In October at New York Comic-Con, producer Jon Landau, director Robert Rodriguez and stars Rosa Salazar and Keean Johnson held an offsite presentation to showcase select sequences from Alita: Battle Angel. And it wasn't just about the action, but the intimate and emotional moments between characters, and about the varied environments that the movie brings to life alongside its Cyborg characters.
Weeks later we traveled to New Zealand to visit the movie magicians at Weta Digital to see how they bring moments in movies like this to life, from motion capture and new filming processes, to industry-leading special effects, animation, and post-production techniques.
While there I sat down with James Cameron's longtime producing partner Jon Landau who's been hands-on with this project for years, and we talked about how Alita: Battle Angel finally came to be, what makes it stands out, and its seemingly symbiotic relationship with the Avatar franchise.
Screen Rant: In New York and here in New Zealand, we saw lots of footage of this film. And at these presentations you mentioned that James Cameron had hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes. And a script that was massive, 186 pages. And part of the sell with [Robert Rodriguez] is that he was able to turn it into something smaller, a shoot-able script that kept the core themes and story alive. So, once you take Robert's vision and then start shooting into production, are there still major changes to the story along the way?
Jon Landau: There aren't major changes, but they're always changes. And both Robert and Jim are directors who like to work with actors on a scene, on the set, to flush things out. The voice of the character cannot fully be realized until you've cast the role. So, Robert would work with Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz and would modify sections in dialogue in the film. Same thing with Jennifer Connelly. One time we brought Jim in and we looked at something that Jennifer raised as a question. Jim came in, wrote some new pages himself, for a little moment with Jennifer. Nothing major, but all enhanced once we know the characters.
With the character of Alita herself, talking to the Weta Digital team, the design work behind this character is revolutionary. And we talked about there being 5,000 iterations of everything from the corners of the lips, the to the shape and size of the eyes. What was the most difficult part of realizing that character? Especially, when it comes to the action set pieces.
Jon Landau: 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.
And speaking on the action set pieces were dealing with characters, non-human characters, of different shapes and sizes and limb sizes. But in often cases in real practical sets in Austin. So, what's the most challenging sequence to bring to life?
Jon Landau: I think the most challenging sequence to bring to life was probably the ambush alley fight. One of the sequences you saw where Romo jumps down, first with [Dr. Dyson] Ido and then Nyssiana. Because Nyssiana and Romo are both live-action elements that we enhanced their bodies through CGI. Alita, of course, is completely CGI. We're locked into the confines and the logistics of a live action set. And making that work and having all of those different elements blend seamlessly, from a single scene standpoint, was probably the most challenging.
Note: Romo is played by Derek Mears and Nyssiana is played by Eiza González.
The amount of performance capture work and tech and processes developed for Avatar helped inform some of what you've been able to push forward with Alita: Battle Angel. Does the tech, and even the software used and developed for this movie - does that help inform what you're doing with future Avatar films?
Jon Landau: So, I was talking to Joe Letteri of Weta Digital, probably a year ago, and we both concluded that the work we're going to do today, and now on Alita, is going to even have a greater impact on the Avatar sequels than the first movie really had on Avatar. Because we have learned so much. No longer could Weta hide behind an ape skin and fur to bring a facial performance to life. She's out there, human skin, she's all there for everybody to see and it's a new standard that they had to ascribe to.
And I guess that train keeps on rolling. Once you do like Avatar 2 and 3, that tech, would that help inform a potential Alita sequel?
Jon Landau: Well, look, I think one of the things that Jim has been great about in his career is that every project that he does with visual effects informs the next. He wrote the scene of the pseudopod into The Abyss to see if he could finally make Terminator 2 with the T-1000 coming out of the floor. When we did Avatar, I mean when we did Titanic, we put digital people on the ship as a step to, could we do Avatar? When we did Avatar, we realized yes, we could finally do Alita. So, they're all building upon one another.
And with the hundreds of - I think you just said there's a thousand pages of James Cameron notes and Robert saw 600 of them or something. Do those notes include like a blueprint of what could be future Alita stories?
Jon Landau: I think we tried not to focus so much on what the future stories would be. There are some big bold concepts, that come out of the manga, of where the stories might go. Because we didn't want to do anything that would conflict with where they might go. But we also did not want to have the hubris to go spend a lot of time on it, before we made something that audience has told us they wanted a sequel.
And if that can happen, and there's a long time-gap between Avatar 1 and 2, are we going to have to wait that long for another Alita?
Jon Landau: If audiences want another Alita, I'm sure, with Robert, we could-- Robert does things much faster than Jim generally does.
That’s fair [Laughs]. Thank you so much. It looks great.
Jon Landau: Thank you.
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
- Avatar 2 (2021) release date: Dec 17, 2021
- Avatar 3 (2023) release date: Dec 22, 2023
- Avatar 4 (2025) release date: Dec 19, 2025
- Avatar 5 (2027) release date: Dec 17, 2027