Alita: Battle Angel is the latest high concept Manga-inspired film that offers up a brand new heroine for cinema-goers to get behind, but Rosa Salazar’s empowering cyborg isn’t the only new addition to get excited about.
Producer Jon Landau and director Robert Rodriguez said that WETA – the digital visual effects company behind Lord of the Rings, Avatar and The Jungle Book – created new technology in order to bring Alita to life in the most hyperrealistic way possible.
“We leapt so far ahead technology wise on Alita from where we were on Avatar,” Landau told Yahoo Movies UK. “WETA put more detail in the model of her eye than they had in all of Gollum because they could.”
“And what WETA does is they have now an AI system that teaches the CG model from the inside out based on the actor’s performance. So they’re not driving it on the outside of the face, it’s what the muscles do on the inside to create the fidelity of the performance.”
Rodriguez said he had to totally reconfigure his way of making films in order to fit into the style of Jim Cameron, who had written the script and had done much of the concept design and development before the Sin City director jumped on board.
“The biggest challenge was that I had to change my whole way of working to do this movie because I tend to do things much more whimsical, wacky and Jim’s stuff is so much more embedded in reality,” he said. “So that’s why I knew I couldn’t do it on a green screen like Sin City, make it whimsical, it needed to be very real.
“It’s like, wow, all my experience of making movies that I had to kind of toss out and do more like how Jim would shoot it.”
Read our full interview with John Landau and Robert Rodriguez discussing every aspect of making Alita: Battle Angel, manga franchise potential and Oscars recognition.
Yahoo Movies UK: So what was your first introduction to Alita?
Jon Landau: Well our first introduction for Jim and myself was through Guillermo del Toro a friend of ours, director par excellence, and he introduced us to the property in 1999. Jim and I both fell in love with the story about this young girl coming into the world, with no memory of who she is, and her journey of self-discovery.
Robert Rodriguez: I had heard about it a few years later because it was said that it was going to be Jim’s next movie. So I purposely stayed away from the manga because I didn’t want to know how this movie was going to end or what his story was. I wanted to come in clean. Jim and I are already friends by then but then I visited the set of Avatar, he wasn’t making it and then years and years later, four years ago where I asked him what happens to this movie Battle Angel if you’re just going to do more Avatars? When am I going to see this movie? He said ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to make it I did a bunch of work on it do you want to see some of it?’ And I got a glimpse behind the curtain to see what he did.
He’d done a lot of work on it. He was ready to shoot it in 2005 so he had a bunch of artwork, paintings of her large eyes and, and I was totally captivated. I read a script, which was too long and Jim never got a chance to finish cutting it down. I said ‘I’ll do it for free just to see if there’s something there whether you want to make it with someone else or with me, whatever.’ So I tried it and he loved it off we went and started making it.
How does that compare coming into a project that has already been started compared to ground zero on your previous films?
RR: Very helpful. I’m a fan of Jim Cameron. This was a lost Jim Cameron film and when I read the script, I realised here was a movie that was almost ready to go, that no one in the world will ever get to see best I help him make it. It was a relief because there are so many books, I mean it was hard to do Sin City but easier in a way because they were short stories and I just crammed my favourite short stories into one movie. This wasn’t like that. You couldn’t do that with this.
And he had already kind of cracked the code on how to formulate the story. And it was a story that attracted me even more than the manga because it was more emotional, much more heartfelt, much better character relationships that Jim had done on it. I don’t think I would have been as attracted to it if I hadn’t read his script.
JL: So also, 2005, Jim had a choice. He had a very tough choice to do Alita or to do Avatar. We parallel processed concept designs on both and got it to a point where Jim had really fleshed out in his mind a lot of the world. And what Robert did an amazing job of is taking that as a foundation, a foundation to act for where we went to and he held true as you did with the script that he cut down. He held true to Jim’s design concept but made them his own.
Was any new technology created to achieve the CG?
JL: So, you know, we leapt so far ahead technology wise on Alita from where we were on Avatar from where WETA digital was on Planet of the Apes, which they did post Avatar. For us, it’s all about the close-up, the scale and the spectacle that’s secondary. The nuanced performance that Rosa Salazar gave us that WETA digital was able to realise it was thanks to technological advancements where when we made a movie like Avatar, we had one standard def camera filming [Zoe Saldana’s] face.
Here with Rosa, we had two high definition cameras. WETA put more detail in the model of her eye than they had in all of Gollum because they could. Because the technology allowed the computer processing to do it. And what WETA does is they have now like an AI system that teaches the CG model from the inside out based on the actor’s performance. So they’re not driving it on the outside of the face. It’s what the muscles do on the inside to create the fidelity of the performance.
That makes me think about that pockmark on Alita’s face.
JL: I want to just touch on that for a second because you know visual effects can be a perfect art form. Life and filmmaking are not and as filmmakers, we don’t want to go, okay, we can do this incredible shot that you couldn’t do in the real world. We want to ground it in the imperfections in a camera bobble in a little bit out of focus. If you’re watching the motor ball, there are huge lens flares. Why? Because that’s the imperfection of filmmaking that audiences expect. The little pockmark on the face, all those things just grounded in reality.
What was the casting process like for Alita?
RR: The whole casting process was bringing in a bunch of actresses, it was just a matter of time. You just have to see everybody. I’ve done enough casting over my life but it’s the greatest thrill when the actor just happens to walk in who’s that role and it doesn’t always happen. And it did this time she walked in, did the scene, it was emotionally affecting and I just thought wow who is this person? I mean she really seemed like the character and the more we looked, the more we put her through the paces of rest of the casting process, screen tests and such, it became clear that she was perfect for the role.
Well I suppose in the last few years we’ve seen a few Western-made anime/manga films that haven’t been received that well. Why do you think Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t fall into the same trap?
JL: I think a lot of it has to do with the underlying material that Yukito Kishiro created. Kishiro did not write a story that was set specifically in Asia. He, in fact, named it the Kansas Bar. He set it in this universal melting pot. He did not write a central character that was Asian specific. He wrote general and he just told a story that is a universal story so we could adapt it, not Hollywoodise it. We made the cinematic version of what he had on the page and I think people feel an honesty and a truth to that.
This is essentially a comic book movie but why do you think we’ve yet to see manga properties in the West go on to inspire Marvel or DC level franchises.
RR: The story that we’re telling was a story purposely written and constructed in a way by Jim to be something that plays more than what’s in the comic. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, I like this one I’m going to be faithful to this one.’ He knew he had to be inspired by that and create and craft a story that had much more emotional heft than that and it felt much more like a picture that he could have done on his own without a manga.
It should feel like a story that isn’t tied to a specific genre of comics or manga. It has to be just a universal story because we can’t just go after the manga fans. It has to be people who don’t even know what manga who are happy to watch this movie, feel affected by it. So the universal story that we’re telling, It was inspired by Kishiro, refined by Jim and brought to life by all the craftspeople to really shoot for something bigger than what a normal comic movie would probably try and go for. So it feels special in that way.
Was there anything that you had to cut out?
RR: A lot of the cutting process was in the script stage. You know Jim had already had 180 pages script, which means that would be could have been 180 minutes, you know?
JL: Well let’s talk about that for one second because what I love is what Robert said when we gave him Jim’s 186-page spec. He said, ‘I’m not going to rewrite it because you don’t rewrite Jim Cameron. I’m going to edit it.’ So putting on his film editor hat and writer hat, he edited. So a lot of those scenes that in a movie might be superfluous. When you get to a cut, Robert had the foresight to take those out of the script and the writing process
RR: So we didn’t shoot it and build it and then go, oh, we don’t need this and cut it and don’t try to do that.
Is there much storyboarding involved?
JL: It was the antithesis of that, right? Because, um, we don’t storyboard like the dramatic scenes. We don’t need to, it’s about Robert in the moment. Rosa, if we had a scene in this room where Alita walked in, Rosa would walk into this room. So we’re not, we don’t need to tell an animator.
Storyboards are great if you need to tell an animator what to do. But let Rosa and Christoph [Waltz] and Robert work together to create this fantastic spontaneity of a move, a moment together.
What was the biggest challenge that you faced bringing this movie to life?
RR: I mean, everything was a challenge. The biggest challenge was that I had to change my whole way of working to do this movie because I tend to do things much more whimsical, wacky and Jim’s stuff is so much more embedded in reality. He told me that, you know, science fiction and fantasy to him, needs to feel completely real grounded or audiences just don’t buy the fantasy.
So that’s why I knew I couldn’t do it on a green screen like Sin City, make it whimsical, it needed to be very real. So that changed how I shot it. Real sets, real locations, real actors around her. That was interesting and fun to do, take a vacation from how I normally do stuff, but I knew it was a big challenge. It’s like, wow, all my experience of making movies that I had to kind of toss out and do more like how Jim would shoot it.
Does that make you want to shoot more in that way of filmmaking?
RR: That’s the problem, there isn’t anything else like this! It’s a very rare project because Jim would have made it himself, and didn’t. It’s a lost Jim Cameron project. I mean, you get to work on that. That’s like the holy grail in Hollywood, nobody gets to work with something like that. So it was a very rare special project.
Are you already conceiving ideas for sequels?
JL: Well I think number one is your readers, your audience, they’re going to have to tell us that they want to a sequel.
I don’t know, we’ve got The Hitman’s Bodyguard 2 coming – should they be trusted?!
JL: [laughs] But you know what, Jim does something interesting. Well, when he writes, he thinks both before and after the story he’s telling because he thinks it informs the decisions of an actor or anything like this. So Kishiro gave us this world with a vast number of additional stories to tell, Jim had plotted some out in his mind to help inform the character. So when Michelle Rodriguez, who plays Gelda in the movie, took a part that is very minor, Jim was able to give her 17 pages of notes about her character. Because he had thought about that. So if the audience tells us, I think that Robert, Jim, Rosa, myself, we would all love to return to Kishiro’s world.
Oscars are coming around the corner and Avatar has obviously had quite a few nominations. We’re now starting to see high concept films get recognised but why do you think awards show have often been dismissive of them?
JL: I think you’ll see more of them doing it. I also think you’ll see it at a time when an actor who gives a performance using performance capture, they will get nominated. People don’t understand. It’s not an animated role. Everything Rosa did is on the screen; if you look back at other movies with Oscar winners, whether it be John Hurt as The Elephant Man or Eric Stoltz in Mask, they’re wearing prosthetics. They’re doing that.
What we’re doing with performance capture is the 21st-century version of prosthetics. An actor doesn’t need to go into three hours of makeup. They come onto the set, they act, that’s, they give their performance, the makeup is applied later through CGI. That’s effectively what we’re doing. And the industry I believe will recognize that and turn around and say to an Andy Serkis, say to a Zoe Saldana say to a Rosa Salazar. We recognize you in that performance and we’re going to honour you with him with the nomination.
Alita: Battle Angel is in U.K. cinemas from Wednesday, 6 February.