Shape language, silhouettes and scanning ‘nurnies’

What it took to design Cinesite’s creatures for s2 of The Witcher.

The basilisks and chernobog featured in season 2 of Netflix’s The Witcher were fearsome creatures crafted by Cinesite.

Bringing them to life began with a detailed visual development process led by Cinesite head of assets and visual development Madeleine Scott-Spencer.

Scott-Spencer employed several methods to conjure up the beasts. These included drawing on her own collection of taxidermied animals, building organic ‘nurnies’ and scanning them, and diving into huge amounts of reference in coming up with the appropriate designs that would meet desired silhouettes and a suitable shape language for the mythical creatures.

This is an excerpt from issue #8 of befores & afters magazine.

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b&a: When you were approaching the basilisk designs for season 2 of The Witcher, where did you start?

Madeleine Scott-Spencer: I think at the very outset it’s to consider what the shape language is for the creature that you’re working on, and that is driven by what the character is, what you’re trying to communicate visually. If it’s a soft and kind thing, if it’s friendly, if it’s reticent, if it’s outgoing and boisterous, if it has malicious intent, if it’s supposed to feel frightening and dangerous like the basilisks were.

In the very beginning it was about thinking about weaponizing the shapes, the angles, and the lines. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be explicit. I always say that I want to know why every curve or every break or every angle is where it is. I want to know why things are shaped the way they are. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you literally have gone in and thought about every single individual angle, but your shapes, your sculpture, your painting, your illustration, your model is driven by the understanding that you have a certain shape language to communicate, like any other language, and the shapes that you’re using to communicate are perhaps angular or jagged or dangerous.

Thus, if you take apart the aggregate pieces of design, they should all fit into that sort of ideology. I find that if things don’t, if it strays in certain areas, then resolving that and bringing that back into line with the visual vocabulary the shape was decided upon will tighten up and improve the design. Because, ultimately, you have these very, very fractional moments on screen where an audience needs to connect and understand something visually.

b&a: And then of course that can come from real things, from nature, even though these are fantastical creatures.

Madeleine Scott-Spencer: We do look up visual reference online and in books, and then I maintain a visual library of natural history specimens, all ethically-sourced taxidermy and wet specimens and things like that which I’ve collected over the years, which I find extremely useful, to be able to hold something in your hand, turn it around, like a wing or a set of feathers.
Or in the case of the basilisks, we got a wet specimen of a cobra, which is very helpful for us. It was an albino cobra, so we could see not only the pigmentations that we should pull in for the white basilisk, but also the shapes of the scales, how the scale patterns flow.

Because scales are not texture stamps. They have a flow and a logic about them, and it was very interesting to be able to see that and see the areas of rest between the scales, all those things that you don’t necessarily get from just distilled photographs.

Then for the feathers, similar to what I was talking about earlier with the shape language, it’s finding examples in nature of very sharp, very angular feathers. And also going out and collecting. I was collecting feathers outside my front door and taking a pair of scissors to them and shaping them into the actual shapes that I wanted them to be. I’d scan those and use those in Photoshop mock-ups, and also create templates for the groom artists to utilize, to trace over for the feathers that they were putting into the groom.

b&a: Everything is designed, but do you have to also say, how is this actually practically going to work? How did you come to that right mix of dangerous feathers and dangerous scales?

Madeleine Scott-Spencer: That was one of the challenges on the basilisk, was how to transition from the feather areas into the scaly areas. The solution that we came up with was pin feathers, which I’ve always found really interesting. It’s new feather growth that comes out as a pin. It’s basically a spike that unfurls into a feather as it matures. Baby birds, or if a bird has lost feathers and it has regrowth, they come in these little spikes, and I thought those were perfect shapes to transition from the areas of feathers into the areas of scales.

If you get smaller and smaller feathers, it starts to look fluffy and brings you back into this hatchling soft, downy feeling. Whereas pin feathers are very spiny and spiky and fit perfectly in between the scales. It tied it together nicely, maintaining that sense of do-not-touch spiky aggression, but also having a natural touchstone, a natural world analog.

b&a: There’s the side of your work yourself where you’ve got real-world things on hand. I think you had something for example for those muscle sheets on the chernobog?

Madeleine Scott-Spencer: One thing to remember is that this is episodic. You’ve got a shorter timeframe than maybe on a feature film. So we’re getting into the end, and it’s like, God, these muscles feel like they just crash into the surface of the crystal. There’s no secondary or tertiary level of connectivity or connective tissue there. And we, frankly, didn’t have time to run it through groom to do a groom to make little tendons and fascia–fascia literally is a fibrous connective tissue that wraps around muscles. And that’s what we were looking for. So in the middle of the night, I’m sitting there, I was thinking, I really want to make something to traverse this boundary from muscle to crystal.

And so I was thinking, oh, I’ll make nurnies. Nurnies are the organic version of greebles. So a lot of people know that greebles are little mechanical shapes that you put onto a bigger mechanical shape to create a sense of scale and complexity. Well, nurnies are similar, but they’re the organic version. We used to make them when I was in make-up effects, where we would melt down fishing lures, hot melt vinyl, those little rubber worms. We would melt those down, pour them into cold water, and then you’d get shapes that you wouldn’t normally be able to sculpt. They’d be perfectly organic and blobby and knotty.

Issue #8 of befores & afters magazine.

That’s what I wanted to create using nurnies for the chernobog. I basically just got big sheets of black poster board in my kitchen and took liquid latex, which is suspended rubber and then just stippled liquid latex all over these black sheets of cardstock and then pulled them up. It pulled up into these ropey sheets of skin, and then I would layer those on top. And ultimately, you get these nice criss-crossed and chaotic skin patterns.

If we did that digitally, it would be driven by texture-map tiles or some kind of phrase algorithm, and I can see that math. I wanted chaos. I wanted something chaotic. You can noodle your variables, you can layer noise and get something that feels a little more chaotic, but still nothing is quite like that tangible ripped up rubber sheeting that I created in like an hour in my kitchen. I put that on a flatbed scanner and scanned it, picking up the depth and then converting that into displacement, converting that into texture maps, and then using that to map onto planes that I had shrink-wrapped along the surface that I wanted to create the fascia on. It worked great. It worked even better once I handed them over to look dev and they were properly done.

Read the full interview in issue #8 of befores & afters magazine.

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