This is the first installment of a blog type that we’ll call ‘Design & Build’. In these types of blogs, I’ll dive into the production process on various aspects of the museum. I’ll cover things like unique modeling practices, texturing tips, ideation techniques, etc. You can now stop suspending your disbelief and engage with your more technical brain.
The main attraction of The Grand Hall had to be operatic in nature. I wanted something big and splashy to catch the eye and set the tone for the rest of the museum. After lots of balls of paper missing the trash can (I am a famously terrible basketball player), I finally came up with the concept of a dragon skeleton looming over the museum’s lobby. To match the stylization I had previously concepted, I needed to make it imposing enough to convey its power and terror, without offsetting the cozy cutesy mood the rest of the surrounding area would have.
Eight trillion sketches later, and I landed on the designs you see below. In order to understand his skeletal anatomy, I had to first see him fully dressed, scales, skin, teeth, and all.
After I had a good idea of aesthetic direction and overall anatomy, I was able to sketch myself a layout reference for how the bones should look overall, and how I might break them into modular pieces. Sometimes, I’m able to just visualize what I want to make and then I just hop into Blender and make it. However, with something more complex with lots of shapes and pieces, it helps to front-load the work and invest time in a little pre-production.
And now for the more complicated bit: execution. Using the sketch references that I made, I created a bone set. Starting with the skull, I wanted it to have softer curves and look very stylized, considering this is where the majority of the character would come from. I started in ZBrush and eventually brought it back into Blender as a less dense mesh. I modeled teeth and played with scaling until it felt right. From there, I blocked out the major shapes with temporary assets, using their proportions to create a modular kit of bones to build the skeleton with. An important thing I had to keep in mind was the overall stylization. Especially with something like a skeleton, it’s so easy for the artist-brain to kick in and want to start adding tiny details. However, oftentimes the stacking of small details leads to a gritty, more severe look. The principle of keeping everything feeling like it belonged in the same world was important to me. As I built the bones, I would continuously force myself to zoom out and simplify complex shapes.
With the pieces modeled out, I began replacing the reference shapes with finished bones. The skeleton quickly shaped up into its final form. I was careful about its positioning, flipping back to a wide perspective often to check its framing in the larger space. When the proportions felt about right, I combined all the objects and used a soft selection in edit mode to nudge points around, just to make it feel more organic and a little less perfect. As with everything I do in this museum, I want it to feel hand-made and intentionally crafted. Going in and pushing the scale and angles really helped to achieve that look. I drew a lot of inspiration from some skeletal displays at the American Museum of Natural History for my dragon’s pose. The whole idea for this museum stemmed from a visit there a few years back, so it seemed only right that the crown jewel of the lobby be influenced by its original inspiration.
With the beast built, I shifted my focus to bringing the space alive. It’s easy to assume one really cool centerpiece will be enough to make an environment feel special. However, the art of indirect narrative is what really brings it all together. I started with an idea for a prop directly related to the dragon: the sword that slayed him. I already had it figured out that I wanted this dragon to be the same one vanquished by St. George. The sword had to stylistically align with the rest of the space, but also needed to feel heroic. After some sketches and thought invested into its concept, I boiled down the design of many different crusader swords into what you see above. It is as middle of the road as you can get without edging into totally boring. It’s soft and bouncy enough to fit the aesthetic, but iconic and recognizable enough to fit the need for a weapon of fame.
Next, I filled in the space with extras. Something every museum needs is velvet ropes. And something every exhibit needs is an oversized golden plaque. While making the smaller props to fill the space, I kept them unobtrusive in form -- no tiny details or intricate parts -- and unassuming in position. It can be a tough balance in keeping objects interesting enough to fill the space well, but not so interesting that they compete for the viewer's attention.
After it was all said and done, the dragon fit the space perfectly, hitting all the boxes I set out to complete. Big and looming, cute enough to fit, but not too cute to undercut his own might, compositionally balanced, and really fun to make. Creating this exhibit was so much fun, and I hope you can see how much thought is put into the museum’s creation.
Read more about its background and lore by reading our blog or visiting The Grand Hall exhibit.