Like all Wizarding World movies, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is full of wondrous creatures. From firedrakes to chupacabras, these beasts wow the audience with their visual splendor. This splendor takes a group effort to successfully pull off.
One of the freelance concept artists, Ken Barthelmey, helped to design the Matagot, a creepy cat-like creature seen in the Parisian Ministry of Magic. Additionally, he worked on films such as Bright, The Predator, and the upcoming Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. Barthelmey gave SYFY WIRE some insights on working to create these magical creatures.
How does it feel to work on such a large-scale production with Fantastic Beasts?
It’s always very exciting to get the opportunity to work on such well-known film productions. It’s my childhood dream. Each project is a unique experience. Initially, Framestore hired me as a freelance artist to mainly do design work for the upcoming film Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, which was very exciting as well.
I have worked a couple of months on Pokémon when they needed additional work on one of the creatures they already started to develop for ‘’that other movie.’’ The funny thing is, they have these code names for these high-profile projects, so I didn’t know what movie the work was for at first. It was a fun surprise when I found out shortly after that I was working in fact on the new Fantastic Beasts movie.
What are some common misconceptions about being a creature designer?
I think the biggest misconception being a creature designer is that you are getting hired to visualize an already well-described creature from the script. The truth is, the description in a script is almost always open-ended. It serves as a starting point and is often only one-two sentences long.
In fact, designers are brought in very early on in the production, often when the script is still in development. A writer is specialized in developing stories, and a creature designer is specialized in developing unique designs with a hopefully believable anatomy. It’s a very collaborative process with mutual inspiration between designers, writers, and the director, which sometimes can even help to shape the story of a film.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald contains monsters from a variety of mythologies and legends. How did you design them to be unique but also "fit" within the film's world?
Framestore handed me a brief for the Matagots, describing what the creature was about and roughly what it needed to look like. I also received an earlier concept created by Dan Baker, which was a great base to work on.
Fern Hodgson, the art department production coordinator at Framestore, sent me regularly notes based on my work, making sure that I was on the right track. About once a week all the work were presented to the director and he would send additional notes back. It was a very collaborative process.
The Crimes of Grindelwald seems like a darker film than its predecessor. How does that translate into the character designs?
Creature and character designs can be a great way to visualize a specific mood in a film. But it rather has an effect on one particular scene than the whole film.
The Matagots are a kind of black spirit cats. They are partly spectral, with their outer extremities being more solid. The design had to look scary and a bit aggressive. Big eyes and long skinny legs added an additional creepiness to the design.
On each project, before I start with my work, I like to know what purpose the creature has in the film. Is it an antagonist? What is its motivation? What is its goal? The more thoughts go into a design, the better the result. Sometimes, however, there is no backstory yet, only a vague description of how the creature should look like. So you need to be able to fill in the gaps.
What was the process of designing each creature? Were the higher-ups more hands-on, or did you have more autonomy in your designs?
For the Matagots, the client wanted us to start concepting a solid cat before moving on to exploring its more ethereal, smoky quality. So after I received the brief for the creature I started to model a 3D maquette in the modeling software ZBrush and I tried to make the proportions and anatomy look plausible and graceful. It was important that each angle looked visually interesting. I studied many Sphynx cat reference photos, and how they moved and behaved, which influenced some design choices.
After each design pass, I created a turntable video of the 3D model. That way the client was able to see the design from each angle and got a better idea of how the creature would look on screen.
One of the big features of the design are the big glowing eyes. I spent most of the time to get the eyes and face right. Additionally, I sculpted the teeth, showing how the creature looks with an open mouth. After the design got approved I started to revise the 3D maquette and added more realistic anatomical details. Like muscles, bones, and veins. I then proceeded with posing the model and did a detailed render in KeyShot. For the ethereal effects, I did a certain amount of Photoshop illustrations on the top of the 3D rendering, exploring different variations.
My 3D model was then handed over to the digital VFX Company. There the topology of the model got refined, textured, and rigged so that it was animation-ready.
What were some challenges that you faced while designing these creatures?
The director liked the more human-looking hands and feet but wanted the creature to run like a cheetah. He handed us one particular reference image, and has been very specific that he wanted us to exactly match the pose of that cheetah. It was important to show the strength and energy in the arms, neck, and shoulders. I tweaked the anatomy of the design a bit to make sure that the pose conveyed the elegance and speed.
Developing the spectral nature of the creature was a bit challenging. Once the 3D maquette was approved I proceeded with a bunch of different options to explore the more supernatural quality. A little bit of translucency and glowing eyes gave the design a very eerie appearance.
What advice would you have for artists who are beginning to work with larger clients?
As already mentioned, creating a movie is a very collaborative process. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. Especially the larger the production is. Many people are involved. The design of a character or creature can change a lot throughout the process of a film production.
As in every profession, we must care about the work we are doing in order to do our best. However, if we get too attached it can be very tough accepting the inevitable alterations of a design. Sometimes we might not be agreeing with a choice, but at the end of the day we are getting hired to work to someone else’s project, not ours.
It’s our job to visualize what a creature or character could look like. But once we present that suggestion we will get notes which have to be implemented.
Therefore it’s important to separate commission work [from] personal work. Once we accept that reality it will become a very enjoyable process.