the system is less effective than a fully closed vascular system. So I would say that marine arthropods larger than blue whales would need extensive remodelling of their ‘internal distribution systems’. By the way, a very nice theoretical discussion of maximum size of marine animals can be found here:

https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/317/is-there-a-maximum-size-an-ocean-bound-creature-could-grow-to

Claire said...

I'm glad there are books that try to make even the most fantastical of creatures seem suited to their environment. That bit particularly bothered me in Star Wars: there's a shaggy, yak-like animal called a Bantha...that lives on the desert planet of Tatooine, which is the WORST place for such a well-insulated beast ��

Unknown said...

if the bantha is a domestic animal, it has no choice in the matter; though one hopes sane bantha-keepers only let them out at night in the cold, and keep them in the shade during days.

-anthony docimo

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Claire and Anthony: The bantha started as a disguised elephant, so I guess they needed to distinguish its shape, wnad never mind that it does not fit in a desert... There is an incredibly detailed Wikipedia entry on 'Bantha'. According to that, banthas may not have been ancestral to Tatooine, so that rescues the logic. Sort of ;-)