Somewhere over the rainbow…a giant bearded whale flies through the clouds, its long mustache flowing in the breeze, speaking to a young hero whose trusty Crimson Loftwing soars protectively in the distance.
Perhaps it is the sheer preposterousness of this scene that gives it the magic of an Asian fantasy (which is exactly what the Legend of Zelda is, isn’t it?).
This picture captures the moment in Skyward Sword immediately after Link has rid Levias of the pestilent parasite Bilocyte. Once the sky spirit is no longer possessed by the parasite, the storm clouds around him break, and he imparts wisdom to guide Link in his upcoming quest.
Unlike many of the pictures in the Legend of Zelda Cosplay Project, this picture of Link was taken specifically with the intention of using it in this scene. Link’s head needed to be tilted just so to make him look like he was listening and the lighting needed to be right, so I created Levias first and then took a specific Link photo to match.
The whole point of the Zelda Cosplay project was to bring Link’s fantasy world into high definition reality—if everything in the Legend of Zelda was real, what would it look like?
Most of the creatures in Link’s world—like Levias—don’t exist in our world, though, so to make them feel real, I needed to ground them in familiar elements from our world.
With Levias, this presented a number of challenges. Although his silhouette is essentially that of a baleen whale, the similarity between the two is actually pretty thin.
To achieve a look that was both recognizable and grounded in reality, I had to make a whale photo look more like Levias…and make Levias look more like a whale.
Compromises with Reality
One of the most obvious differences between Levias and real-life whales is the giant plate that he has stuck on top of his head. Bilocyte emerges from a blowhole-like barnacle at one end of this plate and the final stage of the battle takes place here.
So, I kinda had to get this right.
There actually are structures like this on some whales, particularly right whales. They’re called callosities (a fancy word for callus), and are made of thick skin in which barnacles and shellfish sometimes find a home.
For the sake of anatomical accuracy, I could have made Levias a right whale. Then, like Levias, there would have been no dorsal fin and I could have stuck Link on one of the callosities.
The trouble is, with their knobbly faces and sharply hooked jaws, right whales don’t really have your classic whale look. What’s more, Levias’ head plate doesn’t look like a callosity at all.
So, rather than go with anatomical accuracy, I chose to build Levias around the very familiar humpback whale form so that he would immediately register as a whale, and I created the head plate out of the segmented shell of a very creepy sea creature: the giant isopod!
In addition, Levias is fairly anthropomorphic, so I moved his eye up closer to the top of the head than it would be on most whales. That way, he looked more human and could more easily make meaningful eye contact with Link.
Compromises with the Game
Although a lot of changes were required to make a humpback whale look like the Spirit of the Sky, I also altered Levias’ design to make him more whale-like and believable.
In the first place, Levias has fish-like webbed fins with long “claws” or “nails” at the end. To create these in Photoshop would have required so much editing that realism would almost certainly would have been lost. What’s more, this angular, spiky style of fin would give an aggressive feel which I didn’t want in the peaceful “clouds clearing after the battle” scene I was aiming for.
The simple solution, of course, was to obscure the fins behind clouds. Call it a “cop out” if you will, but I find that often in art it is better to let your audience imagine perfection than to try and create it yourself.
I used the same approach to solve the problem of the pelvic fins. Unlike fish, whales don’t have these fins. Levias does, and they add to the surreal nature of his appearance. When you’re making a flying whale, though, you’ve already got plenty of surreal to go around, so I hid his back end behind clouds as well.
Last of all, I removed the nostrils and put his main barnacle on the back of the head where a blowhole would be instead. Now, I’ll admit that a flying whale hasn’t got much use for a blowhole, but it helps create a familiar whale silhouette and gives another subtle touch of believability to the creature.
Scaling Things Up
Aside from design compromises between nature and fantasy, Levias presented another entirely different artistic challenge:
Levias is absolutely enormous. But how do you make something look big and heavy when it’s up in the clouds away from familiar scale references?
When photographers want to make big things look small, they often use a technique called tilt shift. It’s a cool technique where you blur the foreground and background of the image to imitate a picture taken at very little distance from the subject.
For example, in this image, the tilt shift (plus a little forced perspective) makes a large building look like a miniature model.
To make Levias look bigger, I took the opposite approach. By avoiding blur and keeping about the same amount of focus on Link, Levias, the background and the Loftwing, I created the impression that the picture is a wide angle shot taken from a large distance. If Levias takes up half the frame in a shot like this, our brains naturally assume that he must be very large.
Another indicator of an animal’s size is the texture of its skin. When we think of large animals (elephants, rhinoceroses, etc.) we usually picture deep folds of skin with many cracks and details. For their size, whales have very smooth skin, which makes them look lighter than they are.
Conveniently, the in-game model of Levias has segmented scaly skin. To replicate this and add a sense of size to Levias, I overlaid the whale’s skin with texture from a crocodile’s hide, which allowed me to simultaneously increase Levias’s visual weight and make him more recognizable.
Barnacles and Fur
As I mentioned earlier, in a cloudscape, there are few references to give viewers an idea of Levias’s scale, but perhaps that wasn’t entirely true.
Although there may not be many scale references around the whale, there are plenty on him…
Work with me here, okay?
In all seriousness, though, Levias has several elements on his body that I used to help establish his gigantic scale. For starters, consider Levias’s barnacles.
In the game, Levias is covered by only a few very large barnacles. This works fine for the battle, since threatening parasites emerge from each blemish, but in a picture like this, big barnacles decrease our perception of the whale’s size. After all, barnacles are familiar and we know they’re supposed to be small.
Conversely, by replacing the big barnacles with lots of tiny ones, I was able to subtly reinforce Levias’ enormity.
A similar effect was applied when painting his beard.
In the game, Levias hair appears to be long and flowing, but this also makes him look smaller, since we know hairs are normally very tiny things.
When the flowing beard is replaced with many layers of fine fur, however, Levias looks less like a bearded human and more like a giant beast.
In the end, the Levias in this picture isn’t just a whale, nor is he simply a doctored-up version of the animated critter from Skyward Sword. Combining the best parts of reality and fantasy brings him into a life of his own which is both surreal…and believable.
I think this picture turned out truly magical. What do you think?