‘Avatar’ designer on Jim Cameron, banshees and those nagging ‘Delgo’ comparisons
“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 15 DAYS
You want “Avatar” coverage? You can read about the sci-fi epic right here at Hero Complex until you turn blue in the face. Our 30-day countdown to the most expensive movie in Hollywood history is now at the halfway mark. Today Gerrick Kennedy has a Q&A with Neville Page, the creature designer for “Avatar” who created the dragon-like banshees that fly through the skies of Pandora. Page’s previous credits include “Cloverfield,” “Watchmen” and the J.J. Abrams reboot of “Star Trek.”
GK: How did you get on board with James Cameron?
NP: I had some friends who were working with him before on a different project. He had put out some feelers for his great adventure and I thought, “What the hell?” At that point, I didn’t really have the portfolio [for creature work], my background was more industrial design. He liked the fact that I didn’t have a creature-centric background. I guess it was a unique approach. We started working at his house in Malibu [in May 2005], which was a treat to say the least.
GK: Talk a little bit about the process behind creating the creatures seen in Pandora.
NP: Like everyone else, we took a stab at everything. We worked on the Na’vi, the plants, the environment. The first people brought on board were to see what the planet would look like. Rather than drawing shapes, I tried to resolve it from a physics standpoint. If a creature was supposed to have six legs you can put those anywhere, but soon an animator will have to make it walk and run. You have to be careful. Jim, like few others, is so tuned into the plausibility of organisms. He wanted them to look as real as possible, and work organically as well.
GK: Computer-generated characters are such a staple in films today. When you think of films you’ve seen in the past, what didn’t you want “Avatar” creatures to look like?
NP: Digital technology has afforded all of us the chance to suspend disbelief much longer. In some ways it makes doing creature design easier. Almost anything can be made to look realistic. So the goal that I had — gosh [laughs]. I didn’t have as big a goal or preconception. Jim really had a vision for this. He’s been eating, breathing, sleeping, everything about this project. He knew exactly what he wanted. He would guide us. For the most part he was master and commander of every aspect in this film. We had to take what was inside of his head and pull it out and realize it in some form.
GK: Are there any films that inspire you because of their work?
NP: Oh absolutely. For me — and this isn’t kissing Jim’s ass, he knows this already [laughs] — I have always thought that one of the coolest creatures was the alien queen. When “Aliens” came out it was Jim who designed the queen. At his house he pulled out the original design … I think to remind us he was quite capable. All these sketches that he did were so bloody creative. I had no idea he was that much of an artist. We were designing for a designer. Then there’s the movie “Legend” — I couldn’t quite figure it out, but I was drawn to it. And “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors. And, truth be told, “Star Wars” is what influenced me the most as far as my career.
GK: You’ve worked with J.J. Abrams twice now, including “Cloverfield” where everything was centered on this mysterious monster. What are some challenges when working on films shrouded in secrecy?
NP: You get used to it. At first you get frustrated. And there is reason to be secretive. “Cloverfield” for example, there was no saying that I was working on it. It had so many code names. “Avatar” was the same way. Towards the end of it I started working on “Cloverfield.” With “Avatar” it went on for five years and it’s like “Come on,” you want to share what you’re working on. But you don’t want to spoil the fun, or the excitement for anyone. Or worst of all, ruin your career.
GK: You’ve also worked on the highly anticipated “Tron Legacy.” What can you say about the work you did there? If anything at all.
NP:I can say that I worked on specialty costume design. It was unbelievable and fantastic for me. I’ve been doing creatures for five years now. I got to go back to my roots and do some industrial design. It was a nice departure. Being able to re-imagine what the Tron suit would look like now, and what the good guys and bad guys would look like. It was a challenge for many reasons, but it was a great deal of fun.
GK: What was your inspiration behind your work on “Avatar”?
NP: As much as I say he was the driving force behind this there was downtime. He’d say I want all blue people, 10 feet tall, with tails. Then you had a few months to yourself. I didn’t really work with the Na’vi, I did more creature work. The banshee is what I spent the most time on. We knew it was a flying creature. What made it so incredibly challenging, with a bird you have to design it flying, perching, everything has to work. You can’t just draw it one view at a time. Jim and I were both fans of engineering. We spent a lot of time coming up with various concepts. The hardest thing of all was having a Na’vi on top of it and flying it. You had to backwards engineer it. It was like designing and engineering an aircraft. And that’s without the beauty and aesthetics of it.
GK: This movie has a lot of hype behind it, was there a point where you realized your work had the potential to revolutionize the film industry?
NP: I knew once they hired me, I’d be revolutionizing the film industry. [Laughs] No, no. I never go into a project thinking of the impact. It wasn’t until I saw the IMAX 16 minutes that I thought to myself, “Wow, Jim pulled this off.” This is going to be an amazing film. Someone asked if I thought it was incredible to be a part of the next “Star Wars.” I thought, “holy crap.” I hadn’t even thought of that.
GK: After footage of the film screened in the summer, there was a smattering of online criticism for having a likeness to “Delgo.” As a creator, what were your thoughts on that?
NP: I saw on YouTube the video comparing them side by side. I thought, wow, there are a couple of moments that are pretty compelling. It’s so apples and oranges, these two films. Jim himself has said there are similarities to other films. I thought the choice of the color blue, you only have a few colors to go with. Alien colors are greens and blues or pale whites. Jim had a palette he wanted. Do I think there is much of a comparison? Clearly there is. I think [the video and side-by-side comparisons] was too literalized. I think it’s easiest to do with many films. You can take a bunch of stuff and spin it to whatever you want. It’s like any love story. There can be parallels drawn to any love story. It’s who can tell it better, with more compelling imagery. That’s definitely what Jim has done here. People are going to get it. Much like “Titanic.” Was that a unique story, if you’re not talking about the ship? No, not even close. It’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s a classic, classic story. “Avatar” has the best of both, a very familiar story and a very unique vision behind it.
— Gerrick Kennedy
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“Avatar” photo: Fox