Creature Feature: Neville Page
After designing iconic monsters for James Cameron, JJ Abrams, and Steven Spielberg, creature designer Neville Page applies his considerable expertise as a judge on the Syfy Channel reality series Face Off.
Neville Page’s big break into behind-the-scenes Hollywood was even less likely than those competing on his show. After getting a degree in product design, Page co-founded an industrial design company in Culver City, California that specialized in creating children’s toys, wheelchairs, and sporting goods, amongst other things. In the mid ’90s, the company received a contract to develop Men In Black: Alien Attack, a ride for Universal Studios Florida. When a sculptor hired to work on the ride left his keys in the studio next door, the serendipitous accident launched a brand new career for Neville Page.
“A woman came by, knocked on the door and said ‘Your buddy left his keys next door,’” Page recalls. “She peeked her head into our studio and said ‘Oh, I’m working on a movie project that requires helmets. Could you guys help?’”
That woman was Colleen Atwood, a costume designer who would later go on to land Academy Awards for her work on Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Alice in Wonderland. Her movie project was the high-tech action flick Minority Report, on which Page got his foot in the door. He worked in smaller props and costuming capacities on films like Time Burton’s Planet of the Apes for the next few years, but wouldn’t do official creature design until he worked on Garfield, creating the title character’s teeth and gums. The real break came when a friend told Page that James Cameron was looking for portfolios.
“I thought ‘OK, I’ve got a wheelchair, some helmets, and Garfield’s teeth, I don’t know if that’s going to get me in,’” says Page, “but you don’t win unless you buy a lottery ticket, right?”
Impressed by Page’s ability to mix anatomy and art, Cameron hired him to start early development work on Avatar. By the time the film was funded years later, the “Garfield’s teeth guy” had become lead creature designer. Since then, Page has created alien life forms for blockbusters including Star Trek, Super 8, TRON: Legacy, and Cloverfield. This season, he serves as a judge on the Syfy series Face Off, which premiers January 15 at 9pm Eastern.
Get In Media: Let’s start with Avatar. How were you hired with what you describe as a scant portfolio?
Neville Page: Jim [James Cameron] is a very technical type of person. He likes to know how his cameras work. He likes to know how an actor works. He likes to know the mechanism behind what makes something tick, whether it’s a manmade object or an organic thing. And in my submission, even Garfield’s dentition, I had shown how the jaw would work for an animator. There are sketches of creatures that were purely alien cosmetically, but I would also show their muscular structure and skeletal structure. There was a certain amount of realism that I was able to convey in my images, so I think the combination of that and being inventive about biology is what drew Jim to taking a chance on me.
GIM: Is having that science background important to excelling as a creature designer?
NP: I think it is. An industrial designer is the hybridization of the aesthetics of manmade objects and the mechanical, and inventive and engineering side of manmade objects. Creature design is essentially the same thing, which is that it’s got to be cool looking, whatever it is. I feel that the new frontier of creature design is…the intellectual side of it, which is how something works. The how something works aspect informs you do to simple things correctly so that people believe them and see the plausibility in the creature.
It’s like Pegasus, the flying horse, if you put tiny wings on it. An audience is going to know unconsciously that that would never be airborne. It’s going to feel, again unconsciously, like that just isn’t going to work. If you put them on and they’re somewhat accurate in dimension and aerodynamics, an audience is going to buy into it, again unconsciously, much quicker than they would something that doesn’t feel right. That’s where the days of 1950s giant ants and flying moths are no longer going to work, because we’ve digested all that in our past and we need stuff that’s much more intelligent because audiences are much more intelligent now.
GIM: With 3D, audiences are seeing much more in terms of texture and detail. What impact does that have on you as a designer?
NP: Sadly, the answer is none. There’s no great “What it has done is changed my approach blah blah blah.” Nope. It has done nothing to how I approach creature design and texturing. Because when you design something, it’s always intended to be three-dimensional and it always feels 3D because it’s in movement. What does change what we do now is HD. That has really had a tremendous impact on how we finish our designs with those textures. Because now when somebody chooses to get the Blu-ray and it was shot in 4K HD and they pause it, they’re going to see all those details. You have an obligation to make sure that all of your textures; the pores, the goose bumps, all of that is in place, and that adds much more work on the end of finishing a creature.
GIM: With projects like TRON, Star Trek, even Watchmen, someone else has set the aesthetic precedent. As an artist, is it easier to work within a framework that’s already been built or to build your own?
NP: I think it’s both. Because when you have the beginnings, your director, your producer, your production designer, they have that trajectory. They know what the target kind of is, so you can start a little bit quicker. The challenge, of course, is that delicate balance of let’s make sure we’re fair and honest and respectful to the fans as well as making sure the homage is in place, but bringing something fresh to the table that the majority of the fan base would feel is the appropriate evolution. That’s tricky and very difficult to predict.
So in contrast, getting to start and creating a brand new franchise, you don’t have to worry about the fan base. You don’t have to worry about the homage. You don’t have to worry about those things, but the assumption is that you might be creating something that would become a fan base, which if you think of it that way could be terribly intimidating. It’s easier to start something without having those parameters, but often you’re searching for much longer to find what the appropriate avenue is. I’ve not found that one or the other is better than one or the other.
GIM: When you are looking at portfolios to hire creature designers, what are you looking for and what turns you off?
NP: There’s a lot of very, very good illustrators out there — people who can draw things and give the illusion of form and lighting and realism. There are not as many people who are good at creating something new. There are two types of “new” for me, and I think in general for the people I work for, because I have to do this as well. The first new is cosmetic new. It’s a new shape, it’s a new graphic, it’s a new form language, new colors.
Let’s use a more relevant product: a car. It’s going to have a steering wheel, it’s going to have four tires; that layout isn’t going to change until there’s a major technological breakthrough even with motors running on electricity. The general layout is the same, so as a cosmetic designer of vehicles, you’re looking for new shapes, new graphics, new colors, new materials, and the same thing applies to creature design. Then there’s the inventive side of it, which is let’s make the car fly. Let’s take away the parameters of realism and practicality and have the car hover or be a three-wheeler, be a one-wheeler. You want to see inventiveness that’s backed up with intelligence. You want to see that type of creativity from a utility standpoint. So with creatures as well, you’re looking for someone who can come up with something that’s unique-looking in its aesthetics, but also from its function. It might just be one simple feature. It might be the way its limbs are oriented or how many limbs it has, as long as it works.
For me, those are the two most important things. But I gravitate more towards the invention because we can take a really difficult, complex, beautiful invention, we can make it pretty more than we can take something pretty that has no invention and then apply some invention to it.
GIM: How about for contestants on Face Off?
NP: For me, what they’re able to really show is not necessarily their best work in the time they have, but what they are able to show that’s very real is their emotional state and their ability to deal with pressure and their ability to deal with one another and collaborate with one another and still be competitive, because that is what the real world of working in an art department is like. You want to be that one that has your design selected. You want to be the one that has your thing end up on screen or become a toy, yet you have to know how to put down your design and help your fellow team members get along for the bigger picture. One of the byproducts that you get to see and you get to witness is a person’s integrity beyond the aesthetic.
GIM: For somebody who is looking to follow in your footsteps, what do they need to focus on?
NP: Learn how to draw. Learn how to draw in perspective very well. Learn how to render in basic value, which means if you draw a circle, you can make that circle look like a sphere by adding value that gives the illusion of it being volumetric and spherical. That is such a critical skill to have.
All of the basic art things that you think would be important, it turns out they actually are. Color theory, value, perspective class; those are all the things that give you the tools to craft an image. At the end of the day, it’s what you say that is the most important thing. Paying attention to life—the life that you’re in, the life that’s ahead of you, the life that has happened behind you. Understand history; understand all religions, all science. As much as you can, of course. Those are the things that feed your brain and make it rich so that you can use these visual skills and communicate good ideas.
Catch Page in action on the premier of Face Off Season Four on The Syfy Channel January 15 at 9pm Eastern.
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