As a concept artist, I've always been fascinated by the films of director Guillemo del Toro. To me, understanding his monster creation process has become a personal goal, because the creatures created by the director can be terrifying, but also elegant, intriguing and in some way... even beautiful.
In this post, you will find some notes I've taken from researching Guillemo del Toro's creative process. I've watch some of his conferences, interviews and lectures on YouTube to gather some of the principles he consider are essential in the design and conceptualize monsters.
Photo: Monica Almeida | The New York Times
In particular this notes are only about the subject of Monster Creation, but the directors remarks on filming and writing are also very valuable to any kind of artist.
Monsters Symbols of Great Power
To start creating a monster, the first thing you must consider is what the creature represents. In every mythology, the creatures are use to portrait an emotion, a challenge, a threat or even an achievement.
Different cultures found in these myths a way to make sense of the world. They create gods and demons, symbols of power to represent many aspects of humanity and nature. Therefore, there is a huge importance in the symbolism of the monster.
"Monsters are living breathing metaphors" _ Guillermo del Toro
Metaphors are use to explain deeper concepts. Monsters should be understood as living metaphors, they have an specific meaning, a function taken to the extreme. Think of it as a conceptual contrast. The common binary idea of god and bad of the west, taken to the extreme gave bird to angels and demons.
Pan's Labyrinth 2006 Esperanto Filmoj/Warner Bros. The sweet little girl who encounters a faceless children eating monster. This can be an example of conceptual contrast, the pale man represents the power that corrupts innocence.
With this in mind, it is also a great idea to take the Easter philosophy of the balance of nature: Everything bad has something good, everything good has something bad. This idea may give a monster a much deeper meaning, like the Frankenstein Creature, who only wanted to understand his place in the world, specially the love of his creator.
Monster Creation Process: The design
Think first in the silhouette. As Guillermo explains, this is about the figure of the monster: if it is a masculine figure, it is about big shoulders, muscles and so, same if it's feminine, wider hips, more curves, all of that.
When I did this creature, I think of it as a sort of protector but I wanted to make it a bit feminine, as a protective Mermaid/Shark Ray mother.
It also applies if it is animal base monster. It is important to note that animals already have deep interesting meanings. These meanings can be very different from one culture to another. This fact come very handy at the time of designing a monster and on this point, but it also brings a huge quantity of possibles hybrids that may come to the imagination, which leads to the next important step.
Do not throw everything into the monster. Be always conscious that the monster you are creating is a powerful symbol. If you add a bunch of sharp long teeth, tentacles, claws, red eyes and many "scary" things in the monster's design, it will not have a defined concept other than be scary.
The meaning or intention of the monster must always determine the design.
Color of course is other aspect of design that adds meaning. Some colors might be already deeply associated with some creatures, the challenge there could be how to distance from those common concepts like a green Frankenstein creature or a red eye vampire (I have done this last myself, but I admit my favorite color is red).
The ambient surrounding a creature affects the color. A Haunted house, a fogy street, an autumn forest, a clear night sky... hell, you name it!. All these environments have their colors and an atmosphere that complements a creature.
Bring the monster to reality: Movement
"The lion is majestic when is resting and scary when attacks". A monsters should have more expressions, not just been angry all the time. A common error is to design a monster already with a expression. Have you seen a dog when its calm, when is scared, when is angry?
Take in consideration all possible scenarios that the monster would face and imagine all the expressions for the monster might show. Imagine how the creature moves according to its environment.
Never reference another monster
If the main rule to conceptualize a monster is to make it a powerful meaning, the main rule of design a monster is to never reference one already created.
Image Source: Wired Magazine, Straight To Hellboy: Translating a Dark World From Sketch To Screen
There are tones of source of inspiration. The key is to have, as Guillermo said "an appetite of images, lead by curiosity" it is to constantly increase your visual vocabulary, in arts, cultures, traditions, all kind of tales and stories. Long story short, Absorb all the art and culture you can.
Associate elements of the monster with known cultures, not necesary their own mythological-culture sourse, as well as animals, architecture, arts, regions, all kind of visual elements.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 2008. Universal Pictures. You can use even architecture to create a monster...
There is still a lot of interviews, books and videos to learn more about Del Toro's vision. Of course, the best will always be his movies, watch them over an over, since they are wonderful for the art and the imagination.
Some interesting links I want to share