Jar Jar Binks designer Terryl Whitlatch on keeping fantastic beasts grounded in reality

Photo by Willeke Machiels (detail)

The acclaimed creature creator on her dazzling career of chimeras and cuties.

2019 has been the year of fresh new design conferences making their mark on the creative calendar. The US for example struck gold with Lightbox Expo in September, while October saw Playgrounds put on their biggest The Art Department fest yet in both Eindhoven and Berlin.

The success of both could be put down to how they appeal to younger audiences, fitting considering the relative youth of each events. Large crowds of future animators, character designers and digital illustrators flock to these gatherings for wisdom imparted from the likes of Loish, who in our recent interview told us how she felt the influence of the art school was on the wane.

A true veteran in the field though is creature designer Terryl Whitlatch, whose anatomically-perfect chimeras and cuties have found their way into the worlds of fantasy (Beowulf), sci-fi (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) and the prehistoric (check out one of her viral dino interpretations of Marvel superheroes below.)

Sitting down with Terryl, we asked her about how young talent should prepare themselves for a career in creature design, and discovered more about her work for Stars Wars in the form of cheeky old Jar Jar Binks and additions to the remastered version of the famous Cantina Scene. Note all examples of artwork are copyright Terryl Whitlach.

Giacomo Lee: What will students and recent grads learn from your Playgrounds talk?

Terryl Whitlatch: "Unfortunately some students of conceptual design that want to be creature designers leave behind the actual creatures because all they want to do is draw monsters to dragons and aliens from Planet Zoid.

"They don’t realise, especially when they’re students, is that that’s relatively rare to do all that in professional work. There’s a lot more work in designing actual creatures and animals. Every Disney princess has a horse or a dog or rabbit friend. In so many productions, from Bolt to Jungle Book, all those are real animals, and in order for those films to work, you have to have an empathy and a love for the real deal.

"I was hired by Industrial Light and Magic not because I have a portfolio full of space aliens or even fantasy animals. I did not. My artwork is all real animals, and when they hired me, they said, 'It was because you understand the anatomy and because you understand the real animals. We can use you. If it was the other way around, anybody can draw a dragon.'

"Dragons have no peers in nature. But a tiger will always tell you how incorrectly you draw it."

When drawing endangered species like the tiger, do you hope such art can keep animals around?

"I’m passionate about that because the more real animals are portrayed, the more real animals have a chance of surviving. Like Studio Alpine, for example, they’ve done a really wonderful commercial saving orangutans. It's marvellous what artists can do to be able to portray real animals sympathetically and with love and soul. That is, I think, a crucial thing we can do to bring attention to their plight, and their plight is mostly our fault."

What's been your most recent project?

"Right now in production is a book that is authored by world-respected paleontologist Dr. Michael Habib, who is probably the world’s top expert in pterosaurs.

"The book’s called Flying Monsters, and it’s about illustrating animating flying creatures, whether they’re pterosaurs or you’re going to create the next Pegasus or a dragon or whatever it is that can fly.

"We go into bird anatomy, bat anatomy; even gliders, such as the flying squirrel. We go into how flying animals launch themselves from the ground, which is pretty critical. One of the things that’s been really fun is, how to do you get a horse into the air and have it do a sustained flight?

"There’s a couple of options, and they’re both rather bizarre. One is more bizarre than the other, and we decided, 'Well, instead of doing a Pegasus, let’s do a carnivorous Pegasus,' so we did a hippogriff instead and what would that look like from a paleontological or zoological point of view."

What was the most bizarre way of doing it?

"It needs the proportions of a Quetzalcoatlus. Quetzalcoatlus being those very large pterosaurs that looked like flying heads, basically. So, Michael gave me those proportions, and we were just calling it the 'Bizarrogriff' for lack of anything better to call it, and then we created a 'killerdactyl,' combining different aspects of some of the more flamboyant pterosaurs and such."

Do you approach all projects the same way, whether fantastical or realistic?

"It all comes from an appreciation and concern and love for what is already out there, even if my project is drawing dragons. If I have a sympathy and appreciation for an anole lizard or a crocodile, I want that to pay forward into the dragon character so that when people look at it, they have a sympathy for it and, by application, back to the crocodile and keeping crocodiles around.

"It all starts from that same germ of appreciating and having been concerned for nature, even if the end character is going to be a very exaggerated character, like A Pet Story or Zootopia. Those are quite fantastical, quite exaggerated characters, but you look how carefully and lovingly they were done. The production team, the conceptual artists, they were all appreciating and caring about what a real gazelle looks like or what a fox looks like, even though they’re anthropomorphised. It all comes from that."

How can artists ensure their creatures are real whilst conveying a certain personality? For example, the cheekiness of Jar Jar Binks, or the character of a shifty tyrannosaur?

"If we look at the physical design of Jar Jar Binks, he’s kind of round, and he has this nice swan-like neck. He’s got very open, round eyes. He’s an appealing, good-natured character. When I was designing him, I was actually more imagining him as a combination of Charles Chaplin and Addy Kay, so I was trying to channel those actors into this character. I’m not responsible for anything that happened later, of course, but that was my initial concept.

"When you’re designing characters, you’re actually getting to see body language because you’re preparing this creature for animation, so you need to kind of get into it, too.

"Also from Star Wars you have Sebulba, which is this really self-centered, mean, little pinched creature who just wants to win at any cost at the races, and he doesn't care who dies in the meantime.

"I kind of wanted him to be this little shrively, spidery, little pipsqueak of a being. When I was thinking about that, even before I started drawing him, I was actually at a zoo that was nearby, and there's this very, very large paddock where they had these dromedary camels. Dromedary camels are huge animals; they're very proud, very arrogant. They look at you like, 'Well, who are you?' I thought, 'Yes!'

"So, with Sebulba, I focused on the face and head of a camel and just shrank him down to this three-foot tall character, so he had this very proud expression and attitude. He’s always frowning, so he’s the opposite type of design mentality as Jar Jar Binks. Plus, I thought, 'Let’s just colour him kind of funny, purple with orange spots.' So, he’s like an Easter egg, but he’s not too happy about that.

You created new creatures for A New Hope's Cantina Scene as part of the remastered editions. How did it feel to add your own touch to such a legendary scene in cinema?

"For the cantina scene, George (Lucas) was never too happy with some of the original characters, some of which were Halloween masks because their budget was limited back then. He wanted me to design some characters to replace some of those.

"I designed a character called Ket Wong, who looks sort of like a taper. He’s got a long, little trunk, and he's all wrinkly. They only shot the head, but I actually designed the whole body for him, too.

"It was quite an honour to be able to have that character in this classic scene that I saw in 1977 when it first was shown in theaters. I was in high school, and I had no idea they were wearing Halloween masks!

"I also worked on the scene in Jabba’s Palace; I designed quite a few of the dancing girls. We called them 'Jabba's cuties'. There were so many characters, it starts to become a blur after a while. I also did some storyboarding for some of the new scenes that were added, especially the Ewoks.

"There was no more than seven people at anyone time working on those films as far as the previous ones, and that’s one thing I always want to also warn students is that those type of Avatar-level, Star Wars-level films, their art departments are always small. You get more artists working in down-the-line production, but as far as pre-vis goes, it's always relatively small."

What have been your favourite creatures to design?

"I guess one of my favourite characters is also from Star Wars, the Sando Aqua Monster.

"The way it moves, it’s a tiger. It’s at the top of the food chain; it stalks things; it grabs things. It’s very confident and has a little bit of laziness to it, like a big cat. Again, those are aspects of going beyond anatomy into personality, creating an actor, basically."

How would you feel if you woke up one day and discovered scientists had engineered one of your chimeras?

"I'd be happy as long as the animal was healthy and not compromised, and they created another one so it would have a mate and not be lonely!"

Over your career, you must have seen many trends come and go in the industry. What's been the biggest change in your opinion?

"I was born during the 1960s 'Mad Men' era, so by the time I was old enough to spread my wings, I was just about at the end of the Golden Age of the advertising era, where you had illustrators that were very competent and very wonderful, and there was this competition: How can you be the best illustrator?

"This was even before we had words like 'visual development', which is kind of an artificial term for good illustration. When you were trained to be an illustrator, you were trained automatically to be a director, to be the rigger, to be the lighter, to know perspective, to understand how to draw the human figure, and those are things you just need to know. Like how to tell a good story instead of it having to be fed to you, and if you are given a script or a narrative or the art for something that’s commercial, an advertisement for a product, etc., what is the story of that product?

"You had to do a lot of this thinking for yourself, at the same time becoming a good artist. We had to master all sorts of traditional media, whether oil paints, acrylics, wash , watercolor, pastel, having a competence across the board. Of course, you specialise in one or the other you like better; acrylics and wash being good for that era and also filmmaking, marker."

And these days?

"Nowadays, I see these students who have no working knowledge of traditional media, so when they go and do digital media, they’re a slave to the digital. They can’t manipulate it. Nowadays, I do hybrids; I do a mesh of traditional and digital because I don’t want to lose the chaos factor of traditional art and that signature that keeps it looking unique and experimental and alive as opposed to basically another thing.

"A lot of my peers do exactly the same thing, and we’ve been around the block a lot, so we feel so grateful in mastering those traditional techniques drummed into us, and we had to make a living at it, painting as fast as we could, having to make those decisions.

"So, you had to make strategic decisions when you’re painting or drawing. We didn’t have the luxury of delete keys."

Photo by Willeke Machiels

Catch Terryl Whitlatch speaking at this year's Adobe MAX in LA, and visit her ArtStation page here.

Read next: Loish and the influence of The Little Mermaid on her female character designs

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