Neville Page is one of the movie industry’s leading concept and creature designers, whose work features in blockbusters including Avatar and Super 8. As his latest film, Prometheus, opens in cinemas, he talks to Jan Gilbert about being inspired by nature and Star Wars...
You started out as an actor. What brought about the shift to concept design?
The inspiration was Star Wars. I loved it so much I wanted to be in that world. But acting didn’t allow me to do what I’d dreamt of doing as it’s difficult to get even a McDonalds commercial, let alone star in a film like that!
So, I thought about how I could get into that type of film specifically. I did some research and realised most Star Wars artists were educated in illustration or industrial design. I applied to school and was exposed to the world of industrial design, which was captivating. I went down that path professionally before deciding to work in film. Long story short, I developed a portfolio and submitted it to James Cameron for Avatar, and was chosen as one of the lead designers to develop the film.
How have you found the world of movie design compared to industrial design?
Art departments are very open and consistent with the school environment – everyone’s happy to share techniques. But it can be so busy that we don’t have time. So, on Tron: Legacy, I made an effort to do an art department evening every two weeks. We’d order pizza, hang out after hours, do demos of our work and share skills.
How has your industrial design training helped your movie work?
When you’re asked to design a monster, finding where to start on a white piece of paper can be disabling. Industrial design teaches you a process to answer the question – you research, you try alternative methods of exploring answers. And aspects of graphic design used in product development – for example, form follows function – are exactly the same [as those used] to make a creature. It’s just that one’s wrapped in plastic, the other in flesh.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Nature has the most amazing designs. As humans, we’ve been exposed to what’s naturally occurring. So, if you go too far away from that, it won’t feel right to an audience. Your design only needs to be familiar in an unconscious way – the audience doesn’t need to think, “that looks like a kitten”.
I delve deeper than looking at animals in the zoo. I study biomechanics and anatomy, chemistry, geology, how things grow, how things decay… all that makes you more inventive in creating new forms of life and keeps your ideas grounded.
How do you keep your ideas fresh?
I try to come up with ways to generate new aesthetics using software like Photoshop or the digital sculpting programme ZBrush. I use a lot of old-school photography, found objects, and random, controlled casts to create new ways of doing stuff. Like the Rorschach inkblot, but, in a more high-tech way, it allows me to randomly find new form language.
What’s your advice to young concept designers?
Learn the fundamental techniques: how to draw in perspective, render with light and create form. It requires repetition, dedication, and time to get good.
Stay current in terms of technology and contemporary events, news, and history.
Social skills are really important too for participating in meetings and working one-on-one with your director. Artists need to put effort not only into their art, but also into communicating it.
What about concept designing on a budget?
The good news about concept design is, with the exception of a drawing utensil and something to draw on, it’s free. There’s no cost other than time and mental energy.
Knowledge or education isn’t necessarily free, but there are more resources now than ever, and compared with formal training, they cost less and are in your timeframe. A great resource is the Gnomon Workshops.
Prometheus is in cinemas from 1 June.
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