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As a concept and creature designer working on the likes of Watchmen, Cloverfield and Star Trek, Neville Page is responsible for the look of some of modern cinema’s greatest successes. But, as he explains, new technologies are bringing new challenges…
British-born, but a long-term resident of California, Neville Page teaches at the state’s Art Center College of Design, the Otis College of Art and Design and the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, and is a design consultant for the entertainment, toy and automotive industries. He is also one of Hollywood’s hottest concept and creature designers, whose best-known films include Avatar, Piranha 3D and Super 8.
You’ve designed creatures that were very much to the director’s specifications and you’ve also occasionally had much more free rein to come up with your own ideas. Which approach do you prefer?
I like both directions, honestly. The most important thing always to remember is that you have been hired by someone to realise their vision and their dream. It’s not about you, it’s not for you to come up with your idea; even in the cases [on Star Trek, Cloverfield and Super 8] where JJ Abrams has really given me a tremendous amount of latitude, he’s still ultimately looking at my variations on a theme, selecting what he likes, and then guiding that. So I might have more input, but at the same time it’s JJ who’s at the helm, defining what he ultimately likes.
James Cameron is a visual artist, and can describe what he’s looking for not just in words but with a drawing, so you have a much clearer target to shoot for. But there were occasions on Avatar where, because Jim just didn’t have the time always to be around, we would just continue and do things he never asked for. Most of it just falls on its face, but sometimes he’d see it and go, ‘I hadn’t even thought of that, that’s a good idea, I’ll take it’. You take whatever direction they’ve given you, and try to come up with the answers as proficiently as possible.
In films like Star Trek, TRON: Legacy and Green Lantern, you’re building on design concepts that are already iconic. How do you find a balance in trying to satisfy the traditionalists in the audience and those looking for something new?
The balance sometimes is, almost thankfully, out of your jurisdiction, particularly on something like Green Lantern, where there were so many different players involved who ultimately made the decision of whether the choices that we were suggesting were appropriate. But we do have to start somewhere and give them something so, of course, we’re thinking about it all the way through. Green Lantern was a particularly odd one. The creatures in the comic book are so inventive that the starting point was pretty fantastic, but at the same time sometimes a little bit debilitating, because the concepts were so zany, so bizarre, that my concern was, how do we get that to fit into a film that is going to be visually realistic? So that’s when you really have to let physics, plausibility and the realities of nature define how something would transcend from comic book to an actual moving picture.
In the case of TRON [Legacy], that was easy, because the language that was defined visually in the original TRON was so specific and graphic. It wasn’t as difficult as on other productions for us to come up with a whole new aesthetic and pay homage and be respectful to the audience—and yet to have it feel like the original to fans—because once you impose that graphic design visual quality, you’re already in that world, and I think that when audiences see that concept elevated to the technology that we have today, they are instantly satisfied.
In the case of Star Trek, redesigning the Romulans felt to me the most high-risk, because the fan base knows the history of all the characters from Star Trek, and any deviation potentially brings some backlash. Quite honestly I was surprised that we didn’t get more ridicule for going down the path that we did, but I think that JJ and the writers came up with a brilliant storyline opportunity that gave you the latitude to create a relatively different aesthetic that did maybe go against the grain of what the franchise defined, yet still allowed the audience to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth in the revisit.
Have advances in technology and the shift to the digital domain changed the fundamentals of your work?
Over the most recent years, where digital technology has allowed the image that we create to look photoreal, the attention [is now] on design. Whereas years ago, as digital was new and the ability to create a realistic image on screen was relatively new, it was acceptable for audiences to just see something fanciful and realistic-looking. In a way the entertainment value of seeing a movie years ago, when digital was first coming out, was that you were getting a whole different level of entertainment, whereas now audiences only expect it to look real. It cannot not look real, whether it’s a spaceship flying over a planet, or a forest as with [Avatar's] Pandora, or a creature running across a landscape—with any of that now, it is just the demand and the expectation of the paying customer that it will look realistic. So much design had been done with spacecraft and worlds and aliens that the spectacle of realism is not as critical now as the story and good design.
So, strangely enough what I’m saying is that my job has become a lot harder, but I kind of prefer it to be as difficult as it is to try and be creative because that’s really what audiences are now gravitating towards: a good story, with good design. The realism that CGI offers is becoming more and more invisible, which is a shame for the people that do that work, because I don’t think they get the attention they deserve. Their work is not meant to appear overt at all. It’s kind of ironic. •