When Robert Rodriguez first saw James Cameron’s “art reel” for a live-action version of Yukito Kishiro’s comic Battle Angel Alita in 2005, he recalls his jaw hitting the floor. “I’ve known Jim since before Desperado,” the director says over the phone, referencing his 1995 postmodern-Western/action movie. “I remember visiting him on the set of when he was shooting that Terminator 2 ride, trading all these ideas about how to use 3-D. So we go way back, and I’ve seen him do a lot of crazy, innovative things. But I’d stopped by his studio, and he says to me, ‘Oh, I gotta show you what I’m working on.’
“And suddenly,” Rodriguez continues, “he unveils this 15-minute presentation with this insane artwork, voiceover narration, story concepts … all this stuff from the manga. It wasn’t just the character design — I mean, it was the whole Alita world! I was working on Sin City at the time, trying to figure out how to bring that comic book aesthetic to a live-action movie. But this was just next-level. When the light went back up, I said to him, ‘That’s fantastic! I don’t know how the hell you’re going to pull that off, Jim, but — best of luck!’ You looked at what he was aiming for and you just thought, Man … hopefully you’ll be able to actually do some of this by the time you’re ready to shoot. Which, considering this was going to be the next picture he was going to direct …”
“And then what happened, Robert?” asks the producer Jon Landau, who’s also on the line. He’s kidding, of course. He knows exactly what happens next.
“Well, Jon, then a little something called Avatar started taking up all of his time and got in the way,” the filmmaker answers, as both of them laugh in unison. “But the point is, I was lucky enough to see behind the curtain about what Jim would have done if he’d directed it. So when I had the chance to sort of grab the reins of this as a director, I wanted him to look at the finished film and go, ‘That’s the script I wrote! That’s exactly the picture I had in my head.’ Or, at least not say, ‘Ah, I knew I shoulda directed this myself!'”
Now, his movie Alita: Battle Angel — about an amnesiac cyborg caught in a machine-vs.-humanity war — will make the manga’s futuristic landscape of teeming cities, killer robots and anime-eyed heroines seem impossibly, stunningly realistic. “The tech finally caught up with us!” he says. Rordriguez Landau run down how they pushed the digital-FX envelope to make it happen.
After actress Rosa Salazar was cast to play the title character, New Zealand’s Weta studios digitally scanned her face and began constructing a completely computer-generated version of Alita based on Salazar’s performance. “We didn’t turn over any of the designs to Weta until we cast Rosa,” Landau says. “We wanted all of the little idiosyncrasies that she brought in her audition to be there. We learned from doing Avatar that when you’re scanning someone’s facial structure that it was important to get the lower part of someone’s face right — it’s harder than you think. Once we knew we could do that, we started working with them on the whole digitial process of creating what Alita would look like.”
“A lot of people go, oh, that’s Rosa…and they just augmented her eyes,” Rodriguez adds. “No! The character is completely computer-generated. It’s a lot like the human birthing process.”
“They could do a digital scan of Rosa, but it’s like nine months before you get back results that give you the character — so it kind of is like a birthing process,” Landau says. “The idea was to challenge them to go beyond what they’d done for facial and performance capture. Instead of one standard-def head rig to record her face, they used two high-definition cameras. They were able to create a much more user-director, actor-centric process on the set. Technology did not get in the sway here — technology enabled. There are scenes where Rosa is kissing and hand-holding … and she is not there. There’s a scene where she picks up a dog, and licks her face — Alita is not in that frame. Our FX supervisor Eric Saindon told me that in Alita’s eyes alone, they had more detail there than in all of Gollum from Lord of the Rings.“
Get Your Motorball Runnin’
Rather than use the standard green screen for most of digi-FX heavy shoot, Rodriguez opted to shoot as much as humanly possible on actual sets built on the backlot of his Austin, Texas-based Troublemaker Studios. And for a massive set piece involving a competitive sport known as Motorball, the production took over a nearby high school stadium a few towns over. “We had extras, real sets, props,” he says. “Then Weta essentially had to make new tools to add CGI characters and make it look like it was a NASCAR race or a sporting event. They had to fake a camera-lens flare, which they’d never done before! It was: We can’t have green screens, we gotta have real sets, real props, real textures. And she’s going to have to fit alongside everything. So they were going to have to start from scratch with technology in some cases.
“That was a completely different thing I had to wrap my head around,” he continues. “Like, ‘Wow, Rosa nailed that scene … and I have no idea what my lead actress is going to look like in the finished film!’ And yet when I see the footage now, it’s one and the same. I know her performance so well, and every nuance of her performance comes through in that character that I don’t even separate them any more.”
While most movies are retroconverted to 3D, Alita was shot with Cameron’s own state-of-the-art 3D cameras that he’d used for his deep-sea docs. “I actually shot the first digital 3D movie back in 2003 — Spy Kids 3-D — and I was using Jim’s cameras!” Rodriguez says. “They are like Ferraris … and we used two of them, the equivalent of these 65 millimetere cameras. When Jim was going to make this, he’d wanted to shoot 75 to 80 percent of it in 3D. I did 99 percent with those cameras. I mean, once you go that far with it, you might as well shoot it all that way. And the detail you get is mind-blowing.”
“Using 3D should not be a world coming out of a window,” Landau says. “It should be a window into a world.”
For a sequence in which Alita walks underwater, Rodriguez shot Salazar on a stage and footage of a diver on the bottom of a water tank. Weta then used both of those to craft a digital version of the sequence. “When she’s walking out of the water and up the steps,” Landau notes, “Robert talked her through factoring in the resistance of the water with another reference [shot] that we looked at, as she acted all of this in a performance-capture suit. “
“Yeah, we had pieces she could open and lift on set, so she had something to act with,” Rodriguez says. “Then we’d shot reference footage of a woman walking underwater with weights on her ankles, this woman who was a free diver who could hold her breath for something like 10 minutes … she’d walk along the bottom of a tank, and we’d use that to match the body movements for the character.
“It had to still feel real, very grounded,” he adds. “‘Whimsical’ is something that I’d use to describe my past work. ‘Oh, he’ll turn his guitar case into a machine gun, because why not?’ Here, if you said, ‘Oh, that’s whimsical’ — that was a bad word on this set. [Producer] James Cameron’s future isn’t science fiction — it’s science fact. It’s grounded in a reality, and that’s how the audience buys the fantasy.”