Sr. Production Designer, Farzad Varahramyan
Memoirs of a Rat.
One day, or was it night, Lorne ran into my office exclaiming ” Rats!!! Rats!!!” naturally I jumped up on my desk, screeching ” Where?! Where?!”. That was the first time I heard from Lorne that Oddworld was going to have Rats, lots of them, and that they were going to be the eyes and ears for the ever wise and ever immovable Almighty Raisin.
Whenever we decide to create a new species of Inhabitant, we try to keep in mind a few things:
1. Whether, it’s potentially good or potentially bad, native or industrialized, belonging to one of the “intelligent” families or belonging to what we may call the animal queendom, they all need to have a character and a personality. The character and personality has to come across from the time it comes to life on that first piece of paper.
2. We always try to create Inhabitants that do not look like anything we may have seen on Earth, but if you were to look at an Inhabitant, you would intuitively know what it may be, or what it’s counterpart may be here on Earth. For example, our rat does not look like a real rat, but when you look at it, hopefully, you will intuitively recognize it as a rat like rodent.
3. The creature needs to look like it works and look alive. That is why we base all our character designs on existing anatomy, bones, musculature, and physics. The creature will have to be able to move realistically, perform, emote, and ultimately be able to connect with the audience emotionally. An easy way to remember all this is how Lorne first explained it to me. “Think of these characters and creatures coming NOT from a designer’s table, but rather, coming from a mother”.
4. When a character or creature comes from a mother, this means it has a birth, a life, and therefore an evolution occurs. Broadly stated, you start thinking about its life, memories, experiences, effects of its environment upon it, upbringing, etc.. All these factors can become influences which may have physical manifestations, upon which you can base your creature, and in layers, apply the personality to the design.
All this sounds long winded, and it is, but it does help us imagine and create these alternative living creatures, that the audience will hopefully accept and identify with, even if they’ve never seen anything like it before.
The main personality trait of our rat was that it had to look and feel mischievous, but not all good and not all bad. This is where you start thinking of where the rats come from, what they go through, and what circumstances may have caused such a personality and how it reflects into it’s physical look. Physically capturing this personality is a question of playing with body postures, facial features, their proportions and relative placement of each feature to the other. Example: the eyes are set farther apart to imply intelligence. If you set the eyes closer together, in this case, it may create a less intelligent looking face. The eyes are also set very low on the face, creating a large forehead, implying even more intelligence.
Another consideration was that the rat would be very small, however we would still have to see its expressions. Example: The eyes on the rat are large and they glow. This enables the viewer to see the shape the eyelids create fairly easily, and therefore you are able to read the majority of the expression from the eyes.
We had to keep in mind that there may be many of these rats in a scene, so we had to make them as digitally light, and as technically easy to animate as possible. Based on these parameters we decided instead of giving it four legs, to just give the rat one all purpose leg. Three less legs to animate, three less sets of bones and geometry, multiplied over one or two hundred rats can make a big logistical difference.
The last main element which evolved was the tail. It seemed we just had to have a tail to make the creature feel like a rat. So we did put a tail on it, but we had it integrated into the top of the forehead. This created some interesting variation but it also created a pleasing line to the design, which becomes more clear once you see it animated. The tail also is a great source of expression for the rat, and it can be very effective in the hands of any of our animators.
When texturing and coloring the rat we used real life textures and references to further push the aliveness of the creature. Our base textures ended up actually being elephant and rhino skins… pretty big for a rat skin, but they worked very well.
Finally, when the design is completed, all the drawings, color comps, reference materials, and blueprints are finished, we sit down with the very talented Matt Aldridge. Matt creates and breaths digital life into all the characters that are created here at Oddworld. Ordinarily we sculpt in clay and digitize most of our characters to capture all its nuances. The rat was one of the special cases where Matt digitally hand sculpted it, and that is no easy task. Matt will paint a better picture of what he had to accomplish to get this rat working.
This is a glimpse into some of the production design process we went through in coming up with our rat design, and to think it all started with me standing on my desk screaming!