Exclusive – TRON: Legacy Lead Concept Artist Neville Page Interview
Concept artist and creature designer Neville Page has brought us the Cloverfield monster, Star Trek‘s Big Red, and many of Avatar‘s wondrous creatures. Recently, he took a break from breathing life into fantastical creatures to design sleek and uber-high tech costumes and helmets for TRON: LEGACY. He soon jumped back into the creature world to bring some of the Green Lantern Corps from the comic to the big screen and he’s also working on J. J. Abrams’ highly anticipated Super 8.
Daemon’s Movies recently talked to Neville about how he came up with the sleek designs that helped define the TRON world, what challenges Green Lantern posed for him, and what he thought of the Super 8 trailer.
Most of your recent career has been spent building creatures, but your background is actually more industrial based, right?
Neville Page: Yeah, definitely.
Was ‘Tron: Legacy’ something that you sought out to get back to your roots or were you approached to do it?
Neville Page: I was approached by the production designer, Darren Gilford, whom I went to school with at The Arts Center in Pasadena and we’d known each other for ages. So it’s not like he lost touch and didn’t realize that I wasn’t doing industrial design. He called me up and said he wanted me to come in and start working on ‘Tron’ and I thought, ‘You got the right number, Darren? This is Neville.’ Actually, my first thought was that there must be creatures in the new world of ‘Tron’ and when he said, ‘No, no. We want you to start doing character stuff,’ that’s the hi-tech architectural ID looking aesthetic, I thought that he was really taking a risk. I was going to be rusty at the very least. But I was excited for the challenge. One, because I just love the whole franchise of ‘Tron’ and I felt that I had it in me, deep in me, perhaps. It was definitely there. I also gave him the opportunity to fire me at any moment should he need to, but fortunately that didn’t happen.
How long did it take you to get comfortable in that realm again?
Neville Page: I think it was actually the first day of sketching. It was clear to me that my pencil was not doing the things that I wanted it to do, but it didn’t take long before I was an industrial designer again, but whether I was in the groove of the ‘Tron’ aesthetic–that took some time. That took us all some time before we knew what the film was to look like, but that’s also one of those things where you’re hired to do a job. So I really had to concentrate a little harder than normal to make sure that all pistons were firing in my industrial design aesthetic.
I understand that you were most responsible for the leads’ outfits, right?
Neville Page: Yeah, the outfits and the helmets and then some of the peripheral props that go with that. The Croms and grenades and things.
How did you come up with the concept for what the suits and helmets would look like?
Neville Page: Well, the first character focus was Sam Flynn. And the reason that he was the focus was obviously because he’s the main character and then whatever aesthetic we arrived at–whatever technology of the new ‘Tron’ universe we would come up with–would inform the rest of the characters. So that was the focus. There were a few of us working on it at the time, but I kind of arrived at something that Joe Kosinski liked and my perspective was first being mindful of his desires which is very, very clean. Not a lot of fussy stuff. And then the requirement of having the actor, whoever it was going to be – we didn’t know at the time – look good in something that was going to be body conforming and be in this one outfit the entire duration of the film, but this outfit was a sports outfit really. He’s set up to wear this one outfit for the sports arena, the disc games and the light-cycle. So it needed to look sporty and perform in terms of movements in that way, but we didn’t want a guy that looked basically like he was in a football outfit. That was the aesthetic choice. He would look ridiculous if he was in his father’s safe house with shoulder pads. It was kind of trying to strike that balance.
There was a big, underlying metaphor of sporting goods and the helmet. Ironically, I did something very specific with the helmet. The original helmet that they used was a hockey helmet, like an off the shelf hockey helmet. We were working at Disney and down in the lobby they have some artifacts, and one of them is the original ‘Tron’ helmet. I’m looking at it, and it’s just so amusing to me because I had also worked developing hockey helmets, high end hockey helmets, as an industrial designer sometime back. So for me it was kind of like I had done the research and wouldn’t be funny to design a helmet that pays homage to ripping off of a hockey helmet. So the underlying helmet has all the forms and features in terms of aesthetics that a hockey helmet would have. If you were to put them side by side, you would see some of the inspiration and then the visor was really taking the concept of a hockey visor and making it more beautiful and less realistic in terms of safety and manufacturing, but those were kind of my inspirations. In a nutshell I wanted to do a cool hockey helmet. Not for the game of hockey of course, but just as an homage to the original film.
How did you make it so that all of this could be worn, since it’s not CGI and the actors are actually wearing the outfits?
Neville Page: It was hard. It was the hardest thing in the world, really–the hardest project I’ve ever worked on because of the reality of making it work. It’s one thing when you have an actor and you have to give them a look, create a costume for them that they have to wear, that’s a challenge: to sew something together and have it fit. You go through multiple fittings and you have to be mindful of their and the studios needs to make them the best that they possibly can. But when it’s a quarter inch off of their skin, and in some places a bit more where you want to enhance body proportion it’s a real challenging thing.
To physically make it, I found one of the coolest things that we did which is I think one of the biggest ironies of all, you know the premise of the movie is about this science fiction technology of a laser scanning a person into the computer world – the irony is that we literally used that technology to create the characters and costumes. We scanned our actors using a laser. We got them into the computer and then we digitally created their shapes of the costumes and the same with the helmets and then we would grow some of these components where literally there’s a 3D scanner in the world of rapid prototyping. The machine prints out the physical geometry that was once inside of the computer, and it was just kind of funny to realize that, ‘Wow. This is even more high-tech, the way that we’re making the costumes than the movie is conveying as it’s technology for the characters.’ Granted, it’s gorgeous in the movie and it’s slick, but we’re using the real deal to make their costumes.
That’s amazing –
Neville Page: It really is. In an interview sometime back when I was asked the question I thought, ‘Wow. We’re more sci-fi than the movie and we’re just the costume department.’ I do want to add that we also used old school technology as well with regular, old oil based clay on top of a fiberglass body form and hand sculpted some of the costumes, too. So it was everything from the highest tech possible that’s never been done, at least in entertainment and used the oldest stuff possible which has been used for years and years.
How long a process was it creating the costumes?
Neville Page: Well, start to finish, I was on the production for about nine months and it was about that long to do it. Not the moment from when the design was done, but everything was nine months. That was a lot of drawing and digital sculpting and all of those things. The fabrication of the costumes themselves, I can’t really give you a specific number because I was mixed up in so many costumes and so many parts for so long, but it took an army of people to pull this off.
The thing that I didn’t talk about was the lighting of the light-suits and to make that an actual practical element I think was the hardest thing as a perimeter for our outfits, to be able to include it and have it be powered up bright enough for the film to see it, and to make matters worse, even bright so that 3-D can actually project it. 3-D knocks down a few stops, darkening the image. So the lighting had to be that much brighter which required it to be that much more powerful and energized and every turn there was a challenge of making these real. My favorite quote is James Cameron recently, when we were talking about ‘Avatar’ and he said, ‘It was like jumping out of an airplane and sewing the parachute on the way down.’ I think this was, from my experience at least, that this was more of the parachute analogy.
Have you seen the completed film?
Neville Page: I have. I’ve seen it a couple of times, actually.
And are you happy with how it looks?
Neville Page: Oh, I really am. The aesthetic – usually on film there are multiple aesthetics and harmony about it, but in this film the whole world was conceived by Flynn. It was his dream. So he’s the god of this world and he’s the singular vision. It’s a whole different universe that needed to be achieved by multiple different artists. I really believe at the helm of Joe Kosinski who really is the Flynn character but the end result is so beautiful. It kind of reminded me of the…it’s kind of hard for me to describe it. It’s the antithesis of ‘Avatar’ aesthetically where ‘Avatar’ was very unique and brand new and visually arresting because of the talent behind it, but it was all organic. Well, this is the same level of great beauty and visuals, but it’s all synthetic in terms of the man-madeness of it all. I’m very proud of our team, that we were able to get there and I am so excited about the fact that the costumes really work pretty kick ass.
Now I understand you’ve gone back to creatures on ‘Green Lantern’.
Neville Page: Yeah. I can’t wait to see that myself.
I have to assume that you worked on the ‘Green Lantern’ Corps on that?
Neville Page: Yeah. I worked on the costume initially with Ngila Dickson, but I came in when she had really established it. So I just dabbled a bit with finding some details with her. So I can’t say that I was too instrumental in costume, but with regards to the Corps each of those aliens, the selected ones because there are many to choose from and we couldn’t do them all, they have their costumes, but it’s mostly that you do a cool creature and then essentially you dice it up graphically and you’ve got a costume. But it really wasn’t creating the base idea of the Green Lantern Corps.
What are the challenges in working with source material like ‘Green Lantern’ versus working with all original concepts?
Neville Page: The challenge simply put is that you’re trying to be true to the franchise and the expectations of the fans so that when they see it they’re not disappointed. That’s important. They feel like you’ve breathed life into a character that’s only been a 2-D image. That’s the challenge, to be able to pull it off so that it feels viable. There’s one of my favorite characters, and whether or not it makes it into the film I have no idea because we did a bunch, but he’s called Chaselon and that character as drawn is like a crystal faceted, geodesic shape and it has robotic limbs and it has a Mohawk and a mask. In the cartoon you can kind of get away with stuff because if there’s a written word your brain is going to fill in the blanks and make it real the way that you’re brain is going to allow it to happen, but when you have to present it as fully realized, I saw that one and I thought, ‘This is such a zany concept that I don’t know how we’re going to pull it off.’ And we know that one Corps member is big and thuglike and the other is birdlike in a lot of ways. Those weren’t hard to conceive, but they were even harder because their hero characters and you have the eyes of the studio, the eyes of the franchise owners looking at those and wanting them to be perfect and everyone has their own mental interpretation of how you would take drawn characters and make them realistic.
The upside to all of that is that I didn’t have to think as hard about core concepts. Quite frankly, the ideas behind ‘Green Lantern’ are so inventive that it really did reignite for me a sense of, ‘Okay, I can push the boundaries just a little bit. If someone else has come up with an idea for a creature that looks like a slug and is wearing a Victorian, redheaded wig, clearly I can start to push the envelope a bit on my own stuff.’ So it was a great education from that standpoint.
Did you work on Parallax, too?
Neville Page: Everyone worked on Parallax on the production, I think. It’s such an important thing. I was very involved in coming up with my version of Parallax. Often times these movies are so collaborative that there a lot of hands involved and I’ve often equated it to a relay race where many people hold that baton at some point and each one of us carrying that baton is an aide to bring the one person through the finish line, but it’s just that often times the one person that carries the baton to the finish line tends to get most of the credit. I was very fortunate to carry many batons through ‘Green Lantern’, but Parallax is one of those things where many people held that baton. I have no idea how he actually looks now.
Did you start work on ‘Super Eight’ before or after that amazing trailer?
Neville Page: Well, it’s been around for a while, J.J.’s [Abrams] thing, for some time. I was involved with in the sense that J.J. and I were talking about it way before the trailer, but it was really just talk. I didn’t put pen to paper in earnest for some time after we initially talked. But when I saw the trailer it changed at least my mental state about how great this movie can be. That trailer is just so good. I thought, ‘Wow. When we really start to dig our heels in artistically on this –’ and not that I wouldn’t have given it my all. I really did, but that trailer and the power of the trailer, it really has an impact and that’s a rare opportunity that a designer gets. Sometimes you’ll see art work from films. ‘Star Trek’ for example I would’ve seen a couple of things before I even started and that kind of gives you a sense of tone, but you’re deep into the production and then maybe if you’re lucky while you’re in the production you see a teaser trailer. That’s J.J.’s thing, but it’s extremely rare to see a trailer when you’re not done with something. So it does fuel you in a very different way about just getting excited or having clarity. To me that trailer, the excitement that it had maybe given you and other viewers, you can imagine how someone who is on the inside, knowing what they’re supposed to do, how they feel after seeing it –
I know! You had to be the one to come up with that–whatever it is–that’s banging on the train car –
Neville Page: It’s like on ‘Cloverfield’. I think that’s another good example about that type of thing because ‘Cloverfield’, I was working on it and he did that teaser with the Statue of Liberty head and when the head rolls down the street I said to myself, ‘Whatever I’m going to do is going to have to be a little bit bigger than I was thinking.’ When you start reading the blogs and just the buzz online about it you realize, ‘Oh, my God, people are expecting so much.’ The first time that happened which was really ‘Cloverfield’ it really kind of scared the pants off of me. Now it’s not that I’m a seasoned veteran, nor blasé, nor cocky, you just do the job as best as you can. That’s how every production is, you just really give it your all. But J.J. I’m in love with, I think, and he’s such a delight in everyway that you just want to do your best. I think I’m a year older than J.J. but sometimes he feels like a father figure and you just want to make him happy, like, ‘Just like me.’
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