Interview: Terryl Whitlatch
Terryl Whitlatch is one of the most well-known creature designers in the industry. She has worked with a long and impressive list of clients over the years including Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar and Disney. She is also a writer and has devoted many years to teaching.
Hi Terryl! Thanks a lot for this opportunity to talk to you today. First and foremost, I wanted to ask you what is it about creature design that has kept you interested through your entire career?
I suppose what has kept me interested in creature design is the sheer variety of life forms that I’ve been able to explore and visualize, and help bring to life—and the process I go through in doing so. Whether I’m working on real animal characters or imaginary creature characters, all give me the opportunity to do a lot of research and observation of actual species, and in doing so, I learn lots of things and see lots of things that I wasn’t aware of before—these insights are treasures to me, that I can invest into my characters.
Your works are filled with wit and humor, but they are also unbelievably realistic and thought-through. How do you make imaginary seem so real?
As I referred to above, it has to do with the observation of real life—both of animals and of human beings—the research and observation of animals doing what they want to do, not as how we conventionally think about them. They have their own cultures and societies. Animals will always surprise you. They do some pretty funny things. It doesn’t take that much imagination to put human voices to the horses in the stable where I ride. They are always getting up to things, even to the point of making faces to get attention.
Do you have any advice about avoiding stiffness when designing creature’s poses? What is your process when drawing dynamic poses from imagination?
To avoid stiffness in poses, try not to put your creature in a conventional or poster child pose. Real animals rarely do such things. Does an elephant decide that he is going to spend the day looking majestic? Rather, he’s going to be looking for food, or playing or interacting with other elephants. If you watch baby elephants, they get into all kinds of crazy poses. So do most other animals. And don’t get me started on all the impossible poses that felines get themselves into! Again, you avoid stiffness in poses when you have spent time watching and sketching real animals (just as you would with human beings), and continually commit these to memory. It’s an ongoing process. This is money in the bank for a creature designer.
Out of all the personal or business projects you’ve done in your career, what is the one (or a couple) of creatures you created that are your most favorite or memorable?
I suppose one of my favorites would be the Sando Aqua Monster from The Phantom Menace. She (yes, it was a female) was so very huge, and could do anything that she wanted to do. Immense sense of power. And I learned some very good insights from my art director, the amazing artist Doug Chiang, about the importance of making the eyes small, so that the overall creature would seem even larger. On the other end of the spectrum, I loved working on the moose brothers from Brother Bear. Moose are such fun animals to draw. But I think my most favorite character is Quigga the Quagga (a type of zebra) from my book, The Katurran Odyssey. Quigga gave me the chance to draw equines to my heart’s content.
Sometimes the projects we work on turn out to be a struggle. How do you overcome this when you still have a deadline ahead of you? Do you have any techniques you can share that help you get through the mind block?
I try to look beyond the deadline, and visualize something nice to do for myself. I remind myself that I am doing this job for someone else, to make them happy, and which will make their lives easier, and that helps. I go outside in the garden, take my dog for a walk, and if there is time, go out and ride a horse, which is one reason I have regularly scheduled riding lessons. This loosens my mind and anxiety up, and helps me to dive back into the fray. I remind myself that perfection is not possible for a mortal and fallible human being, but excellence is, and that’s what I shoot for. I use tracing paper liberally to get the poses and composition, and anatomies right, and am not afraid to commit bad drawings to the circular file in the process. And, I remind myself that in the process of this struggle or mind block, I will be a better artist for it.
You’ve worked with so many well-known directors and producers during your career that we’d love to ask you for tips about artist-client relationships. Can you share some of your personal do-s and don’t-s?
Don’t make your artwork personal—except for excellence—this artwork becomes the property of the client from the get-go as soon as you sign the contract—and it is your job to please them. Give them what they want, and then, if you have time, include a sketch that may be your personal vision of the character—they just might go for it instead, and it will still feel like ‘their’ idea to them. Include supplementary characters in the same scene or page as your character—such as an ‘insect’, ‘bird’, or small rodent. That’s how many of the ancillary creatures in The Phantom Menace made it to the Big Screen.
If someone out there told you they’d want to do what you are doing - design and illustrate creatures for the entertainment industry - what advice would you give them in terms of developing and presenting their portfolio?
Do not neglect to include real animals and real animal characters in your portfolio if you wish to be a creature designer. Real animals are the foundation of any imaginary creature character, and an art director needs to see that you have a sound knowledge of animal anatomy, especially if it is going to be animated. Plus there are more jobs out there doing real animals than imaginary ones. Lucasfilm didn’t hire me because I had a portfolio full of space aliens and dragons. I didn’t. They hired me because I had a portfolio full of very real animals and their anatomies. My first feature was Jumanji.
Do you think having support systems around - be it family or community of like-minded people - is important for an artist to develop? Has it helped you personally on the way?
Absolutely. Having support systems is so very important. It is very easy for an artist to remain in their own little bubble and noodle on his or her own stuff, which can be growth enabling for a time (after all, art takes time and concentrated personal dedication), but can also be growth stunting if one doesn’t ‘come up for air’, and see what one’s peers are doing. And if one’s peers are also one’s friends, how wonderful that is! Not only are they inspiring, but they provide a safe sounding board and constructive critiques to point out flaws we are blind to, and thus we learn and move forward. Plus, inevitably there will come life challenges, and our support systems come into play at those very critical points, to encourage and lend us the courage we need to persist. And we can do the same for them.
To wind down, tell us, having worked on so many amazing projects from such different spheres, is there still something that you have a dream of doing?
I think I am starting to do this now…I’m concentrating on my own IP’s—mainly publishing, that is books. I’m working madly on my latest, Flying Monsters—Illustrating Flying Vertebrates—and The Katurran Odyssey is in the middle of being republished at this writing. And I have several more book projects—Bestiary—which is now a series rather than one massive tome—after that. And after that, I have a short list of little projects having to do with animal design, some with a bit of humor. Ultimately doing my own art IP’s and riding horses, that has always been my dream, and that is what is amazingly happening now. I am very grateful. God is good.
Thanks again for your time Terryl, and wishing you all the best!
Thank you so much!