Star Trek's lead creature designer discusses coming up with Big Red and Polarilla along with a few other surprises.
J.J. Abrams enjoyed Neville Page's creature design for Cloverfield so much that he invited him to beam aboard his Star Trek reboot. Page tells VFXWorld what it was like designing the two creatures from Delta Vega, along with providing a sneak peek at two other projects: Tron and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Unfortunately, he's still under a vow of secrecy concerning James Cameron's Avatar.
Bill Desowitz: So did you know from the start that you would be designing these two creatures on the Delta Vega Ice Planet?
Neville Page: No, when I read the script and it was originally a desert scene. I think they thought it was too similar to Tatooine.
BD: Anything you did would evoke Star Wars.
NP: Of course. So instead of working for various designs for that scene and there was another one cut from the original script, it eventually came down to an ice planet, which changed everything. And J.J. conceived this notion of this creature that's under the ice. And you see a glimpse of it. Unfortunately, they didn't do that scene. I think that would've been a good tease. But the idea was to come up with a red herring creature. My idea was the Polarilla, which was really a throwaway kind of creature. The point of that was to do something quick to chase Kirk as a decoy: something like the Abominable Snowman but different. And it was a very quick sketch that looked pedestrian: it was more like a bat head and a polar bear. But as it evolved, I took it down the road of being more like a gorilla and polar bear. It just ended up like it was the cart leading the horse with that one. I just ran with it. But it got pretty detailed in the end. You never see it in the film, which is pretty unfortunate. With it moving so quickly and the snow and the mist, it's more of a visceral moment.
BD: What about Big Red?
NP: So developing the real threat was kind of interesting. J.J. had a [few] things that he was very specific about: he wanted it to be red in contrast to the snow, which I think was purely an aesthetic thing, he wanted hands that could reach out and grab Kirk. And he also wanted to have hundreds of eyes all over its head and body.
BD: And where did you go from there?
NP: The red part was the only thing I agreed with. The hundreds of eyes I struggled with from a biological standpoint and the hands I struggled with from the notion of there not being much of a struggle -- Kirk is just going to get pulled in. So I designed alternatively a tongue that could allow Kirk to put up resistance and in the end J.J. used that. And he never did use the eyes that much.
So the design went down many paths that J.J. didn't like. I was trying to explore something that would be awkward on the ice, sort of like a walrus/seal. My main concern was that it couldn't run too quickly, so, like a walrus, if it could be really agile underwater and could keep popping up above the ice where Kirk is running toward. So the chase scene was a bit more mysterious. But we kept it on the ice and J.J. wanted it to have legs, so I basically came up with some rough sketches that felt different enough from what I've done before and from what we've seen in other films. I think the breakthrough for the character is [the combination] of the front end looking like a bat and the backend looking like a tree frog. So the next thing was trying to combine the motion of both vampire bats and tree frogs. I gave them to a friend you might know, Alex Alvarez [of Gnomon]. We worked together on Avatar in the same capacity where I brought him on board to approve concepts of the animation and rendered images. He did such a great job with animating a rough walk cycle assisted by Sofia Vale Cruz. We showed J.J. and it was so spot-on between the bat and the frog that our animation test became the baseline for ILM to riff off of.
BD: What about some of the objections to Big Red?
NP: Yeah, there were some online complaints that it's such a vulnerable animal: it has no hair, it makes no sense that it would be on an ice planet. And it's red, which doesn't make sense in the snow. I think the vocal people tend to be pessimistic to begin with about these things. My attitude is that, having spent a lot of time looking at nature, I'm reminded of the age old adage, "The more you know, the less you know." And the more you know about nature, the crazier stuff gets that you never thought would work, like the angler fish. When it mates, it mates for life and the male gets stuck in the female body and just dangles off her side for the rest of his life. And I guess there are some parallels to the human marriage. But the idea that there is a physical union in that way is just crazy. And there are certain seals that will invert the nasal passage on the outside of their head and then inflate it like a balloon and then wag it about while moaning to create a unique sound as a call, whether it's a threat display or sexual dimorphism, is absolutely nuts. If I had done that to a creature, without seeing the real video footage, people would've thought that was the stupidest… idea. But nature continually does things that make sense for whatever the purpose is. So you could almost do anything and get away with it from a biological standpoint. But the most important thing is, regardless of whether it's real or not, that the audience at least feels that it's real. So that was the intent. Combined with ILM's skill of animation and digital rendering, I think we have something that's pretty successful.
BD: What was it like working with J.J. as the director?
NP: The biggest difference was it was more difficult to get time with him. Other than that, it didn't feel any different. In fact, there were times that I forgot that J.J. didn't direct Cloverfield because I spent so much time with him developing concepts. I had so many more tests and so much less time with him on Star Trek, and the byproduct of that for me was that I had to be available on set for J.J. at the drop of a hat, which meant I had my own trailer to work in, and whenever there was a moment when they were setting up lights or whatever, I'd be called on set immediately to show him whatever I had. And that was a lot of fun being in the thick of it. And that's not always the case for a designer to be by J.J.'s side all day long while he's shooting and just being a sponge.
BD: What else did you work on?
NP: At one point there was an opportunity to get involved with some of the alien designs, so I worked with Barney Burman [prosthetic makeup designer] and it was really a shotgun approach with ideas. I'd show it to J.J. and he'd do alien casting based on our sketches or sculptures, and a good majority of them never saw the light of day. J.J.'s focus was really live characters and most of the alien stuff got cut or was behind something or was so quick that you barely got a glance. But finding the right look for Eric Bana's Romulan took a long time. Not having enough time with J.J., I couldn't just sit down and ask what he was looking for. We did all sorts of stuff and, in the end, the thing I prided myself most with this project was thinking things through analytically and thinking through the lineage of Romulans through the Star Trek franchise. Because in the beginning, they are the same as Vulcans, but through the course of the series, they eventually develop this V forehead/brow piece and no one could answer where that came from. So we tried to develop a look that people were familiar with from a contemporary standpoint but also made sense in association genetically with Vulcans. So the idea was that these particular Romulans were such passionate rebels about their goals that their tribal demeanor meant tattooing but also scarification. And they would actually scar their foreheads to the point where they built up these keloids that gave the illusion of that V shape. So it gave a reason why that would've happened in the series. And it was a good idea but we didn't get to pursue it enough and it was abandoned as specificity. But the makeup kind of retains the vibe of it.
BD: What toolset do you use these days?
NP: I prefer to start everything out with pencil and paper. I feel like I've got greater controls. But I'll move fairly quickly into digital when the idea needs to be sold. And I find that ZBrush as a sculpting piece of software makes sense to use earlier and earlier. It's all contingent on what the subject matter is… but in terms of the alien design for this film, since they were all human, it made sense to just go into ZBrush, grab a basic head and start tweaking it around. And I was able to generate a lot of ideas very quickly. So ZBrush is definitely a big part of my process; Photoshop, of course, for illustration and developing graphics… all the tattoos were done traditionally by hand -- maybe hundreds. And then I took them into Photoshop and cleaned them up a bit and did the symmetry and the manipulation so they'd fit specific actors. And then modo, which is a new software for me. I love it. In fact, I have a demo opened in front of me, which is more architectural. Just trying to get my ability for doing environments a little higher. But it's the software that makes sense for me. Maya is incredible, of course, but I don't aspire to be that kind of artist as a digital designer.
BD: What can you tell us about Tron?
NP: Not much, other than, having seen all of the design, it's one of the best art departments I've seen in a while. It's going to be a beautiful-looking film. And the dailies that I've seen have [reinforced] that belief.
BD: And what have you designed?
NP: In the beginning, I was designing everything -- all of us were. We would be moved around from subject matter to subject matter doing costumes and vehicles and props. I didn't do much set design. But where I quickly gravitated toward was the specialty costumes. The infamous hockey helmet and spandex suit with black masking tape as stripes. That's the stuff that I was working on. I don't think I've ever worked as hard as on Tron. We were definitely pushing the envelope of what can be done with practical costumes. I think we came up with a pretty cool looking helmet, in particular.
BD: And 20,000 Leagues, which is being directed by McG?
NP: It's from the same producers as Tron and they liked what I did with specialty costume. My background, quite honestly, is industrial design and products for the consumer, so I have a great deal of engineering experience and exposure -- more so than creature. Creature has always been something that I loved and it's been a hobby. It's fantastic that I've been making a career out of it lately, so, on 20,000 Leagues, it's just great to be given the opportunity to -- I assume -- revisit the squid and those funky suits that they walked around with under the ocean. I just love the franchise and scuba diving and anything related to the ocean, so I'm looking forward to being a part of it.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.