‘Avatar’ unleashes a new kind of creative

Film's concept designer translated Cameron's vision

Movies have all kinds of designers, including production designers, sound designers and costume designers. For heavily CG movies like “Avatar,” though, a new profession has emerged: concept designer.

Neville Page, who has the official title “lead creature designer” on “Avatar,” and was also a concept and creature designer on “Star Trek,” told Daily Variety that what concept designers do “doesn’t really have to be built or realized in the physical world. It’s a designer who will imagine things that haven’t been seen or never will actually be seen in real life.”

Page relies on Z Brush software to create “digital sculptures” of creatures. Those digital sculptures are handed off to the vfx department’s animators — and to toy designers and Happy Meal designers, as the case may be.

He also relies on an unusual high-tech tool: the Objet three-dimensional printer. It works like an inkjet printer, but instead of ink, it lays down numerous thin layers of plastic to build up a three-dimensional model. Page used the Objet for rapid prototyping on “Star Trek.”

On “Avatar,” Page was charged with taking auteur James Cameron’s visions of alien beasts and turning them into designs that were expressive, would work in animation and seemed believable enough for the audience to accept. “You have to be careful you don’t get too creative or too wacky, because most people can tell when it just doesn’t feel right,” he said.

Of the many Pandoran animals of “Avatar,” Page worked the longest on the flying banshees. “Flying creatures are really hard to design,” he said, “because it’s not just one position you see them in.”

After so much work on the banshees, he admits to becoming “emotionally invested” in them. “I think you have a successful design when you start to really feel for what you’re designing.”