I am a big fan of the Syfy channel’s show FACEOFF, and it got me thinking about the specifics of brainstorming the characters for the show and how creating and 3D design relates to our craft and the creative business of being writers. We too must master the art of creature concept design on paper. In an interview with Jerad S. Marantz on gnomon.edu -Jerad shares 10 important things you need to know to become a concept designer. I am sharing this truncated version of the interview because I see definite similarities in the process of creating believable fantasy and science fiction characters.
1. Creature design starts with real animals
A well-designed creature, no matter how unearthly, draws inspiration from its earthly counterparts. “Creature design is the combination of familiar elements,” argues Jerad. “You’d think you could do almost anything, but if you do, the creature isn’t relatable.”
This problem — unless the viewer has a familiar point of reference for the creature, they have no way of deciding whether it is ‘realistic’ — this is most acute in visual effects. “When the creature is on screen, it will be interacting with actors, so if it isn’t designed well, it’s going to look like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Jerad says. “Unless you create something unique in an educated way, that shows your understanding of anatomy, of gravity, of all these other factors, [it won’t hold up].” This is relatable to writing too. Research of the folklore behind a given creature is extremely important. If you are designing a creature from scratch, it must be relatable to the reader. Making it have recognizable traits is imperative to bring the reader in and to keep them reading and engaged.
But if a creature designer is restricted to forms that appear in the real world, they can at least be creative about the way in which they combine them. Good creature designs often take familiar sources and blend them in less familiar ways. Jerad’s own concept for the Pouncer from Microsoft Studios’ Gears of War 4 draws on a most unlikely menagerie of creatures, including scorpions, crabs and pit bull dogs.
2. A lot of the time, you’re working blind
“This industry is actually a lot less organized than people assume,” says Jerad. “One of the misconceptions about working in film or TV is that the script is done and you’re just coming in and illustrating concepts that are already well-described.”
Instead, creature designers are usually brought in during the script-development phase of a movie, and may be hired to clarify not only the look of a creature but its role in the story. With the script consisting of little more than a treatment, the description of the creature itself is often similarly brief, and open-ended.
“I typically get a sentence of description — they want a ‘vampire-werewolf thing’ — and then I start work,” says Jerad.
3. You need to learn to interpret briefs
But even the shortest brief can contain a surprising amount of information, if you only know how to decode it. For the Alien Rock Grubber, a creature design tutorial he recorded for The Gnomon Workshop in 2014, Jerad set himself the fictitious, but typical, brief: ‘The Alien Rock Grubber scavenges for eggs along the jagged terrain.’
“Writers use specific words for a reason, so it becomes the job of the concept artist to dissect the description,” says Jerad. “There’s actually a ton of information in that sentence: he’s alien, there are rocks involved somehow, he’s scavenging — now why use the word scavenge instead of forage? — for eggs. [To us], that’s kind of creepy: he’s scavenging to eat unborn beings. And if he’s navigating through jagged terrain, he’s got to be nimble. All these elements in one sentence inform the design.”
**I would argue that it also informs the senses of your readers. Developing solid, interesting, believable creatures is key to moving your story forward.
4. Reference is everything
The first step of any creature design project is to collect suitable reference material. “I cannot stress the importance of reference enough,” says Jerad. “The number one mistake that artists — even seasoned professionals — make is jumping straight into an assignment and inventing. Memory is just not that good. I’ve been studying anatomy for 20 years and I still have charts all over my office.”
Before beginning work on a creature, Jerad creates a collage of “every animal that could be referenced” in the design, combining online image searches and material from reference books like Eliot Goldfinger’s Animal Anatomy for Artists. The one thing that he doesn’t include is other artists’ designs.
“I always include real photos and anatomical reference, but I try not to look at concept art because I don’t want to take on another artist’s filter,” he says.
(This is different for writers. The greats insist that it is extremely important to read, read, read works in your genre to know not only what is selling currently but to also absorb what constitutes good work in your genre. You should read widely outside of your genre too. )
Jerad often incorporates clothing, props or people into his reference sheets. “I incorporate people into the collage because I want the audience to have a definite emotional relationship with the creature,” he reveals.
5. Traditional art still rules…
Although the entertainment industry now works digitally, Jerad still advises young artists to begin their training away from the screen, building up traditional art skills before trying to build up software skills.
“Draw every day. (Writers…write everyday) Draw on paper: have sketchpads accessible to you at all times,” he says. “Take painting classes before you start messing with Photoshop. You can learn a 3D program in a month or two, but you could spend 10 years learning to draw well.”
6. Good design means getting bad ideas out early
This is true for writing too.
Early in the creature design process, Jerad aims to generate five to ten rough sketches a day to send to the client for feedback. The goal at this stage is less to find design elements that work than to rule out ones that don’t. (As writers we do this process alone in drafting and then in revisions and then again with beta readers.)
“Concept art is a funneling [process]. Most of the time, you’re showing clients stuff that isn’t right,” he says. “A design that is completely wrong can be more helpful than one where there’s something there. Once you do something that is completely wrong, you can put all of those shapes aside and not use them again.”
Back in the day, I would buy these beautiful pristine sketchbooks but it felt like every time I opened the page I had to draw a masterpiece, and that isn’t concept art. Being crude, being fast, you can get a lot of your ideas out very quickly.”
The same is true for writing.
7. You won’t have total creative control
While concept art is a creative discipline, you must face the fact that you will be working to someone else’s brief. “Creative freedom is a bit of an illusion,” says Jerad. “As a concept artist, you are being hired to present your solution for what a character should look like, but once you present that solution, you will get notes [for changes].” You can expect this on your road to publication as well.
This can be a hard lesson to learn. “The reason that people become concept artists is that they believe that their sense of design is good,” Jerad points out. “To spend that much time improving your craft, you have to genuinely believe your ideas are solid. It’s only through the process of working on shows that you discover your place.”
Although you will eventually get to the point where people are asking your opinion, the process takes time. “Creative freedom comes with your relationship with a client, and you have to earn that relationship,” says Jerad. “A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that because they’ve gone through school and have a great portfolio, they’re going to be asked to design stuff [right away], and it doesn’t work like that.” Absolutely, this is true with writing too.
10. Just ‘good’ isn’t good enough any more
While demand for concept art has increased hugely since the turn of the millennium, so has the number of aspiring concept artists. “For anyone wanting to become a concept artist, good isn’t good enough,” says Jerad. “There are tons of ‘good’ out there. No matter how great an artist you are, it would be foolish to feel irreplaceable.”
To stand out from the crowd, you need to be both good and unusual – and for that, you need to be prepared to do your research in unexpected places. “Try to find references that haven’t been used before,” advises Jerad. “There are still quite a few of them – it doesn’t just have to be animals. There are all types of weird plant life.”
Above all, draw your inspiration from nature, not from gallery websites. “So many artists are now only influenced by other artists, whereas in the past, you had more original voices,” says Jerad. “Everyone starts out as a fan, but if you want originality, or the illusion of originality, put down the concept art books and draw from life.”
If you find this article fun and interesting, let me know in the comment section below, and as usual…happy writing!