Monday, January 14, 2002


Feature creatures
Designer populates video worlds with animals of fantasy
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Brian Plonka - The Spokesman-Review
Illustrator Richard Vander Wende of Spokane draws inspiration for his characters from items in his house, such as this water buffalo he has named Buffy.

If you stumbled upon Richard Vander Wende's business card, you'd wonder what he does. All it says is "" superimposed on a collage of strange shapes. Yet if he told you how he makes his living, you might be no better informed. What's "concept designer"?

It's a job that, in a way, goes all the way back to the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Working with pencil and paper, Vander Wende creates heavens and earths and the creatures that populate them.

Despite what you've heard, the task usually takes longer than seven days. Vander Wende spent three years helping create the world of "Riven," a popular CD-ROM game. His contributions included dinosaur-like "sunners" and "wahrks," poisonous froglike "ytrams" and "spade fish," as well as exotic landscapes.

Before that, Vander Wende helped conjure a whole village of characters -- including a giant genie -- for the 1992 Disney animated feature "Aladdin."

Remember the two-headed dra
gon in the 1988 action film "Willow"? He created that, too.

Given his affinity for odd creatures, it's no wonder that the lanky, 6-foot-3 Vander Wende shares his South Hill bungalow with a menagerie of adopted animals, both stuffed and replicated. There's a Cape buffalo named Buffy, a catfish named Sylvester, a wart hog (Warty), a shark and the skulls of an African lion, a saber-toothed cat and an allosaurus (think T-Rex's smaller cousin).

He almost bought a moose head from a Spokane Valley man, but the animal's expression "wasn't quite right," said Vander Wende, who also shares the house with his wife, Kate, two young daughters and a rat terrier named Obi. "I don't like to bring stuffed animals home if they're scary looking," he said. "I want them approachable."

Vander Wende demands the same of his own creations.

"A lot of guys focus on the horror-creature thing, but only a handful of people in the world do what I do," he said. "I like coming up with designs that are complex, yet simple and subtle at the same time, because that's what real animals are. That's what makes them believable."

Vander Wende remembers the exact moment he realized he saw the world differently than others did. It was in the early 1980s, soon after he left the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

"I took Kate to get her hair cut one day, and as I sat waiting in an L.A. parking lot, I looked up and saw sparrows landing on a sign. Suddenly, the whole scene became completely abstract, as though I were seeing it through nascent eyes," Vander Wende said. "I realized I could remove all preconceptions about these birds. That ability was very exciting."

Vander Wende had wanted to attend USC's film school. When he didn't make the final cut, art school was his fallback position.

His first job was as a background artist for the video arcade games "Dragon's Lair II" and "Space Ace."

Next he worked at George Lucas' visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic.

He hoped to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Ralph McQuarrie, who designed the "Star Wars" universe.

At the time, though, Lucas was just gearing up for another pet project: "Willow."

"One day, when there were only three of us in the art department, George and Ron (director Ron Howard) came in and told us the whole story, showed us photographs of places they thought had the right feel, and got us very excited. George said, `Don't hold back. I'm thinking of this on the scale of "Star Wars.""'

Vander Wende spent three months drawing concepts. But eventually the production moved to England and, as the world would discover, didn't make the same splash as "Star Wars."

Vander Wende's dragon made it to the screen, though. And on his way out the door of Industrial Light & Magic, Vander Wende got to have dinner with his hero, McQuarrie. "That was my big payoff."

Next stop: Walt Disney Feature Animation.

After working on the Roger Rabbit short "Tummy Trouble" and a Tarzanlike nonstarter called "Goofy of the Apes," Vander Wende sunk his creative teeth into "Aladdin."

As production designer, he was putting in 110-hour weeks. When "Aladdin" was finished, so was Vander Wende.

During a well-earned break, only two things sparked Vander Wende's interest: "Jurassic Park" and "Myst," a cutting-edge CD-ROM game from a Spokane-based company called Cyan.

Vander Wende met Rand and Robyn Miller, the "Myst" brothers, at a Los Angeles computer convention. "I recognized Robyn from a making-of-`Myst' trailer," Vander Wende said, "so I introduced myself and told him how much I liked `Myst.' We ended up talking for three hours, and they invited me up here."

The Millers weren't looking for a partner. They'd already flexed their creative muscle with "Myst," the best-selling CD-ROM game ever.

Yet Vander Wende ended up co-directing "Riven." "I learned so much from him, it's just astonishing," said Robyn Miller. "Richard is the most talented person I've ever worked with."

At Cyan, Vander Wende demonstrated an ability "to stand back and visualize an entire universe," Miller said. At the same time, no one focused more on details.

"Richard's a master at creating plausible creatures," Miller said. "So often you'll see creatures in `Star Wars,' and something's missing. They don't capture you. They're not believable. But I've never seen any creature Richard designed that did not look like it could exist."

"All good science fiction and fantasy is about our world," Vander Wende explained. "So it's important to me that my designs not look alien -- outside the spectrum of existing species.

"A lot of people who design creatures ignore our natural laws in pursuit of uniqueness, and wind up with something that no longer relates to the world around us."

It's been four years since the game "Riven" hit stores and Vander Wende, in his characteristic style, hit the road -- figuratively, at least. To save on living costs, he and his family stayed in Spokane rather than returning to his native Southern California.

"When he gets back into something," Miller said, "I'm sure it will be great in the true sense of the word."

Actually, Vander Wende, 39, is working on something -- words, this time, instead of images. He and another "Riven" alumnus are co-writing the script for a movie about 18th century pirates, the British Navy and ... he won't reveal much more than that.

They hope to shop the idea around Hollywood next summer. Meanwhile, Vander Wende tinkers with his Web site "to assure people in the business that I haven't fallen off the edge of the earth," he said.

One last question: Is there any real creature Vander Wende wishes he'd created?

"The sperm whale," he replied wistfully. "It's such an incredibly elegant design -- mysterious and engaging, yet simple at the same time. It epitomizes everything I admire. I look at a sperm whale and think, `Boy I don't think I could outdo that one."'

Staff writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at (509) 459-5491 or by e-mail at

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