Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Croods Crew: Margaret Wuller

The first time I saw visual development artist Margaret Wuller's name, it was in connection with those stripped-down, 2D caricatures of the Croods.* I was instantly a fan. "I think I prefer these designs to the 'official' ones," I announced to no one in particular, "and I can't wait to see how they will be used in the future." Clearly, I wasn't the only one. They are now being used in Arthur Fong's 'OFFICIAL Croods Comics', as well as both video games.

The next time I noticed Wuller's name was while reading Noela Hueso's The Art of The Croods. Wuller has a bunch of BEAUTIFUL landscape paintings in there, as well as a number of SUPER-CUTE critter collaborations with Takao Noguchi. DEX +1, CHA +1, WIS +1.

But the REAL moment of oh-my-god-who-is-this-gal? came when I was talking to Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco about the 'Private Event' poster featuring Grug and the cave painting.** I knew that I adored that poster. I knew that this blog's readership had really responded to it, too. But Chris and Kirk? THEY EFFING LOVED IT.

Chris Sanders: We didn't come up to her and say, 'This is it, Margaret. You better come up with an image that's gonna change our lives.' But she did. It was just one of those things. She was creating cave paintings, creating designs, and one of the designs that she submitted one day, amongst a bunch of other ones, was that beautiful image of Grug with his arms around his family. And we knew...first of all, we knew we'd found the image for the movie.

Kirk De Micco: It was iconic. [...] That would be the emotion of the film, for sure.

That's pretty high praise. Pretty high praise, indeed. To think that everyone from the directors on down to me were so moved by this one image...well, that was what finally pushed me to track down Wuller for an email interview. I'm glad I did. She's AWESOME.

Me: Hello, Margaret. Let's pretend I'm the sort of interviewer that does little to no preparation. (Keep in mind, WE'RE PRETENDING. I've already completed two drafts of your unofficial biography. I'm just curious to hear your side of your story.) Would you please tell us a bit of your background? Where did you grow up? Was your family full of artists, or were you the lone wolf in the pack?

Margaret Wuller: I grew up in Manhattan Beach CA. My mom is a creative type ... she can do anything from watercolor to cake decorating, stained glass window design to jewelry design, all while strumming on a guitar with one hand and quilting with the other. My dad is a theoretical nuclear physicist.... so clearly, artistic skills must stem from my mom. Though, I'd like to think that I successfully apply my father's analytic thinking to the art & design process. I always enjoyed art as a child and my parents strongly supported my interests

Me: When did you first become 'serious' about art? Not so much, 'When did you start wearing a beret and practicing your signature,' but when did drawing become less a time-killer and more an obsession? Did you take art classes as a child? Did you attend a capital-A Art school? If so, where did you go and what was your primary focus there?

M.W.: I did not take "art as a career" seriously until my senior year of high school. Until then, I had always taken many art classes, but wanted to study Astronomy or Archaeology (I still love these things which made working on The Croods such an awesome job). As the pressure of choosing a college got closer, I realized that what I loved most was 'looking' at things. It sounds simplistic, but with that most basic realization, art became the clear choice. I went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design in Animation and Illustration.

Me: Who were/are some of your artistic inspirations?

M.W.: Artistic Inspiration #1 is nature. I've had the privilege of traveling to some very, very beautiful places on this planet and they are unbeatable. Artist wise, I love graphic art like David Weidman and Evan Hecox. N.C. Wyeth is also a favorite.

Me: What was your first job in the animation industry? Was it 'everything you'd ever dreamed of' or an entirely unexpected experience?

M.W.: My first job in animation was at Curious Pictures in New York. I was an intern there and they asked me to draw pen & watercolor backgrounds for an animated Barbie commercial. I remember being so excited just looking at the storyboards for the commercial.... people were actually paying me for this! They later hired me on consecutive projects and "Barbie" paid my rent for a few years.

Me: When most folks think, "I wanna work in animation," they're thinking of...well, ANIMATING. What made you decide to become a visual development artist instead?

M.W.: I actually never wanted to be an animator. I always wanted to create the worlds & environments that the characters inhabited. I felt like there was more freedom and more to design in the world than in the character. Plus, being able to make a character come alive is a rare and unique talent, best left to the REAL animators. ;)

Me: Did you have anyone who acted as a mentor for you as a visual development artist?

M.W.: I learned a lot from Pierre Olivier Vincent - the art director on How to Train Your Dragon. He is the first art director at Dreamworks that I worked with. He is a master and I still can't figure out how he gets it all done. Patrick Hanenberger also influenced me creatively. I've always admired his work and his ability to design so eloquently from concept to final execution. (ps. Patrick later became my husband!)

Me: Of all of the projects that you've worked on thus far, which one(s) were the most fun? Which were the most difficult? Which taught you the most and/or caused you to take a gigantic artistic leap forward?

M.W.: I love How to Train Your Dragon and I am so honored to have had the opportunity to work on it. It remains a favorite of mine. With that said, working on The Croods was really one of my most formative experiences. I worked with a ton of talented people on The Croods, but there was a time in the production when the art crew got scaled back to just four people: Christophe Lautrette (production designer), Paul Duncan (art director), Arthur Fong and myself. There was so much work to do! I really owe a lot to Christophe Lautrette for giving me the opportunity remain on the crew until the end, put my skills to the test and try my hand at so many different types of art & design challenges on the film.

Me: Do you have any passion projects currently in the works (or a dream project you long to work on)?

M.W.: My passion project is a non-profit foundation I co-founded with my friend and colleague Rachel Tiep-Daniels called The Picture Book Project Foundation. This takes a lot of my free time, but it is very fulfilling. Our goal is to bring the animation art community together to help & inspire children in need. We just finished creating a coloring book this year, illustrated by 66 different artists, to donate to children at orphanages in Ghana, Mexico and Cambodia. www.picturebookproject.com

Me: What words of wisdom can you share with our readers hoping to make art their life?

M.W.: Words of Wisdom: If you want to do it, do it. Don't let anyone including yourself, discourage you. There will always be someone out there who can do it better; let them be your inspiration.

Me: Would you share one small, unforgettable moment of magic that you've experienced while working on The Croods? 

M.W.: As I mentioned earlier, I used to want to be an archaeologist. A dream job would have been to work for the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. (I even applied for a part time position once - to be someone who builds the displays - I didn't get the job needless to say.) Fast-forward to 2013, The Croods crew wrap party was held at the Natural History Museum. The event decorators projected the many cave paintings I made for Croods all over every wall in the museum. It was overwhelming. I thought to myself, "I did it! I finally made it into the Natural History Museum!" My 6th grade self was so psyched.

Me: One last question and you're free: When you read all of the gushing praise that Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco lavished over your picture of Grug's cave painting, what was your reaction? (Note: Tears of joy can best be expressed using emoticons.)

M.W.: I am humbled to say the least. Someone said to me in passing that Chis Sanders wanted to get that image tattooed on him. I don't know whether they were just tying to convey his level enthusiasm to me or whether Chris actually joked about that aloud. Either way, I am so beyond thrilled that this cave painting resonated so deeply with Chis and Kirk. When I watch the movie, even though I know exactly what Grug is going to draw in that cave, I still get teary eyed when I see it. Chris and Kirk are masters of these special 'moments'. I am honored to have had the opportunity to work with them.

My all-caps THANKS to Margaret Wuller for answering so damned many questions. (She didn't skip a single one!) I'd like to give a second plug to her non-profit project, The Picture Book Project. If you're a fan of ANY of the DreamWorks artists, it'd be worth your while to click that link. Chances are, they contributed a drawing. Not only that, but the coloring book that they created is only $15. That's $15 for a book full of monsters, mutants and dragons -- DREAMWORKS DRAGONS! Good art for a good cause. Everybody wins!

*The original 2D re-designs were done by Joe Moshier. Their final look was designed by Wuller.
**Wuller designed and painted the cave painting. Paul Duncan painted the image for the poster.
***Margaret Wuller's photo was taken by Khali MacIntyre
All of these asterixed credit listings? Margaret's idea. Homegirl is HUMBLE.


  1. Awesome story, about an awesome cousin! All of her relatives are very proud of her and her many accomplishments over the years! Can't wait to take our 3 boys to see this movie! Nice work cuz, from the Omaha Wullers.

  2. Great piece Margaret! You deserve every ounce of praise you have been given - and then some... The Hanenbergers are very excited to see the Croods very soon!