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Book Review: Master Alien Anatomy with SCIENCE OF CREATURE DESIGN

Most would let you get away with saying that art and science don’t mix. Creature designer and anatomist Terryl Whitlatch wouldn’t. To her, the essence of good art, at least where creating creatures is concerned, is the underlying laws of nature. Fantastical beasts need to have a why and a how for existing in a world, imagined or not.

A new book series from Whitlach uses her extensive knowledge of science and anatomy to help readers become better alien-makers, nature-watchers, and monster-masters. The first in the series, Science of Creature Design, focuses specifically on anatomy. It’s not a book for beginners, but no matter your skill level, you will appreciate the depth of information here and will likely pick up a few pointers in the craft of monster design.

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Science of Creature Design is thorough and beautiful. Most of the book is devoted to Whitlatch’s meticulous sketches of animal skeletons (real and imagined), the muscles that attach to them, and the colorful skin that lays over everything. Each sketch has detailed annotations too. You want to know the full scientific name and natural history of an extinct creature with a sclerotic ring? You got it.

As Whitlatch makes abundantly clear, the backbone of creature design is real animal anatomy. While the Xenomorph from Alien and the varied extraterrestrials from Men in Black may stand out as the most renowned critters in sci-fi cinema, 99 percent of the work big screen creature designers do involves real species. There is no higher standard than a living creature; no one can tell you if your alien looks “wrong,” but anyone will know instantly if your parrot doesn’t look like a parrot.

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And once you know how skeletons fit muscles that shape skin, you can make just about anything, as the “What if They Were Dinosaurs?” chapter delightfully makes clear.

The second book in the series, Principles in Creature Design, goes even deeper into why nature is the best inspiration for the absurd, the grotesque, and the normal alike. Even an alien needs a “why”: a set of traits that make sense for what the creature’s purpose is in the world it inhabits. Evolution has been doing that kind of design for billions of years, after all.

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The pages are still filled with beautiful anatomical drawings, most of which come from Whitlatch’s invented world of “Amalthea,” and serve to highlight world-building from a design standpoint.

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As Whitlatch also served as the creature designer on The Phantom Menace, the last segment of the 227-page book are devoted to sketches of some (in)famous Star Wars creatures. Sebulba, Jabba, and yes, even Jar Jar Binks are sketched out.

Creature design has never looked as simultaneously simple and fantastically complicated. By laying out literally every bone of her creatures, Whitlatch makes creation seem effortless—just follow nature, connect the bones, add the muscles, and color the skin. These books do assume a familiarity with drawing, but even first-timers will gain something from the series. Even if it’s simply inspiration.

You can purchase Science of Creature Design and Principles of Creature Design here and here, respectively.

IMAGES: Courtesy Terryl Whitlach, Design Studio Press

***Nerdist received copies of the books for review. There is also a third book in the series, Animals Real and Imagined, which can be purchased here.

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