Making Monsters: Image Engine's Creature Creation Process

By Martyn Culpitt, VFX Supervisor at Image Engine Design Inc.

Last modification: 3 May, 2019
6 mins

Designing impactful monsters and creatures for film or TV is a highly creative process, and right from the start, it depends largely on the client and whether they have any initial concepts or ideas. Usually, they do, especially for film—they don't come to us and say, "Hey, can you create a creature from scratch?" 

We typically start with a rough idea or a sketch, and then we take that and build on it. It's an intricate undertaking to bring a creature from a concept to a seemingly living, breathing thing on the screen. We have to think a lot about how it fits into and interacts with its environment, as well as with people or other creatures. There are so many factors; a lot of it is talking to the client, getting their brain-dump, and then assembling everyone here in a room to figure out how to execute.


Game of Thrones dragon vfx by Image Engine


In the rare case that a client doesn't have a strong concept to start with, I'll speak with them to learn more about the film and what's involved, and from there we can start throwing ideas back at them. Designing a creature that's never been seen before is always a fun, creative challenge. It's a very exploratory process and it takes time, but it's hugely rewarding.


Making it believable

We have brilliant concept artists at Image Engine who think outside the box. For creatures, especially, a lot of the concept stage is pulling inspiration from real-life reference. It helps connect us to the creature, whether it's the eyes, limbs, or movement, and that's true whether it's a bipedal creature or it has six limbs. It must feel realistic, and it has to feel like proper motion.


Independence Day Resurgence aliens creature design by Image Engine

Independence Day Resurgence 3D alien by Image Engine


The eyes are the most important thing. If you don't have a life behind the eyes, then it feels plastic and dead. Even if you create a cartoon, everyone looks at the eyes to try to connect with them. We spend a lot of time making sure that the look dev and movement around the eyes has the complexity they need to really sell it.

Working on Jurassic World pushed my understanding of creatures to the forefront of what I do, and now creatures have been the focus of nearly every show I've been on since. That's been fantastic. I love the process, and it's so cool to see something that starts in 2D on a piece of paper and then is brought to life in 3D.


Jurassic World dinosaurs running vfx by Image Engine

Jurassic World raptor roaring vfx by Image Engine

Jurassic world raptors with Chris Pratt, vfx by Image Engine


One thing I've learned, however, is that you need to get something up and moving as quickly as possible because sometimes, a creature concept can completely change once you see it moving. Early on, I go from the initial concept to a very rough blocking and layout of muscle and bones—just a base structure, so that we can get the feeling of it. We want to go through those initial animation cycles because something you love on paper might not always sit right with the client once it comes to life on the screen.


Circular design

Designing creatures is an extensive process. It always happens that we'll venture far away from our original design but end up coming back closer to where we started again. You go in a circular motion of design, where your initial thoughts are the ones that eventually stick once you've experimented and talked through it all. It's that gut feeling that resonates, but you have to go through the process. You have to go away from it to know that it's right, and to come back. But that does take time, so we try to mitigate those circles as much as we can while still allowing for the process.


District 9 alien, vfx by Image Engine

District 9 alien and cops, vfx by Image Engine


At Image Engine, we have amazing animation, rigging, and creature effects teams, and every time we look at a creature concept and brief, there's a lot of back and forth about how it might work. We've definitely grown since we started doing creatures. In District 9, the creatures looked phenomenal, and they really worked for that gritty, dystopian sci-fi vibe. They were spectacularly effective, even if our pipeline back then didn't allow for as much complexity as we can execute today.

Now, we can create so much complexity to help sell the creatures, but that's a double-edged sword: you have to be careful with the level of detail. In some ways, you can overcomplicate it. You can have all of the skin slide and muscle simulations, but if the overall motion doesn't meet the brief and feel real to the human eye, then it's just not going to work.


Collaboration and consistency

Collaboration is always key for us. We're a medium-sized company, and we do high-end work. Continually matching high-end expectation means that we need to get everyone involved early on, so that every time we create a creature, you believe it. Whether that's R&D, animation, rigging, skinning, or creating the asset itself, it's always all hands on deck.

In the end, it's all about reliability—not only in the results but also the processes that lead us there. On our current project, we're changing the way we're looking at a creature and how it's built from the ground up. We're trying to be more consistent.


District 9 alien hiding behind container, vfx by Image Engine

District 9 alien looking out window, vfx by image Engine


We're adding bones and simple muscle systems, and because of the creature FX work and skinning systems we've built and the way our pipeline is starting to work, we can easily add structural complexity to help produce even more impressive results. As long as we have that groundwork done, essentially the backbone of the creature, everything else follows.

So that's our philosophy: being consistent with how we work through the creatures, which allows us to delve into more complexity when it's needed. But at least we start with a grounded piece where we're all aware of how it works, and it can be moved around with our animation rig. By pairing believable designs and our innate creative vision with meticulous animation and consistent execution, we can continue to grow Image Engine's reputation as one of the industry's premier creature shops.


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