Director Robert Rodriguez is best known for his Mexico Trilogy of films and the Spy Kids franchise. His newest film is Alita: Battle Angel, a cyberpunk action film which he filmed with his son Racer Rodriguez. Action star Michelle Rodriguez appears in the film as a cyborg warrior named Gelda, a role not too different from her popular character of Letty Ortiz in the Fast & Furious film franchise. Andy Vick is a leader in the VR industry and helped blend the interactive gaming experience with the passive cinematic experience in Alita. They all joined forces for the VR project Limit, which they discussed during New York Comic Con 2018.
Screen Rant: How did the story come about? How did you conceptualize this?
Racer Rodriguez: Yeah, so the story came about...my dad and I were working on another project with Michelle [Rodriguez], Alita Battle Angel. And I had talked to my dad and got really excited about VR and wanted to do VR storytelling. And he thought, 'Well, shoot let's start a company together and let's try to put something together!"
Screen Rant: Just like any other dad!
Racer Rodriguez: Yeah right!? So, we were all excited about it...and just started meeting with STX. And then Michelle was on set, we told her 'Hey we're doing this VR project. You should get into VR! Come with us! You're someone who gets excited about new things like this. So, just a few days later she emailed us back an idea and said 'Okay so, the viewer is going to follow me through action sequences. Car chase, jumping out of a plane, and then urban warfare firefight..that's the first lines in the script.
Robert Rodriguez: Starting passing it back and forth in a few days, we were so excited about it. Yeah we wrote it in a few days.
Screen Rant: Really?
Robert Rodriguez: And it's really fun to work with him, because he knows Michelle too. So he could write in her voice as well. And I would...You know usually it takes me longer to write, because I'm writing by myself. When you have a partner that you've grown up. You know I've known him since he was born! We share the same ideas, you know, I've shown him movies that I love. That he now loves. So we share the same language, so I would write a few pages and whenever I'd get stuck, I would pass it to him. He'd send me back 5 or 6 pages that would blow me away and I would try and top that. So then, we'd go back and forth and we had it very, very quickly.
Screen Rant: That's amazing. Now Michelle, I know that you contributed some of the story elements to this as well. What were those... I don't want you to say exactly, don't give anything away. But what sequences did you kind of come up with and visualize for VR as well?
Michelle Rodriguez: It was three simple things, I thought of VR and the concept of the immersive experience. You know, the beauty about being...having your eyes taking you into an experience is the idea of an action film! And all the extremities that you can dive into with an action film, so I was like, "What would be the most exciting thing that I could see?" You know? And I thought about that and I'm like whoa... well jumping out of a plane was a life-changing experience for me. Why not include that? Gun battles, you know? On the ground, I do lots of training all the time. I get excited when I'm in gun battle. And of course car sequences cause, ya know. I come with a car. I probably came out of the womb in one!
Robert Rodriguez: When she first came to my studio when I first met her. She said, "Hey, is that your car outside?" Yeah. "Can I go out there and do some donuts?" Yeah go ahead. And I thought she was joking and I saw...
Michelle Rodriguez: I love his studio. It's the thing!
Screen Rant: Robert I love watching a lot of your DVD kind of commentary, it's like going to film school for a lot of folks who don't actually go to film school to learn. So can you and Andy talk to me about how building tension in the VR world kind of works different than standard filmmaking. Because tension is a big part of filmmaking whether it be horror, or drama, or action. So talk to me about the difference between that and standard filmmaking.
Robert Rodriguez: Well here's the biggest thing. Looking at the VR landscape...well let's get into it. Let's look at it. When I met with them I said, "What are you all trying to do?" They had a really compelling idea which was to do something VR that was cinematic, that wasn't 360 [degrees].And I read, when I see 360 VR cinematic stuff you are constantly looking around to see what you are missing and you miss what's in front of you. And it also limited how you would capture it because suddenly you would have to erase the crew and it became very labor intensive. But doing a half dome, you still have some traditional gear and work purely on story and so it really came down to the writing and how you were going to do the story in a way that would involve the audience. When I would see VR cinematics I felt actually more distant from the story than in the story. So how do you create tension and suspense and mystery was by, I felt it needed to be first person. I wanted the wish fulfillment of being in action film with her. What she said the thing about falling out of plane you're following the action. That's wish fulfillment. I want to start a movie with Michelle where we're getting to do those things, but where it feels like it's real, like it's really happening. So it blows through a lot of those conceits you know. You have to just make it so that you are constantly unveiling the story slowly to the audience as it's happening, through action and understanding who you are. You don't know who are. You don't even know why you have this point of view at first. You're just suddenly in this situation where it continually gets worse and worse. And that's using the language of cinema and storytelling. But in order to kind of patch up the holes of what VR has right now, it's limitations thus far, that's why we call it The Limit. We really want to test what the limits of this technology was by pushing it as far as possible. And the camera that we put together with Andy and his team, we were able to pull it off. And I'm super excited that everything that we envisioned actually got made and worked...
Screen Rant: VR is a big part of video game culture now, currently. We are starting to see that and now obviously with you guys doing this in a film is a whole new element. But Andy could you talk to me about some of the games that may have inspired you to do this journey or that you learned from at all?
Andy Vick: So I think, you know, Michelle talks about this a lot and so does Racer. I'm a pretty big gamer. I play a lot of first person shooters and I think that lends into a world of interactive video game is just very comfortable for the people who own these headsets, right? And VR is primarily a gaming platform. All the data shows and all the headset manufactures are telling us that people are also spending a lot of time watching passive content also. So I think the idea of going into a cinematic experience, telling a story, taking the pillars of what great film and television are. Ideas, script, director, great talent, all those things, putting it together and packaging it in a way that feels familiar. I think was the goal. Right? That's what we were able to achieve is, it blends the interactive gaming experience with the passive cinematic experience. And no you not like, selecting scenes or shooting back at people yourself. But you know, what you're doing is standing in somebody else's shoes. I think it's a really powerful way to convey emotion. So the way we talk about it a lot is, you know, in traditional film and television the whole point is to convey emotion, right? You want to make someone laugh, you want to make someone cry, you want to scare the crap out of someone...you want to put them through an exhilarating experience. People can really do that and do that well. All these people here have done that and I think in VR what you're able to do is you can amplify any of those emotions that you are trying to do right, if you execute it properly. If you're scared in a movie theater, you put on a VR headset, like times it by a factor of 20 man, because like you are going to be just jumping, right? So I think that's what we wanted to do. Make an action movie, put you at the center of it, and like crank it up to 11 as Spinal Tap says.
Screen Rant: Michelle, as an actress how different is it working with VR and kind of getting into that mindset knowing that audiences are going to see something a little bit different than they would normally see it. Does that change at all from standard filmmaking?
Michelle Rodriguez: No, no, not when working with Robert. He just made it feel like we were just shooting a regular film. I think the difference is your interaction with the camera. If anything, as a person I'm getting more excited about what cameramen are gonna discover. The rigs that are going to have to be developed for this new genre of filmmaking. Because now the cameraperson, especially when you're dealing with an action film, is a character in the film. So the camera movement is going to shift a lot. The rigs are gonna shift a lot. The technology is going to shift a lot. And I think it's going to become smaller, just to appease this world. And I'm more excited for the camera guys. I'm thinking that a lot of stunt guys are going to have to, you know, put their camera helmets on and join the union. Yeah, it's a very physical thing and I'm excited! Because you know...also when it comes not only VR, but the VR immersive experience, not just the passive one. With that controller that I have in my hand, I might be able to zoom in. And so we can have two cameras at a time getting different perspectives. I press a button, while I'm in there, in this experience and I can zoom in and get more in the face of what's happening. I mean I just see...I see a whole entire world opening up.
Screen Rant: So this is definitely the evolution of filmmaking?
Michelle Rodriguez: Oh this is gangster. It's like a whole other level. I just see potential... Everywhere, everywhere I look I'm like, "potential."
Robert Rodriguez: And there are stories you can only tell in VR. Like this one, you could make a movie about... The idea was let's make a character for Michelle that's really compelling. That you would want to go see this character that she's doing in the movies, in TV, anywhere and the story as well. But we are going to tell it in a way that can only be told really in VR. Really take full advantage of the story the way we're telling it. From the perspective that we're doing works best in VR, not on the other platforms. So that's exciting when you're doing something that's custom made for the medium. And that's truly, you know, exciting. In fact, having Racer's arms reaching in to be your arm when you needed an arm. You know this contortionist that he had to do with the cameraman. So they could feel like your actually in this person's body is really exciting when you are breaking new ground like that.
Michelle Rodriguez: And your point of reference too... It's like you have a fish eye lens capturing everything because you are doing a 180 so... getting that right...what is the eye line of this person that's next to me? All of that stuff is all new.
Robert Rodriguez: And a lot is on her... A lot of the story has to come through her because she's telling the story, she's talking directly into the camera and you need a really terrific actress for that. And she's wonderful and she makes it look really easy...you got the helmet on. You don't feel the acting, you feel like you're actually in a movie with her. She's really talking to you and saying, "We're jumping out of this plane right now because it's about to blow up." And you believe it! So it's fun.
Screen Rant: Can you talk to me about the theater experience is still the preeminent experience where people go to theaters to see movies, I guess together, but VR....
Michelle Rodriguez : I guess together! Did you see...
Andy Vick: Are you going to the movies by yourself? Just call me up. I'll go. I got stuff to do but...
Robert Rodriguez: ...Just to be around a crowd.
Michelle Rodriguez: Just to be around humans...so passe...
Robert Rodriguez: A lot of times you're watching a movie you want the group experience to hear everybody laugh at the same things, or scream if it's a horror film. What's different about VR is that this experience is the point of view. It's your own point of view, it's not the audience. It's not a shared experience, it's your own personal experience. You are in an action film! Forget them! You yourself are in a film with Michelle and Norman. It's almost like a very selfish thing.
Screen Rant: It's wish fulfillment.
Robert Rodriguez: Yeah, wish fulfillment It's more transportive. Where the other one you're like, you're watching a stage play and want to be there with the audience. This isn't that. This isn't that passive. This is more...bridges the gap between something that's truly you performing something and you watching something.
Screen Rant: Well guys, I can't wait. This sounds amazing, I'm probably...I'm going to be on that journey with you Michelle! So this is going to be a lot of fun. Thank you guys so much for joining us at New York Comic Con 2018.