Before James Cameron devoted so many years of his life to crafting the world of Avatar, and the technology behind it, he spent a long time on another passion project that he almost made first. We're of course referring to Alita: Battle Angel, an ambitious manga adaptation he not only wrote a massive script for, but one he had hundreds of pages of notes on for his pal, director Robert Rodriguez, to take over and work from.
Ultimately, Cameron made Avatar first and its record-breaking success has locked him into developing its many sequels, but the idea at the time was that the 3D and performance tech and processes developed for Avatar would help inform how to make adapt Yukito Kishiro's iconic Battle Angel Alita manga, and most importantly, to bring its unique titular character (played by Roza Salazar) to life.
We visited New Zealand's Weta Digital recently to learn about how much work and how advancements in tech have helped bring the story and emotions of Alita - and the authenticity behind it all - to life. I sat down with producer Jon Landau, Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Saindon, Animation Supervisor Mike Cozens, and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri - all of whom worked on Avatar - about the challenge in bringing Alita to life via the most advanced performance capture ever, developed at Weta Digital. Check out the video below, and be sure to watch the latest Alita: Battle Angel trailer!
Jon Landau, Producer
The most difficult part of realizing the Alita character was two-fold. One, it was honing in on the right size for the eyes. And in that, it's the head, it's the pupils, the iris, all those things are tied together. It's not just the eyes, it’s everything that goes into it. It's also the refinement of the mouth, and how that really works and how that can be compelling. Even in an action scene. Because in an action scene, you might have the wide shots, but what makes an action scene work is when you cut in for the close up for that moment where you see her flying towards Grewishka and you see that expression on her face. So, if we're not getting the right facial expression, the action all falls apart. So, the mouth and the lower facial region is something we spent hundreds of hundreds of hours working on.
Eric Saindon - Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital
I think once you have a design that works and that fits into the manga and really brings it to life, the biggest challenge from that point is the performance. It's the bringing Alita-- of bringing Rosa [Salazar] into Alita. And one of those challenges is-- like early on, we got to design that we liked, and she looked pretty good, and then we started getting motion on it. And it was like, “Oh, it's not translating, it's just not working the way we want it to.” She looks good, but she doesn't look Rosa the performance isn't translating. So, we actually found that once we-- we actually took Rosa’s mouth, like perfectly Rosa’s mouth, put it on to Alita. And then we're started realizing, “Okay, well our mouth is working great now.” And then we took her eyes, and then we took her eyebrows, and then we took her eye lashes, like down to the eyelash. We put those onto Alita and it didn't change the design very much, because their eyes didn't change size, they didn't change shape that much. But it brought Rosa into the character. And Rosa was never cast for the look. She was never cast to look like Alita in any way. But because she's so expressive with her face, bringing those extra subtleties to the Alita design actually help us to bring Alita to life that extra little-- That extra little bit we needed to bring her. To the point where we fell in love with her.
Mike Cozens - Animation Supervisor, Weta Digital
Robert [Rodriguez] had a design and that evolved, but the huge part of my work and my involvement was making sure that whatever shape that design took, we'd be able to capture the facial performance from Rosa and translate all the nuances and details from that performance onto this digital character. For me, that was a complete evolution in my understanding of how a face works. I've done faces in the past, but I've never done faces like this before. We spent a lot of time talking to plastic surgeons and trying, digging in, to understand the under structure of a face in order to understand how the outer structure works. So, we spent a lot of time working on that over the last couple of years. And that was the biggest challenge in creating Alita.
Joe Letteri - Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital
Yeah. So, when you talk about 5,000 iterations. One of it might be like, you're looking at the shape of the ears. One might be looking at the shape of the nose. We put those all together into a character, and what that really means is there were probably around 200 or so different versions of the character. Because you look at Rosa's performance, which was beautiful, and you look at Alita as a design and where you need to go with it. And you come up with your best guess of what that character needs to be. And you match the two together. And you look at what works and what doesn't work. And you just go back and keep refining that.
So, there's a technological aspect to it. Because there's a lot of detail that you have to carry through. Not just for the motion, but for how the eyes look, how the texture of the skin responds to light. But there's also a holistic way of just looking at the character, as a character. And just running the scenes and saying, “Does it work?” It's almost like a casting process. And it's like, “Well that's not quite right. Let me go back and try this again.” So, you're really constantly iterating on the character until what you see just plays across all the scenes. It should be able to capture it all, all the beats, but you've also captured a consistent character.
It took over a decade for James Cameron to pass of his 186-page script, and 600+ pages of notes to another director he believed could carry the torch forward, and the entire journey and concept centers around getting Alita right - not just from this technological and process standpoint for the crew and Weta Digital, but for the story.
Official Alita: Battle Angel Plot Synopsis
From visionary filmmakers James Cameron (AVATAR) and Robert Rodriguez (SIN CITY), comes ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, an epic adventure of hope and empowerment. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens with no memory of who she is in a future world she does not recognize, she is taken in by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate doctor who realizes that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of a young woman with an extraordinary past. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious history while her street-smart new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson) offers instead to help trigger her memories. But it is only when the deadly and corrupt forces that run the city come after Alita that she discovers a clue to her past - she has unique fighting abilities that those in power will stop at nothing to control. If she can stay out of their grasp, she could be the key to saving her friends, her family and the world she's grown to love.
- Alita Battle Angel (2019) release date: Feb 14, 2019