Films

What Alita: Battle Angel learned from James Cameron’s Avatar

Alita: Battle Angel director Robert Rodriguez talks motion capture, going to ‘James Cameron school’… and those huge eyes

The first thing you notice about Alita: Battle Angel, the live-action adaptation of the manga by Yukito Kishiro, is the title character’s eyes. For the main part, the film’s CGI cyborg protagonist Alita, played by Rosa Salazar, looks human – except for her eyes, which are unsettlingly large, like an anime character brought to life.

When they were first unveiled in a trailer last year, the reaction was split. Some were intrigued by the striking visuals, but others found themselves unnerved by the “uncanny valley” effect – the unsettling feeling when something looks almost human. “It’s just something we’ve never seen before,” says the director, Robert Rodriguez. “We’ve been seeing anime and manga eyes since Astro Boy in the 50s, but we’ve never seen it photo-real. There are so many manga fans out there, and I’m a fan too. If you could see a photo-real anime film – it’d be like you got stuck in the comic book, you’d feel like you were living in a dream.”

Rodriguez, who inherited the Alita project from producer James Cameron, was initially concerned that Cameron would pressure him to tone the character down. “But Jim didn’t even blink an eye,” he says. “In fact, he even said, ‘You know what, I think the eyes need to be bigger. The iris has to be bigger in order to make it more emotive, more relatable.’ He said that he had learned that on Avatar.”

Rodriguez, best known for B-movie-style films like From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City, speaks of Cameron as a mentor – and in a way, he is. Several years ago, Cameron asked Rodriguez to edit the script for Alita: Battle Angel, which he had had in development since the early 2000s. Cameron once intended to direct himself, being fascinated by the idea of bringing Alita – a deadly cyborg rebuilt by a scientist (Christoph Waltz) – to life through performance capture. But along the way he became preoccupied with something else equally ambitious. “It came down to: the Alita script wasn’t ready and the Avatar script was,” Rodriguez says.

It proved a blessing. Avatar became a stepping stone to getting the performance-capture technology ready for the more challenging Alita: Battle Angel. At the time, rendering the faces of Avatar’s blue alien Na’vi was a far easier task than trying to translate the detail of an actual human face into realistic CGI. “We’ve benefited from the advancements that they made on Avatar and the Planet of the Apes movies,” says Rodriguez. “[The technology] wasn’t even there when we started shooting – we had to fine-tune it over two years.”

Rodriguez is no stranger to special effects; Sin City was filmed primarily against a green screen. But in terms of scope and scale, Alita: Battle Angel presented a new challenge. Rodriguez needed to collaborate closely with special effects company WETA Digital and go through what he refers to as “James Cameron school”, to get to grips with directing Salazar and her cyborg co-stars through performance capture – a process popularised by actor and director Andy Serkis that involves actors wearing close-fitting outfits covered in sensors so that their performance can be digitally captured.

“Every day a shot would come in of Alita that would look amazing,” Rodriguez says. “And then Jim would jump in and say, ‘Let’s see Rosa’s performance again,’ and we’d compare it. ‘You see right there in the corner of the eye, or the corner of the mouth, let’s just pull it up a little bit…’ and 100 percent of her performance is coming through.”

For Salazar, becoming Alita meant a daily hour-and-a-half routine to get into the Lycra-like performance-capture suit, being fitted with markers and having her movements scanned into WETA’s system. Once the preparation was over, she says that the actual acting process wasn’t hugely different to a live-action shoot. Most of her scenes were filmed on practical sets and opposite real actors, although the motion-capture aspect did occasionally present unusual challenges.

“Myself and Keean Johnson [who plays love interest Hugo] had a kissing scene,” she says, “and he was meant to curl my hair around my ear and bring my face to his and kiss me. But I didn’t have any hair, as it’s covered by the suit, and there’s this big boom camera sticking out from my face, so he couldn’t easily kiss me.”

Rodriguez and WETA had to shoot around the obstacle, and thought up an inventive way to replicate Salazar’s hair. “They attached a little Velcro strip section of hair onto the left side of my face, and Keean just curled that behind my ear,” she says. “There are little funny moments, little workarounds, but they don’t take much time or effort really.”

As for the mixed response to her new face, she says she would have been disappointed if people didn’t have a strong reaction. “I don’t want to make something that settles people,” she says. “The worst thing for me would have been people going, ‘Yes, I’ve seen that before, I know what that is.’”

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