Episode 159 — Interview with the Creator of Jar Jar Binks Terryl Whitlatch

 

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Episode 159 — Interview with the Creator of Jar Jar Binks

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 159! I’m speaking with Terryl Whitlatch about Jar Jar Binks, Star Wars and her amazing career. I’m really excited about this one! Terryl is an amazing Illustrator and Creature Designer, with an amazing portfolio. We talk about really cool stuff.

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST

[1:14] If you haven’t gotten the Ultimate Demo Reel Guide, get it now for free: www.allanmckay.com/myreel/. It’s not going to be out for much longer. It talks about everything that has to do with a demo reel that gets you hired. This advice is coming not just from me, but from other specialists in the industry who do the actual hiring.

In addition to the book, you will also have access to a free 2-hour Master Class. Get this free content now: www.allanmckay.com/myreel/.

 

INTERVIEW WITH TERRYL WHITLATCH

Terryl Whitlatch is considered to be one of the top Creature Designers and Animal Anatomists working in the field today. In a career spanning over 25 years, Terryl’s film credits include Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars:The Special Edition, Jumanji 1 and 2, Men in Black, Brother Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Curious George, Beowulf and many more. She has worked for ILM, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Walt Disney, Talking Pictures, LucasArts, Chronicle Books, Simon and Schuster, and various zoos and natural history museums.

Terryl is also the author of two books, The Wildlife of Star Wars and The Katurran Odyssey. In addition, Terryl is involved with several other book and film concepts, as well as teaching Creature Design and Construction / Anatomy at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA.

In this Episode, Terryl talks about the original passion that inspired her art, the difference between 2D and 3D animation — as well as hyperrealistic vs non-realistic creatures — and her work on some of the most memorable characters in film, like Jar Jar Binks.

 

[2:34] Allan: Thank you again for taking the time to chat. Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Terryl: Most certainly! My name is Terryl Whitlatch. I am the artist who has been fortunate enough to spend most of my career creating either real animals or imaginary, or prehistoric [ones]. So there has always been a lot of variety of projects and shows. I’ve been very, very fortunate to do what I love to do!

[3:21] Allan: That’s so awesome! I’m really jealous. You did get to work on some amazing creatures. Did you always want to be an artist growing up, or was it something you discovered later?

Terryl: I think it must have been really early on that I wanted to be some kind of an artist. We talking about being 3 years old. That’s when my mother said I was starting to draw. I couldn’t physically hold a crayon yet. But I was always fascinated by nature and animals. It was a fascination with animals that made me want to draw them. I drew them not because I wanted to be an artist, but because I wanted to be closer to the animals and understand [them] better. That was the key for me.

[04:27] Allan: That’s so cool. We don’t think about these things very much. It’s not the mechanics but everything to do with these interesting creatures out there. How did you get started? And how did realize that this could be a potential career?

Terryl: Well, I was very interested in zoology and both contemporary and prehistoric species. My father has been through medical school and he was always into sciences, taking our family to the zoos. He’s also been all over the world because he was a naval officer. My mother is an artist. She’s an illustrator. My sister turned out to be a very talented graphic designer. My mother’s father had a horse ranch. The first animal that actually touched was a horse. Because of that combination of science and art, I wanted to use those together, but as a child I didn’t know how that would work. But when I was in high school, one of my teacher told me that in we would have a special guest: He was a scientific illustrator who was going to give a talk at UC Berkeley. I went to that talk. Here was someone who did natural history illustration and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!” Do you work for the National Geographic? Or the Smithsonian? That was my objective.

[07:29] Allan: That’s so cool! Did you maintain that connection with that guest speaker afterward? Or was it just the spark that ignited your career? Was there any communication beyond that point?

Terryl: Yes, there was. I wrote him a letter. My high school wasn’t that far from UC Berkeley. He wrote back (this was before the internet). So I brought my 15-year old self and my drawings and he mentored me for the rest of high school. He was very gracious. His name was Gene Chrisman. He was very kind, and it was wonderful.

[08:51] Allan: Did you find that having a mentor benefited you throughout your career? Having mentors — when you’re fortunate enough to find them — can be life changing.

Terryl: I think that it was very important and instrumental. Again, I was quite young. In the late 70s, there weren’t as many opportunities for women. I didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse, or a secretary. To have someone like Gene encouraging me meant that his encouragement would go a long way. It’s not only the spark — but the encouragement that feeds the spark — that is very, very important!

[10:09] Allan: From there, going to work, what were the instrumental parts? 

Terryl: At age 15, I studied animal anatomy: how they moved, why they looked the way they did, why they behaved the way they did. What’s the psychology and even spirituality of animals? At the same time, I was doing horseback riding. Horses are amazingly psychic animals. I still ride to this day. But I studied all kind of anatomy and thought about how I would apply that to a National Geographic illustration. It was not just a study of animals but how I would translate that [knowledge] to any audience. Because it’s a story. The influences I looked at were: Bob Kuhn, a wonderful animal illustrator; William D. Berry who did a lot of field guide illustration (who did particularly the animals of California and Alaska). You could see that these two gentlemen really felt the animal and sympathized with them. It was about getting into the animal’s world.

[13:16] Allan: That’s amazing! I love that you were able to get that passion early on. A lot of people are still tossing around what they want to do, at 15 years old. You found it and blocked out the noise and went after it. In terms of film or games, what was the first job you landed?

Terryl: In the entertainment industry? Let’s back up just a bit. My education was in zoology and sciences. After that, I had two and half semesters at art schools: One of them was at the California College of Arts and Crafts; the other — The Academy of Art University. To get a Bachelor of Fine Arts, I had to participate in a student show. I did. The next day, I got a call from Lucasfilm. And all of my pictures were of real animals (not even dragons). They hired me to work on a video game and they said they knew I understood animal anatomy. That was my first job in the entertainment industry.

[16:02] Allan: These days, the amount of detail is so obvious. But back in the day, it was a bit crude. To translate what you’ve been studying, what was that experience like?

Terryl: Well, first of all, it was very, very, very fun. But what they had me do is draw animals as realistically as possible, because it then allowed them to edit down. It was a relatively new technology. There were no constraints for me. They asked me to give as much information as possible. And I did.

[17:07] Allan: What happened after that project? Did it spark a longer relationship with LucasArts?

Terryl: After that project, I was hired by the licensing company for the World Wide Life Fund. They were based out of San Francisco, so for the next year or year and a half, I was doing wildlife designs: from animals to be replicated as toys, to animals inside snow globes, on t-shirts. I did lots and lots of pandas, as you can imagine! Then after that gig, I got a call from ILM and they needed someone who could draw animals, for Jumanji. So that was my first feature.

[18:09] Allan: That would’ve been an amazing experience! What was it like?

Terryl: It was quite wonderful! My Art Director was Doug Chiang.

[18:27] Allan: Oh, wow!

Terryl: It was a great project. I was very fortunate to be hired by ILM at that time, because it was really like the Wild West. So many programs were being developed! It was amazingly crazy, in the best way. It was amazing! During that time, at ILM, anything that had an animal in it — they just handed it to me. I was the only female there, at that time.

[19:49] Allan: How many people were there at that time?

Terryl: How many people in the art department? Let’s see. About 7 artists and some would come and go. Everyone had a specialty.

[20:32] Allan: What would be the challenges that you would face at the time, project to project?

Terryl: We worked pretty long hours, from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. At about [7:00], the guys would get paunchy and they would play video games. I wouldn’t. I worked on lots of movies and commercials.

[21:20] Allan: What year was that?

Terryl: 1994?

[21:35] Allan: How long were you there for?

Terryl: I was there for about 6 months and then I went to Lucasfilm for Star Wars.

[21:49] Allan: Did you learn a lot from that experience?

Terryl: I really, really did! To see movie making and tv making, the tapestry that it takes to get these projects to happen! I’ve worked on a lot of things that weren’t green lit too. I still have to get permission to put stuff in my book. (And I still can’t get permission for some stuff, from 20 years ago. That’s too bad, but that’s the way it is!)

[22:49] Allan: So you said you transitioned from there to Lucasfilm? 

Terryl: I was asked to do a picture — a reconstruction of a dewback — and I did. I had two references: a fuzzy photograph of a dewback and part of the head. That’s all I had. I was asked to draw one and I did. I went back to a commercial I was working on. Then, a week later, Mark Morris, my other Art Director, came by. He said [my drawing] was a big hit at the Ranch. Naive as I was, I didn’t realize “the Ranch” meant George Lucas. It’s like “The White House” means “The President”. I was happy for the rest of my life. Then Dennis Muren came by and told me I got the job.

[24:32] Allan: He’s such a nice guy! What happened then?

Terryl: Well, then it became official that George was starting up the Star Wars franchise again. There was a nation-wide call. All of us at ILM submitted our portfolios. I went home for a month after that. Daniel King called me and said, “Guess what? You and I are going to be working together on the next Star Wars!” We were so excited! We were the first two people hired. Every couple months, George would hire a new artists, as things progressed. I think there was 6 or 7 of us working on that film, at the most. It was quite exciting!

[26:07] Allan: What were some of the challenges on that project? You were responsible for some of the most memorable characters.

Terryl: When we were hired, George gave a lot of references. There needed to be visual references from Episodes 4 through 6. It had to be part of the same aesthetic feeling, with references from different cultures and worlds. It was a very beautiful world, with a complicated eco system. My job was to fill that world with creatures that looked like they belonged there. For the first 6 months, I was working on the characters in the stampede scene. And then, midway through that, we started to do other characters like the Gungans and Jar Jar. But the first 6 months was about exploring the universe. The buck stopped with George, so we had the luxury to really explore that world.

[28:04] Allan: That’s extremely rare! In a way, you were creating your own language? How much of Jar Jar were you responsible for?

Terryl: We all contributed to his design. We worked a lot on him. Doug came up with the direction for his face, but then handed it to me to “make it real”. Iain was the costume designer, from human costumes to animal ones. As far as Jar Jar’s walk, teeth, coloration, his skeletal configuration, that was my job.

[29:48] Allan: Considering all that responsibility you had, what was it like to have him come to life?

Terryl: It’s like seeing your child graduate from college. I felt the same way with all the characters I developed — and then realizing how many, many people it took to get them up there [on the screen]!

[30:36] Allan: It was also such an important point. He was the first fully CG character in a story. Obviously, that has a mixed reception, but I think it has more to do with how he talks.

Terryl: I did my best on him. It was quite fun! And there were so many other characters, like Sebulba whom I called the Anti Jar Jar. I love him! My favorite one was Sando Aqua Monster. I loved working on that character. The underwater dragon!

[31:48] Allan: Let’s say for Sebubla or Jar Jar, where do you look for your reference?

Terryl: In nature. In the real world. The key to the Star Wars design is: It’s like on Earth but slightly tweaked [so] people can imagine themselves in that universe. Jar Jar was a combination of a dinosaur, with parrotfish’s pattern on his skin, and an amphibian. With Sebulba, he came from a dromedary camel at the Oakland Zoo. His head is a camel head. A camel is a grand and arrogant looking animal. To minimize it is kind of funny. I was wanted him to have camel’s sour attitude.

[35:35] Allan: That really worked! From there, having gone to work on such a pivotal project, what was next? You’ve worked at Pixar and at Disney.

Terryl: From Star Wars, I went to Disney. I worked on Brother Bear in Orlando. I would fly and work for a couple of weeks and then they’d fly me back to Oregon; and back again. I loved working on Brother Bear. It’s one of my favorite projects because it had real animals. My job was to do a lot of realistic studies of bears in all kinds of poses. And then from there, to edit it all down to the studio release character. Before I was designing for 3D. Now I was designing for 2D, which is not that dissimilar. 2D animation is about giving the production team as much information as possible, and then you need to edit (which in 2D, you need to do). You have to have the anatomy be spot on, especially with realistic animals. Brother Bear’s aesthetics are similar to those on Bambi, or even more so. My Supervisor was Aaron Blaise and to this day, we’re very good friends. That was a wonderful production to be on. Those same production drawings were used for Brave, for reference.

[36:59] Allan: Looking at reality, how do you think the final perception of 2D character translates. Obviously, for Disney, you they to have big eyes and be cute and cuddly. What do you see the difference to be?

Terryl: I would say that it depends on a production. It’s apples and oranges. They’re both high production level quality. There is Zootopia which has intentionally non-realistic animals, and then you have Brother Bear which has realistic animals in a non-realistic setting. A better comparison would be Brother Bear and Lilo and Stitch. I did not work on that one, but on Lilo and Stitch you have a lot of exaggerated species, including with animals, that do occur. Brother Bear was pretty realistic to that. But with Brother Bear, there was a hypersensitivity to how animals moved and ran. It wasn’t that different designing for Brother Bear as opposed to 3D:

  • You want to get the point across.
  • You want to have a natural movement.

In a way, 2D animation self-corrects the challenges of 3D animation. There is an intuitive feel when the animator is drawing the cells. A 2D animation has a really intuitive sense of weight and gravity. They’re still trying to work out the bugs on that in 3D.

[39:29] Allan: That’s such a huge challenge. Unless it’s Pixar — which is so stylized — mimicking reality is really difficult. I was just talking to an artist at Weta working on replacing Paul Walker in the last Furious film.

Terryl: And it’s a challenge not resulting in uncanny valleys. That’s a big one.

[40:29] Allan: That’s the thing about doing characters people aren’t familiar with yet. You get to create it from scratch.

Terryl: I think the biggest challenge with 3D as far as creatures go is: It is far more difficult to an existing species in a realistic way, than an imaginary one. You’re always going to be able to tell the difference between a CG horse and a real horse, at least for right now. You can spot that, or at least I can. Maybe another example would be an elephant.

[41:40] Allan: Brother Bear was the last 2D film I’ve seen. I really loved it! From there, did you stay at Disney for a while? What happened after that?

Terryl: The next step after that, it kind of becomes a blur of all the characters I’ve worked on: from really cartoon-like to really realistic looking ones. I actually had a chance to initiate my own IP which was a story called The Katurran Odyssey which will be published later this year. It was an experimental book at the time. It’s not a graphic novel, but a cinematic one. Does that make sense? It was done in a film aspect ratio, so when you open it, it has the same proportions as a cinema film. There is text and type, but most of the real estate are pictures. It’s a fantasy story about a lemur who lives on a fantasy planet like Earth. It’s called Katurran. It’s inhabited entirely by animals, any species that have lived on this planet. He goes on an adventure. That’s what I’ve worked on for a couple of years.

[43:55] Allan: What was that like to take a break from some of the more collaborative projects and do something unique for yourself?

Terryl: It was very lovely and refreshing. I would encourage any artist to do that. When you’re running from a job to a job, to a job, those jobs belong to somebody else. And this job belongs to you! It’s pretty magical. It wasn’t entirely un-collaborative. I worked with an editor and also with a wonderful designer Bob Carrau. It was a very wonderful experience. It was still a collaborative project. It was pretty darn cool!

[45:11] Allan: To talk about Brave: You went to Pixar for a while. What was it like to go from Disney to Pixar (before it was owned by Disney)?

Terryl: Well, I worked on Brave early on. In general, the look and feel of Pixar is different. It’s all about the design aesthetic which is tailored somewhat to a particular production. Brave has a very elegant aesthetic. It’s sensitive to a mythical Scotland. As far as working on Elinor, at first she had a very elegant feel to her. It was almost like working on an illustrated book.

[46:59] Allan: One of my favorite painting-like frames of the movie at Pixar is of Brave. Was that your only project there?

Terryl: Yes, that was my only project for Pixar.

[47:30] Allan: That’s cool! What was like to work on John Carter? I like that film.

Terryl: It was fun. Actually, Iain McCaig directed me on that on. It’s not meant to be sci fi. We know that. The true Martian landscape would not be able to sustain life. But it was really fun working on that, especially the various beasts.

[48:32] Allan: I didn’t realize it was this giant cash cow they expected it to be. It reminded me more of older movies from the 60s. It had more of that classic feel, and that’s what it reminded me of.

Terryl: It reminded me of Ray Harryhausen movies.

[49:11] Allan: What were some of the creature you were involved on that? And what were the challenges?

Terryl: The major ones… I can describe them. The really cute one, like a pug. The horse-like ones and the main Martian ones. Those were fun to figure out: where would the heart fit? Of course, the audience didn’t see that. And working with Iain is always great!

[50:17] Allan: What about Beowulf? Did you work on horses in that one?

Terryl: I actually worked on the dragon on that one. It was fun! I had a good time.

[51:01] Allan: I would pop by the set at that time. It ended up being iconic [because it aimed] for hyperrealism. 

Terryl: It’s also great to like everyone you work with, everyone involved in the process. Every project is an adventure.

[51:40] Allan: What have been some of the more recent challenges on your projects you’ve run into? Obviously, it’s a similar process but the demands can be different. 

Terryl: Some of them I can’t mention because they’re under NDA. Oh, well, let’s see. I recently worked on one of the greatest American stories and it’s an animal story. And the challenge was with the hero animal which needed to be believable and relatable. What is that sweet spot? A lot of what I’m asked to do is not a fully rendered and realistic character (there are texture artists who can do that). But they needed me to nail the essence of the character. That’s a lot of what I do:

  • The proportions;
  • The anatomy;
  • The expressions;
  • The movements.

I make sure that all works. And then someone else can go do the texture. It depends though: One of my recent jobs (another project I can’t tell you about), it had both real and imaginary animal characters; but I had to make sure that their aesthetic matched the one of human characters. And these characters were exaggerated. It’s been a nice balance to go from hyperrealism to non-realistic — and still make things work.

[54:47] Allan: That’s great! What do you think is one of the main characteristics that gives life to your character?

Terryl: The eyes are obviously really important; but gestures are just as important. How an animal looks at you or moves its body: these are gestures that animals use to communicate with us and other species. What are the ways animals walk, move and behave. What’s the animal’s soul? You only learn that by watching the real deal as much as you can. Go to the zoo and pet stores as much as you can. So many people don’t do that, I really don’t understand that.

[57:10] Allan: Thank you again for taking the time to chat! Where can people go to find out more about you?

Terryl:

[57:55] Allan: This has been really inspiring!

Terryl: It’s been an honor and a pleasure! Thank you for having me!

 

I want to thank Terryl for taking the time to chat. I had a blast with this Episode.

I’ll be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!

 

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