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Conversations with a Crocodilian

As part of my dinosaur research, I've been speaking with Adam Britton, a real-world crocodile handler and researcher. The following is a bit of concept art from our artists at and the conversation with Adam that ensued.
As part of my dinosaur research, I've been speaking with Adam Britton, a real-world crocodile handler and researcher.  He keeps a fantastic Crocodile blog and founded Crocodilian.com.  He also has numerous TV and movie credits.

The first dinosaur we are modeling is the classic Tyrannosaurus Rex.  We're taking a bit of an *ahem* creative approach to the coloration of all the dinosaurs in our game, and I wanted to make sure the creativity didn't conflict with the (perceived) reality of TRex.

The following is a bit of concept art from our artists at Liberum Donum and the conversation with Adam that ensued.



Hi Adam-

Here are the first color comps for the TRex, we'll be moving forward with the general look and feel of the one on the bottom (the orange/red one).  Any general thoughts on the color patterns?

We'll be making adjustments to the shape, though the feedback that would be most valuable right now would be colors and patterns.

The general philosophy behind the colors is:

1) The game should look FUN and COLORFUL

2) The dinosaurs should be colored and patterned in such a way that they subconsciously remind players of animals with similar themes in today's world (nasty carnivores should remind players of nasty carnivores of today, docile herbivores should remind players of docile birds and reptiles of today).

*********************

Hi Andy,

In terms of choosing colours, I think about the functional reasons behind them.  A lot of animals are fairly drab in reality because camouflage is important, but of course you can still have striking patterns and colour combinations that work as disruptive camouflage (zebras are a good example of this, although obviously they stand out as individuals).  Plus, the exceptions are where you can have fun - those which use colours as a means of communication and signaling.  Birds of course are the classic example, using breeding plumage during the breeding season.  And naturally dinosaurs very likely did the same.

Bearing this in mind, I think the top raptor scheme is more "realistic" than the lower one, and as I result I have a slight preference for the top version - it seems more generically useful for the animal across a range of different environments, and most predators like to hide themselves from their prey.  I also prefer the pattern on the top one because it strikes me as more disruptive, although in truth I probably just think it's prettier! (very scientific, I know).

The tail banding on the top version is more consistent with similar disruptive tail patterns in both lizards and crocs, which only tend to deviate from this where there is a behavioural advantage (eg. signalling with the tail).  I also get an overall impression of danger and scariness from the top colour scheme (bold yellow / black stripes are often used as a warning colour in everything from insects to snakes, not to mention the fun you can have with mimics).

Having said that, I definitely like the blue highlights on the lower version.  One realistic direction that you could take here is to use interesting and bold colours and patterns that are not too wild, but with bright and bold colour highlights on patches of the body to imply a signaling role.  The head, neck and tail are typical areas that you'd see this.

This is also where things get even more interesting.  It's worth considering that quite a few lizards and crocs change colour in different situations.

I'm not talking chameleon-like rapid colour change, but rather more subtle colour changes influenced by environment and behaviour.  This gives you scope to have fun with different colours without making your animals unrealistically textured.  Plenty of lizards adopt striking colour changes (eg. blue, red is typical in iguanas) during the breeding season.

Crocodiles and lizards will also change colour subtly with habitat - those in lighter habitats will become lighter (less melanin pigment being expressed) compared with those in darker habitats.  Temperature, stress and health also play a role (greyer / darker colours are indicative of cooler, more stressed and less healthy individuals).  It would be very neat to employ a variety of textures for certain dinosaurs based on time of year / mood / health / behaviour etc with subtle changes over the course of game time.  During breeding season you could adopt a bluish tinge to the head, for example (birds also show breeding plumage, and you could justifiably change the feathers to a "breeding plumage" for example).  Or injured dinosaurs could have their textures made slightly less colourful to imply physiological stress.  As you can see, the scope for experimentation (and fun) is great.

A final consideration is that colours and patterns do change a lot between individuals, although it depends on the species.  With crocs, the body pattern of spots / bands is unique although they do follow a general pattern.  Of course you can't realistically portray every single individual within the game with a unique pattern, but perhaps you could consider slight variations between different populations across the entire area - say half a dozen different "races".  And again, fun with colours!

**************

Hi Adam-

Thanks for such a thorough analysis.  When I originally provided feedback to Juan I had a preference for the lower one.  The top one (that you preferred) seemed like "hunter colors" with lots of disruptive detail, and I wanted to draw a strong contrast between the TRex and Allosaurus.  TRex will be portrayed visually as a fat, slobbering giant, while Allosaurus will seem like a sleek hunter.

My guess, and you certainly would know better than I would, is that the TRex probably didn't do a whole lot of stalking of prey.  Allosaurus probably did more, esp considering they were quite possibly pack hunters.  I picture TRex kind of like a wolverine -- nothing wants to mess with them, but it's unlikely that they did a whole lot of hunting on their own.  I'm guessing that their coloration was more of a sexual characteristic than a survival or hunting one.  Please correct me if I'm wrong!

As for the dinosaur colors, I'm also avoiding green, even though realistically many might have had green tones, because they will be difficult to see in the game through all the foliage.  I'm generally sticking to other colors.

I like your thought about the top image being closer to banding you see on reptiles today, I will keep that in mind as I work with Juan moving forwards.  I'm guessing that "warning" colors like yellow and black stripes occur more on animals that are vulnerable due to a smaller size but that have some special defensive mechanism.  I don't picture Apex predators with such colors, it's more the smaller guys with venom or a mean bite.  Perhaps deinonychus or troodon (two other dinos in the game) might be colors/patterned in this way.  As usual, correct me if I'm wrong.

*****************

Hi Andy,

I think the reasons for selecting the lower colour scheme are perfectly sound, but you asked which one I preferred.  I've been following the predator / scavenger argument for a while, and it strikes me that it's unlikely T. rex is an obligate scavenger in the same way that a hyena is not an obligate scavenger - hyenas are well-known scavengers, but they are also effective predators in their own right having been known to bring down quite large prey by acting as a team.  They can also take smaller prey by themselves.  While I'm not suggesting T. rex acted in a group (though why not?) it's reasonable to assume it also acted as a predator at times in which case it would benefit from a more generally useful morphology and colour scheme which is why I went with the top one.

In a gaming sense of course, it's simpler to have it fill the "big scavenger" niche and leave it at that, although it would be nice to see some mention of its possible predatory habits somewhere (are you including info on each species, or an in-game encyclopedia?).  I think a good compromise would be the lower colour scheme with the upper pattern.

My comment on warning colouration needs a bit more clarification.  In a lot of reptiles, crocs especially, juveniles start life with dramatic and bright stripes and patterns.  These are obviously disruptive, but it's been suggested they also play a warning role ("I'll bite your nose off if you grab me!") which is obviously very important when they are small and highly vulnerable.  As T. rex also starts off small and vulnerable it's not too much of a leap to suggest it had patterns and colours that are more useful when young than when older.

In crocs, these patterns and colours fade with age, but not always.  Some species retain them and even adults have quite bright colours (often obscured by mud and dirt).  While these may not play as much of a warning role anymore, and are probably far more effective as camouflage, they take on a secondary role in terms of communication and signaling.  And those adults where camouflage is less of an issue (including scavengers) may have less selective pressure to lose juvenile colouration with age.

I presume you are intending to have juveniles and adults in the game?  In which case, you could introduce a texture change to reflect the changing role of body colour and patterning.  Some lizards take it to an extreme, such as Varanid lizards the juveniles of which can be very brightly coloured whereas the adults can be dull grey.

There are a few other possible reasons behind variations in colours, but they're getting increasingly speculative and I'll leave it at that.

Green is not an uncommon colour in birds and lizards, although not in crocs, but I can see the reason for excluding this colour for clarity issues unless you stick with small highlighted areas on the flanks, for example.

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