I was able to interview the wonderful artist Terryl Whitlatch! I am so thankful that I was able to interview her, not only is she a knowledgeable resource, but she is one of my favorite artists/ inspirations.
Terryl Whitlatch Bio
Terryl Whitlatch was born in Oakland, California, and started drawing at less than three years of age. Blessed with a mother who was, and still is, a talented artist-illustrator, and a father who taught biology, her fascination with animals started early. Countless weekends were spent visiting zoos, aquariums, and museums, and her father was constantly bringing home mounted skeletons, creatures preserved in jars, and living animals as well – chicken hatchlings, bullfrogs, iguanas, and insects.
After studying illustration at the California College of Arts and the Academy of Art University, Terryl began a career that has spanned over 25 years. She has worked with many major studios and effects houses as a highly sought after creature and concept designer. Clients include Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas Film Ltd., Pixar, Walt Disney Feature Animation, PDI, Entertainment Arts, LucasArts, Chronicle Books, and various zoos and natural history museums.
Terryl acted as principal creature designer for Star Wars — the Phantom Menace. She designed most of the alien characters and creatures, from concept to fully realized anatomies and stylizations. Some of the significant characters include Jar-Jar Binx, Sebulba, the pod racers, the undersea monsters of Naboo, and the Naboo Swamp creatures. She also worked closely with George Lucas in the redesign of such pre-existing characters as Jabba the Hutt and the dewbacks.
For Disney Feature Animation’s Brother Bear, she designed bears, moose, and other animal characters, from highly realistic anatomical studies to fully branded characters.
Recent films to which she has contributed concept work include John Carter of Mars and Pixar’s Brave.
She also is the creator and illustrator of three books: The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide, The Katurran Odyssey, and the newly released Animals Real and Imagined. She has also contributed illustrations to Lucasfilm’s The Jedi Path, and Book of Sith.
Terryl is currently working on a new cutting edge industry intellectual properties, includingTales of Amalthea, that involve both real animal and imaginary creature designs simultaneously, and recently completed work on a project with Disney Imagineering.
Her passion is her love of animal life, and the portrayal of all species, as best she can, in her art.
- What courses (or path) in college did you take in college that helped you in your career as a creature designer?
I never started out to be a ‘Creature Designer’. Indeed, prior to the advent of the Creature Shop at Industrial Light & Magic for the making of the initial Star Wars films in the late 1970’s to mid 1980’s, this did not exist as a title or designated, official vocation unto itself. It was all part and parcel of the special effects (FX) departments of the existing film and animation studios at this time. The closest anyone could ever come to being a full time ‘Creature Designer’ would be Ray Harryhausen, and he was pretty much a one man company. And, to this day, there really isn’t full-time work, as in gold watch career, for only purely imaginary out of one’s head creature design. Most creature design in the Industry deals with real species.
I started out wanting to be a natural science, paleontological reconstruction, and wildlife illustrator, much of which still comprises a large bulk of my work, and remains my first love. Real animals are just so fascinating, and they are the best teachers. As a result, most of my college education was in the sciences—Vertebrate Zoology with a good foundation in Vertebrate Paleontology. I had maybe two to three semesters spread between two different art schools, to make sure I had the elements of traditional illustration as down pat as possible. Ultimately, I had enough college units for a BFA in Illustration, but the overwhelming amount of my education ( three and a half years) was scientific, as far as total college time and choice of school—DVC and Sonoma State University.
So, I had solid grounding in animal anatomy, phylogeny, and behavior, and also how to put a picture together in a meaningful way (which is the same as composing a shot for camera angles and storyboarding). However, my study of animal and human anatomy began long before college—I began drawing at age three, and seriously started my study of animal anatomy at around age thirteen.
It was these skills—the ability to draw and understand (not just physically but also emotionally/behaviorally) real animals and humans well—that attracted the art directors from LucasArts and Industrial Light and Magic. Imaginary animals have no peers in nature, so anything goes. But Art Directors need to know if you can draw a believable tiger for the next Jungle Book movie, or interpolate from a real rabbit an exaggerated, working character for the next Alice in Wonderland or Bambi movie, or even the next Nestle’s Quik commercial. Designing imaginary creatures compared with real animals is a relative piece of cake. But, an elephant or horse will always tell you how incorrectly you have drawn it.
- What was your first job?
My first real job as relative to my career, was as a curator, docent, and exhibit designer for the Diablo Valley Junior College Natural History Museum (Pleasant Hill, California), when I was a young student there majoring in zoology. Junior colleges are great ways to save college money, and I highly recommend them—I also took foundational art courses there, including sculpture, which were excellent). I designed an entire mural of the classification of living things, and another fun project was painting a jungle background, for the Tamandua exhibit, which featured a superb taxidermed specimen of this South American tree climbing anteater.
My first real entertainment industry job was Stephen Spielberg’s video game, The Dig, for which I was hired by LucasArts while still in art school—the art directors saw my real animal work at the required gallery exhibit for matriculation and hired me on that basis. After my phase of the game was completed, I was hired by Determined Productions, Inc., who was the licensing agency for The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and for the next several years, I designed all manner of endangered animal themed products, from textiles, to cookie jars, snow globes, Christmas ornaments, Hallmark Wildlife and other collectible figurines, T-shirts designs, you name it—it was an amazing amount of fun. Needless to say, I got very, very good at drawing Panda Bears! From there, I was hired out of the blue one day by Academy Award winning art director Doug Chiang of Industrial Light and Magic (the special effects division of Lucasfilm Ltd.) because they needed someone who could draw animals for Jumanjii—those zebras are mine, I had a lot to do with those very evil monkeys, designed the anatomy of the pelican, and worked on every animal except for the lion. After that, any portion of a film or commercial that had an animal, real or otherwise, was handed to me. And films and commercials, believe me, have tons of real animals! I storyboarded the very first Budweiser Clydesdale Superbowl commercial, for example, and all the sequences in The Indian in the Cupboard, where the cowboy and his horse appeared, as well as the scene where the cabinet was open, and the T-rex, Stormtroopers, and Klingons were wreaking havoc with each other—that was actually my idea, I’m proud to say.
- Was there a career that you went into that you were not satisfied with? What other jobs or careers have you had?
Well, yes…working at Wendy’s Hamburgers during the summer as a college student was not my most favorite gig, but, money is a great tool! For those interested, manning the coke machine is the most fun part of the job. Salad bar, not so much.
- How long have you been working in your field?
Hmm…as an illustrator earning money, since 1980 technically. That would make it 37 years and counting. Yikes! I still have soooo much to learn, and feel like I’m still just getting started.
- What was it like making character designs for Star Wars? What was it like collaborating with another artist?
Making character designs for SW was amazing, amazing because I could scarcely believe it was true…I don’t think that a day passed when I or any of my colleagues in the Star Wars Art Department (which was no more than 7 people at any one time) when we didn’t pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming….we were so very excited and grateful. Working for George was wonderful. He was so very kind and inspiring to work for. Also had a wicked sense of humor, but yet, you still safely could share his jokes with children–one of the nicest gentlemen I have ever met.
I was so fortunate to be working under Doug Chiang and with Iain McCaig—I learned so much from them both, and I have recently worked with Iain on various projects, including a recent one having to do with a Galaxy Far, Far Away…and Benton Jew and the other concept artists were likewise marvelous…we all remain friends to this day. Working with other artists on a collaborative project is exceedingly valuable. Usually, in building a team, all of you are chosen because each one brings a unique skill set and style and point of view that complements and even contrasts at times with the unique skills sets of the rest of the team—this keeps things fresh and inventive and exciting and believable in the long run for a production. You aren’t chosen because you draw alike or in the same style—that is for Production, not original ideas at the Conceptual, Pre-production phase. And, it is like going to an art school and film school that you are paid to attend! You learn so much from one another. But the friendships, that is the very best of all. That is gold for the future.
- What struggles have you faced in this career?
I’d say, times of uncertainty. In this career, you are a sort of a gypsy—you don’t settle down in one place, usually, for 50 years and get a gold watch, but move from production to production, be it a film, animated feature, video game, or book. Even in a place like Disney or ILM, you are ‘cast’ for a particular phase of a project which may extend anywhere from a few days to 6 months, depending. After that, you look for something else, somewhere else, unless that company has an upcoming project in the docket that you are suited for. And you have to be a real ‘adult’ and manage your own health benefits and other such things. You are generally an independent contractor. Most of us also teach, have taught, or will teach—this is not limited to brick and mortar schools, but can take the form of workshops and lectures, and teaching online, which is what I also do. This latter sort of teaching, especially online, has the side benefit of keeping you very current and constantly honing your own skills, increasing your visibility, and expanding your network.
Other struggles are those common to artists, known as ‘angst’—those times of self-questioning such as, am I good enough? How do I compare with so and so? How do I live up to past expectations, now that I have worked on this and that? These can turn into ‘Black Periods’, in which somehow the joy of doing art seems to have evaporated, along with healthy self-confidence, and can feel quite paralyzing. Sometimes this happens as an anticlimax, after you’ve just finished successfully working on a major project. I don’t know a single artist or colleague of mine (and I can include myself), who hasn’t passed through these waters more than once). The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to only compete with yourself, not somebody else, and to remember that we’re mere and by definition, limited, human beings, with only so much energy, creative and otherwise, at any one time, that life, family crises and health matters, and all the unexpected stuff steps in and takes its toll, and like anything else, those black periods eventually go away. We can be inspired by other artists, but we can never be them. That is a fruitless, endeavor that will only brings heartache, and isn’t practical anyway, as art directors like to be able to hire people for the complementary differences they bring to a project. One really really really effective way to really take the self pressure off, regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, is to repeat to our little selves, that there is only one God, and last time we checked, we are not Him, and plus, He already came up with all the great creature designs (and great ideas and design aesthetics and mechanics in general if one is not a creature designer per se) and only He never gets tired or fails. This puts things in their proper perspective, and allows you to become a lifelong student with nothing more to prove but consistency towards excellence, and not perfection. Perfectionism is the number one enemy of an artist.
- What artists have inspired you and your art?
My goodness, there are so many, both from the past and currently working in the present. But there are three who were most profoundly influential in my work from a very early age and continue to be. They are the wildlife artists Bob Kuhn and William D. Berry, and the paleontology artist and National Geographic illustrator Jay H. Matternes. Look them up, and you’ll see why. They truly understood the animal—not just the way it looks and its anatomy, but its mind. No one, in my opinion, has ever captured the animal like they did—I believe Mr. Matternes is still alive and well, and continuing to produce art—plus, they made animal drawing look easy (in the way great ballet dancers make ballet look effortless, that is). Carl Rungius and Paul Bransom are two other masters I highly admire as well.
- What cultural influences have influenced your artwork?
As far as artistic style, I’d say Art Nouveau and Japanese woodlblock printing, and aspects of Chinese/Japanese screen painting as well. I like the combinations of natural curves, at times minimalist forms, and composition. And of course, the Japanese artwork inspired Art Nouveau in the first place.
- How has studying animal anatomy impacted the creatures that you’ve created?
My continuing study of animal anatomy I hope has given my imaginary animals that necessary foundation to allow them to go beyond what is possibly believable, to what is probably believable in both body and soul on some world, in some universe, somewhere, if not on Planet Earth. And if on Planet Earth, that through this study, as a result I have done honor and respect to their living counterparts, so that we can believe that a horse, or leopard, or bear, can talk or ride a bike, or, conversely, simply be true to themselves. It’s all about going the extra 100 and more miles! Animals are not objects, or accessories, or afterthoughts to the human characters. They are not substandard. If the computer generated (CG) horses are not convincing, even if the dragon is really fantastic, the whole production suffers. And it says, loud and clear, that dragons—imaginary figments–are much more important than horses or any other real living animals with thoughts and souls. Such a project devalues them, I think, and plays right into the mindset that results in why so many animals are in danger of extinction in the first place.
- There are many animals that inspire your work. Do you have a favorite dinosaur that inspires your work the most?
Indeed, and while all animals (at least those I know of) are fascinating to me, I do have my favorites—horses and anything equine, and the very odd ungulates, in particular wildebeests and their relatives, and the gemsbok antelope and their relatives. I am also drawn to the very odd, or ‘off kilter’ non poster child animals, such as fossas, clouded leopards, lemurs, jaguarundis, mouse deer, and the like. And I have an enduring love for sighthounds—greyhounds, whippets, and borzoi. I tend to be more entranced by the prehistoric mammals rather that dinosaurs, but that being said, I tend to be drawn to the those dinos of the avian line—Archeopteryx, Jeholornis, and the like. And yet, it is a rather nondescript dinosaur, the Tenontosaurus, which also intrigues me. It is most definitely not a poster child dinosaur, but at first glance an ordinary four legged ornithschian dinosaur (it could walk bipedally on occasion) without any dramatic distinguishing physical characteristics, but, there is something off kilter about it, and that is, that it had, relative to its size, the longest tail of any dinosaur. I like Tenontosaurus, and am starting to get annoyed with those paleo artists who seem to take special delight in depicting it as the Mesozoic default prey animal of choice.
- What is your process for creating a creature? This includes the process for creating the muscle and skeletal structures.
Well, it all depends on the story—whether a fictional story (including fantasy and science fiction—George Orwell’s Animal Farm, or Kipling’s Jungle Books are technically fantasy stories) or a natural history story (like Walking with Dinosaurs), and what the character needs to be and do in the story in a way believeable and consistent with the rules of that universe. Where does it live? The desert? In or around a volcano? On a moon? Underwater? In an absurd universe like a Freudian dream or Wonderland, where the rules are that there are no rules? First, establish that. Then, is it a prey animal? A predator? A domesticated animal? A messenger? A spy? A drudge? What does it need to do to survive and thrive? What sort of body and physical and mental skills are required? How does it relate to others of its kind? Is it a loner, a herd, or pack animal? And then, how does it apply these skills to be able to perform its role in the storyworld and plot? And then you must add in its emotional life, not just intellect, and create a distinct personality that is not only congruent with its species, but also unique to it as an individual. All this must be established before you set pencil to paper or stylus to cintiq. And remember—these are not objects—these are living beings for all sakes and purposes, even if their roles are background ones.
For purely imaginary creatures, I start with the surface—what the camera sees—first. I am withdrawing funds as it were, from my familiarity with real animals, and applying this to a theoretical creature in a theoretical world. Once the director approves this design, then I design the internal anatomy, first the skeleton, and then the muscle layers.
For existing species, it’s a sort of middle ground–I design correct but slight variants constantly referencing the existing skeletons and anatomies—say, I need to draw a variety of horses for a new production of Black Beauty—I’ll do an attractive masculine thoroughbred crossbred (Black Beauty), and purebred thoroughbred mare, more feminine version (Ginger), and a compact little Shetland pony (Merrylegs), looking closely at actual horses and their anatomies. I then will design the skeletons and then the musculatures. This applies to both 2D and 3D productions. I can then go on to further stylization or not, depending on the realism of the project.
With prehistoric animals, it’s the reverse–you must start from the most complete skeletons, and then design the muscles, and lastly, the surface. You can’t argue with the data to start. After that is done, depending on the production, you can exaggerate or edit stylistically (as in The Land Before Time) or not (Walking with Dinosaurs).
- How do you draw animals that have more than 4 limbs? (This includes creatures with 4 legs and a pair of wings and a creature with more than 4 legs).
Most of the time we are dealing with hexapods—that is, creatures with 6 legs/3 pairs of limbs. An obvious example are insects and crustaceans, but they have a well documented way of moving and anatomies uniquely designed for this. So they are not the ‘troublemakers’. More typically the hexapods we’re asked to design and animate are creatures with the usual four-legged vertebrate body plan plus an extra pair of forelimbs usually to act as wings (unless you are Odin’s 8 legged steed Sleipner, an equinoctopod). Pegasus, hippogriffs, and many dragons (technically Weta’s magnificent Smaug is a Wyvern, so he doesn’t count in this regard) are examples of these kinds of hexapods. The theoretical key is to create separate but not identical scapulae, one pair for the running forelegs, and then just above, a pair of scapulae that are more on par with those of birds, and fused to the ribcage, for the forelimbs that act as wings. It is not realistic to have the wing anatomy to come out of the middle of the back, as that would cause a ‘parachute’ effect, causing the creature to droop down nose-wise. With the musculature of the respective shoulder girdles, you are playing a game with fasciae layers so as not to create frictions between these muscle groups. It’s complicated. And you also need to create a large keel-like sternum to attach the large pectoral muscles that power the wings…a lot to consider.
- What is your favorite creature(s) that you’ve created? Is there a particular reason?
I think my most favorite fantasy creature that I have created for a project is the Haddax from Tales of Amalthea. He’s a kind of antelope/Synthetoceras combined with a dinosaur. He looks funny, but he is actually quite smart. My most favorite real animal character is Quigga the quagga (a type of zebra) from The Katurran Odyssey. My most favorite Star Wars creature is the Sando Aqua Monster. I like her long, lithe design. She eats everything, does what she wants, is very lazy, and no one messes with her, including Godzilla. I think she ate him for lunch the other day.
- My favorite creature of yours is the Sando Aqua Monster. I love of how they subtly resemble cats (at least in my opinion) and the way they move. Can you tell me a little more about their design?
Haha—I like how you think! I wanted to create an animal that was at the top of the food chain and totally at home in its environment, and who comes unexpectedly out of the darkness scarier than one’s worst nightmare. She’s probably a bit too intense for very young children.
My inspiration was from Apocalypse Now, a film which should be in everyone’s toolkit vocabulary (Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Blade Runner are also those you must know, as these four films, in addition to Star Wars, A New Hope, are those to which all other films are compared). Set in the Vietnam War, a small group of expeditionary American GIs are making their way through the jungle—it is an impossibly claustrophobic feeling of impending entrapment. Their nerves are strained to the breaking point, as they wield their rifles, spinning around in all directions, and suddenly there is silence—even the birds are quiet. They hear a snap, snap, here, a crickle….someone is tracking them…they think it is the Viet Cong…and that is what we expect…but it is a TIGER!!!!! Even worse, for being eaten alive is a terrible way to die…and they are so afraid they can’t even shoot straight, for this is a totally unexpected and alien enemy (the tiger thinks better of the situation and withdraws from the scene, happily, because we’re pretty sick of death and dismemberment, whether by hand of man or paw of tiger by now). So that was my inspiration, and indeed, most of the Sando Aqua Monster was created, both in mind and body, from a tigress. I simply adapted a tigeress to the undersea environment and kept the personality and habits. So now you know a little known bit of Star Wars trivia—the particular Sando Aqua Monster seen in the film is a female.
- Do you have any specific advice for someone seeking to have a career like yours?
I most emphatically recommend, if one specifically is interested in creature design, to be excellent at real animal drawing, anatomy, and form. This is foundational and cannot, cannot, cannot be skipped or ignored. You will by necessity become in the process a naturalist, for you will also need to know as much as possible about your subject matter—the animals. That is how I was able to make all those relational Star Wars design decisions when it came to the theoretical creatures that inhabit that universe. Indeed, as George Lucas would tell you, the aesthetic and modus operandi of Star Wars design is to take objects, people, and animals of Earth, and tweak them—just slightly—and apply all the same rules of physics and natural history to them. Thus, familiarity with human culture, the environment, industrial design, and zoology are all very important to Star Wars as a designer.
Wanting a career where one only designs purely imaginary animals that come out of one’s own head is neither realistic, practical, or possible in today’s world. That is a fantasy in itself. An art director needs to see that you have the ability to draw a real kitty in addition to the next variation of the really spiny reptoinsect zombie (yawn) from Zardoz. Yes, it takes hard work and practice to draw cats really well, but, think of all the movies, commercials, toys, books, and TV animated series that have cats in them!
As I’ve discussed numerous times, most of my work comes from doing real animals. Count on the fingers of one hand how many Star Wars level films or even TV series are released each year. My current project in fact, concerns real animals. Indeed, they are doing human activities, but even stylized and caricatured, their anatomies are according to their species. And while the designers of Disney’s Zootopia took some liberties, they were informed liberties that did not compromise the integrity of actual animal anatomy, but rather, celebrated it. For example, none of the animals, with the exception of a few primates, had collarbones. They were not human characters in animal suits. But the designers understood and appreciated actual animal anatomy, they were able to make you believe that a fox could wear a suit, drive a car, and get away with it as a matter of course!
Understanding and practicing real animal anatomy and at the same time treasuring actual species as beings of inestimable value, gives you the wings necessary to be a professional creature designer—you will be then prepared for anything an art director can throw at you—whether he or she is from National Geographic, Animal Planet, Smithsonian, Blizzard, Pixar, Disney, ILM, Weta, and who knows where else! Not only will you have the almost limitless wealth of the variety of nature as your treasure box, but the love and care you have for the Real Deal will be subconsciously transmuted and translated over into your imaginary ones, giving them life and personality. Anatomy is essential as animation is impossible without it, enough said, But, even more, without this love and passion for the actual, imaginary creatures will be only dryly academic, become less and less original, fall more and more in a design rut, and lack the necessary breath of life and soul of spirit, which is so absolutely essential in order for the audience to embrace them as fact.