Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Love Is a Many-Headed Thing, Part III

A hydra is not an easy thing to model. Each head should be sculpted symmetrically and animated individually. Be that as it may, a hydra is basically a fancy snake with more heads than are considered healthy. If I could sculpt one snake and embellish it to look like a one-headed hydra, it would be a simple matter to replicate the head and neck and attach each clone to the body.

Regarding the position of the heads, I’m not inclined to follow the hydra model in Jason and the Argonauts, where one row of heads is on top of a second row. Apart from looking kind of messy, the heads that are in front will always have a clear advantage over the ones at the rear when it comes to grabbing food.

Instead, I’d like to position all the heads in a single row like the fingers of a hand. It makes more sense to have each set of vertebrae fused side by side, the way it happens among conjoined twin serpents. This design is based on some amazing pictures of snakes with as many as five or ten heads that I found on the Internet.

With that plan in mind, I figured it would be a cinch to make a snake model. After all, it is the easiest vertebrate to draw, almost as easy to draw as a worm. A snake has an oval head devoid of any nose, ears, or hair that would only serve to complicate it. Attached to its little head is nothing more than an inordinately long tail. Even a child can draw it, so sculpting it ought to be a simple matter to me.

I mean, look at some of the things that I’ve sculpted in the past.

Surely a snake would be child’s play for me, right? Right?

Wrong. Below is my first attempt at modeling a snake. Eat your heart out, Michaelangelo.

Obviously, the body wasn’t quite right. I decided to take a more careful look at my reference pictures. I found that while the neck of a snake is narrower than its head, its body widens considerably towards the middle before tapering down to the tip of its tail. Also, the sides of a snake can be surprisingly flat, rather like a very long and rubbery box.

Armed with this new realization, I made another attempt to sculpt a snake.

What went wrong, I wondered. Why do I have no problem drawing and sculpting complex human bodies but get stuck trying to sculpt a simple snake? The answer wasn’t as surprising as one might think. I have had many years of experience drawing people but have had virtually no experience drawing legless reptiles. The subtle shape of serpents was lost on me.

Yes, a snake’s body can appear to be relatively flat like a box, but it doesn’t have sharp corners outside of its mouth. I needed more polygons to soften its shape. After one more try, I came up with the following model.

Not bad, I thought to myself, although the snake looks like it swallowed a whole box of Viagra. I guess it will never look quite right if I don’t curl its body in a serpentine fashion, but I won’t be doing that until I animate it.

My next task was to sculpt the inside of its mouth. Whereas a snake’s outer form really is uncomplicated, its mouth is a minor marvel of engineering. Not all snakes have teeth, but the ones that do have two rows of sharp, backward curving teeth at the bottom of their mouth and four rows at the top. These teeth are placed along gummy ridges that are present in all snakes, even the toothless ones. Venomous serpents also have two thick poison glands on the left and right side of the mouth way behind the teeth. Delivery of this toxin is accomplished through the use of two fangs, each of which is connected to a poison gland. Where the fangs are positioned depends on the species of snake. Some fangs are at the front of the mouth and some are way at the back, close to the poison glands. Some fangs don’t move inside the snake’s mouth and therefore have to be short to keep the snake from killing itself. The most impressive fangs come from the likes of vipers, whose long, forward-positioned fangs fold inside the mouth when not in use.

So basically, if I wanted to make life easy for myself, I’d make a toothless hydra with no venom. If I wanted to intimidate the hell out of Chaos Wielder’s players, I’d go for a hydra with six rows of hooked teeth and long fangs that fold inside each mouth. Let’s see, that’s two fangs to animate multiplied by the number of heads that the hydra has…

Decisions, decisions. Which one do I model?

Ugh, modeling that mouth was a real b–… Er, I mean, it was really hard to make. Oftentimes, I couldn’t tell where one polygon began and another ended. Making the UV map was a tough challenge in itself. It’s crude work, but I got the job done.

Okay, so what I have now is a low-poly snake model that looks stiff enough to stab vampires with. I’m not done sculpting, though. My next task is to spruce it up to make it look like a one-headed hydra. Stay tuned.


Jclef said...

Always enjoyable to read your posts, Frank - the snake is coming along really well!

Chaos Wielder said...

I like it!
(And I think the above Hydra wanted to eat the Golden Fleece!)

Eguintir Eligard said...

I vote for the 2 gigantic front fangs as shown.

And thanks for that picture of the real life 5 headed snake I will never get that sin of nature out of my head, and it will haunt me for years I'm sure.

Eguintir Eligard said...

a thought; why does it matter which heads do the eating if they share a common body and stomach?

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Frank,

It's amazing how the simple things escalate into more complex ones. :)

It's looking good. :)


Frank Perez said...

@Jclef, Chaos Wielder, and Lance,

Thanks for the encouragement, guys. Yeah, I think the word "escalate" pretty much sums up the kind of challenges I'm going through with this model. Lol.


The way I see it, a hydra is basically like conjoined twin snakes but with many more heads. Real conjoined twin snakes do not understand that they share one body. They act out their hardwired serpent behavior as if they were two separate snakes. If one of the heads manages to grab prey, the other will try to pull it away from its twin. This could go on for hours because neither is willing to give in. Cooperation is intrinsic in human nature and even in insects that live in colonies, but it is not part of a serpent's nature.

That said, it is possible to change the rules for fantastical beasts such as hydras, but the new rules must be plausible to keep from breaking players' immersion in the game. I will elaborate on this in my next blog post.