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Garret Taylor and the Art of Wingfeather

[Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a much longer conversation between Jonathan Rogers, author and host of the Habit podcast, and Garret Taylor, the art Director of Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga television series.


Jonathan Rogers: Welcome to The Habit podcast. Garrett Taylor is the art director for The Wingfeather Saga television series. The new Art of The Wingfeather Saga Season One book features beautiful work from Garrett and his team. I actually did some of the writing for that book and spent a lot of time talking with Garrett in the process, I was always struck by how thoughtful he was about things I'd never known to be thoughtful about. I was very glad to be able to sit down again with Garrett Taylor and reminisce about old times when we were working on the book together.

Garrett Taylor, I'm so happy to have you on the Habit podcast today. Thanks for being here.

Garrett Taylor: Yeah, I'm excited to do this. Thanks for having me.

JR: You’re the Art Director for The Wingfeather Saga TV series. You could have done photorealism for this series and you chose not to. Tell me about that choice. People have gotten pretty used to pretty realistic stuff in animation and you decided to do something else.

GT: That's a great question. Think about the way animation has progressed over time. We remember the old Disney cartoons and they were very much like a drawing that was colored. The drawings came to life and had their own technical method of creating that flipbook style. But as technology progressed and we got into the days of Pixar and CG animation, everything got more and more photorealistic.

We see that in some of the more recent Pixar/Disney shows where it's just like wow, this could be photographed. [But I think] There is an appetite right now to see things a little bit more hand-touched. Our whole team was hoping to capture a bit of that energy. To do that, we decided on a hand-painted storybook style with digitally painted backgrounds. There were some challenges in getting the characters to meld with the backgrounds and such, but overall it's been very successful. This approach also allowed us to be able to create a more quality-looking product for our scope and budget. 

JR: Tell me more about the painted backgrounds. What is the difference between your painted background and the backgrounds in say, Toy Story or something like that?

GT: In those old-style Disney days, they used hand-painted backgrounds as well. That was before we had Photoshop and computers that were powerful enough to paint in. Folks would get their illustration board out and their gouache paints and airbrush and draw over their scene and then paint it. Then with the advent of computer animation, they would basically build the whole world—the trees, the buildings, the hay piles, the streets, and the cars—in the computer. You could turn the camera around and see it all, and then they would just shoot the film within that. The background existed within the computers. You could even move the camera within the world.

We are basically using the old style that Disney did with the one caveat that we are painting them in Photoshop, but it's technically the same skill. The artists draw what they want to be in the background, be it a building or a coastline. And we have these monitors that we can draw right onto—you choose a brush shape and literally just start drawing. It feels like you are painting but you don't have to get out the paints.

JR: So you've got a background, a painted background the way you would in a play. And then your characters are 3D?

GT: Exactly. We are just marrying digital technology with older modes of animation. We modeled all of our characters in the computer in three dimensions. I like to think of the whole thing as a puppet show. We build the puppets—the characters—in 3D and they act almost like they're hanging in front of a painted flat surface. And your brain just says, “Oh this must be a world that I'm in.”

JR: That puppet show metaphor is helpful.

GT: To add to that metaphor, after we model those characters in 3D, they're very much set up like you would an actual puppet. Figuring out where their elbows and their wrists and their finger joints would be. And adding pivots in those areas, even the way that the skin would transform. When the animator opens up that character file, they can lift an arm or they can move a finger and lift a leg. Then, frame by frame, they add motion very much like a puppeteer. I think of modern-day animators as really more puppeteers than anything.

JR: Let’s talk about a phrase I've heard you use more than once: "Truth of materials."

GT: Yeah, that is a phrase that we threw around a lot as we were starting to decide on what kind of world we were building. One thing that Andrew and Chris—Andrew Peterson, the author of The Wingfeather Saga, and J. Chris Wall, the showrunner—both wanted to convey a story that had the feeling of high stakes. In this world, characters get hurt and some of them actually die. Houses burn down. In a world like that it just didn't fit that we would go super cartoony with the art. You would end up feeling like it was all just make-believe. We wanted to give this story a sense of weight.

So as the Art Director, it was my job to describe visually what this world was going to look like. So the "truth of materials" language came to refer to the way things were constructed. In a lot of the old Disney cartoons, things could get very wonky. There could be a board, say, that looked like it was bending in a way that boards just don't bend. Or a chair that looked like it was inflated instead of carved. So with the truth of materials concept means that we can design things that seem ramshackle and have a lot of character. It means that, if it's made out of wood, we are going to draw that wood in a way that wood is worked. Maybe it looks carved or sawed or chopped with an axe. 

It's not inflated. It's not polished. Or take the example of a chimney. "Truth of materials" means that it is actually going to look like it is made out of bricks, whereas in those old wonky cartoons that chimney might just bend around like it's made out of rubber. I wanted to still be able to get those interesting shapes of something that is falling over and might have a bend to it, but it's from shifting bricks and not bending bricks. It all requires close observation of the real world to bring that into a make-believe world.

JR: I want to talk about Peet's castle, the tree house. In the Art of Wingfeather book, you said you could have done that as an Ewok-y kind of treehouse but decided not to. You ended up making Peet’s castle out of salvaged materials from abandoned farmhouses around. However, nobody explains that in the story; we just see it for ourselves.

GT: In live-action, you go shoot at a set and there's a lot that you get for free. In animation, everything that you see on screen has to be thought up and designed by artists.

All of these locations start with a meeting with Andrew and Chris to talk about what is this area. Peet's tree house was a good example of that. When you see it, you have to think about his backstory. Is he out here all by himself just kind of building this tree fort for fun? Is he trying to make it look fancy because he liked his castle back when he was living in the Shining Isle? We imagined that Peet is there to keep an eye on the children in Glipwood and this is his home that he's built up in the trees, probably because he's trying to avoid getting eaten by all the creatures out there in Glipwood. And then we're thinking the history of that area is that since the creatures have kind of taken over, it's pushed people away from Glipwood Forest. So maybe there are some abandoned houses and he would just look around for boards that are already there rather than trying to mill his own wood in the forest.

Hopefully, when you're watching it, you aren't thinking about that, but the subtle history is just there as an underlying feature of the story.

JR: I love that. The materials tell the history of that area, of the abandonment, of the local places, but also the way that the disorder of the tree house reflects the disorder of Peet’s mind.

GT: Exactly.

JR: Was it challenging that so many people who already loved these stories and this world? I imagine that people feel like they already knew what this world looks like because everybody visualizes what they read a little bit differently. To what extent were you working hard to match up with how the books describe the visuals and to what extent were you pushing against that and trying something different from what was in the book?

GT: We stuck with the descriptions from the book as much as possible. We wanted the fans to watch the show and be like, Oh yeah, there's Peet’s tree house!” In books, you don't need to describe things all that well, so you can give a brief setup, and then the reader's mind takes over. In animation, we have to figure it all out. We always start with the description. When I hand off an assignment to an environment designer or a character designer we literally cut and paste those sections out of the book as a prompt. If there's any illustrations in the books, we put those into the packet as well.

The good thing is that we were animating things that Andrew put into the books because he thought they were cool. So we got to draw tree houses and old, abandoned manors that might be haunted, and giant live oaks in the woods. But Andrew did have the final say. We wanted to make sure to stay in his vision.

JR: Well, Garrett, I just love what y'all have done. I love hearing the way you thought about things that fiction writers like Andrew or me don't have to think about. So thanks for the thought and the care and the love you put into this. You've done a great job and I love looking at that world.

GT: I'm blessed to do it. So thanks for the time. 

JR: Yeah, thanks for being here.


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