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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Preview: How Weta Escaped from the Uncanny Valley

IndieWire went to Wellywood to preview Weta's latest facial capture advances on Robert Rodriguez's sci-fi epic from James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment.

Alita: Battle Angel

“Alita: Battle Angel”

20th Century Fox


The wizards of Weta have taken facial capture to the next level with “Alita: Battle Angel,” the manga-inspired sci-fi adventure directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau. Check out the new Fox trailer below for the movie which opens February 14, 2019.

IndieWire got a sneak peek of exclusive footage at Weta in Wellington, New Zealand. Like moviegoers who finally embraced the blue Na’vi once they saw them in Cameron’s “Avatar,” there’s nothing creepy about Alita, the doll-like cyborg with big eyes (performance-captured by Rosa Salazar). In fact, when she wakes up in a morning bathed in sunlight without any memory of her former existence as a badass warrior, it’s hard to believe that she’s totally CG.

Read More: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Team Promises Manga Adaptation Is ‘Not Whitewashing’ Like ‘Ghost In the Shell’

“Alita: Battle Angel”


“I feel more like an audience member on this than any other movie,” said Rodriguez, who took over for Cameron when he committed to helming four “Avatar” sequels, tackling his first big-budget Hollywood movie. “I hadn’t done this process before, so a lot of it’s just intuition. But I’m stunned at how the shots come in. It’s like dream imagery but photo-real, so you can see why Jim makes movies at that level now. And when Rosa walked in the room [for the audition], I knew she was the girl. She’s so expressive, and I knew the animators were going to have a ball bringing this to life with so much to work with.”

Indeed, whether Alita’s battling a host of scary cyborgs with surprising force and finesse, or playing the gladiator-style Motorball, or falling in love with street-smart Hugo (Keean Johnson), she’s anything but stoic in the manga tradition.

“I took to the suit and loved it,” said Salazar. “I liked the process, I liked the head rig. I liked innovating from that place as an actor and being on the cutting edge, to play a role I otherwise couldn’t play as a 30-year-old. It was fun for me to be the walking piece of technology. What’s nice is they kept the proportions of an actual woman and didn’t over sexualize or infantilize the character.”

ABA_096_CWS_0490_v0407.87435 – Rosa Salazar stars as Alita in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Alita: Battle Angel”

Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth

The big advancement was animating a humanoid character in the style of Yukito Kishiro’s popular manga “Battle Angel Alita.” “It’s trying to get a character that’s humanoid, and bringing the subtleties of Rosa and the imperfections of Rosa — her wrinkles, her stars — into our character so that we don’t go anywhere near the Uncanny Valley,” said Weta VFX supervisor Eric Saindon.

Added producer Landau: “You can’t hide behind the blue skin [of ‘Avatar’] or an ape’s face. Yet she’s a cyborg. We’re not saying she’s a human; we have that little bit of wiggle room. I think Weta really applied everything they’ve learned the last 20 years. It’s a process of layering. And Rosa has unusual idiosyncrasies that her face does, which convey emotion, where the eyebrow goes up and the mouth goes down. But I believe, whether it’s five minutes in or 10 minutes in, you’re going to realize she’s that character.”

Like the “Planet of the Apes” sequels, Weta shot Salazar’s performance capture on location. In this case, a 90,000 square foot set of the dystopian Iron City on the backlot of Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin. However, Weta implemented two lightweight HD head cams for the first time to capture greater detail. “It gives more information for reconstructing the face,” said Joe Letteri, Weta’s senior VFX supervisor and four-time Oscar winner. “The extra care helps you get more dimensionality and better understand what the actor’s movement is.”

“Alita: Battle Angel”

Weta also advanced its facial capture system by using two CG puppets (one for the actress and one for the character), re-targeting one onto the other to achieve closer unity.

But Alita’s face is wider than Rosa’s, and her eyes are twice as large, which changed the perspective. It took a year to work on the eyes alone and then another four months of refinement. The eyes actually contained more detail than all of Gollum, with Weta doing simulation of fibers for the first time taken from a baby’s eyes.

“We tried many different variations,” Saindon said. “We tried scaling the eyes from the center, we scaled the eyes out wider and they were really creepy. She looked like an ogre. So we did a lot of moving around and positioning and we realized in a conversation with Jim one day that it wasn’t the eyes as much as the irises. We were scaling up the eyes and irises the same amount and the whites under the eyes made it creepy.

“Jim suggested scaling up the irises and pupils another 15 percent on top of the eyes. Once we did that, you started seeing the shape of her eyes and they actually matched Rosa’s better.”

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