Science Spotlight: Jagged Fang Designs

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Introduction

Jagged Fang Designs (JFD) was originally created as a modding team for the game Zoo Tycoon 2, founded in 2010 by Benjamin Brocklehurst and Mateusz Piech with a particular focus on extinct animals. Over seven years we developed our 3D modeling, texturing, and animation abilities by creating new content for the modding community until, in 2017, we reached a point where we were confident enough in our skills to begin reconstructing prehistoric life professionally according to current scientific understanding. Considering all of our members have had a great passion for palaeontology from a young age, it has always been a huge aspiration for us to be able to create renditions of the animals that inspired us as children.

As a team, only three of us are actively experienced in using 3D software and are entirely self-taught, excluding the occasional online tutorial. This approach to 3D applies to other software also and has resulted in JFD as a whole having a non-standard method of model creation compared to other artists who work with extinct animals. We start from a low-poly model and work upwards rather than starting with a high-poly sculpt and working downwards.

This somewhat chaotic approach to how our team members learn to utilise any and all software has resulted in the roles of the majority of the members shifting drastically over time. The two founders of the team initially had somewhat differing roles, with Benjamin being responsible for 3D modeling and Mateusz being responsible exclusively for texture work. This arrangement did not last long as it became apparent to both that the models produced by Benjamin were inferior to those Mateusz could produce. Over time, as more members joined the team, more specialised roles came into existence, Alexander Payne being an example of this. Alexander previously worked as a modeller alongside Mateusz, but his current role within JFD is as a painter, primarily adding colour and patterning to the textures provided by Mateusz. This new role did not originally exist within the team.

The Process

Resources

Hello, we’re Trenton and Henrique (Henry), the two scientific advisors for Jagged Fang Designs. We were brought onto the team a long way into its history, having been present for little more than a year, after a brief period of external consulting, and have been working on the model references and providing critiques on the animals created ever since.

Our goal is to provide references for the team’s life reconstructions; we aim to interpret the most recent papers, articles and other studies available in the literature into diagrams and schematics that the models can be based on. Initially, this is done by taking measurements and figures of the preserved elements from the sources and filling in the gaps with measurements of related species. This allows us to create a side view skeletal reconstruction using GIMP, if none currently exist for the specific animal, or editing existing reconstructions to best fit our purposes. The next step is to arrange a dorsal view; for this, as well as the standard paper figures, models from existing studies or pictures of mounted museum skeletons are frequently used as guides. One important reference is of the ribcage, as it is rarely found and illustrated in articulation, but crucial in determining an animal’s volume. If possible, anterior views of certain areas of the body in cross-section are added to try and provide a more rigorous body shape for Mateusz to reference.

In terms of external appearance, skin impressions from the closest known relative of the specific animal that preserves them are used as a guide. We often combine different sources for the integument (skin) on different areas of the body, as these impressions tend to be small and scattered; scales from different individuals, for example, are fitted alongside each other and combined with attention to the body size of the specimens that preserved them. Phylogenetic bracketing is used to determine the integument of animals whose close relatives do not preserve traces of it. Once the proportions of the skeleton and the appearance of its skin have been determined within the realm of plausibility, the model and textures can be created.

Omeisaurus tianfuensis is a prime example of where our integument-related research has come in handy. The majority of its scaling is based on measurements of closely related genera, such as Mamenchisaurus, thus allowing for a close approximation of the size, shape, and position of all the scales on this animal’s body.

Modelling

I’m Mateusz, one of the founding members of the team, going back to the early modding days when I could barely handle changing contrast and saturation of a pre-existing image assembled through wrapping textures into desired shapes. At the moment I’m handling the creation of models, UV mapping them, creating textures via normal maps, specular and roughness maps and, sometimes, diffuse maps.

For the modeling process to begin, the reference sheets and schematics prepared by Henry and Trenton are loaded into Blender in multiple views—usually in lateral and dorsal views, with occasional utilisation of cross-sections of particular parts of the animal. Soft tissue reconstructions of related animals are pulled up on screen to provide references for how the body shape should flow. Mesh is usually started from basic details—mouth, eyes, fingers, toes—then gradually expanded onto surrounding parts and eventually the main body. This approach allows for the smooth transition of topology from the finely detailed part to the less detailed large surface. After the general shapes are finished, fine-tuning begins—protruding parts of animals like large muscles, strongly pronounced bones in hips and skull, any dermal structures are pushed out. The last part is smoothing out large surfaces to make sure they are even and natural, reducing creases that cause shading issues on the model and double-checking the general accuracy of the model with Henry and Trenton to ensure that the end result is in line with what we know about how the animal would have looked.

jagged fang designs dinosaur

The next phase includes cutting the model into islands, following the edges that allow the best unwrap onto a 2D surface with the least stretching. Stretching commonly occurs where strong curvature exists, so mostly around animals’ joints, but also on the upper neck. It can be resolved by pinning and re-unwrapping parts of the UV Map until the stretch is minimised. Due to the organic nature of animal models, there has to be a compromise between stretches and seams in the texture. I tend to opt for a few unnoticeable stretches over having a multitude of seams to cover. After all cuts are made and stretches are dealt with, the UV Map is given a symmetry to allow for easier work in future processes.

Rigging

Greetings, I am Benjamin, the other founder of Jagged Fang Designs. I am our animator and thus the person responsible for rendering and posing our reconstructions for still shots alongside the animals’ actual animation cycles. My primary tool in this task is the open-source freeware modelling software Blender.

The first of my tasks is to create a skeleton with which to animate the animal. Originally I did this freehand without much reference, but actively utilising the schematics provided by Henry and Trenton has given far better, more precise results. Weight painting is often done through Blender’s built-in tools. I create a basic group of weights, which is then altered and corrected heavily to ensure that the animal I’m working with doesn’t distort strangely and obeys the general physical constraints these animals have. Both during and after this process, I hand off my model, or a copy of it, to Mateusz for texturing before my work can continue.

jagged fang designs skeleton

Texturing

At this point texturing begins. The UV Map is loaded into Photoshop and the basic file structure is laid out, dividing the animal’s surface according to where each texture type will be located. Sometimes scales or feathers need to be hand-drawn on the animal, and other times we use a small library of various integument types that we have created for extinct animals. They can be assembled into a relatively seamless texture on the texture file. Both integument type and size are applied as accurately as possible within the resolution of the texture—if the integumentary evidence comes from a smaller or juvenile animal, we tend to scale it up; if it comes from a larger animal, we’ll scale it down. Phylogenetic bracketing is used to determine integument type in some groups, including the stage of evolution of feathers in theropods or presence or absence of tail scutes and feathery coat in Neornithischians. It can get a little tricky when working with scales that ranged between 2 and 8 mm, but it is a pleasure to get it done right and have the animal display proper integumentary structures.

After this is done, the integument texture is saved as a separate file. The most engaging and enjoyable part of the process is taking the animal model into ZBrush and sculpting major details on it. This process begins with simple muscle sculpt and shading, followed by skin folds and creases, and ending with sculpted details like claws, feature scales, skull detail, etc. This is done in layers so that intensity can be altered depending on how strong we want the texture to be. After the sculpt is done, the normal map and displacement map are exported, loaded into Photoshop and the integument file is turned into a normal map and then merged with the sculpt to create the final effect. The displacement map and converted normal map serve as support textures for the painting of the albedo map. The animal is then ready for further processing, I send the files to the team so that Ben can start animating the model with the textures on it.

jagged fang designs mesh

Animation

My next duty usually comes when the base texture is complete, about halfway through the task of texturing an animal. When a base texture is complete and sent my way, I make some adjustments to the weight painting to account for any potential texture stretching that may occur when I pose and animate our work. Once this task is complete I can finally move into actually animating our animals.

When posing and animating dinosaurs, there are several rules to keep in mind. The first is known as the ’90 Degree Rule’, a simple rule that is easily followed. It simply means that the femur should never extend backward (towards the animal’s tail) beyond a 90-degree point. The second rule is the result of a condition present across most Archosaurs—their leg and tail muscles are somewhat dependent on one another. While I don’t have a name for this one, it is easy enough to describe. The tail must pull to the side of the animal that the forward stepping leg is on (I have provided a diagram that should be easier to understand than my own ramblings). By following just these two rules, you are suddenly bound by a world of limitations when animating these creatures. Still, other factors can also come into play to introduce more limits, such as the presence of ossified tendons along an animal’s tail or back that heavily restrict its movement.

dinosaur movement 3d

A lot of the features and rules mentioned above do not apply to modern animals. As a result, there are very few animals in the modern world that are suitable reference points for non-avian dinosaur movement and animation. I’m of the opinion that no suitable reference exists in a single animal in the modern world. A prime example of this would be the modern-day ostrich. Due to its build, long legs and flightlessness, most would consider it comparable to a dinosaur. But when we examine the ostrich’s movements, we see that it uses the knee downwards when walking and running, while non-avian dinosaurs, such as Allosaurus, or even the more bird-like Velociraptor, would have utilised their entire leg when walking or running.

Colouring

Hello! My name is Alex and I am an integrated master’s student studying biology, particularly focusing on evolution and phylogenetics. My main role in the team is designing patterns and colour schemes, which is quite a complicated task as it involves tying together morphological and ecological characteristics in a design that also looks appealing.

The process of painting always begins with a lot of research. Palaeontologists have been able to learn more about the colours and patterns of dinosaurs in the last ten years than in the rest of palaeontological history combined. This progress is partly due to advances in the study of preserved melanosomes. We are now able to infer a lot about colours and patterns that some dinosaurs had—for example, we know that Sinosauropteryx prima sported mostly orange-brown feathers with a white-banded tail and a raccoon-like “facial mask”. Some groups of dinosaurs, such as hadrosaurids, are also well known from mummies with intact integument that can give us an indication of the pattern they had in life. We try to incorporate this type of data into our work wherever possible, as can be seen in our Edmontosaurus annectens which has a pattern closely matching what we know from mummified specimens.

Unfortunately, for most dinosaurs we do not have preserved melanosomes or integument, so for these reconstructions, we have to get a bit creative! Living animals are unquestionably the best references for inspiration, but the colour vision of most large mammals today is poor and so the evolution of their patterning reflects this. Since dinosaurs had good colour vision, we mostly look to modern archosaurs—crocodilians and birds—for ideas. We like to use earthy tones because not only are they some of the most common colours in nature, but we also have evidence for them in the fossil record and they are relatively inexpensive pigments to produce. These earth tones often serve as a good base colour in our reconstructions. Some feathered dinosaurs are known to have had structural pigments that resulted in an iridescent hue, so we’ve implemented this into our work before. It is uncertain, however, whether other pigments like carotenoids or porphyrins were present in extinct animals (although we like to speculate that brighter tones were indeed possible!).

Colours in nature are often highly dependent on a multitude of different factors; everything from the habitat an animal lives in to the niche it occupies in an ecosystem to pressures like sexual selection can help to determine an organism’s colour and pattern, so it is vital to take these into account. For example, studies have suggested that organisms in densely forested habitats often have more contrasted and vivid patterning than animals that occupy a more open habitat, even if the two are closely related. We tried to reflect this in a lot of our forest biota reconstructions, like the stegosaur Huayangosaurus taibaii, which has a deeply contrasting patterning compared to the duller colours of our reconstruction of Stegosaurus stenops, which lived in a more open plains habitat.

Talking about stegosaurs leads me to another important factor to think about, the morphology of the animal. Many birds today make use of display features such as crests and elaborate feathering to attract mates. These display features often involve bright colours, which act as honest indicators of fitness. If an animal has a brightly coloured display, it means it must be able to produce a lot of energetically expensive pigment and therefore is probably feeding well, which is a very desirable trait for breeding. Ceratopsians, stegosaurs, and hadrosaurs (as well as several other groups) had structures that could have been used to attract mates, and so we often concentrate a lot of bright colours on their display organs to reflect that. One of the hardest parts of designing patterns is striking a balance between an animal being drab and being too gaudy, as we have to consider the niche that the animal occupies as well. If an animal is a prey species and has no obvious defensive mechanisms, then the benefits of attracting mates by being extremely colourful are likely to be outweighed by the disadvantage of being conspicuous to predators. Similarly, a brightly coloured predator is more likely to be spotted by its prey, which is why we concentrated bright colours in our Yangchuanosaurus shangyouensis on its large keratin nasal crests and not distributed across its entire body. The main exception to this is in aposematic species, where bright colours are used as warning signs to potential predators. This mechanism is more common in small animals, so we tend to use it sparingly, but, for example, we gave our Ankylosaurus magniventris black and yellow striping along its flank to tell its predators that this is an animal not worth messing with!

Sketchfab

Sketchfab presents both us and other artists with a myriad of resources—from scans of modern animals to full scans of mounted skeletons that can be utilised as a direct frame of reference. As such, utilisation of Sketchfab is an almost integral part of our workflow when it comes to referencing and research. For 3D paleoart, specifically, Sketchfab acts as the perfect display platform. Viewers can examine a reconstruction from every possible angle, provide feedback, and point out mistakes that may have been made during the reconstruction process. As such, we do not put any focus on setting a scene for our reconstructions to inhabit. Instead, Sketchfab offers us the opportunity to present our work in a vacuum, away from anything that might distract the viewer from the might and majesty of these long-extinct animals.

We would like to take a moment to thank Abby for reaching out to us to write this article. We hope that those of you reading this found this informative! You can find further examples of our work on ArtStation and Sketchfab, and the team Twitter account that has links to each member’s personal accounts where you can find work in progress images and shots of future reconstructions!

 

About the author

Jagged Fang Designs

A 3D Palaeontological Reconstruction Group consisting of five members spread across the globe with the singular goal of restoring Prehistoric life as accurately as possible.



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