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Creating a New Species: Design Steps for Creature Design

Laura Heinen begins her design journey with real-life inspiration and breaks down how she developed her new animal in Creature Design for Film and Games.


My name is Laura Heinen and I’m an artist from Birmingham in the UK. I love watching science fiction and horror films, and I also read a lot of classic science fiction. I chose this course because I wanted to improve my ability to draw from my imagination. As an artist, I work mainly with acrylic and oils but I would like to work towards a career in concept art.

Reference and Client Briefing

Animals are my favourite thing to photograph and so my mood boards include a couple of images that I took at Zürich Zoo. There is an image of an Arabian oryx, which is one of the few antelope I’ve ever seen up close. I also like the marabou stork, which is sometimes called one of the ugliest birds in the world. At this stage of collecting images, my preference was more for interesting shapes and textures than a particular type of animal.

I found it tough to begin the rapid thumbnail sketches. There’s usually no reason for me to complete a sketch in under 3 minutes! But it really is a practice thing. The second week’s sketching felt much easier and it was also a lot quicker.  I didn’t have any problems working in traditional media and then scanning it in. If I did the course again with the equipment I have now, I would probably have done more of the rough sketches digitally, because it’s so useful in fixing issues about size and proportion in the early stages. I still feel I have more control over the really fine rendering if I work in pencil.

Loose Idea Sketching

In week 2 Bobby talked about creating unique shapes. I found it really helpful; thinking about the silhouettes before the details, which it’s so easy to get distracted by. I drew 60 more thumbnails, including some inspired by marine creatures and insects. But by the end of the week, I saw more potential in the mammal-based ones I had been sketching. I was playing around with different features on an antelope-based creature with wings, which I imagined being roughly giraffe-height.

Anatomy, Muscles and Skeletal Structures

In week 3 I began to develop two creatures, one of which was a hairless polar adapted to exist amphibiously in an environment destroyed by climate change. This one stalled after a couple of weeks (I might pick it up again later!).

The other featured here was antelope-inspired. I find antelope really elegant and there’s so much variety in antlers and proportions. There are nearly 100 different types of antelope, but I decided to add another one anyway!

My most difficult decision was with the wings, and whether to make them functional or not. The skeletal structure of the wings had to be considered in the anatomy of the creature, which I did by adding extra joints to the spinal column. But I wasn’t totally satisfied with the results. If I wanted my creature to fly the wings would have to be huge and I didn’t like the way that altered the existing proportions. For a time I settled on them being non-functional and played with the idea that they could have a defensive purpose. This was developed in week 5, but by the final design, the wings had been replaced by defensive spikes running along the spine.

Creature Heads and Functional Details

In week 4 I studied the bone structure of several animals, most of which were different antelope or bears. For the head, I wanted to create something fairly sculptural and unreadable-looking, and so far I had envisaged a mantis-inspired face. But the deeper I got into establishing the personality of my creature, the less I liked it. I felt it was looking a bit like an Area 51 alien. So I started studying various types of insects, especially dagger-flies.

I imagined my creature’s habitat as being a tropical forest. This developed later as being on a planet with a weak sun-source, and so the creature is roaming around in twilight and darkness. Its eyes are enlarged but adapted to the narrow spectrum of the light it experiences. I imagined it as having highly-developed telepathic abilities. I liked the idea that it could gather with others of its kind. There’s so much of herd and swarm behavior that remains unintelligible to us, which suggested some potential for creepy behavior. I think being surrounded spontaneously and silently by a great number of any creatures would be pretty terrifying.

Also, not only can it communicate with its herd, but it can sense the presence, behaviour and intentions of other creatures. I had to consider what it would eat and how it would kill. I heard somewhere that antelope are the buffet of the natural world. They’re prey to so many other animals, and so I liked the idea of creating one that could attack and defend itself a bit better!

I liked the idea of a proboscis that could inject the victim. This made it to the final design. The proboscis is long because it mainly feeds on insects in the forest and needs to be able to reach them. But I imagined it also needing a nutrient like iron which it could get from killing a would-be predator. Some insects can secrete a proteolytic enzyme that liquefies the tissue of their victims. I imagined my creature functioning in a similar way after stabbing their victim with the proboscis.

There’s a couple of ideas at this stage that I was playing with. The idea of tiny air-holes running down the length of its neck seemed unnecessary later as the design came together. The legs became more elongated and insect-like, which challenged me to think more about movement and musculature, and how to show the weight distribution through stance.

Finalizing the Design

The main feedback from week 6 was that the head of my creature didn’t match the body. That was really my greatest challenge for the rest of the course. I went through so many different versions trying to get a plausible mammal/insect balance, adding features and removing them. The final week was definitely the most difficult because I was trying to get everything just right. Honestly, I didn’t manage it. But the feedback from my presentation in week 8 helped me reach the image you see below.

Final Thoughts

One of my favourite things about the course was the instructional videos. I loved watching Bobby draw and he gave me some really good practical advice and feedback. I also really enjoyed seeing the progress of my classmates. I used traditional media throughout the course but seeing their work inspired me to do more digital work. I have since completed another CGMA course in “Environment Sketching” where all my work was done digitally.

I think the main thing I took from the course was to slow down and divide my processes a little. I feel it helps me make better decisions and I can still work quickly. I really like the choice of specialised courses CGMA offer, and that I’m able to take them even though I live in Europe.  I hope this is helpful to anyone thinking of taking the “Creature Design for Film & Games” course. I would like to thank Bobby Rebholz and CGMA for the positive experience.

Laura is currently living and working in Switzerland.