Daniel Loxton’s new book Ankylosaur Attack brings children into the world of a young ankylosaur, where they encounter towering vegetation, passing pterosaurs and scary tyrannosaurs looking for a meal. It is stunningly illustrated with computer generated dinosaurs blended into photographs of lush backgrounds. In a related post on today’s guest blog I’ve described how the book and others like it can be a great resource for sparking a scientific conversation with a kid. Daniel also generously agreed to chat with me about the book and the processes for creating these impressive illustrations.[1]

Marie-Claire: Ankylosaur Attack is a beautiful book filled with very compelling images. Why did you choose to make the illustrations such an important focus?

Daniel: Partly that's just the nature of the project: it's a picture book for little kids (ages 4 and up) so pictures were always going to be central. But why take on a project like this, when I usually write for older kids? Love! Several levels of love for family and dinosaurs and reading and nature.

I have a young son, and reading to him at bedtime—reading and talking and answering his questions—takes me back to the luminous learning experiences of my own childhood. I remember curling up with my parents or my grandmother to read magical picture books like Walter Linsenmaier's Wonders of Nature or the wonderful Dinosaurs from Happytime Books, illustrated by B. H. Robinson. Those moments, and those pictures, helped shape my lifelong love for the natural world. I hope Ankylosaur Attack and the other upcoming books in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series will provide similar rich memories for many other parents and for many other children.

The story is itself very simple (in a good way) and it seems purposely not too anthropomorphised. Am I correct in that assumption?

Yes, we worked hard to avoid undue anthropomorphizing, which is more of a challenge than you might suppose. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to write characters with which we can identify, in a story that kids can follow, without giving names to the characters, and without giving them internal states they might not have had. As much as possible the animals are described in terms of their actions—behaviors, rather than mental states.

It's not 100 percent pure though. For example, there's a line where I say of the young ankylosaur, "He knew that ankylosaurs mostly wanted to be left alone." That understanding is shorthand exposition to build a sense of jeopardy for the young audience. Our protagonist might not have "known" what other ankylosaurs "wanted," but he might well have behaved as though he did.

Why was it important to you to approach the story this way?

It comes from trying to show the wonders of nature to my own young son. On our long walks home from daycare these last couple of years, we often talked about animal communication, tried to imagine what it would be like to be another species, and otherwise tried to immerse ourselves in the natural world as it truly is. Trying to really see this dandelion, that caterpillar—even that dead squirrel.

He understood phrases like "seed dispersal strategy" before he knew his alphabet. Looking at things that way makes him feel like a scientist, gives him the license and the tools and the confidence to probe further. We even cooked up a storytelling game called "The Alien Game." As we walk, we take turns inventing alien organisms, describing their environments and prey and predators, and describing their survival strategies. (He took to that game like a duck to water.)

When I see the light of understanding sparking in his eyes—well, that's about the most powerfully moving experience a father can have. I write children's books with that feeling in mind.

The illustrations have photo backgrounds and computer generated dinosaur, right? There seems to be a lot of careful effort to make everything look photographic, such as detailed attention to reflections and interactions between the dinosaurs and their surroundings.

The dinosaurs are computer generated creatures composited into photographic backgrounds. The art is fueled by the same impulse that has driven paleoartists since Charles R. Knight: the wish to make the audience feel in their marrow that these were once living creatures—animals that hungered and breathed and got splinters and felt the sun on their skin.

To create that effect, Ankylosaur Attack uses many of the techniques of Hollywood movie magic, and a lot of attention to fine detail. Our dinosaurs had to seem to really belong to their backgrounds. They had to have weight, they had to reflect and be reflected, they had to cast shadows and exist in the same light as the rocks and branches around them.

Why did you choose this type of illustration rather than a more typical drawn or painted approach?

I have a background in traditional drawing and photorealist painting, so I actually could have approached this project in that way. But for this project, I wanted to make the artist's hand invisible. I wanted it to look like I just grabbed my camera and jumped in a time machine.

Can you tell me a bit about how you created these beautiful illustrations?

Like I said: time machine…assuming that the "machine" is my Mac, and that the "time" is all those months of my life!

The process took about a year. It starts with very basic story concept ("ankylosaur v. Tyrannosaurus rex") and rough creature design. The animals are sculpted as 3D objects inside a computer. The sculptures were done by my frequent collaborator Jim W. W. Smith. They go through several revision cycles and then Jim hands them back to me for texturing. You can imagine what he gives me as something like a virtual chicken-wire sculpture and my next step is to lay on the virtual paper maché, so to speak. I build up photographic skin textures for the creatures in Photoshop, working on a flat 2D version of their skin, much like a cartographer works on a flat map, even though the Earth is round. Those texture maps are very big files (for the T.rex, a colossal 8192 x 8192 pixels, or a whopping 67 megapixels) and require weeks of fine detailing by hand using a Wacom tablet.

Each creature gets several textures that define how light bounces off their skin: one that defines the photographic surface, one that says which parts are reflective (and how much), another that tells the computer how bumpy the surface of the skin is meant to be, and so on.

Then, I hand those back to Jim. He spends a great deal of unglamorous time hunting down and fixing details such as bad seams in the textures. It’s hard but essential work that renders itself invisible.

By this time we have a script for the story (written by yours truly, with several rounds of revisions with my Kids Can Press editor, award-winning industry vet Valerie Wyatt). While Jim works up a rough storyboard of poses for the creatures, I go on location for principal photography. Then pose revisions, and then we start into the renders.

Rendering the dinosaurs—applying a lighting design, and then asking the computer to create a picture in super high resolution for print—is a major time-consumer. I have a powerful machine, but it takes 5-20 hours to render a single scene a single time. If there's a power outage or you realize you pressed the wrong button in the settings, you have to start all over again. And, for each shot, we must render out dozens of separate render passes: one or more "hero" renders, plus a pass for reflections, a pass for fill light, a pass for extractable shadows, and many masks.

And then the real work begins: compositing! What we have at that point is a stack of rendered elements and some photographs. Those have to be blended together to become illustrations. That takes me a further week of work in Photoshop per image — and then, at the very last second, if we've done all the other steps right, the magic suddenly happens. Whew!

I gather from the acknowledgements that you took the photos locally with the help of friends and family. How did those come together?

I did a separate round of location scouting and photography in the Southern interior of British Columbia, but I ended up throwing almost all of that work away for accuracy's sake: that environment was too dry. Most of the location photography you'll see in the book was done on Vancouver Island, but Ankylosaur Attack also includes locations and elements shot elsewhere in Canada, and in other countries as well. For example, young sharp eyes may be able to find a hidden lizard in one image. That lizard is from Dominica; the tree he's hiding in is from Canada.

It's important to remember that the photos are also "no place." All of the backgrounds are to some extent artificial: they're based on location photography, but they're heavily altered. In some cases the foreground and the background are different locations. I've added ferns, boulders, logs, shadows, and so on (to say nothing of the dinosaurs).

I've also taken things away. In several shots the sky was replaced entirely. In the rest of the shots, I wrestled with one of this project's biggest challenges: thousands and thousands of big, red maple leaves draped all over everything! Major photography was done in the Autumn, after the leaves had fallen. In one shot we spent an hour physically carrying the leaves out of the shot; in many others I had to painstakingly paint them out. I spent weeks on those darn leaves!

And even that's not the end of it. Achieving something that looks real is a middle step. Building an illustration that has drama and tells a story means destroying a lot of the work I just did. I use a lot of painter's tricks at this point, pushing some things back, lifting other things out. Painting in light that shouldn't be there, moving out distractions that should. If that stuff is done right, the reader's eye should go to where I want it on the page, in the order I want it to read.

Do you think there are any potential drawbacks to this kind of illustration, especially because it looks like an impossible photograph?

Yes, I think so. The danger and the strength of photorealist CG illustration are the same: it looks real, but it isn't. The more invisible the editorializing artist's hand becomes, the harder it is to remember that it's there. But the truth is that I don't have a time machine. I tried to keep this story science-based, and I brought in some better-informed eyes to help with that (notably, the page of true science exposition at the back was checked by one of the world's leading ankylosaur experts) but there are assumptions baked in. For example, I show some grass in the Cretaceous. Traditional paleoart avoids grass like the plague, but newer coprolite studies suggest that dinosaurs ate grasses after all. For Ankylosaur Attack, I choose to split the difference: grass only at the water's edge. That's an editorial decision the kids won't know happened.

Similarly, the dinosaurs in our book look real, but they're artificially created characters. The 3D sculpting was done under my direction by Jim W. W. Smith, who looked carefully at other reconstructions and at bones. But Jim's specialty is cartooning. That cartoonist's eye is perfectly suited for creating characters with some personality, which works to the advantage of a storybook, but it may lead us at least a little bit away from a museum-style reconstruction.

How would you like kids to react to the book when they read it?

I hope they have fun with it. I hope they hide under the covers when the T.rex attacks, and cheer when the good guys win! And I hope they come away from that imagining nature in a more intense, more curious way than they did before.

As someone who loves paleoart, I also have a secret hope that families who dig this book go on to explore more of the great work done by the artists who inspire me! Kids who love drawing will love the work of the legendary William Stout. My boy could soak up Stout's Dinosaur Discoveries for a thousand bedtimes. If you like paint and light, Dinotopia's James Gurney is a powerhouse. And I cannot recommend more highly the work of Daren Horley and the other artists at Framestore-CFC, the folks who brought us film and television projects like Prehistoric Park and Walking with Dinosaurs. Those guys are simply the best in the world

Thanks so much for sharing your illustration processes and your passion for creating a book like this.

Ankylosaur Attack by Daniel Loxton, illustrated by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith, is published by Kids Can Press for ages 4 to 7.

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of Junior Skeptic (the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine). Daniel is the author and illustrator (with Jim W. W. Smith) of Ankylosaur Attack and the other upcoming volumes of the Tales of Prehistoric Life series from Kids Can Press. He is also the author and primary illustrator of Evolution: How We And All Living Things Came to Be (winner of the national 2010 Lane Anderson Award as Canada's best science book for young readers). Daniel contributes regularly to critical thinking and science publications, and blogs at Skepticblog.org

[1] This interview was conducted by email and reproduced here in its entirety. Very minor edits have been made to improve clarity and readability.

See the second post in this two-part series: Having a great science conversation with a kid