Search form

Gnomon Q&A with Tully Summers

Gnomon School of Visual Effects student Tyler Bolyard interviews concept and creature designer Tully Summers about his career in film.

Gnomon School of Visual Effects student Tyler Bolyard interviewed concept and creature designer Tully Summers (Avatar, Men in Black III, Star Trek, The Dark Knight Rises and TRON: Legac y) about his career in film as part of the “out of classroom” initiative for students taking the 10-week Overview of Visual Effects and Games course. Check out the interview below:

Tully Summers

What first inspired you to become a creature designer? At what point in your life did you make the decision that that's what you were going to do?

 I always enjoyed science fiction and fantasy as a child – Ray Harryhausen's stop motion monster movies (Jason and the Argonauts, Golden Voyage of Sinbad) had a huge impact on me. One day, my parents bought me a super 8 camera and I began making my own stop motion monster movies. I devoured how-to magazines like Cinemagic and taught myself to sculpt, cast and paint my own stop motion puppets and quickly realized I enjoyed making the characters and worlds of my little movies more than the painstaking stop motion animation process.

How did you break into the industry? What advice can you give to an aspiring artist on getting into the industry today?

When I was 16 I took my paintings, drawings and stop motion puppets to an interview at Boss Film Corporation where they hired me as an intern and I had the opportunity to learn from some fantastic artists there. My advice to aspiring artists is: absorb as much as you can about your art form, never stop learning, and – most importantly – be passionate about what you do.

When designing creatures and characters, where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you avoid cliches?

Designing creatures for film is basically visual storytelling, so I always begin with the purpose of the character in the narrative. Is this character scary? Dangerous? Kind? Cute? Noble? I often turn to nature for my inspiration, looking for innate visual cues that portray the characters intent. We have instinctual emotional reactions to things like sharks, puppies, snakes, babies, etc. Identifying and incorporating those visual cues to trigger those emotional responses is the challenge. 

I try to avoid cliches by pulling visual cues from unexpected places. What about that muscle car makes it feel strong? Why does that flower feel so regal? Incorporating these aspects into a character can really breathe new life into a tired idea.

What prompted your decision to make the switch from practical to digital? Are there advantages/disadvantages in the creative process? Do you still work traditionally at times?

Digital Media is just a new tool, but a very cool one. I use the computer for the same reason I use a power drill instead of a hand-cranked screwdriver; it's faster for me and more efficient. I'm often asked if I miss working with clay, and the answer is no. Clay, for me, is a means to an end.  I'm not romantic about it. To use the screwdriver analogy again, I'm not enamored with turning the screw, I just want to build my table. 

I am really enjoying the digital thing. It's like playing with a new toy. I'll be happy to use the next new tool that comes along too, whatever it is. Holographic sculpting? I'm in! 

Some say that practical effects is a dying medium while others are fully embracing its marriage with digital effects. How do you feel? Where do you see the industry headed in the future?

There are some aspects of practical effects that are almost gone completely, like making miniatures for buildings and vehicles. The extent and need to have a physical presence on set now largely depends on how intimate your physical interaction is with the element, and, of course, the shooting style and preferences of the director.

Right now, having physical effects on set is still extremely useful, but using digital tools in the their fabrication is becoming more and more prevalent. 

What is the most enjoyable project you have worked on so far in your career and why?

It's hard to pick — I love what I do. Each project is completely different. Even if a task I'm given isn't my favorite, I enjoy being inspired by and learning from the talented people around me.

What advice can you give for aspiring creature/character designers looking to break into the industry? What should an artist have on their demo reel or how should they present their work?

What I look for in a portfolio is creativity and talent. As long as that is communicated, I don't care what medium is used. A common pitfall I see is amorphous blobs covered with lots and lots of detail. The computer has made it so easy to make very interesting high frequency detail. I see people go there too soon, before their character's shape and anatomy have been thoroughly worked out. Have fun with the details but always keep the big picture in mind.

Tyler Bolyard is a student from the Gnomon School of Visual Effects studying to be a character/creature artist. He is focused on concept design and practical and digital sculpting for the film industry. He was inspired at a young age watching fantasy and sci-fi films such as Jim Henson's Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and has set out to create fantasy creatures and characters of his own. Tyler has had the opportunity to study design and sculpture under legendary creature designer Jordu Schell as well as interning for Jim Henson's Creature Shop. For more info

Tully Summers is a renowned concept and creature designer who has worked on such films as AvatarMen in Black III, Star Trek, The Dark Knight Rises and TRON: Legacy. For more info and to check out more of Tully’s work visit:

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.