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Building Fantastical Worlds
in Print, Broadcast, Film, Interactive Media and Beyond

by Lisa L. Cyr

Inside us all there is a story just waiting to be told. It begins at childhood and develops gradually over time. With every encounter, observation and experience, the tale becomes richer with a more expansive intellect from which to draw. In the heart, an amazing adventure lays dormant, waiting for the right time, when all the pieces are in place, for the dream to come to fruition. As a child, illustrator and author James Gurney was enamored by the classic tales of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne and loved building model ships and flying machines. After high school, he went on to major in archaeology, studying the remains of past civilizations. Mostly self-taught, the artist worked as a freelance illustrator for National Geographic where he spent time on location with archaeologists, paleontologists and other scientists. “At the end of the day, I’d sit around the campfire with these experts and talk about the dream of finding lost worlds,” recalls Gurney. Such encounters inspired the artist to create a series of seven limited-edition prints of brilliantly detailed, fantastical cities. “I wanted to make the impossible look almost inevitable,” he says. “The realistically painted scenes each had something impossible in them, like people riding on dinosaurs or a city right in the middle of a waterfall.” With the assistance of Ian Ballantine, the prints led to a 160-page picture book targeted to adults. Taking two years to realize, Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time sold in 32 countries worldwide and was published in 18 languages. The success spun three sequel works, each divulging more about this amazing world where dinosaurs work in a symbiotic relationship with humans.

Two illustrations from Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You: Old-World Leprechaun and Caribbean Sea-Mai. DiTerlizzi created a highly-detailed book dummy for the 120-page Spiderwick field guide. Constructed in Adobe Photoshop, all design aspects including art, sketches and captions were on individual layers for ease of editing the numerous small texts. This was not only helpful for the US edition, but for the translation of the foreign editions as well.

For author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi, a childhood obsession transformed into a series for young readers known as The Spiderwick Chronicles. “I grew up in South Florida and always loved the flora and fauna. Everything is big. There are these giant man-eating flowers and the insects are three to four feet long,” he jokes. “When I was twelve years old, I spent the summer creating this field guide.” Growing up, DiTerlizzi was drawn to other worlds like George Lucas’s Star Wars and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. He was also an active player of Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy role-playing game that he later illustrated. “Looking back, it was a huge influence, as the games were all about world-building–soup to nuts,” shares DiTerlizzi. “It was a great training ground.” The artist went on to illustrate three books for Simon & Schuster, one of which won a Caldecott honor. “There was a lot of buzz and the publisher was really excited, asking me what my dream project would be,” reflects the artist. “I said that I’d really love to work on the field guide that I’d made as a kid.” The publisher embraced DiTerlizzi’s vision and together with co-writer Holly Black, the collaborative project took flight. Initially conceived as a 500-page book, the project shifted gears. To create a built-in audience, the publisher decided to break up the story, releasing five-chapter books over the course of two years prior to the launch of the lavish field guide. The series was an amazing success, selling in the millions.

Two paintings by James Gurney: Attack on a Convoy, 1994; oil on board, 29 X 14; published in Dinotopia: The World Beneath. Dinosaur Boulevard, 1990; oil on canvas mounted to panel, 52 X 24; published in Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.

The development of an intellectual property that can span across media begins with an engaging story that is compelling enough to captivate an audience on an emotional and intellectual level. To introduce a level of believability to an imagined world, the creator must have a deep understanding of the landscape, architecture, creatures and vehicles, drawing from both research and personal experience. For Dinotopia, Gurney began by creating a detailed map. “I started with an outline of an island, making sure to include mountains, jungles, canyons and coastlines,” he explains. “I also put in names of places that I knew would go beyond the book so that I could revisit them later, giving the readers a feeling that there was more.” To help envision complex scenes, Gurney created maquettes of distinctive locales and characters out of Styrofoam, cardboard and clay, playing with the arrangement and photographing it from different angles and lighting situations. In addition, the artist listened to nature CDs as a way to completely immerse himself into the imagined scenarios. “It’s important to live inside your paintings, throwing yourself into the picture frame,” adds Gurney. To further enhance the ideation of the storyline and fantastic imagery, the artist keeps abreast of new archeological discoveries, consults experts in myriad fields and frequents natural history museums, going behind the scenes to sketch. L. Cyr
Lisa L. Cyr is an accomplished author and multidisciplinary artist with a content-driven focus. Her books, Innovative Promotions That Work, The Art of Promotion, The Little Book of Big Promotions, Brochure Design That Works and Graphic Design That Works (Rockport Publishers), feature top national and international promotional work with sidebars that go beyond the basics to explore strategic and innovative thinking. A graduate from The Massachusetts College of Art (BFA) and Syracuse University (MA), Cyr’s artistic oeuvre has been exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, galleries and universities. Her work is also included in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Illustration as well as private collections. She is an artist member of the Society of Illustrators in New York City and works in partnership with her husband Christopher Short, painter and 3-D illustrator.