I’ve been doing a lot of Avatar, the Last Airbender posts lately.
Now for something completely different!
…just kidding. It’s a little different, but it’s still part of the Avatar universe.
Starting with a pair of broadswords given me by a friend, I’ve gradually fleshed out my Lu Ten character with epic costuming and real-world firebending and “swordbending” (thanks, Sokka) skills.
Could I do any more to bring Lu Ten to life? Sure! Why not give him a noble steed?
I’m always picking up new hobbies, and one of my latest has been 3-D modeling, so I thought I’d challenge myself to create a creature realistic enough that I could ride on it in photos.
And thus Itachi the Mongoose Lizard was born.
I know what you’re thinking, and no, I won’t be riding this creature in my upcoming fan film. I don’t have that level of skill yet, and I’d hate to soil an otherwise awesome movie with poor quality animation.
Even so, the creation of this creature has been a fun ride in and of itself, which I’m happy to share with you now!
Why a Mongoose Lizard?
There are a lot of crazy mashed-up creatures in the Avatar universe, so why did I pick a mongoose lizard for my character?
My first thought, honestly, was to put him astride a komodo rhino.
Komodo rhinos are the most iconic creatures associated with the Fire Nation. They are also the mounts of choice for the “Rough Rhinos” an elite group of warriors (and singers, apparently) led by Colonel Mongke, whose armor provided inspiration for my Lu Ten costume.
Even so, komodo rhinos are large and lumbering, which doesn’t fit well with the Lu Ten character I have in my head. My character leads a group of Fire Nation scouts who value mobility over raw power, so more agile mounts would be required.
What’s more, several other artists have already created some excellent komodo rhino fan art, and it would feel almost pointless for me to reinvent the wheel after they’d done such a fine job.
Mongoose lizards, on the other hand, show up only briefly in the Avatar series. They are seen as Fire Nation mounts, though. ridden by Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee as they pursue the Avatar in a high speed chase.
There also isn’t a lot of other mongoose lizard fan art out there. This is probably just because the critters get so little screen time. Whatever the reason, the artistic vacuum left me with plenty of creative latitude.
With all this in mind, a mongoose lizard felt like the right choice for Lu Ten.
You ready to get geeky?
You probably already know that I like my creations to be both artistic and functional. I am also a former paleontologist and a zoology junkie.
So if I was going to design a made-up creature, I wanted to think through how it would actually live and move and make my 3-D model as “realistic” as the fantasy universe would allow.
The only information I had on the biology of the mongoose lizards was their name and the little bit of Avatar footage they show up in.
The name obviously suggests that these animals are a mash-up of qualities from mongooses and lizards.
The lizard part is obvious in the show. And these aren’t just any lizards. From the crests on their heads and tails to their markings and ability to run on water, it is clear that mongoose lizards are basically a suped-up version of real-world basilisk lizards.
So where do mongooses come in?
The original Avatar Nickelodeon site (now defunct) stated that “[Mongoose lizards’] quick, mongoose-like reflexes help them to dodge almost any attack.”
Quick reflexes? That’s it? It’s a pretty thin connection to mongooses, and it isn’t much to go on, creatively speaking.
To make my lizard more mongoose-like while remaining true to the cartoon design, I decided to alter the way it moved rather than the way it looked.
Check out how this mongoose uses its vaunted reflexes:
The mongoose stores energy in an arched back, enabling him to make rapid leaps to safety.
Although many lizards can jump, their spines are built to flex side-to-side, not up and down, so you don’t see lizards performing these kinds of leaps.
I decided that my mongoose lizard should be able to jump like a mongoose, so I drew up a creature design featuring the longer, more flexible spine of a mongoose or weasel.
As you can see, I followed this concept art almost to the letter in my final creature sculpt.
This pose represents the animal in mongoose-like action–at once leaping away from a threat while bearing fangs at the attacker.
The flexible, serpentine pose also turned out quite aesthetically pleasing. Whether from the top, side, front, or any other angle, you’ll see a graceful S-curve arcing through Itachi’s spine.
In contrast to the elongated torso, I gave my animal a shorter, more muscular tail than basilisk lizards have. This size of tail could be whipped around more effectively to help as a counterbalance during athletic jumps.
One last tribute I gave to mongooses was the animal’s name. I decided to name Lu Ten’s steed “Itachi.”
Okay, no, it's not actually a reference to Itachi Uchiha from the Naruto Manga. “Itachi” is actually Japanese for “weasel.” I went with the word for weasel because there’s no native Japanese word for mongoose, and naming the critter “manguusu” would have been ridiculous.
You may have noticed another anatomical deviation I made from the creature in the cartoon–the head.
Lizard heads are cool and all, but I wanted something a little more epic.
Remember how I said I’m a former paleontologist? I just couldn’t help taking my head design straight from predatory theropod dinosaurs.
So, if your first thought when you saw my mongoose lizard cosplay pictures was “he’s riding an ever-lovin’ dinosaur!” then I would not be offended at all. Who doesn’t want to ride a dinosaur!?
The markings on the scales are drawn from several species of basilisk lizard, most notably the common basilisk, (basilicus basilicus)…
…and the brown basilisk (basilicus vittatus).
Even the color and iris pattern for my mongoose lizard’s eyes were taken from close-ups of basilisk lizards.
The coloration may look garish at first glance, but Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. Bold stripes and spots that would stick out like a sore thumb in an urban environment make for surprisingly good camouflage when the lizard is back in its jungle home.
To maximize realism I sculpted many tiny details like taste buds on the tongue, correctly-shaped palate bones in the mouth, and small wrinkles in the skin.
Painting the model was equally painstaking. Each individual scale was given only a single color. I even included some markings too subtle to be visible in most renders, like small stains on the teeth and a row of larger iridescent blue scales on each side of the underbelly, which I figured would be used for threat and courtship displays.
I said this was done in the name of realism, but to say I was carried away with nature nerdiness would be more accurate.
Hey, I warned you things were going to get geeky!
How to Ride a Mongoose Lizard
Speaking of warnings, if the geekiness above bothered you, then you’d better not read this next section.
Once I had the animal designed, I had to figure out a realistic way to ride it.
When mongoose lizards appear in the Avatar series, the riders’ saddles are positioned exactly in the middle of the spine, between the front and back legs.
This is where you put the saddle for a horse, so the animators for Avatar and other films naturally seem to assume that’s where it should go on a lizard too.
There are two big reasons, however, that this saddle placement wouldn’t work on a mongoose lizard.
In the first place, we just gave it an elongated spine with more flexibility than any horse’s. Put a saddle and rider right in the middle of that and you’re likely to injure the poor animal!
In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that horses and lizards run very differently.
Horse’s legs point straight down from their hips and shoulders. This means that when they run a large part of the force is directed downward, causing their bodies to rise and fall with every stride.
Lizards, on the other hand, have legs which extend out to the side. As a result, when they run much of their force is lateral, causing their spines to flex from side to side.
In other words, ride a lizard in the middle of its back and you’re signing up for a bumpy ride as you’re slammed constantly from left to right.
If you watch the gif above carefully, though, you’ll see that the lizard does a good job of keeping its head from jerking with the rest of the body.
Put all this together and it makes sense to put a lizard’s saddle over its shoulders. This is a stable location with low risk of injuring the animal’s back, and also moves the rider as close to the head as possible, minimizing lateral movement.
Incidentally, the positioning of this saddle also reminds me of the harnesses I have used to walk pet ferrets. Because of their slinky bodies (which they have in common with mongoose lizards, ferrets will easily shrug off a leash which isn’t fastened both in front and behind their legs.
Putting the saddle over the lizard’s shoulders does introduce a new problem though. Since lizard legs stick out to the side, we can’t have the rider’s legs dangling and getting in the way.
To solve this problem I did away with the stirrups characteristic of horse saddles, and replaced them with a kneeling saddle design reminiscent of ergonomic kneeling chairs. This tucks the feet out of the way of the swinging lizard legs.
You might think that this would hurt the rider’s knees, but remember that lizards don’t bounce up and down as they run. The ride should be smooth and comfortable on the joints.
The final challenge when riding a lizard is how to direct it.
Horses are typically guided through reins which attach to a bit in the mouth. This works for horses because they have an interdental space between their incisors and premolars where the bit can sit.
Lizards, unfortunately, have no such convenient gap in their teeth.
I needed a different approach if I was going to ride Itachi.
…in my mind.
I chose to attach the reins to a harness around the face which is kept in place by a ring passed through one of the crests on top of Itachi’s head.
Since Itachi is doubtless well trained, pulling the harness on either side of his face ought to be enough to guide him most of the time, but a stronger pull on the reins could also provide an uncomfortable tug on his crest, allowing me to lead him much as a bull is led by the nose.
That about sums it up!
If mongoose lizards really existed, then this is what they’d look like.
And if mongoose lizards could be tamed, then this is how you’d ride them.
And thanks to Photoshop, I really can ride Itachi…at least on my screen.
One of the fun things about a 3D model is that you can position it and light it any way you want, so this geeky creative adventure can end in further adventures for the creation itself!
If you made it through all my craziness to this point, here’s your reward, an epic battle between Itachi and another fused creature (cobra and centipede) of my own invention.
Who knows what story may have led to this scene?
But maybe I’d better stop myself right there before I get carried away again…