Like many Sci-Fi fans, creature/character designer Neville Page sat in a darkened movie theater when he was a child and watched in anticipation as the opening credits for the original Star Wars feature film began to roll. Having seen the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca, his mind wandered in a direction that would forever change his life.
“I began to wonder what people did in order to make a movie like that,” recalls Page. “I didn’t understand that they went to school to learn how to be creature designers, sculptors or artists for that matter, and could then go work in films. Then, however, I began to collect all sorts of Star Wars magazines – I was really addicted to the film – and in one of the magazines there was this article on [make-up artist] Rick Baker. When I saw a picture of him with a lump of clay and a sculpting tool, it suddenly occurred to me that, ‘OK, people actually do this stuff,’ and that’s where my interest [in the craft] first began.”
When he was 17, Page moved to Hollywood and, after trying his hand at acting and stand-up comedy, enrolled in the Art Center College of Design where he studied industrial design. “I did that for several years, but all along I craved to work in films,” says the designer. “The more seasoned I became as an industrial designer, it became more apparent that if I wanted to make monsters and do animatronics, it would require a huge career and lifestyle change.
“At that point I thought, ‘Well, that dream is dead,’ but the very next day, literally, something happened that changed my mind. Colleen Atwood, who’s a major costume designer, was working next door to my studio on the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report. A buddy of mine had left his keys there and she stopped by my studio to drop them off. Colleen noticed that my business partner, Scott Robertson, and I do industrial design, including helmets, and she needed a helmet for a police costume. That’s when she asked, ‘Hey, do you guys want to work on some film stuff?’ and I haven’t stopped since. You can’t plan something like that. It’s like sitting at a cafe and being ‘discovered.’ You can only hope you’re in the right place at the right time, and mine was my buddy forgetting his keys.
X2, The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hulk, Cloverfield and James Cameron’s Avatar are just a few of the big screen projects that Page has worked on. “With Avatar I was kind of stretching my skills at creature design,” he says. “James Cameron is a very specific guy and you can just imagine how many portfolios were being thrown his way when it came to his movie. Four people were selected, myself being one of them, and I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s a mistake here, because I don’t have much of a portfolio.’ I had a lot of industrial design stuff, but I guess that’s what Jim wanted. He wanted a very different take on a creature design and I’ve told him many times since then how incredibly grateful and indebted I am to him because he allowed me almost a year to become educated in what he needed to be the best, well-thought out creatures in film. So he afforded us the time to really do it right.
“I’m a huge fan of doing the research and understanding the subject matter, which includes buying animal bones and things of that nature to better understand a creatures’ physiology, and Jim really dug that we were coming in fully armed with all this knowledge. You can’t pull the wool over his eyes. He’s bright on all levels, and it was our goal to help crack the design nut. There were occasions where I would present an anatomical solution to a problem that would genuinely impress Jim. That’s a good day at work! Jim is a strong man who knows what he wants, and if you’re strong enough to survive that, you come out a better person and definitely a better designer, that’s for sure.”
While still working on Avatar, the designer took on yet another new creature challenge in J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield. “When I met with [producers] J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles to discuss Cloverfield, I knew nothing about the project other than J.J. said, ‘I want to make a monster movie,’” says Page. “They explained to me that this film was a big experiment as far as how they were going to shoot it, with handheld cameras and not a whole bunch of other cameras set up for secondary or tertiary shots. They also explained that the overall budget was next to nothing.
“For whatever reason, J.J. won me over because of his passion for the work and his loveable personality. I thought, ‘I don’t know quite what it [the film] is either, J.J., but sign me up.’ The hardest part of Cloverfield, though, was that I was also in my last five or six months of Avatar, and the last months of any project are the toughest because you have to deliver all the final elements. I told myself, ‘I’m working with James Cameron and J.J. Abrams simultaneously. Am I the luckiest man in the world or what? You’ve got to make this work, Neville, no matter what.’”
Clearly, Abrams was pleased with Page’s contribution to Cloverfield because he subsequently asked him to provide creature effects and much more for the new Star Trek film. “I was tasked with two creatures right out of the gate, which were the ones on the ice planet Delta Vega,” notes the designer. “J.J. was very specific about what he wanted; he wanted one of the creatures to be red because it would look cool and be a great contrast to the white snow. The second thing he wanted was for it to have several eyes just so it was kind of freaky and scary. J.J. also wanted the creature to have a month that was extremely off-putting, not because you’d be afraid of being bitten by it, but that it might touch or dribble on you.
“If you study enough about biology and animals you can kind of reverse engineer a number of things into a plausible organism. That’s where it’s helpful to have a pretty broad understanding of several different animals as well as zoology and physics, because you’ll be able to take some really wacky concept and make it work by having all these other reference points. So I didn’t have much trouble with the color of the red creature because there are plenty of things in the ocean that are red, such as crabs, lobsters and the Humboldt squid. The creature is actually a cross between a crab and a squid, and it wasn’t necessarily that I thought of that as a means to hybridize something, but this thing just evolved to a point where it started to look like that. So I thought, ‘I can reference those two animals and tap into a little bit more of their physiology.’
“There are those who question the red color, but the important thing to remember is that this creature is most comfortable in the water, much like a squid would be. It only breaks through the ice for the occasional desperate feeding. That was my rationale, and it actually does make sense; animals do occasionally breach or leave their normal habitat when they’re incredibly hungry. However, there have been a lot of fans of the film that really objected to the fact that it was red, but when you know what its origins are, then it potentially makes sense.
“The fact that this creature doesn’t have fur is also another [deliberate] choice. A lot of whales don’t have fur, but rather excess blubber. It might sound as if I’m justifying things, but I’m trying to explain the fact that it’s an alien planet, so anything should go. But we have a critical Earth audience looking at the movie, some of whom saying, ‘I don’t know if I’d buy that [creature] because it’s red, doesn’t have fur and it’s skinny.’ Well, crabs somehow get away with it, and so do lobsters. There’s no fur on a lobster, so who’s to say that this creature isn’t some sort of hybrid endo-exo-skeletal thing. The most important thing for J.J. is that he just wants it to be cool for the moment so people enjoy the ride. My job is to make sure that it [the creature] is viable enough so fans and other people who may scrutinize it don’t feel insulted or gypped. But I must ask, why does no one question the survivability of the passengers on a ship that leaps instantly to warp speed? It’s all simply entertainment.”
Those who saw the Star Trek film and also, coincidentally, have an aversion to insects, probably had to look away when Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is tortured for tactical data by Captain Nero (Eric Bana) of the Romulan mining ship Narada, and forced to swallow the mind-controlling bug. Page was the brains behind the look of that particular creepy crawly.
“That little bug was kind of an homage to the earwig that was in [the second Star Trek film] The Wrath of Khan, in that something bug-like is being put inside you that’s going to mess with your mind,” he says. “I felt it would have been far creepier to put it into an orifice that you wouldn’t normally put something in, but we were limited to orifices that were PG [rated],” jokes Page. “So ears and nostrils would have been it. I just thought that putting it in the mouth was, maybe, more like eating it, and not as unnerving.
“We did our level best to make it look upsetting, but I think most people are so bug-phobic that just having a bug near someone’s mouth was frightening enough. I really did want this one to be more like an earwig, which is why I made the tail earwig-like. J.J. was very specific, though, about wanting these claws and little tentacles that would make it look as if it has the capacity, once inside the body, to engage with the spinal cord or lower brainstem.
“So the design challenge was partially just arriving at the appropriate esthetic, but on top of that, we knew that we didn’t have the funds to do a full digital effect and that it had to be a practical on-set one. That meant we had to have something we could actually control animatronically, and that dictated a certain kind of body mass to fit the electronics into. A Japanese gentleman, in fact, made a robot that was tiny enough, or should I say microscopic enough, to go inside a rubber version of our bug. That’s what you see on-screen, this little remote-controlled bug on the end of barbecue tongs. It was quite incredible.”
Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation are well aware that its Klingons as well as Romulans looked very different from those seen in the classic Star Trek series. An effort was made in Star Trek: Enterprise to explain the change in the Klingons’ appearance, and the same thing was done in the new Star Trek movie with regard to the Romulans, including Eric Bana’s Nero.
“The Next Generation Romulans had the V-shaped prosthetic on their forehead, but in the original show, they had absolutely no prosthetics,” explains Page. “So we had to come up with a way to justify how it is that over time, some of them developed the V and others did not. For that, I worked with Joel Harlow, who did a lot of the make-up for Pirates of the Caribbean, and was the head make-up artist for the Romulans specifically. The idea I had involved a bald head and therefore shaving it completely, but in order to convince Eric Bana of this, we needed to do a make-up test first. We didn’t have the budget to hire another actor or a model for this, so I ‘donated’ my head to the cause. We would shave my head, Joel would then do the make-up test on me, and if J.J. liked it, we would move forward and create the look for Eric.
“As far as the concept of getting that V-shape to work, I went with tribal scarification,” continues the designer. “If you scar yourself over and over again in the same place, over time it turns into a keloid mass. I thought it would be interesting if we could use that to create the natural V justification. So we put together an array of designs that Harlow sculpted to replicate that look, and we had a number of tattoo and hair ideas as well. In the end, what you see in the movie is not unlike the basic concept that I wore in our presentation to J.J. The final design, however, has more character nuances in it; there’s a scar on Nero’s face, because I always liked the idea of chopping his ear off to make it look like he’s even half of the Romulan he used to be. Ultimately, J.J. decided to make it more of a bite that Nero probably got while he was imprisoned with the Klingons.”
The original scarring went through a bit of a metamorphosis before filming began, but Abrams liked the design that Page first tested, so much so that he asked him if he would like to play a Romulan in the film. The designer wasted no time in accepting the offer. “I joke with people that that was my plan all along as a child, that I wanted to be a movie star. However, I had a whole different way of achieving that. It would be through the backdoor. I’d study design for years and work and work and then finally get my break while testing the make-up. It was a very strategic and circuitous path,” he says with a laugh, “but now that I am a huge celebrity, wasn’t it all worth it? Although J.J. did say, ‘Keep your day job.’ What could he have meant?
“Seriously, the best part about doing it was two-fold. I had to go through the make-up process many times, including having to wear full scleral contact lenses. They aren’t just the small lenses that cover the iris, but the ones that extend over the eye in all directions. I can’t stand the idea of contact lenses, but I thought, ‘If I’m going to be designing this stuff for people, I should at least know what I’m asking them to subject themselves to.’
“So seeing the sculptors interpreting my designs and then seeing the make-up applied step-by-step was, for me, not only fun, but also a wonderful education in the hope that I do more work like it. The other get part was getting to be on the other side of the camera. I’ve been around long enough to know what that’s like as a designer, but being ‘an actor’ on-set and watching them direct me and everyone else was another amazing learning experience.”
Besides Star Trek, Page’s other recent work includes Watchmen and Tron 2.0, the sequel to the 1982 Sci-Fi film Tron. “I started off designing a bit of everything [for Tron 2.0] with everyone else, but I quickly gravitated towards the costumes,” he says. “From there, I ended up moving from the art department to costumes and developing the hero and specialty costumes. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but it’s a hard thing to break into because it’s a totally different department.
“I recently came back from Vancouver where I watched some of the shooting [for Tron 2.0] and, my God, it looks really good. From the last script I read, I think it’s going to be an interesting film with some neat twists, and aesthetically it’s looking phenomenal. It’s right up there with James Cameron’s Avatar in terms of delivering really fresh and new imagery on-screen. If you watch the original Tron now, it’s important to note what a major achievement that it was then, and at the helm of it all was Steve Lisberger. He was the original director and conceiver of Tron and one of the producers for the new movie. Lisberger is very involved in the production and it was cool to see him and the new director, Joe Kosinski, brainstorming. It’s one of the more exciting projects I’ve ever been on.”
While some people who work in film and/or TV might take it for granted, Page sees his involvement in the business as very much the opposite. He is also happy for the chance to give back something to audiences. “When I sat watching Star Wars as a kid, my parents were going through a divorce, and the movie was an amazing escape for me,” he says. “It’s sad to say that R2D2 was my therapist at age 12. Having said that, whenever I meet someone who is moved by something I’ve done in the same way I was moved by Joe Johnston [Star Wars effects illustrator/designer] and Ralph McQuarrie [Star Wars production illustrator], that’s when it really hits home that what you do is relevant. And it’s such a priviledge to be able to do that.”
As noted above, all photos courtesy of and copyright of Neville Page, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!
Tags: Avatar, Bruce Greenwood, Bryan Burk, Captain Christopher Pike, Captain Nero, Cloverfield, Colleen Atwood, Creature Design, Eric Bana, Feature Film, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron, Joe Kosinski, Joel Harlow, Klingons, Neville Page, Romulans, Scott Robertson, Star Trek, Star Trek XI, Steve Lisberger, Tron, Tron 2.0