Part of the fun of dinosaurs is that some of them seem so monstrous. Their skeletons come in all sorts of awesome shapes and sizes, so it’s not terribly surprising that filmmakers have been turning to dinosaurs for inspiration with fictional monsters for decades. (After all, what’s Godzilla but a theropod with Stegosaurus plates and more than a touch of radioactivity about him?) And among all the monsters out there, Brian Engh‘s fossil-inspired creatures for his Earth Beasts Awaken music video series have most recently caught my eye.
Here’s what Brian had to say about his fantastic creations:
Brian Switek: For viewers that might not be familiar, what’s the story behind Earth Beasts Awaken?
Brian Engh: Back in 2009 I released a rap album called Earth Beasts Awaken on my website dontmesswithdinosaurs.com. The album deals with a bunch of ideas and feelings that have gnawed at me for most of my life: extinction, adaptation, connection with the ancient, mythology vs. science, identity as an outsider …
I made the album with the intention of making music videos (I am a visual artist first and foremost), and in the process of working through the music certain images and themes solidified in my imagination. I found this gigantic dark, scarred pterosaur-like monster/demon/god lurking deep within the Earth. When awakened this great seething harbinger cleanses the Earth with extinction (of humans, in this case), and calls forth the old forms so that it may regrow anew. The Earth Beasts Awaken music videos (and subsequent remixes of the selected tracks from the album) each focus on a key state in the life cycle; 1) Awaken from Dormancy 2) Kill and Eat 3) Breed and Defend the Progeny.
Brian Switek: What inspired you to make this epic video series?
Brian Engh: Natural history, human mythology, and hip hop.
Brian Switek: Some of my favorite kaiju are ones inspired by prehistoric creatures. Did you draw from any particular fossil animals in designing your monsters?
Brian Engh: Yes.
- The main pterosaur-lookin monster (which I call the Terrorsoar) draws it’s visual heritage from this image of a Pteranodon from James Gurney‘s Dinotopia.
- The head of the “Snow Painter” in the first video is inspired by ancient mammaloids, particularly Moschops and Estemmenosuchus.
- Finskull the Poisonous – the Archosaur-like monster who battles the giant turtle in Part 2 – has a heavy-browed angular skull inspired by Postosuchus.
- Grapple Jaws – the long-necked toothy thing that you can see me sculpting here and which bursts through a cliff face in Part 2 – has teeth/jaws inspired by plesiosaurs, but with crocodilian like armour. In fact, I actually molded some fossil crocodile scutes I collected in South Dakota as a kid so that I could press their texture into the neck of this creature. Here is a picture of those.
- In Part 3 we will meet King Ginkgo Crest who has a crest inspired by the shape of a ginkgo leaf. You can see concept art of him here.
Brian Switek: The effects you created are phenomenal. How long did it take to create each of the monster costumes?
Brian Engh: Oh thanks! I’m glad you think so. With practical effects you never quite know what the audience will notice or what they won’t, and since I know where all the seams are, last minute duct tape fixes, exposed puppeteers and fishing line are, it’s really nice to hear that it doesn’t look like garbage (which is what the monsters are mostly made of).
In terms of actual working hours, it’s hard to say how long each monster took to build, because I had friends helping me off and on, and sometimes there would be days or weeks between working on stuff, because of life happening and having to take other jobs on in order to make rent and buy groceries. From what I can tell by looking back at my calendar the Terrosoar (which is really just a big hand puppet) took me about 3 weeks (by myself), working artist-full-time (so like 15+ hour days) to build. The next summer and fall (so, 5 months with a handful of friends helping a few weekends and whenever else they could pitch in) we built Mountainback, Finskull, Grapple Jaws, and I did the sculpting for the head of King Ginkgo Crest (who didn’t make it into Part 2, but who will play a major role in the upcoming Part 3). In that time I also made some fake rocks, and did the final creature designs and storyboarding, so it’s a bit tough to say precisely how long each monster took to build. It was an all out monster assault. You can see a video of us testing the unfinished Finskull costume here:
Brian Switek: Are you playing any of the monsters? Is it tough moving in a body different than your own?
Brian Engh: Yeah. I puppeteered the Snow Painter in all the shots where it’s outside in the snow in Part 1, I did most of the costume performance for Finskull in Part 2, and some of the Terrorsoar and other hand puppets in Part 2.
Performing with costumes or puppets is generally pretty physically difficult, because you often have to hold your body in weird positions, repeat things a bunch of times, and the costumes and puppets are often heavy, uncomfortable and always hot (or just a bit too warm when it’s snowing). Also we had air cannons loaded with dirt blasting us, and people throwing rocks and dirt on us all the time, which works its way into the costume to combine with sweat to make a wonderfully uncomfortable gritty mixture.
Also, when you build monsters mostly out of materials found in dumpsters you have to experiment with different building techniques, and stuff often breaks while filming and you just have to adjust yourself as best you can and keep working with it, especially when you’re hundreds of miles from anything in the mountains. Sometimes that means holding your head in a really weird position in order to compensate for a broken support that’s supposed to hold the creature’s big old head up in the right position, other times that means being stabbed in the back by a chunk of ragged PVC pipe because the tail attachment is failing as you trudge through knee-deep snow with no one around to help you if you get stuck or roll an ankle. In other words, it’s way more fun and way less painful than working in 3D animation software.
Brian Switek: I don’t want to give too much away – readers, watch the video before continuing – but I was a little surprised by the monster that won the battle in Part 2. I was rooting for the wrong contender! What led you to choose the winner for that bout?
Brian Engh: Basically we just liked Mountainback better. I knew I wanted one of the monsters to reappear in Part 3 building it’s nest and rearing young, and Mountainback just seemed more charismatic and motherly (and holds up better in a closeup). Also when we were filming everybody got really excited every time Mountainback spun around and swung it’s tail at Finskull, so we thought a great cracking tail blast would be the best finisher. Also I grew up with turtles and tortoises as pets, and they can be really gnarly when they latch onto something and rip it apart with their fore claws, and that seemed like a more novel thing to show people on a monstrous scale than another agile theropod-y thing biting and slashing it’s way to victory.
Brian Switek: You also do the music for these videos. What artists and styles influences your monster storytelling?
Brian Engh: Probably too many to name. Giant monsters, extinction, survival of the fittest, and predation all have a long history in hip hop, especially in the underground. From MF DOOM (aka KING GHIDORAH) and the other Monsta Island Czars referencing and sampling Godzilla flicks to Organized Konfusion‘s album Extinction Agenda, and the Cella Dwellas‘ Realms and Realities, replete with atmospheric beats and intensely visual lyrics, a number of imaginative rappers have been working with related themes for years. I just tried to take it to the next visual level and make it less about modern cultural reference and more about something ancient and universal.
Here’s a more contemporary track by Blaq Masq and Lone Ninja (who I’m currently collaborating with on some other tracks) and U.G. from the Cella Dwellas. U.G.’s verse is all about giant monster stuff, and he was one of the MCs back in the day who opened my eyes to the cinematic possibilities of rap lyrics.
I should also mention here that the orchestral sample in Part 2 is taken from a recording of a real orchestra performing the music from an old video game called Act Raiser for the SNES. The music was composed by Yuzo Koshiro, who later went on to do a bunch of great scores for other famous video games. In Act Raiser you play as god and you fight monsters to reclaim the earth for humans. I liked the game as a kid, and when a friend of mine gave me the soundtrack as played by a live orchestra, I had to sample it. Here’s the un-chopped piece.
Oh, and I’m also a big fan of traditional music from around the world, and those sounds definitely influence my production.
Brian Switek: I understand that you’re working on Part 3 now. How long does it take to make just one video, and can you give us any hints as to what we might expect?
Brian Engh: Again, how long the videos have taken is a bit hard to say. Part 1 has footage in it that was shot as far back as 2010, all the way up to the month before I released it in May 2014. Part 2 was shot much more quickly, but required 5 months of creature building, and a bunch more post production time.
I’m hoping Part 3 goes a bit faster because I’ve already storyboarded it, the Terrorsoar and Mountainback are both already built, and the other monsters are not as large or mechanically complicated as some of the creatures featured in previous videos. I’m trying to have it released by this spring, but that tentative release depends heavily on me being able to afford the time and money (but mostly the time) that finishing it requires.
I survive financially (barely) by doing freelance animation work, which pays decently enough that I’m able to afford the time to work on my own projects as much as I do. Unfortunately though, freelancing as an animator can be unpredictable and is necessarily very time consuming so I feel like I’m constantly juggling my personal projects with freelance gigs to pay the bills. In the last year however I’ve been able to sell more of my own art to my online audience, and that’s really helped to fill in the gaps financially and free up more time for finishing my own projects such as the Earth Beasts videos, and my upcoming second album, Gather Bones.
Oh, and as for what will be in Part 3; future humans and baby Mountainbacks.