Alita: Battle Angel Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri is a pioneer and legend when it comes to digital visual effects, so much so that he's earned four Academy Awards for his work on Avatar, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and King Kong.
We met Joe at Weta Digital late last year to discuss the groundbreaking work and innovation behind Alita: Battle Angel and he's been working with the company since the second Lord of the Rings. He helped bring Gollum to life in that series, but before that, made dinosaurs seem real in live-action with Jurassic Park.
Before Alita: Battle Angel, Letteri also worked on Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes, and up next, he and the Weta Digital movie magicians will be spending years on the Avatar sequels. I had the fortunate opportunity to spend a few days in New Zealand seeing Joe's work come alive and at the end of the trip, sat down for a more formal interview to ask about Alita and how his teams are making the ambitious project for director Robert Rodriguez and fellow visionary James Cameron.
Screen Rant's Rob Keyes: We got to screen some footage of this the film in New York for Comic-Con and here in New Zealand. And during the presentations, Mike [Cozens] and Eric [Saindon] said, in designing the Alita character there were over 5,000 iterations. Can you talk about what the most challenging part of realizing that character was?
Joe Letteri: 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.
And you're dealing with lots of other more extreme non-human characters, of different shapes and sizes. When you put them together, whether it's on a real set, or a CG set, what's the most difficult action set piece to shoot with all these different size of characters?
Joe Letteri: Well, the different sizes is an important consideration. Because for actors-- we work with actors as much as possible. Because you want to get the drama. But eyeline is the critical thing. And when there are different sizes, it's always hard to get the right eyeline. So, if we had scenes between Rosa [Salazar] and Jackie [Earle Haley], they would be like-- he'd be looking at the floor and she'd be looking up at a stick above him. But then we'd also do a bit where they could just play the scenes off of each other. So, understand what the drama is. And then you take all those pieces and put them together. And you try to craft the performance from all those aspects that work. Because you might get something different when they're playing against each other, versus the bit that they're doing each on their own. And you have to understand, is it in the way that dialogue is delivered? Or is it the tilt of the head that's reacting to a certain beat? And those are the things, that when you're making the character, you have to synthesize into making the performance be something that suits what you're seeing on screen.
And we're near the finish line now. Once you start seeing all the work come together, the final shots. What's your favorite moment of what you've seen so far?
Joe Letteri: My favorite moment is the scene inside the spaceship, when she discovers her berserker body. Because that's a turning point. You don't know who she is as a character. She doesn't know who she is as a character. And that's when she first starts to understand that there might be something more there. And so that's always an interesting point for a character in any film.
You’ve work on Avatar before this. Can you talk about how the learnings and the processes developed on that project, helped inform or change how you approached this one?
Joe Letteri: Sure. Before Avatar, we always thought about visual effects sort of in compartments. You'd be making a character, he'd be making a set extension, or you'd be doing some -- a physical thing like an explosion. But what [James Cameron] wanted to do on Avatar, was to integrate the live action and the digital and make them be seamless. So, the idea that he could shoot in a virtual world, with a virtual camera, and see what was going on was about breaking down the barriers between live-action and digital filmmaking. On this film, we took that further, but also in a different direction. Where here we are in a live-action world but with a digital character in the middle of it. But we've used a lot of those same techniques, that we had developed for performance capture, especially for facial performance capture. And just brought those into this live-action setting so Rosa could be there with all the other actors and be part of the drama. And Robert could direct her. And again, there was no difference. We just became part of the film crew.
We got to see some of this in action. The new techniques, the virtual camera, just the sheer level of detail and animation work. Does that help inform future things Weta Digital does? Whether it's Avatar 2, or other projects that have as much digital work.
Joe Letteri: Every project, we take what we learned from it and bank it for the next one. Because you're constantly building your tool kit. And then you wait to see what the script is, and what is it that we're being asked to do, and you look at what you've got and what you're missing, and you just take it from there.
With all the work that went into designing these characters and the processes, especially when it comes to Alita herself, which is a character we've never seen the likes of before, does that make it - I don't want to say easy - but does that reduce much of the challenge? If we were to make an Alita sequel, this character again, is a much easier the second time around?
Joe Letteri: Usually it is easier the second time around. Having gotten to work on a few sequels, I can attest to that. Because most of the time, the first time around, you are just trying to figure out what and who the character is. Once you've established that, it makes it a lot easier to get into the flow of the character. So, yeah, hopefully there'll be a sequel.
With a Robert Rodriguez as director - He's no stranger to experimenting whether it's with 3D or new styles and types of movies. He’s even doing VR now. Can you talk about working with him on this project?
Joe Letteri: Yeah, Robert's great. Because he is so open to new ideas. Like having come from a background where Robert's so used to doing things himself - Editing and scoring and even visual effects, that you can talk to him about any aspect of it. And if it's something that's new, he's not phased by it at all. It's just fits right in with, “Okay, let's try this and let's see where that takes us.”
I was just thinking about the virtual camera and how fun that was to actually get to use it in action. Does using that change how you think, not just from a cinematography standpoint, but how you can approach and design any scene for the future? How do you go back to a traditional camera, after being able to do something like that?
Joe Letteri: Well, interestingly, virtual cameras get used a lot for even [previsualization] these days. Because you start to think about it not so much a storyboarding, you're thinking of the cinematography right off the bat. And so, that helps the process as well. So yeah, it's a technology, that we sort of cracked it on Avatar, but you're seeing a lot of other films adopt it now.
For your team's work, this film has changed release dates a couple of times now. Has that significantly impacted what you've had to do, or been able to do with that extra time?
Joe Letteri: With extra time, just means you can get a few more things right [LAUGHS].
So, for my last question then, what are you most excited for fans to see from this when it releases in theaters?
Joe Letteri: What I'm hoping people take away from this is, is kind of the humanity in the character. We, create these digital characters in a way to try to express something that you wouldn't be able to see if it was something that you were too familiar with. We're trying to look at something in a new and unique way, but still make sure that the humanity is there. It's always that walking that edge between what's real and what's familiar versus, “Hey, I've never seen this before and maybe I need to pay attention.”
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