The Gnomon Workshop

Interview with Terryl Whitlatch

GW: One might argue that you are one of the worlds most recognized and talented wildlife artist working in film and games today. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

TW: Well, this is always a hard question...about me, hmm! I've always been fascinated by the natural world around me, and about its myriads of inhabitants--the huge amount of fauna around us, and the striking variations of form from the legless to the winged and flying beings, the wonder and beauty of it all and to think we are privileged as human beings to share this planet with them. That is what inspires me and my artwork.

I was introduced to this world early on by my parents, particularly by my father, who taught high school biology and chemistry, and was always bringing stuff home in jars and cages. We spent many hours at the California Academy of Science, and I remember gazing enraptured at the outstanding mounted specimens in the African and North American Halls, and sketching the various creatures, especially the zebras, antelopes, and in particular the wildebeests, both the Brindled Gnus and the White-tailed gnu.

We also went to the San Francisco and Oakland Zoos many, many times--watching the animals in motion and in repose was like heaven to me. Later on when I was older I went to the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, which was my dream vacation.

My Grandfather also had a beautiful ranch of 300 acres around Clear Lake, California, where I was early on introduced to horses, which to this day continue to be my favorite animals. My sister and I took years of riding lessons, and eventually had our own horses. We also had lots of pets: dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, teddy bear hamsters, mice, rats, budgerigars, cockatiels, tadpoles, bullfrogs, a pony named Sugar, and a lovely white canary named Puff.

I was also constantly drawing both real and imaginary animals and thought I would become a scientific illustrator. I combined my love of art and science by majoring in vertebrate zoology and illustration in college. I graduated eventually with a major in Illustration from the Academy of Art University, where I teach Creature Design and Anatomy.

My mother is a very talented artist, and I learned so much from her all through my growing up years. Above all I think what shows up in what I draw is my love of anatomy combined with the personalities of the living creatures, whether alive today or extinct, and the endless variation on a theme, especially in the vertebrate animals. Well before college I studied anatomy on my own, hundreds of hours, and I'm always restudying it to this day.

GW: Many Artists having mastered Anatomy still lack the edge that enables them to create believable fantasy wildlife, what attributes enable you to define the line between reality and make believe to create such unique creatures?

TW: To make imaginary animals believable one must first be familiar with the biology of living animals--their place in nature, how they behave within their Environment, what they eat, how they catch their food, are they carnivorous, herbivorous, omnivorous, etc. how does their anatomy enable them to exist? How does their form influence their function, personality and habits? In essence what is the WHY of the species?

I think too many artists design a creature that looks "cool", and fail to think past that could that cool creature actually exist in its fantasy environment? Does it have a personality? Could a 5 headed antelope with armadillo armor and 8 long skinny legs really exist in a snowy environment and on top of that breathe fire? I don't think so.

The artist must understand the WHY, the natural history of the creature--that is the attribute which enables an artist to convincingly create a make-believe creature as if it could actually exist in its, or even in our, world.

GW: Starting out as a student of zoology did you always have the end goal of working on films or was there a defining moment that changed your direction?

TW: Actually, I sort of fell into the field of Creature Design for film, animation, and games. I had always intended to be a zoological illustrator for Museums, zoos, and the academic press, with a special emphasis in paleontological reconstruction, as well as fine art wildlife artwork.

It was my senior work in the spring show at the Academy of Art University which caught the eye of some folk from LucasArts, and the rest is history!

GW: Is there any particular breed or kind of animal/trait you find reoccurring in your work or you are drawn too?

TW: Oh yes, horses( especially mustangs, pintos, and Tennessee Walkers) and the horse-like antelopes--Sable, Roan, Oryx antelopes--as well as the gnus and wildebeests--and animals with long tails. But I love drawing all sorts of animals, so this is a very hard question--I love drawing pumas, clouded leopards, and fossas, as well as the smaller simians and prosimians, like lemurs, squirrel monkeys, and de Brazzas guenons, and the list goes on....I love drawing borzoi sighthounds.

GW: Among other things you’re well known for your creature work on Star Wars. You once mentioned the fact that Jar Jar took over a year to reach a final approval while Sebulba only took a few days can you elaborate?

TW: Well, JarJar was a very special character to George Lucas who would carry a lot of weight in the film, so he had to be designed very carefully, and George didn't have a clear idea of what this character would look like at the onset--only a vague idea and a personality. So he gave us a lot of Blue Sky. I started out armed only with the idea that the character was amphibious, bipedal, tall, gawky, clumsy, albeit earnest and well-meaning and had a personality like Charles Chaplin or Danny Kaye.

Designing JarJar was like looking at a huge block of marble and chipping away little by little at the excess rock to reveal Michelangelo's David. Not that I would try to compare myself with Michelangelo! I would draw a concept, and then George would see some aspect that he liked, and then then finally JarJar emerged as we now know him. There is a lot of emu (a flightless bird similar to an ostrich) in JarJar, as well as hadrosaur--this shows up especially in the way he moves and walks.

I think that once JarJar was done, it was easier for George as regards how the designs for the other characters went. He knew that he wanted a smallish (in order to fit into a racing pod) spidery character that walked on his hands and steered with his feet, was arrogant, sneaky, bad-tempered, as well as being a cheater and all-around bad guy.

So I gave Sebulba the head of a sour, ill-tempered camel with horn-like structures and a spidery way of moving. I choose his body coloration as purple with Easter egg spots of yellow orange for comic relief. So, it took only one day, and that's the way it went for most of the other pod racer characters, who, after all, are rather minor characters. George saw, he liked, and we all breathed a sigh of relief! I really enjoyed working with George. He's a very nice gentleman. But he knows what he likes and doesn't like.

GW: What do you find lacking or overlooked the most in current Concept or Student work today?

TW: What I find lacking the most in current Concept or Student work today is an understanding of how a creature's anatomy is influenced by its environment. Also, how the majority of what I see nowadays is copying over what has been done before--how many more orcs do we really need to see? Or skull-faced monsters? Or creatures that are mainly skeletons with fiery furnaces in their bellies and eyes? There needs to be more imagination in the design of creatures so they can fit believably in their habitats and survive--not just "look cool" and gnarly. People need to see how real creatures exist, and base their imaginary creatures on those--that's the important thing, and what really makes something look cool, original, and believable.

GW: Any desire to pursue more Game Work?

TW: Yes, I am always open to more game work, and am in fact working on a game with Helpful Bear Productions.

GW: Looking back on a successful career in film are there any moments that stand out, that you find your skill accelerated on any particular project.

TW: Oh, there are many moments that stand out--the days when the final concepts or JarJar and Sebulba were selected, designing the characters for a television animation pitch called Atomic Galaxie, the day when the final illustration for THE KATURRAN ODYSSEY was shipped off. I think my skills really accelerated when I was working on Brother Bear, Atomic Galaxie, and THE KATURRAN ODYSSEY, the latter two being my own projects.

GW: From what I understand you are pretty busy these days with Teaching, Freelance and side projects are there any upcoming plans in your future you care to share with us?

TW: I'm currently taking some time to prepare artwork for my upcoming classes in drawing dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals, as well as the game projects for Helpful Bear Productions, and some children's books involving imaginary colorful creatures...I have to be somewhat careful to talk about the details, naturally. And you'll probably see more of Katook the lemur in the next couple years, and Animals of the Bible, another book I'm working on.

GW: Thank you for talking with us today Terryl!

TW: Thanks, looking forward to seeing you soon.

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