How to design better creatures

Leading creature designers share their insights, tips and passions for modelling better critters. James Clarke is on the hunt.

Stunning concept art of the Kaiju Axehead created for Pacific Rim by Simon Webber

For all of their fantastical impact on screen, the character design of creatures in sci-fi and fantasy movies have to be believable. And this journey from figment of imagination to living, breathing creature begins with the conceptual artist.

In this article we'll expose that process with the help of a number of highly accomplished conceptual artists. They'll offer insights into their working practices and a sense of guidance they can offer aspiring fabulists, from concept to final render.

Get inspired

So what sources of inspiration do creature-creation pros use to excite the imagination? Andrew Baker, creature and character designer at Weta Workshop, says: "There are lots! For reference, there's nothing better than seeing the real thing. A trip to the zoo, life drawing classes, bone replicas – seeing and touching your subject, or the inspiration for your subject, goes a long way."

Simon Webber, creature modeller on Pacific Rim, Avatar and John Carter, notes that blogs and the community are good sources of inspiration. "Regularly, I use CGHub for inspiration from other 3D artists and ZBrushCentral for inspiration and to keep up on software-related developments and events," says Simon.

He goes on to explain that he tends not to use many plug-ins and related tools at this stage, but adds, "I need to get more free stuff in my resource library."

Adam Sacco cites the Goblin, designed by Andrew Baker for The Hobbit, as one of his favourite creature designs

In terms of resources and sources of inspiration, freelance character artist Adam Sacco says that there are some great designers out there he finds very inspirational – including Andrew Baker, Kris Costa, Ben Mauro, Aaron Beck, Darren Bartley and Guillermo del Toro (a director with a great eye for creatures).

"Other artists and films are big inspirations, but I find a lot of ideas come when your mind is resting or doing something unrelated to art," explains Adam. "There are obviously a few popular 3D websites, but search on the internet to find the inspiration or information you are looking for. You have access to so much free art information and anatomy references, and reasonably priced online courses.

"I would recommend studying photography and anatomy (not just muscles and bones) online or at a life drawing class. These courses will help your understanding of cameras and lens types, composition, lighting and exposure, and form, silhouette and anatomy."

Even basic human anatomy can be given a fantasy approach

Online resources are just as vital when you're working on approaches to texturing a creature. There's a host of free resources, plug-ins, brushes and texture applications that are invaluable to creating unique creatures waiting to be discovered.

"Most of my workflow is kept around some pretty standard settings," explains Andrew. "Generally I try to take photographs to make my own textures, but CGtextures ( is a great resource with some great textures."

When texturing, fellow artist Adam likes to take his own photos and make the preferred ones into tileable textures, which he believes is the way to ensure a personal and unique touch that stands out from the crowd. "I have some ZBrush sculpting time-lapses on my website," he says.

Knowing how to adapt anatomy knowledge and bend expectations is key to modelling creatures

The choices you make also extend to the tools you use; every software package and plug-in offers a unique workflow that can impact on the final creature render and ultimately your design.

For example, Adam avoids novelty plug-ins and free apps in favour of a pencil and paper and his trusted software, ZBrush. "I mainly use Standard, Move, and Clay brushes, [as] I get a better result sculpting most details by hand rather than using alphas," says the artist.

"When using alphas I tend to make my own or use the stock alphas. I also use the mannequins inside ZBrush for conceptualising ideas and poses until I find something I like. ZBrush also has hand and quadruped mannequins. Then just Dynamesh and off you go."

Push the design

Tools and inspiration alone can't make you a great creature designer – there comes a moment when the left-side of the brain needs to be switched off and the right takes centre stage.

How far you push your designs and models is always a process that creature modellers need to feel their way through; you don't want to turn off the audience but conversely a classic design such as Giger's Alien proves we shouldn't be afraid to push expectations.

Andrew describes things as "pretty crazy" when it comes to pushing a design, but says: "I think the most appreciated creatures will always be grounded in a sense of reality."

Believable anatomy

Adam is also adamant that believable anatomy is key. "Every creature needs to be grounded in reality or people will not relate to it. I think an easy one is a biped or quadruped, which offers an easy to read silhouette and forms.

Brian Wynia's Rhinodino mixes known anatomy and textures to create something new

"If a creature is too noisy or busy it can be an eyesore, even if all the little parts look great. The eye needs somewhere to rest and have a second to take in what it's looking at; simple creatures are often the best. A clean form that has defined contrasts is the most important aspect in any creature design."

Simon suggests that the design and impact of a creature depends entirely on the context in which the creature has to exist. "On a comedy project, for example, the sky can be the limit when it comes to the craziness of your character; it's all dependent on tone," he says.

"Is it an entertaining gimmick or does it have to be a strong character with pathos that carries the story to some degree? I love seeing an insanely loony creature as much as the next guy, but if it takes you out of the movie then it's redundant."

Getting physical

One way to ensure that your creature models feel real is to get physical and break away from the workstation and getting physical. Andrew addresses posing a creature for a digital maquette by putting himself in the position of the imaginery monster.

"When posing a character or creature, it's always good to think of the moment that you are encountering this creature, what their intention towards you might be," explains Andrew.

"It's a good place to start. Getting out of your chair and posing like the creature, no matter how ridiculous, will always help you solve a good pose. Use some props around the room to feel the weight in your hand and how that informs your sculpture."

Neanderthal design

Adam provides a useful outline of the work he undertook for the creation of his Neanderthal design. "This model is a reconstruction and anatomy study of a Neanderthal," says Adam, explaining it was made while attending the Creature Creation Master Class with Kris Costa. It was modelled in ZBrush (HD Geo) and 3ds Max (V-Ray), with textures painted in Mari.

A man-bat proves a great excuse to mix and match references to create something weird and wonderful

Of his Vampyre design, which won first place in the 'Blood Sucker' challenge on CGHub, Andrew explains how regular changes and revisions can offer rewards.

"Originally I wanted to have her hanging upside down – similar to the cave scene from The Lost Boys where the vampires are hanging upside down and you get to see their creepy feet. I also based her feet on the movie vampires' feet," says Andrew. "However, I didn't like the composition of her upside down so I have her floating, as I think it is still creepy, but is a better way to present the model."

Seeking inspiration

When it comes to creatures, everybody has a favourite – and everyone, no matter their level of experience, seeks inspiration in other artists' work. "That's a tough question," says Andrew, when asked to pick his favourite creature. "It's a bit like picking a favourite child! Terakula by Jamie Beswarick is probably one of my all-time favourite creatures."

Adam was quick to say that his favourite creature design of all time was the Goblin designed by Andrew Baker for The Hobbit. "The way the anatomy has been tweaked with a short torso and long limbs gives it a creepy look but still believable," says Adam.

"The large muscles on the limbs are slightly pointing out, giving the character a unique silhouette. It's just a great creature and I think very underrated."

Don't take your ideas too far or viewers will lose connection with the creature. You need to keep designs grounded in reality

Simon identifies the facehugger – the second stage in the Xenomorph's life cycle – from Alien as an inspiration. It's a nightmare creature that's familiar but also completely alien. "The shot of it in the first Alien movie, lying dead on its back with all its oystery shenanigans on display, looks completely biologically believable. Beautifully designed and realised," he says.

Not wanting to be held to one creature, Simon also lists the Rancor from Return of the Jedi. "I love the simplicity of it, a straightforward meathead monster: a gorilla crossbred with a potato. Classic!" He adds,

"Naturally, two favourite staples for a 'man in suit' character would have to go to Giger's Alien and the Predator. They're not original choices but there's just no real precedent to the level of design originality and technical proficiency that they achieved with those characters – they were game changers!"

"It's almost sacrilegious to say it, but I actually prefer Jim Cameron's Alien Queen over the original HR Giger Xenomorph. They are of course both brilliant, but the Alien Queen just scrapes into the lead in my book. More recently, I loved the scale and general Lovecraftian craziness of the Behemoth from [Frank Darabont's film] The Mist, which I think was based on a Bernie Wrightson concept – awesome stuff!"

Simon Webber's designs feature unusual anatomy but feel real

Hearing acclaimed creature designers like Simon, Adam and Andrew revel in the monsters that have inspired them to make creatures that have in turn inspired others, you could confidently say that we're living in a renaissance of monster movies.

Inheriting the grand tradition of visual effects masters Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippett and Randy Dutra, and concept design artists such as Iain McCaig and Brian Froud, today's VFX movie spectaculars enjoy a newfound freedom afforded by digital effects tools that aren't hindered by the laws of 'reality' – but aided by them.

These movies are where photography meets illustration to dazzling effect and a new generation of artists have let their imaginations run wild, harnessing that creativity with trusted design principles applied to the world of digital tools.

Words: James Clarke

This article originally appeared in 3D World issue 178