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Concept Designer Neville Page on Prometheus, Avatar 2 and Star Trek 2

Page describes Ridley Scott's intentions for the monsters, what we might see in Prometheus 2 and how far along how Avatar 2 really is.

 

Now that Prometheus is finally out, it’s created even more debate about what director Ridley Scott showed us about the world before his own classic Alien. We got to speak with concept designer Neville Page who worked with Scott on the film’s creatures, including the engineers who become the “Space Jockey” that we saw in Alien. Page has worked on creatures for Avatar, Star Trek, Super 8 and Tron: Legacy so he’s got the inside scoop on the developing worlds of those franchises too.

 

CraveOnline: Did you need to know what the engineers were in order to design them?

Neville Page: It’s helpful, yes, and I did know. Ridley was very transparent from day one with me. As transparent as he needed to be. I’m sure he had some personal secrets that he wanted to keep his cards close to his chest, but he was very clear that I was working on the creators of us.

 

Did that interpretation change throughout the film?

It was such a search because I think, when you look at the design of them, it’s not as if they are brand new in terms of concept. It’s a guy. It happens to be tall, has a particular skin tone. Beyond that it’s all about subtle nuanced human anatomy. So it was a very difficult thing to find that perfect balance that was the answer for Ridley because it’s such a subjective thing.

 

In terms of interpreting the movie, what are people picking out and what are some things that they’re still not catching even on repeat viewings?

I think that there’s a lot in it that Ridley has chosen to not articulate to people because he tends to like people to discover it over time, through either discussion or repeated viewings. I think what people are starting to get is what the engineers are about and what their intention’s about which I find very amusing to hear the intention of the engineers, what they’re all about. People are pointing out there’s a bunch of holes in the story. At first viewing, if your expectation is the obvious for what the engineers are doing and why they came to earth initially, blah blah blah, it can appear that there are holes. But I think ironically the interpretation is intentionally allowed to be wide so that Ridley can package up the answers in the next round, assuming it does happen. I hope it does.

 

Do you have some work that’s going to be seen in the director’s cut?

I would think so. It might simply be in the outtakes or the behind the scenes. I don't know if any of the design that went into the film there’d be an extended cut/director’s cut, but Ridley does tend to put more into the director’s cut.

 

He said there’s maybe a 20-30 minute extended version. Are there any creatures we didn’t see that would be new to that version?

No, no. He was pretty lean about designing towards the end goal. There were some things at the very, very beginning that we developed but they never made it to screen simply because they were cut from even developing. But there’s a lot more detail within the features that I hope you’ll get a chance to see in the longer version.

 

Both the engineers and the pre-xenomorph creatures?

Yeah, particularly the thing that is referred to by Ridley as the Trilobite, which is the large tentacular creature that attacks the engineer at the end of the film.

 

Did you start working with Ridley when this was still specifically Alien Prequel?

Yeah. Just at the very beginning, actually maybe two weeks into it is when there were rumors within the art department that it’s not going to be a prequel.

 

In that version, would you have had to aim more towards the H.R. Giger xenomorphs that we knew?

Quite honestly, I didn’t feel like anything I did change in my efforts creatively. I still was, where appropriate, channeling Giger’s work and Giger’s aesthetic, particularly with the engineer’s spacesuit because it had to be that aesthetic.

 

Where did you start with the Space Jockey scene in Alien and extrapolating that for Prometheus?

It was interesting because Ridley did say, “I don’t necessarily want to see you copy Giger’s work. That’s not what we’re doing here.” In discussing it, it was clear though that the engineer was a Space Jockey, was sitting inside of that vessel. Therefore, it made sense that the film language and the aesthetic and the palette would be related. The ironic thing is I didn’t open one Giger book. I didn’t look at his work, mainly because his work I’ve been looking at for years, since the original Alien and I’ve been a huge fan of it. So it was pretty deep in my mind and it was clear enough that I could actually replicate that aesthetic without having any of his artwork in front of me.

 

When did the idea that what we saw in Alien was a spacesuit, and not a skeleton, come into play?

I think that was, and I’m guessing here quite honestly, that it was a bit of reverse engineering. I’m not sure how much Ridley knew when he was doing the first film that the elephantine face was going to be a helmet. But either way from my interpretation, it was a matter of shoehorning the engineer into that device and being able to have him revealed so that he does look like the iconic Florentine sculptures that Ridley referenced in the “Art of” book. Trying to have it be human yet knowing that that elephantine structure could not be a human head. It was pretty easy to just imagine that that’s some kind of specialized space helmet shell device. I had nothing to do with that. That was truly Giger but we needed some kind of undersuit and that’s where it came from because I started off just by doing basically underpants on the engineer with this exposed body. Then we realized he should probably not be as naked. If you were in a cryo chamber over years, you’d probably be in some kind of suit that could connect with your body tissue, protect it, monitor it, etc.

 

So that’s what Ridley asked of you? That was already the idea when you came on?

Yeah, it was already what he wanted for sure. It was just a case of me figuring out what that cosmetically looks like.

 

How often does James Cameron give you new creative ideas for Avatar 2?

Oh, [right] now there’s nothing happening with me. None of the artists that I worked with are on board, or at least I’m not definitely. We’ve talked about it definitely and there’s an interest when the time is right but I think there’s other stuff that he’s doing before he brings in the art department.

 

Does his 10-20 year plan of, as he says, being in the Avatar business, affect you?

It does quite a bit. It affects me with regards to we discussed my being involved when he’s ready. The problem is when he’s ready may conflict with something I’m already working on. If I know I have a project that’s going to last a year or two, I will call him beforehand and say, “Just to be sure that you don’t need me in the next few months, I might be unavailable for a year. Is that cool?” And they’ll let me know. I do the same with J.J. [Abrams], the directors I enjoy working with, and obviously Ridley. If I’ve got something coming up and I know that they talked to me about the possibility of working with them down the road, I’ll give them a call and say, “I might be off the radar for a bit.”

 

Does that include Tron if they want to bring you back for a sequel to Tron Legacy?

Yeah. Those are such big projects with such a huge commitment that it does. You can imagine with Tron, with J.J., with Ridley and with Jim, there’s going to be a time where there’s going to be conflict. So if that happens, that’s the downside of being fortunate to be desired to work. I don’t look forward to that day when I have to turn any of them down.

 


 

How many Avatar ideas have you been sitting on since 2009?

So many. When we started in 2005, we were utilizing fairly new technology with regards to development of the visualization of worlds and creatures. At the end of Avatar, we were just kind of getting into our stride of using this technology. Since Avatar, we, myself and other designers who were on it have really honed a whole new skill set so there’s a big part of us that is dying to get another crack at it to start utilizing the techniques and pipeline as well as just ideas that have been percolating for the last five years.

 

How do the achievements in performance capture impact the way you’re inspired to design creatures?

I don’t necessarily couple the two in regards to “will better performance capture make better design?” I don’t believe that is true. What is clearly true is better performance capture will make good or bad design move better and perform better. So design is almost like a separate entity all its own where it just has to be good, as good as you can possibly muster both in concept and execution. If you’ve got great motion capture and people who are driving the motion capture, the performers and actors, then you’re one step closer to having your design be much more realistic and adjustable from an audience perspective.

 

So you’re not worried about the technology. You just do your design and let them figure it out?

Well, you do work in concert with them because if you design a creature that is, say, like a horse and it is going to be performance captured by a human, you’ve got a problem because the limb layout doesn’t quite line up literally. So consequently you’re designing something that can’t be performed properly and it’s just a mess. You have to be cognizant of what the capture is going to be. I’m working on a project right now where it’s human performance that’s going to drive a bipedal creature that isn’t quite human proportions. So you’ve got to work closely so you can balance the two.

 

Is that for Star Trek 2?

I can’t say what it’s for but it’s definitely not Star Trek. I’m done with Star Trek. It’s always that way.

 

Knowing that James Cameron always planned to go underwater in Pandora, have you started thinking about what kind of creatures could be underwater?

I have long since loved designing underwater creatures. As a certified scuba diver and avid fan of any Discovery program show or National Geographic show on underwater stuff. It’s something I’ve always personally done. In fact, it was in my original portfolio that I showed to Jim before starting Avatar. So he and I had discussed underwater creatures from his Aliens of the Deep that he’d done a while back but I have not started anything specifically for Avatar or even thought about it quite frankly because I’ve just been so busy with other productions. Believe it or not there’s very little time in the day or space in my brain any more to think about something that I’m not actually working on.

 

How did Star Trek 2 push you past what you got to do in Star Trek 1?

I think what it simply did is we did some things on the first one and they were, for me as a designer, not groundbreaking but they were new. Then what that did was pave the way for legitimizing those choices and exercising them better on the second one. So for example, as a creature designer on any production, oftentimes people are either going to wear the makeup or they’re going to do the motion capture. What J.J. and I realized on the first one is was it might make sense for me to be involved with casting the right actors first. Not the main actors in the production but background alien creatures. So we did that on the first one and it worked out so well, I was much more involved with that on the second one just because it really helps if you’re designing a character that’s in a regular costume or something else. You have the vision of your design to help picking the right people or at least suggesting.

 

Do you have anything to do with Benedict Cumberbatch?

Nope. Nothing. [Laughs] It’s funny, this is the other thing that happened on Star Trek 2 is that I was so busy with other things that I didn’t get to spend as much time on set as I did the first film. I got to know Chris Pine and Zoe and Zach and pretty much the whole bridge crew quite well on the last one, but this time literally we would pass each other in the hall and it’s just be a quick, “Hello.” That’s it. Again, that is because I was doing more design in the art department versus being on set.

 

Did it involve any more classic Trek species?

Well, as you know, with Trek and J.J. and my nondisclosure, I can’t speak or speculate of anything.

 

I know, we’re trying to be vague enough to talk about it. How about: Did the success of the first one give you any more freedom with what J.J. would let you do or what the studio would let you do?

I felt that it was essentially the same for me. Every single production I’ve worked on with J.J., he gives me ample freedom and I have no idea what the influence of the studio is. The way I see it is I’ve worked for J.J., not the studio and J.J.’s always very respectful of the artists’ efforts. He gives me a lot of wiggle room which is great. I’d say it doesn’t feel any different working on Star Trek than it does Super 8 because J.J. gives me a lot of room to breathe.

 

When will we be allowed to find out what your new project is?

Probably in the next month or two, worst case. I’m sitting here looking at it right now thinking, “Hmm, if I finish it this week as I’m supposed to, and they do the tests, we might have an answer real soon.”

 

So maybe Comic-Con?

I’m really hoping. There’s a few things that will be revealed at Comic-Con because there’s a few things that are actually happening that the studios have said they’re willing to release of my involvement during Comic-Con.

 

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is why I love these monsters so much. Why do you think monsters and creatures are so important?

That’s such a great question few people ever ask. And you know it’s a tough one to answer with any degree of sophistication. I’ll give you my off the cuff response. It’s a staple. It’s almost like when you think of the major food groups for us to survive, you’ve got to have your protein, you’ve got to have complex carbohydrates, etc. With film, I think “creature” is one of the main food groups that we have in history always needed. I think the need for it comes from metaphor and the abstraction of telling a human story using something that doesn’t really exist that would help magnify the human story. A creature can be a metaphor to corporate events, it could be a metaphor for natural occurring disasters, it can be a metaphor for relationship or inner demons that are manifested as real demons. I think that is why we have always had creatures in our storytelling, but today it’s shifted towards I think a fan base that’s maybe out of necessity in telling stories because the classic stories have been told and obviously retold. But the pure entertainment value of a creature is kind of like the Big Mac of food groups where it’s not necessarily good for you but it tastes good and we enjoy the experience of candy, pizza and burgers. I think that a lot of times in entertainment, in film and games, creatures are fundamentally used in that way. It’s not a complex vehicle for narrative. It’s just something that makes you go, “F***, that’s cool!” That’s about as sophisticated as it ought to get and then there’s occasions where the creature, I would like to say at least on behalf of Super 8, that the creature was less about that and it was more a metaphor for the conflict. I know that that is what J.J. wanted. That is a better case of the use of creatures in storytelling. Then Piranha, that’s just pure visceral fun.

 

Were you on 3DD also or just the first one?

Just the first one, but I think they’re still using the same fish.

 

Yes, they are. Different boobs, same fish.

Different boobs, yeah.

 

My thought on monsters is: The alien is the creature they have to fight and kill in each one, but I feel like the storytellers love the monster. I wonder if it has to do with we need something to overcome. A really great monster like the alien provides that. So while the characters may need to defeat it, the storytellers love it. Even when I hear Sigourney Weaver talk about Alien I think she’s a little protective of it.

Particularly creatures that are just doing their thing. There are the creatures that come down and f*** with us for sport, like a lot of alien attack movies and then there’s the creatures like Alien who we violated their territory and they’re just doing what they do. Those are the ones that should be protected because it is, intended or not, a metaphor for how we treat nature on this planet. You end up at a camp site and you’ve got food out, a bear’s going to come. You are responsible for how you deal with it, and it shouldn’t include killing that bear because it’s just doing what it does. That’s the one thing I love about the creature aspect. If I was doing a movie about campers and bears and leaving your food out, you’re not going to get an audience to come like Jim did with Avatar. He wanted to tell a tree hugging story and a tree hugging story is not going to be as globally interesting unless it is wrapped in aesthetics and effects and other things. He achieved exactly the goal which is a simple, extraordinarily relevant message that people are aware of but need to be told again. A lot of people will walk away just having enjoyed Avatar and I think others will walk away thinking, “I get the metaphor. We should be more mindful of the indigenous peoples and creatures of this planet.”

 

Although with Prometheus, didn’t the engineers start it because they created us?

There is that speculation that they did create us. I mean, we know that the engineers were the engineers of us but we don’t know, and nor can I speculate, why they left and came back and how many times they came back and what the intention was of returning and why they gave us the map to find them. That’s the fun of watching all the people rave lovingly and hatefully about it is if you ever made a movie, I don't think you ever want people to go, “Yeah, it was okay” in that gray zone. It’s like love me or hate me, but if you’re talking about me, that’s a good thing.