Mike Cozens, Animation Supervisor of Alita: Battle Angel, has been working in animation for Weta Digital for over a decade. His work includes a pair of X-Men films, The Hobbit trilogy, Prometheus, and even Avatar, but Alita (played by Rosa Salazar) - the latest work from director Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron - presented all new types of challenges.
Getting Alita's unique facial design, that of a cyborg inspired by the manga source material, to work in live-action is one of the many examples of unprecedented special effects and animation work going into this project. It's this ambition that's partially to blame for Alita: Battle Angel taking so long to make, but it's also these processes and technological advances that are helping making the Avatar sequels possible.
Mike, a Canadian like myself, spent three years as Lead Animator on multiple sequences on Avatar, then as a Senior Animator on the first two films in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy before moving into the role of Animation Supervisor on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In between these films, he was also Animation Supervisor on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as well as James Mangold's The Wolverine. We had the chance to spend a few days with Mike at Weta Digital in New Zealand last year, where we saw some of the innovative shooting techniques and post-production processes that are helping make Alita: Battle Angel possible and at the end of our trip, sat down for a formal interview.
Screen Rant's Rob Keyes: I saw quite a bit of footage for Alita: Battle Angel, first in New York at Comic-Con and here in New Zealand. And at the presentation, you guys mentioned that when you were designing the Alita character, it's been through 5,000 iterations, perfecting all the different parts of it. Can you talk about, from your team's perspective, the most challenging part of realizing that character onscreen?
Mike Cozens: Yeah. I guess for us, 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.
And there are a lot of other non-human characters as well, of different shapes and sizes. Can you talk about some of the challenges in bringing those characters to life, especially in action sequences?
Mike Cozens: Yeah, sure. So, there's a lot of great characters in this film. Some of them are big cyborg characters with a lot of weight. And for example, Jackie [Earle Haley] plays Grewishka, who's a 10-foot tall mech, and Jackie is closer to 5-feet. So, when we're taking that performance, we've got to make sure we're breathing physics and weight into that character. A performance like that needs to be augmented in order to put weight into it. You could take a performance, just slow it down, but that's actually not how weight works on something like that. You've got to adjust all the returns of the arm swinging and make it all feel physically correct. So, we put -- and that would be just for drama stuff. As you get into action scenes, we end up doing key frame performances as well. And pulling cool lines of action and poses and strong silhouettes into the characters. And just amping everything up in order to make it look all that much more beautiful.
And now that you're nearing the finish line and you get to see some of these shots, that are finished or near finished, what's your favorite moment to watch on screen?
Mike Cozens: There's so many great moments. We've got high action scenes and we've got really beautiful drama and little subtle details. I think the thing that I get a kick of is all the stuff that probably breezes by and people don't even notice. When we deal with the interaction, we spend a lot of time making sure it's all working correctly. When Rosa kisses, you go and their lips come apart. Her lips sort of suck and pop off his lips. And it's a small little thing, but it's those little details, you're like, “Oh, yeah, that was worth putting that in,” just because it's like that extra little kiss of beauty and realism that is in that. And the shots are sprinkled with that type, that level of detail. And I think that's the thing that raises the bar on this character.
Coming into a film like this, Alita is a character unlike any other. But you've worked on action films like X-Men and you did work on Avatar. What are some of the biggest learning from that you brought into this one?
Mike Cozens: Oh, that's a great question. I think that the thing for me is, I want to execute what's in Robert's head. And Robert is giving us direction on a story and a character that he wants to breathe life into. And depending on the problem he's trying to solve, or the story he's trying to tell at any one moment, we need to be able to give him options. And provide him with a variety of solutions. So, I think that for me, being able to kick-off a bunch of different ways of dealing with one problem and go, “Cool, here's three ways we could do this.” Allows him to go, “Oh yeah. Kind of like that, but maybe a little bit of this.” And it gives him a little bit more of a visual thing to respond to rather than trying to attack it with words. So, I want to provide directors with options and pictures and as a way of moving their ideas along. Because, for a long time-- each shot spends a lot of time in a [previsualization], a blocking stage in, order to understand its structure on its own, and in relation to all the other shots. Whether it's working in the broad story, the structure of the scene. And whereas a shot itself, all those things have to fit. And that requires a bunch of different things that have to line up right. So yeah, it's that type of problem solving that, is the thing that we try to attack.
Speaking of Robert, he is no stranger to experimentation with styles of film, to 3D, to even some VR stuff now. Can you talk about working with him on a project like this?
Mike Cozens: Robert is so cool. The thing about Robert is he understands so much about a filmmaking. He's super smart and he understands so much about visual effects. The guy can do it all himself. So, it's really great to work with him because he brings awesome vision to what we're doing. And yet he's totally personable and collaborative. So, he's got all these ideas and he wants to know what your ideas are. And it’s really exciting to be working with somebody like that. Who's like, “Hey, and what do you think about this?” And you're like, “Oh, I think, you know…” So, it's a great place to bring your ideas. And yeah, it was a really collaborative, awesome experience.
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