Terryl Whitlatch worked as a concept artist on The Phantom Menace and the special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. She also co-wrote the book The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide which features her creature concept artwork from The Phantom Menace. She answered a few questions via email for this interview.
What was your introduction to Star Wars as an audience member?
I first saw Star Wars: A New Hope, in all its original glory in 1977–I was 17 years old. I was amazed–although I had been a fan of Star Trek and Ray Harryhausen from early childhood, I’d never seen anything like this before–the opening scenes with the Empire Armada cruising overhead blew me away at the get-go. Add to the fact that I was a navy brat–my father an officer attached to a huge aircraft carrier–the effect of reality was heightened even further.
Can you explain a bit about your art training and other projects you worked on before you designed creatures for the Star Wars universe?
I actually had relatively little formal art training–most of my education is in the sciences, specifically vertebrate zoology, with a special interest in vertebrate paleontology. I love animals and everything about them–their anatomy, behavior, beauty, and souls–can’t get enough of them, and so am eager to find out as much as possible about them. My intent was to become a Natural History Illustrator and do work for National Geographic and the like.
Post zoology, I divided several semesters between two different art schools to broaden my skills as an illustrator and was hired out of school by Lucasfilm–specifically LucasArts–to do conceptual work on a Stephen Spielberg project called The Dig. A couple of LF art directors saw my wildlife art at a student show and hired me because I knew animal anatomy–not because I had a portfolio full of creatures, dragons, and space monsters, which I didn’t. To them, it was the anatomy that counted, plus the fact that real animals are much more difficult to do than imaginary creatures (which have no peers in nature to compare with. However, a tiger will always tell you how incorrectly you drew it!)
After The Dig, I did wildlife art for the World Wildlife Fund licensing–designing anything from animal-themed cookie jars, collectible animal figurines, Christmas ornaments, textiles, T-shirts, ties, you name it.
Then, I got a call from ILM–they needed someone who could draw animals to design for Jumanji (art director Doug Chiang), and that was the start of my film career. Basically, any project that had animals, whether it be a feature film or a commercial, that part of the production was handed to me. I was also the sole female concept illustrator in the department at that time.
I worked on a bunch of projects, including Dragonheart and Men in Black, Superbowl Clydesdale commercials, Curious George, Alvin and the Chipmunks, the list goes on, some greenlit, some not, but everything was fun.
How did you become involved with the Star Wars original trilogy Special Editions? What kinds of concept art did you do for them? Was this around the same time as the work you did on The Phantom Menace?
I was given a rather curious assignment–to redesign from scratch a Dewback from A New Hope. All I had was a teeny tiny snapshot of the head–apparently, that was all that remained of the original practical model. Foam latex has the unfortunate habit of self-destructing. So, I designed the side view and top view and handed it off to my art director (Mark Morris), and returned to my initial project (doing the storyboards for the horse and cowboy sequences for The Indian in the Cupboard).
A week later, Mark Morris came by my desk and shared with me that The Ranch really liked the dewback; it took me about 20 seconds to realize that The Ranch was code for George Lucas! I think I was happy for the rest of my life at that point. Shortly after that, the rumors started that George was thinking of reprising the Star Wars films, which proved to be true shortly thereafter. A bunch of us at ILM submitted our portfolios, and Doug Chiang and I were the first to be officially hired to begin work on what became The Phantom Menace, as well as The Special Editions.
I did the concept design for the Special Editions concurrently with The Phantom Menace. I storyboarded all the Ewok celebration scenes and designed new creatures for the cantina scene, Ketwol being my personal favorite. He’s the one that sort of looks like a tapir or short-trunked elephant with curving tusks, and also the dancing girls for Jabba’s den of sin and iniquity. It was very, very special being able to be involved with those iconic films. An honor, really.
Is it true that as the conceptual designer for The Phantom Menace you designed most of the new creatures? How long did you work on that film? Who were some of the other people you worked with?
Yes, I designed the majority of the new creatures for The Phantom Menace. Gosh, I think I worked three years on that film, which is unheard of in Hollywood. But it was a unique situation, and this was George’s baby–he called the shots. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
I worked under Doug Chiang–he was/is an amazing Art Director and designer. I was also privileged to work with Iain McCaig, Ed Natividad, Benton Jew, David Dorzoretz, Robert Barnes, and Tony Mc Veigh. That’s about as large as the art department ever got.
Do you have any favorite illustrations from The Phantom Menace?
I think the one I did of the Sando Aqua Monster grabbing the Opee Sea Killer in a sort of a somersault pose is one of my favorites (you can see it in The Art of Star Wars–The Phantom Menace). The rest are sort of blurrs, there were so many. [You can find the image below and other concept art from The Phantom Menace in this article about designing monsters from StarWars.com.]
Are there any creatures you created for The Phantom Menace that you wish would have made an appearance on the screen?
Yes–the Zalaccas (horselike relatives of the Sando Aqua Monster) and the Narglatches (Nabooan swamp lions), but both made it into The Clone Wars, and you can also see them in my book, The Wildlife of Star Wars.
Are the creatures you designed usually inspired by real-life animals? Or hybrids of animals? If so can you give a few examples of creatures you designed and what animals inspired them?
My creatures are inspired by real-life animals–they are intended to remind the viewer of Earth species, to lend authenticity to the films, but they are not hybrids of actual species, that is, blending DNA of actual species to get a result, as in a mule or liger. They needed to be familiar enough to give believability (biological integrity) but exotic enough to belong to another, albeit Earthlike world and universe. They fill the same biological niches as Earth species, and thus, their anatomies, lifestyles, and behaviors mirror those of Earth species.
For example, the Sando Aqua Monster was inspired by deep sea angler fish and dragonfish, otters, and tigers, and has an anatomy similar (but not exactly the same) to that of an otter, and skin textures and bioluminescence similar (but likewise not exactly the same) as those deep sea fishes. The personality and crafty way of moving is all tiger. I’d say, the Sando Aqua Monster is a giant underwater tiger for all intents and purposes. That’s the animal I has foremost in mind when I designed her. I had recently seen the terrifying tiger scene from the film Apocalypse Now, and it stayed with me, transformed into the Sando Aqua Monster. Doug Chiang also contributed–originally, the eyes were significantly larger–he made them smaller, which heightened the feeling of a truly massive animal.
How much information were you given about the creatures you designed for The Phantom Menace? Did you know what kinds of environments they lived in? What they would be doing in the film?
First and foremost, George Lucas was concerned that all the species match their various environments, just as Earth species do. After that, the world was my oyster, nearly all blue sky, and I was free to design to my heart’s content. So yes, I knew about all the environments in the film, and designed accordingly to fill all the habitats and niches in a way that made scientific, zoological, and ecological sense.
You create skeletons for all of the creatures you design. Why do you find that step (that no one sees on screen) essential?
Skeletons and the musculatures were essential to all the creatures that had screen time because they needed not only to be modeled, but because they needed to be animated. Anatomy is key to the animation of realistic animals and gives the riggers a definitive guide to correctly rigging the models for animation, as well as understanding how the muscles react not only to the vectored rig, but to the more realistic ‘slave skeleton’ that enclose the rig skeleton.
Your book The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide has creatures from Tatooine, Hoth, Dagobah, Naboo, Bespin, Endor, Yavin 4, and Coruscant. Do you have a favorite section from that book or a favorite creature?
I think one of my favorite creatures is the Ottah from the swamps of Naboo. I like otter-like animals. And I like the Guarlaras, because I LOVE horses. Naboo is my favorite section because it is so rich in wildlife.
The Voorpaks you designed for Naboo in The Wildlife of Star Wars were the inspiration for the Voorpak that appears in Star Wars Resistance (Torra Doza’s pet Buggles). I’m curious if you knew one of your designs was going to appear in this new series before it debuted and if there are other creatures from recent Star Wars productions that are tied to some of your designs?
Regarding the Voorpaks and any other animals that appeared in The Clone Wars, Star Wars Resistance, and any other Star Wars franchise, nope–any time a creature appeared in those productions was an unexpected and happy surprise! I was just so happy that they had a chance to shine!
Which Star Wars characters/stories are your favorites? Have your favorites changed much over time?
I think The Empire Strike Back is my personal favorite, mainly because I loved the Tauntauns and how they were animated. But I think I like all the Star Wars films–each one has something very special about it.
If you could be dropped into the Star Wars universe at any place or any time where would you want to go and who would you want to meet?
I’d like to go to Naboo because it is so beautiful–it reminds where I live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, or New Zealand. I’d saddle up a Guarlara and ride all over the place!
Can you share some of your favorite creatures (Star Wars or otherwise) from other artist’s work?
I really like Doug Chiang’s Kaadus–I did all the anatomy work, but he came up with the original design, which I think is brilliant. Very Moebius.
Can you share what you’re working on right now or projects coming up?
My book, The Katurran Odyssey, is being re-released by Design Studio Press in a couple of months. I’m very excited about this. It’s my baby, and there are tons of animals in it.
And currently, I’m working on the illustrations for a new book: Flying Monsters: Illustrating Flying Vertebrates. The author is Dr. Michael Habib, one of the foremost paleontologists working in the field today. His specialty is pterosaurs and vertebrate locomotion mechanics. The books is targeted to conceptual illustrators and animators. If you want to see how to get a horse off the ground and get a pegasus to fly, biologically speaking, this book is all about that! It will be published by Design Studio Press in 2020.
Here are a few places you can find Terryl and her work online:
Check out the entire list of women in 365 Days of Star Wars Women in the Women in Star Wars Index. It includes highlights from each post plus notes which posts include new 365 interviews with actresses, writers, artists, and more.
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