You know Neville Page as the creator of the Cloverfield monster, plus many Avatar creatures. But now, he's the guy who helped recreate Tron, and bring the Green Lantern Corps to life. He talked creatures and weird inspirations with us.
We were really thrilled to get some time to talk one on one with Page, who's one of our favorite designers working in movies today. (We talked to him last year about Avatar.) Find out how Tron Legacy's sexy Sirens could have looked more like a Sorayama painting, the biggest challenge in working on Tron, and the weirdest Green Lantern character that Page worked on.
The stuff about Tron Legacy is first, then the stuff about Green Lantern — and finally, some of Page's insights into creature design in general.
How did Page go from alien creatures to Tron?
Page is mostly known as a creature designer, but his background is in industrial design, so in a lot of ways doing Tron Legacy's computer-generated world was like going back to his roots. It was a great opportunity to think about questions like "What do our surfaces mean, theoretically? How were they built by the computer?" But Page also admits he was a bit intimidated to go out of his element. When production designer Darren Gilford approached Page about working on Tron, Page says he jokingly asked, "You know who you called, right? This is Neville. I do creatures." And his first day, Page even told Gilford that he could fire Page at any time, and there would be no hard feelings. But then Page started to rise to the challenge.
What was the hardest thing about working on Tron?
Tron Legacy was "the hardest production I've ever worked on in my life," says Page. He primarily worked on the costumes, including both Sam and Kevin Flynn, plus Quorra, the Black Guards and the Sirens. What made it so hard was that the costumes had to look totally artificial, and yet they had to be built practically, to be worn by actors. Unlike in Avatar, where Page could design stuff that Weta Digital would bring to life using CG, everything he designed for Tron had to be practical. Director Joseph Kosinski insisted he didn't want to see the slightest wrinkle on these costumes. "I'd spent the past four years doing creatures with wrinkles and scales," says Page.
Tron's characters literally had to be scanned into a computer
The only way to get those costumes skin-tight enough, so they would look perfect, was to scan the actors using lasers. "We were using stuff that was as high-tech and as science fiction," says Page, "but in real life. Like doing laser-scanning, and scanning them into the computer, and then designing the costumes on the computer." Every piece of the costumes needed to be built specially for the actors.
Olivia Wilde's helmet fit her face — not close, but rather [so close], it pushed her nose in and pushed her ears in. It was tight. That was done using laser scans of her and her body and sculpting stuff to the computer and fitting it with the computer and then growing the parts.
Page worked closely with helmet fabricator Ironhead to make the helmets practical, including figuring out where the joins should be so that you could fit them onto the actor's head and not leave a visible seam. The helmets had to be able to come off quickly, so people could remove them to eat. Often, when you see a prop like a helmet from a movie in person, it looks shabby and "barely held together," but Page says Tron Legacy's helmets look like really high-end helmets that you'd want to buy for yourself.
What was Page's coolest idea for Tron that didn't make it into the movie?
When Page was working on the Sirens — those women in white who strip off Sam's clothes and kit him out in a shiny black new outfit — he had some way-out ideas, that Kosinski wound up not going with. "At the beginning, it was more robotic, and then it worked its way to being more of a performance from human beings... I did some very Metropolis-like robot girls, very Sorayama-like. It was fun to do, but that's not what Joe wanted... He wanted more of a human connection." The final product still seems quite artificial, with the jerky motions and the synthesized-sounding voices, but the characters are still recognizably people in suits.
The film-makers came to Page with a wishlist of Green Lanterns
Page is credited as lead creature designer, and he worked on a lot of the creatures of the ring-wearing space cop legion, the Green Lantern Corps. Page worked on a ton of different aliens who are members of the Corps, but he cautions: "I didn't get the impression they're really showcased, other than Kilowog and Tomar-Re." He's also not sure which Lanterns made it into the final film. In general, creature designers will create a ton of concepts, and many of them will wind up on the cutting-room floor, even if they get to the stage of being animated.
For the most part, when working on these classic characters, he followed the way they'd been depicted in the comics over the years. "The design concepts are so great, and so different than what I would ever [normally] do." Although sometimes, the depiction has been inconsistent enough that you have to make some choices. Like the drill sergeant Kilowog, for example — at various times in the comics, he's looked more rhinoceros-faced or pig-faced.
How to make a character like Kilowog sympathetic instead of scary
Page is used to designing terrifying creatures like the Cloverfield monster — so how does he approach an alien like Kilowog, who's still menacing-looking but is supposed to be a friend? Page says it would be absolutely wrong to try and make Kilowog look more sympathetic — that should come from the way he's animated, and the voice actor who brings the character to life. Kilowog has to be a "bad-ass, tough, brooding character," so his physicality should reflect that. At the same time, you want to create a facial structure that allows the character to furrow his brow, or smile or wince, so the animators can convey a range of expressions. Some creatures don't have enough range of expression to allow that — some menacing creatures have an ugly expression "baked in" to their faces. For example, movies featuring scary wolves often seem to have the wolves start out with furrowed brows that never un-furrow, which is something that doesn't happen in real life.
How do you handle some of the weirder-looking Lanterns?
Check out this crystalline guy — his name is Chaselon, and he's been a mainstay of the Green Lantern Corps since his first appearance in 1961. And Page says he struggled with how to make Chaselon work on screen:
I remember seeing that one and going, "Oh wow, it's a crystal with a Mohawk and robotic limbs. As you know, in the comics, it evolved over the years and had different looks. I looked through them and tried to get a baseline of what [the fans] would expect him to be. [In one version] he's a crystal ball with legs that look like something from The Matrix, and in another, he's like a shard of stone. So I would look at all the comic book versions, and say, If I took all of those, and took the best pieces of each, what would you have? And then the hardest part is, How do you take a crystal with robotic limbs and a Mohawk, and not have it be laughable on film. Somehow, in the comic world... there's so much more liberty to pull off the crazy stuff, but on film, when it's next to a real live human being for example, it just has to be a totally different thing that's true to the franchise yet doesn't make it look really stupid.
The most important thing is that someone going to see this movie, who's not a fan of the comics, should be able to accept all of these characters, instead of going, "What the hell were they thinking?"
I asked Page if he'd worked on Ch'p, the chipmunk Green Lantern, but he hadn't. Either Ch'p isn't in the movie, or Page just didn't work on him — there was a huge legion of creature designers on the film, and they passed different characters back and forth.
What about the movie's ultimate villain?
Minor spoiler below...
The movie's ultimate villain is Parallax, the fear parasite that was responsible for making Hal Jordan go bad in the comics. (Parallax is mentioned in the official synopsis over at Apple's trailer site, so the identity of the film's main villain is not really a secret at this point.) I asked Page if he'd worked on bringing Parallax to life in this film. He said:
I think everyone worked on Parallax, because he's such a complex thing... There were so many people involved that in the end, I'm not sure what he looks like. I was one of the last people to almost bring it through to the finish line, but in the end, due to the complexity of it — it's a lot of visual effects. I believe the post-production house will be really the one to bring [the look of Parallax] across the finish line.
Neville Page's philosophy of creature design
Page researches weird diseases to help create the most revolting monsters
"When you're asked to do a creature, oftentimes the goal is to disturb an audience, to scare an audience, to horrify," says Page. So he tries to reach for the things that terrify us most — for example, if he was working on a zombie movie, he would study pictures of accident victims.
But for the Cloverfield Monster and Big Red, the monster in Star Trek, he looked at weird diseases.
When it came to Big Red, J.J. Abrams told Page he wanted a monster that was so horrifying, you wouldn't be worried about it eating you — you'd be worried that it might dribble on you. "So I wanted to research what would be gross. And what sort of orifices — orifici? — are scary to people. And you go with the stuff that's primal." So Page wound up googling the word "prolapse."
"You google prolapsed anus or prolapsed cervix, which is basically when part of your body inverts itself, and it's a horrible thing. I don't take it lightly when I do this research. I don't look at it and go, 'Oh, that's gross, ha ha ha.' But people come around me when I'm working on stuff, and they go, "What is wrong with you?" This is stuff that's available through medical journals — I'm just tapping into exactly what you just responded to, [being] disgusted by this."
That kind of reaction of instinctual disgust became an issue when Page was working on the Cloverfield monster. One of the ideas that Abrams and director Matt Reeves had for the creature was that it was newborn, and it might be covered with a kind of placental sac. Those parasites that attack Rob and the others in the subway would have been feeding off that sac — and when you see the monster rubbing itself against the buildings, it's "scraping off this leftover afterbirth from its skin, or like a snake sloughing off his skin." So Page wanted to get an idea of what the surface of the Cloverfield monster would look like "before it shakes off its skin." So Page looked at a disorder known as "harlequin babies" — a phrase that pulls up a host of horrifying images if you plug it into google image search. He also looked at pictures of placentas.
At one point, Reeves walked into Page's office and saw the wall of pictures. "He was so disgusted and so offended and so upset about seeing these babies in these horrible conditions." At first, Page thought Reeves was just "being dramatic and just joking," and Page tried to laugh along with him, but then he realized that Reeves was seriously upset. Reeves said, "Dude, seriously, you gotta warn me. If you're going to have this stuff up, warn me. I do not want to see it." Afterwards, Reeves started calling the wall of Page's office "The Wall of Horror," or "The Wall of Death."
How does Neville Page keep from repeating himself?
Once you've designed a few scary monsters, how do you avoid making them look too similar to one another? Page admits he worries about this a fair bit:
In general terms, with creatures, [producers and directors] want them to be menacing... Every creature seems to have all of those attributes, they want them to have big fangs, big claws, and teeth, and it's tough and it's proud, so the descriptions are oftentimes very similar in one sense, so right out of the gate, you're challenged with, "How do I not repeat myself?" I have to still have two arms, two legs, a torso, a head, teeth, eyes, ears... How do you do that? You have to be conscious of it, you have to still do what the [creature] has to do.
The irony of it is, you don't want to repeat yourself, of course, and you struggle not to do that - but you also can't help but have your personal style kind of work its way in there, even without your intended objective being that. It's like, I can tell when I look at a Carlos Huante creature and I can tell when I see a Wayne Barlowe creature. Those are two of my absolute favorite designers. And I think the big question is, Is that a bad thing or a good thing? It's good, because the person's style is so strong and they kind of own it. Like [H.R.] Giger. You look at the work, and you go, "Holy crap, that's a Giger piece. Yay, we get to see Giger's stuff, but in a different context."
But at the same time, I don't feel like I'm one of those designers who's iconic, like a Giger, and I feel like my job is to service the story. And what I hate to have happen is when people say, "Oh, I saw that movie, and it looked like a Neville page creature." Aw, crap. If it looks like a "Neville Page creature," then it took you out of what you should have been enjoying. I need to work harder at making it a J.J. Abrams movie or a Ridley Scott movie, or a Joe Kosinski, it's more about making it feel like their work than it is my work.
Neville Page concept art via Gnomon Workshop.