VFX Supervisor Eric Saindon Interview - Alita: Battle Angel

An interview with Weta Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Saindon (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar) about the making of Alita: Battle Angel.

Alita Battle Angel Rob Keyes Eric Saindon Weta Digital Interview

If you love blockbuster movies than you've seen the work of Eric Saindon, Visual Effects Supervisor of Alita: Battle Angel. He's worked with Weta Digital for many years, dating back to the Lord of the Rings trilogy where he served as a Creatures Supervisor. More recently, Eric worked as the Visual Effects Supervisor on The Hobbit trilogy, Avatar, and Pete's Dragon.

Working with Weta Digital since 1999, Eric had a key role in creating Gollum for Lord of the Rings and over the years has earned a pair of Oscar nominations, three BAFTAs, and has won four Visual Effects Society Awards. It's that experience, and Weta Digital's work developing new technologies and processes for each of their projects that helped make Alita: Battle Angel a reality.

Related: Producer Jon Landau Interview - Alita: Battle Angel & Avatar Future

We had the chance to spend a few days with Eric in New Zealand in the fall, exploring the work that teams at Weta Digital have been doing with Alita: Battle Angel and at the end of the journal, sat down with him for an interview.

Screen Rant's Rob Keyes: I got to see a bunch of footage in New York and here in New Zealand. And during the presentation we talked about designing the Alita character. I think you mentioned there was something like 5,000 iterations to perfect the design and level of detail. Can you talk about once you design the character, the most challenging part of realizing the character on screen?

Eric Saindon: 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.

Related: Alita: Battle Angel's Most Complicated Characters & VFX Sequences

And you're working with many other nonhuman characters as well, different shapes and sizes and weapons and abilities. Can you talk about the challenge in bringing those characters to life together, especially in things like action sequences?

Eric Saindon: Yeah, the motor ball sequence, right? It's got all these crazy characters, that a lot of them are pulled straight from the manga. And some of them look really cool in the manga. But once you try to move them, they just don't work. It's always a challenge to take that design and put it into an animation, and emotion that you can actually work with, and that you can get a cool design or cool poses. So, that you can feel the same thing but actually have it work.

And we went into a lot of detail with a lot of our characters. Wheel sizes, moving them around, allowing them to have head movement. Because we actually performance captured all of the motor ballers on stage, at the starting line.  And all those locations, doing all their motions. Now, some of them did things they couldn't do. Like Stinger was scratching his nose, but his arms are giant blades with chainsaws.  So, if we put that scene in, he’d gash his face out. We can't do things like that. But just getting the little extra motion you get from all those characters onto the CG characters, just helps to bring all of those to life.

Rosa Salazar ALITA BATTLE ANGEL Motorball Sequence
Alita's Motorball Sequence

And we're nearing the finish line now. Once you start seeing some of these shots finished or near finished, what's your favorite moment or scene that you've seen?

Eric Saindon: Most people would say one of the big action scenes. But mine is the orange eating scene. And that's because it was an early scene we did.  We had Rosa on set and she took a bite of the orange. And she had this great just little reaction with Christoph [Waltz]. And a little bit of back and forth. And like she bit the orange, that type of thing. And her whole body sort of tensed up. And when we translated that into Alita, and we got all the detail in her face and the wrinkling and the squinting of her eyes and the movement of her body, even the little “ehh” when she did it. It translated to Alita. And we put it in and watched the first time and watched it next to Rosa.  And it was like, “Wow, it looks like Rosa, but it's not Rosa.”  And it really-- I don't know, for some reason that moment clicked in my head and all of a sudden turned it around for me. And made me think, “Okay, I think we can do this.”  I watched a couple of scenes with Rosa the other day.  First time she’s seen them. And she watched them.  And she-- I just watched her, not the scenes. And her face was moving all over the place. And like, “Ah, she didn't like it. She didn't like it.” And it ended. And she gave me a hug. And she's like, “That was me! But not me!” I was like, “Oh, thank God, she liked it.” [LAUGHS] And to get an actor to feel that they are a CG character. I mean, that's an accomplishment, I think.

You've worked with Weta for a while, in recent films like Pete’s Dragon, which is one of my favorites by the way. My wife loves it. But with things like Avatar and talking about these digital characters that are intensely performance captured. There's nothing like Alita that we’ve seen before. But I am curious. With films like Avatar, what key learnings did you get from that which  helped make this film?

Eric Saindon: Ah. I mean, in Avatar, we learned a ton. Like the amount of detail you have to put into a face to make it look real. The subtleties of motion. When someone blinks, when they squish their eyes, when they do all the subtleties of emotion itself.  Avatar, we learned a lot from just that. Or from muscle connections. Knowing that, as you twist your arm, these muscles are moving around.  Or the veins, or the tendons in your arm are going to squish around or change when you change your fingers.  Or the pores in your face. Or as you get angry, your face gets redder in here. It's just all the subtleties we had to do for Avatar. And on this film, because she's humanoid, it had to be ten-fold better.

Because you get away with it when you have the blue skin and it's not really human. When it has to be human, there's no getting away with anything.

Related: How Alita: Battle Angel's Tech Helps Weta Digital With Avatar 2

On our wonderful visit here we got to see everything from the virtual camera to that level of animation and detail in the Alita character. Can you talk about how that will help inform -- A better way to put this, is now that you've done all this design work and there's new technologies and software and processes designed just for this film, if there were to be another Alita film, is it a lot easier now that you've done that already? Or are there new challenges that will present themselves?

Eric Saindon: We do new technology for every film. So, even if we started a new film tomorrow, we would end up starting new technology.  It's been three years on this film. So, technology we were using at the start of this film, is probably outdated now. And we'd be moving on to a new technology by the-- in another year. So, because we get to work with people like Jim Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, who always want to push technology, we're always pushing ourselves to get new technology that's going to help us to be more creative or more flexible in the way we do things.

Alita Battle Angel Mars Ship

Speaking of Robert, he is no stranger to experimenting with film, whether 3D, VR, or just the style of film. Can you talk about working with him on this project?

Eric Saindon: Oh, man. He is such a creative. It's insane watching his mind work. Because he's always working on a new thing. He showed me a trailer on his phone last night at dinner, that he’s done some new movie with his kid about an immersive VR, sort of experience.

The Limit? Is that the one?

Eric Saindon: Yes, yes. He's always coming up with new ideas, and new ways to push technology, to try something new. And I love that. Because he's never restricted by just making a film the traditional way. Because he's happy to try something new every time. And this is all new for him. This whole process, was a new process for him.

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.

More: Does Alita: Battle Angel Have An After-Credits Scene?

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