If you’re the type of person who stays after a film to watch the end credits, you know how many people it takes to make a movie. (Sometimes hundreds.) While James Cameron gets most of the credit for Pandora, the fictional planet on which Avatar takes place, that environment could not have come to life without Neville Page.
Getting his start designing a Men in Black theme park ride, Page has put his mark on such films as Star Trek, Green Lantern and TRON: Legacy. Page spoke with MM about his process.
Brian Hickey (MM): Was there a particular ?lm—or creature—that inspired you to get into the business?
Neville Page (NP): Really it was two ?lms: Star Wars and Alien. Although Alien scared the pants off of me, I also was just gobsmacked throughout at everything about it. To this day I still consider it a perfect ?lm. Really, everything was groundbreaking—the production design, the creature design, the writing, the casting, the directing, the performances, the music, the editing—everything!
MM: How did you get into creature design?
NP: Since I was trained as an industrial designer, creature design really was more of a hobby. It did not seem like a career path that I could get into or even sustain a living. Clearly I was wrong, as there are many talented creature folk out there doing it well and making a living at it.
So, since it was a hobby at ?rst, I just dabbled. But I had an opportunity to design the vehicles for Universal Studios’ “Men in Black Alien Attack” ride in Florida. This was a foot in the door to start begging for some alien work. Little did I know what that would turn into. In some ways, this was more my real break into the industry.
MM: How do you prepare for a ?lm when you are ?rst offered a job?
NP: It depends. But in a perfect world, I meet with the director and producers to get the brief. That, in itself, is the best preparation… From there, it is amassing some research based on the brief; some of it visual, some of it just pure science. Then there’s the music—yep, music. I love matching the tone of the brief with some good background music to sustain the mood. Oftentimes with creatures, it is ambient, moody stuff like Lustmord. Other times it may be heroic and epic, like Stravinsky.
MM: What’s it like to switch from a project like Avatar to Piranha 3D? Is the day-to-day work different?
NP: At the core, there is no difference when it comes to design. You do your research, get as smart as you can about the subject matter and do your absolute best at it. It’s about great ideas and great execution, and you should never give anything less based on the production. You never know how big or small the production will end up being. But more importantly, it’s just the right thing to do. Regardless, it’s design, it’s art… it’s incredibly fun to do this work. It’s what I dreamed of doing.
The only difference—creatively—from Avatar to Piranha 3D is that all the creatures on Pandora were unknown, so it was much more difficult to come up with unique animals. Piranha 3D required, well, a piranha. But even though this was a known animal, we still had to be inventive. So, in a way, it was no less challenging… they’re just different challenges.
MM: When working on movies that have a rich history, like Star Trek or TRON: Legacy, is it difficult to update the look of the franchise? How does that kind of baggage affect what you do?
NP: Oh, it’s difficult. For many reasons. The obvious one is just how you pay homage and keep it fresh. But with an established franchise, there are often more people involved with opinions that need to be taken into consideration. So it takes a little longer to ?nd the right path. But once the production gets into the groove, you know what you need to do with the rest.
For example, my focus from almost day one on TRON was to design the costume for the character of Sam Flynn. Once we established the look and methodology, the other characters would follow suit. But on TRON, you are also paying attention to the others designers (the ones designing the vehicles, sets, etc.) as they, too, were looking for the right look and our aesthetic and technology needed to be cohesive.
MM: How connected to the actual ?lming of the movie are you? Do you do most of your work before ?lming starts?
NP: Usually it is done prior to the start of principal photography, but often it spills over into ?lming. That being said, since a lot of the creatures that I’ve designed are digital, it means that we don’t need a practical (or actual) model on set. So we have a little more time to develop it. Post-production usually dictates when I need to be done.
Additionally, I will ?nd myself on set where the creature/character may be. Sometimes it’s to get a feel for its environment, sometimes it’s to take pictures and include the design with the set piece. Then you’ll ?nd yourself on set presenting developments to the director long into the shoot.
I spent a huge amount of time on the set during the ?lming of Star Trek, working with J.J. Abrams between takes. It’s very cool, but it also means that you might be presenting in some harsh environments at painful hours. Honestly though, even that’s exciting!
MM: As the cost of special effects becomes more economical and we start seeing more low-budget success stories like District 9 and Paranormal Activity, how do you see the future of your industry changing?
NP: The biggest thing now is that design needs to be as great as it can be. It’s easier now (sort of) to make things look photo-real. But so much has been done that it is increasingly more challenging to come up with new stuff.
Add to that the fact that audiences are more savvy than ever before—all of the nature shows have educated us to the amazing innovations that this planet has to offer—and we’re competing with Mother Nature as designers… and with technology that can yield realism on your laptop.
All of that being said, design, concept and performance are what audiences will demand and what we will need to get better at. That has always been our job, but the viewing audience is much more discerning than ever before. MM