“Alita: Battle Angel” is based on Yukito Kishiro’s Japanese manga series, but James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez are the masterminds behind its big-screen transformation. Cameron had been working on the idea of bringing it to theaters for over 20 years, but handed over the project to Rodriguez as Cameron focused on his “Avatar” sequel.
“Robert came in and said, ‘Hey, we want to make the most live-action film that will fit what everyone pictures a manga film should be,'” recalled Weta visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon.
The story follows Alita, a woman who wakes up in the future with no recollection of who she is. Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the cyborg girl while searching for spare parts and takes her under his wing. He seeks to repair her and knows that inside this cyborg is a woman with an extraordinary story to tell. Alita soon discovers she possesses incredible fighting skills which come in handy as she seeks out on a journey of self-discovery and along the way has to fight cyber-dogs and engages in a deadly sport, Motorball.
“Robert appreciated the importance of creating the character using state of the art performance capture technology,” producer Jon Landau added. “The whole paradigm of production is actor centric.”
With the right director on board, the Weta team went to work. “The biggest factor in the whole thing for bringing everything to life was Rosa Salazar who plays Alita,” Saindon said. Their approach was simple. Since the world mixes live-action with computer-generated characters, Rodriguez was advised to let the actors “interact,” including letting them kiss and touch. The technology would come after. “The real challenge,” Saindon recalls, “was capturing that connection between characters.”
The visual effects team had ample equipment on the set, including stereo cameras to capture Salazar’s performance. “We wanted to really understand the wrinkles and the movement of the face in a way that we had never done so before,” Saindon said.
The “aha” moment for capturing that connection came early on when Saindon was watching a scene between Salazar and Waltz where Waltz had his hands over an orange.
“She bit into that through the peel and her face got all wrinkly,” he said. “When I saw how much information was happening. I thought, ‘I hope we can do that.'”
The images were pushed through the pipeline. Once Saindon saw them, he knew the team could pull the interactions off while adding in the nuances of her expressions. Having her on the set and working alongside her co-stars helped give Alita a stronger and more realistic presence.
New technology and software advances also helped create environments, especially those involving water. They had the artwork and history to assist with the aesthetics where much of the action takes place: Iron City, a gritty dystopian overcrowded metropolis.
“Previously, we made a cube of water,” Saindon said. “We’d simulate it and make it move the right way. We wouldn’t worry if the water went somewhere. You know what’s going to happen when someone dumps water on your head. You see how it flows and the pressure. Our CG does exactly what you think it will do.”
Having Rodriguez as director and Cameron as a producer meant both were going to push “Alita: Battle Angel” to use the best technology had to offer. It also meant that the Weta team had to “really refine our craft.” The film was presented in high dynamic range and 3D. “We utilize 3D as a window into Alita’s world. Not a world coming out of a window,” Saindon said.
Landau who has produced “Avatar,” “Titanic,” and “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids,” says he saw someone watch “Alita: Battle Angel” on a plane and wished they had caught it on the big screen.
“The movie theater experience is sacred,” said Landau, though he doesn’t think it’s going to disappear with the rise of streaming platforms. “When TV came out, it was going to go away. When DVDs and Blu-rays came out, it would go away. There’s a human instinct to share the communal experience. The in-theatre experience is the live concert. There’s nothing like it. You can listen to a recording or on the radio, but going to see these performers perform live is a different experience. That’s what the movie experience is.”