Back in 2005, the fanboy in Robert Rodriguez was curious about how James Cameron’s manga-inspired “Battle Angel” was progressing. When Cameron told him that he was solely committed to making “Avatar,” Rodriguez asked: “But what’s going to happen to ‘Battle Angel’?”
That’s when Cameron invited the indie director into his inner circle, and 10 years later, Rodriguez signed on to make “Alita: Battle Angel,” his first $200-million Hollywood sci-fi spectacle.
“I looked at an image of that doll body and large, manga eyes, and it made sense for Jim Cameron: strong female, cyborg warrior,” Rodriguez said. “That’s his world. But then I read the script, and I identified with so many elements of this universal story about a very unassuming girl, who gets dumped in this scrap yard, and grows to find out that she’s got great power and the ability to change the world.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth
“That’s the magic of what Jim does and he tells it in a way that can affect people all over the world. And I wanted to try and tell a story like that using the truth in spectacle, trying to make it more like his movie, which is based on science fact, instead of my movie, which is more whimsical. Then you can believe the fantasy.”
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Like moviegoers who finally embraced the blue Na’vi once they saw them in “Avatar,” there’s nothing creepy about Alita, the badass warrior-turned revolutionary in the 26th century (performance-captured by Rosa Salazar). In fact, when she wakes up in a morning bathed in sunlight without any memory of her former existence, pieced together by the compassionate cyborg doctor played by Christoph Waltz, it’s hard to believe that she’s totally CG.
That’s because the wizards of Weta Digital have taken facial capture animation to the next level of believability with this humanoid character that’s anything but manga stoic. They’ve brought the distinctive nuances and physical imperfections of Salazar — her wrinkles, her stars — into Alita along with her impassioned performance.
It was quite a stylistic leap for Rodriguez, though, who was an early virtual production adopter with Frank Miller’s “Sin City” back in 2005. “I feel more like an audience member on this than any other movie,” he said, “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.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth
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 and provide more information for reconstructing the face.
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. 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.
“Usually, I prefer lower budgets because the studios let you do what you want,” said Rodriguez. “But here, with the money, and full lights on and full sun, and photo-real, that means half the budget’s going right there. But I never could’ve done these ground-breaking effects without them and at that level with these artists, who have such a high bar for their artistry.”
But Cameron made it an easier transition for Rodriguez. The script merely required “editing,” and even Cameron’s vision for Iron City already had a Panama City flavor, which played right into Rodriguez’s cultural wheelhouse. “The city was originally set in Kansas City in the manga, but Jim moved it to the equator because, in his scientific mind, he knew that was the only place a space elevator could work,” added Rodriguez. “And it was more colorful. Which I loved because it’s so different than any other movie. So it felt so strange to build this city that looks just like the first two floors from the town in ‘El Mariachi,’ more than 25 years later, only on a much bigger budget and scale. The futuristic elements got added digitally above it.”
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Still, Rodriguez had to get accustomed to the Weta way and not screw up Cameron’s vision. “It was odd at first, shooting a movie without knowing what my lead actress was going to look like,” he said. “We didn’t have a final look for her yet. By the end, I realized it’s just like Rosa. Some of the proportions are different, but her performance and light comes through so much. I always had my leading lady there.”
And he always had Cameron to turn to for advice. “He can see over the hill, and if you can’t see it yet, it’s not ’cause you’re wrong, but you have to go further until you see it too,” Rodriguez said. “So if you’re gonna follow somebody, follow that guy. It’s like that first image of the doll girl with the large eyes. Shit, if he’s going to make it work, then I need to make it work.”
Whether the movie works will be judged by audiences; so far critics are mixed (Metascore: 57) and at this point, the movie conceived by Cameron in the late 90s arrives years after a series of similar dystopian futures, from “Wall-E” and “District 9” to “Maze Runner” and “Hunger Games.”