This is a monochrome biological piece about an aspect of ghost larva's life when it gets turned into a fungus after being infected by one. It's such an interesting story to tell and the morphology changes are fascinating.
Caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is a very well-known species among Mandarin-speaking communities as an expensive ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine. Yet the morphing process is still mysterious to most people.
(Thumbnails during early production.)
I tried out many different layouts when I was planning for this piece. These are just a few. I ended up with something formal since it's going to be a little bit heavier on the science side.
Next thing was to procure the actual fungi, which was not easy. I needed to take good photos of them under the magnifying glass as references that I can trace over.
(Photos of dried caterpillar fungus)
I needed to decide on what "posture" I want the worms to freeze in. Unfortunately, the fungi are already dehydrated. I couldn't bend them without breaking them. (And they are expensive.) Luckily I was able to get my hands on some clay from the Clinical Anaplastology Department next door to simulate what the larva looked like while it was still alive.
To get a better idea of the forms of a worm-like figure as it twists and turns, I bought some cheap plastic worms that look similar, and bent them while heating them up. (Glad I didn't burn down our department!)
I started building my transfer sketches based on the photos and models that I had, with pencils on valium paper just so it's easier to trace. Work smarter not harder!
After finishing sketching all the assets, I scanned everything into the computer and that was when the fun finally began.
(Clipped transfer sketches)
I had to decide, with the amount of time I have left, whether or not I should build my background - a good amount of underground dirt, with photographs or just draw it entirely by hand. I was fairly confident of my capability in photo manipulation, so I decided to go with that. Again, work smarter not harder.
I started making dirt and grass root models with a mixture of orchid soil and Spanish moss. I needed a cross sectional view of the underground dirt, so I spread some soil evenly on a baking sheet in my well-lit kitchen.
I made sure the photos have consistent global lighting. Cinematic lighting will make it super hard to piece different photos together later. Also, all photos were taken in a top-down fashion, that is shooting with the plane of focus perfectly paralleled to the baking sheet.
Finally, I put some moss on top of some soil in my small betta fish tank, so that I can take photos from the side to simulate the slanted ground plane.
I pieced all 20-30 photos together in Photoshop like a carpet, along with my transfer sketches. It turned out pretty convincing with that depth of field above ground. Not one patch of dirt was reused in the image. It saved me hours of work.
At this stage, the larvae still looked like stickers pasted on top of a photograph of soil. I started rendering the larvae in detail while also "burying" them into the ground by adding shadows to dirt here and there to make it more organic.
By adding a real snow mountain in the background from a photo that I took in Iceland back in 2018, the piece was pretty much completed.
(Timelapse video of the development of this project)
(And of course, a Mandarin version!)