ALITA BATTLE ANGEL
Alita's Battle Begins
In the 23rd Century, Earth underwent "the Fall," a shattering war that halted all
technological progress and left in its wake a society where every last shred of
tech is repurposed and the strong prey on the weak. 300 years later, the heart
of life on Earth beats in Iron City, a rich melting pot of survivors--a city
full of ordinary people and cybernetically-enhanced humans living side-by-side
in the shadow of Zalem, the last of the great Sky cities. Iron City may be an
oppressed factory town, cranking out goods for the invisible elites who live in
the sky, but it has its own color and energy, its thrills and its aspirants. And
now it is about to get an unlikely hero, a teenage cyborg who emerges from a
junkyard to discover her identity and become a source of buoyant hope.
With Alita: Battle Angel comes a total sensorial immersion into a world of
unbridled imagination, breathless action and visceral emotion. Two of today's
leading creators of game-changing movie realms, James Cameron and Robert
Rodriguez, have combined their mutual zeal for world-building and empowered
female heroines to push the possibilities of visual story-craft into a new zone.
They now invite audiences to enter directly into an intricately alive metropolis
of the future-and into the high-octane yet heartfelt mission of Alita to fulfill
her human potential-forged through an alchemical mix of evocative performances,
creative design, state-of-the-art performance-capture technology, CG imagery,
VFX and native 3D filmmaking.
The mesmerizing adventure begins as cyberphysician Dr. IDyson do makes a
scrapyard find that will change his life and Iron City forever: the discarded
"cyber-core" of a girl whose body may be broken but her human brain is still
barely pulsing with life. Ido cannot abandon her. He begins to restore this
mysterious cyborg and discovers a second chance at fatherhood-a chance to watch
her learn, grow and taste the wondrous pleasures of life for the first time with
wide-eyed excitement. But the sweet, curious girl Ido names Alita hides many
secrets. When Alita inadvertently reveals she possesses unique long lost
fighting skills, it becomes clear she must carve out her own destiny. For even
if the art of the battle was long ago hardwired into her, Alita must discover in
her soul the reasons to fight.
Based on the graphic novel series by Yukito Kishiro, Alita: Battle Angel
re-imagines a mythical post-apocalyptical world as a photo-real city full not
only of behemoth cyborgs, furiously fast sports spectacles and dark justice but
also of compelling human stories. For the filmmakers and the cast of
award-winners and new discoveries-including Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz,
Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and newcomer
Keean Johnson-bringing it to life was an exhilarating ride.
Producer Jon Landau, who previously partnered with Cameron on Titanic and Avatar
and has been shepherding Alita as the film's hands-on producer from the very
start, says: "We hope we've created a new experience for audiences, one that
lets you experience the thrill of the movies all over again."
Adds one of the film's visual effects supervisors, Richard Hollander, part of a
huge, tirelessly inventive team of designers, artists and digital experimenters
who devoted uncountable man-hours to building the bones of Alita's world to give
her life: "Alita: Battle Angel pushes a character to a place that's pretty
unique in film history. You not only come to believe in Alita as a human being,
but you really get to feel like you are part of her experiences in this rich,
new world of Iron City."
Plunging the audience full-bore into Alita's deeply felt experiences of beauty
and chaos after being reborn in Ido's clinic was always central to Cameron's
vision of the film. That idea continued to be a lodestar as Rodriguez took the
reins to realize Cameron's vision with his own irrepressible energy and a crack
team drawn from both their companies-as well as from the award-winning Weta
Digital, which takes the performance-capture technology they pioneered on Avatar
to new heights here.
Rodriguez notes that what you see on the screen in Alita: Battle Angel is a
result of many combined imaginations synching up, but most of all it is meant to
be Alita's vision of Iron City.
"You see this story through Alita's eyes, eyes that have an innocence to them
and see the beauty in things," Rodriguez says. "We set out to create something
that feels very tactile, that's immersive, that has unexpected moments, all the
things you anticipate in a Jim Cameron movie. What's amazing is that Jim has
been working on Alita since 1999, but even now, nobody has made anything like
it. Making it finally happen has been an incredible process of collaboration."
The fervor, risk-taking and fusing of mind and machine, that drove the making of
Alita echo what Alita discovers about pouring your all into what you do. "At its
core, this is the story of a girl who gets a second chance at life," says
Rodriguez, "and decides this time it will be about following her heart."
Alita Falls From The Sky
James Cameron first fell under the spell of the mysterious Alita almost two
decades ago, long before he directed the barrier-shattering 2009 3D science
fiction-adventure blockbuster Avatar, which has set the bar for cinematic
world-building ever since. In the late 90s, fellow filmmaker and global cinema
connoisseur Guillermo Del Toro recommended to Cameron a short anime film based
on the nine-volume, cyberpunk Manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. Del Toro
suspected it was right up Cameron's alley.
Indeed, the brew of a fresh vision of the future mixed with thunderous action
and themes of exploration, curiosity, self-discovery and a yearning for freedom
ignited something in Cameron. He saw in the tale of a young amnesiac cyborg a
universal story of discovery and identity and what really matters. The
attraction was more the humanity of the story than its 26th Century setting. "I
had an emotional reaction to it. I reacted to it especially strongly because my
oldest daughter was young at the time and I saw in it a great female empowerment
story," Cameron says. "Then I started checking out the books and realized
Kishiro had created this an incredibly rich, detailed world full of cinematic
Cameron felt the intricacy of Iron City, this fallen technopolis, could be the
ultimate sandbox in which to play with cinematic ideas he'd long hoped to
explore, blending the bleeding edge of digital tools with the art of epic, human
storytelling. He began a script, fusing story elements from the first four Alita
books, and bringing in co-writer Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island). In addition
to the script, Cameron drafted 600 pages of wide-ranging notes on each of the
characters and the life and even the physics of Iron City. He began working with
a team of conceptual artists to produce early sketches that became legendary for
their photo-real designs that would surely test the limits of computer-enhanced
The history of Iron City, and the gleaming presence of the paradisiacal Zalem
looming over it, so close yet ever unattainable, was rich with metaphors."The
story takes place 300 years after a huge war has devastated the planet and a
plague weapon left only a tiny percentage of human survivors," Cameron explains.
"Most survivors streamed towards the one remaining sky city, Zalem, the apex of
civilization at the time. But Iron City remained as essentially a giant refugee
camp. It's full of all these people trying to get to Zalem, to get to the land
of opportunity and dreams that they can see but always seems just of reach."
Life in Iron City also intrigued Cameron-this world in which cybernetic body
parts are routinely melded with human bodies and brains to create cyborgs of all
shapes, sizes and abilities. (Cyborgs are not robots; they're humans enhanced by
biotechnological components built into the body.) Today, the cutting edge of
medical prosthetics research is pioneering new ways for the human brain to both
directly control and sense artificial limbs. But what if the fusion of mind and
machine was to make such a quantum leap that it could grant humans the promise
not just of restoration but of total reinvention?
"It began because people had to replace limbs due to the effects of the
worldwide plague," Cameron explains. "Then, it became a normal way of life for
people to have replacement parts. There are no bad connotations to being a
cyborg-it can even be a sign of wealth. The highest-end cyborgs are what are
known as TRs or Total Replacements. That's when all you have left is an organic,
human brain but your entire body has been replaced by parts that are stronger,
faster, whatever you aspire to."
Kishiro had, from the very birth of Alita, believed we're already living in an
early iteration of a machine-reliant cyborg society. "Even before the internet,
we couldn't live without electricity or technology, which makes us similar to
cyborgs," observes Kishiro. "We just accept it and try to live our lives, as
cyborgs do in Iron City. I think it only puts the emphasis on how can we be more
Even when a cyborg's body has been damaged beyond repair, the human brain can
live on and be connected to a new body, which is why Dr. Ido is able to save
Alita. But the fact that Alita has no clue who she is, where she comes from, or
what her life story is, sparked Cameron's imagination further.
"When Ido rebuilds her, Alita has no memory. She's completely open and curious
about a world that's new to her," says Cameron. "But as she finds out more about
herself, she becomes a more complex character, one who is not only looking for
who she was but must decide who she wants to be."
Alita's innate fearlessness, programmed into her long ago when she was built on
the human space colony known as URM (United Republic of Mars), became the
catalyst for deepening her character. "Alita has no fear for herself. It doesn't
matter how big or menacing an opponent, she just goes right at it. Now that's a
hard character to write because you have to find a vulnerability," Cameron says.
"I came to realize her true vulnerability is that even though she'll never fear
for herself, she does fear for the people she loves. So the story became about
Alita's bonds, betrayals and all she learns about human nature."
Landau recalls that Cameron's draft was a starkly emotional read. "At its heart
were two love stories: a love story between Alita and Ido, the father figure who
rebuilt her, and a love story between Alita and Hugo, a street kid and cyborg
jacker who never thought he'd fall in love with a cyborg."
Ardent fans couldn't wait for Cameron to tackle the Manga. But by the mid-2000s
Cameron stood at a fateful crossroads: forced to choose between his two
creations, to go all-in on either Alita or Avatar. It goes without saying that
he took the path of Avatar, sensing the technology was ready to be pushed where
he needed it to go. But the exponential leap that followed would also make Alita
Cameron never stopped dreaming about giving life to Alita. Yet the worldwide
hunger for Avatar sequels kept him expanding that universe and he saw no clear
space for Alita on the horizon. It wasn't until one day when he was talking with
his good friend Robert Rodriguez that it came to him that he would feel
comfortable passing Alita on into the right hands-into say, Rodriguez's hands.
Cameron and Rodriguez often had stimulating conversations about cinematic
techniques, but now Cameron had the idea of going further, of inviting his
friend to be creative partner on this project he held so closely.
"It happened in a split second when I thought, 'I would let go of Alita for
Robert.' He has the energy, the creativity, he's done tons of effects stuff,
he's great with kick-ass action, and I also felt he could tap into some of that
outrageous sensibility that Battle Angel occasionally needs."
Sensing a passing of the torch, Cameron sent Rodriguez his script. Recalls
Cameron, "Robert called me a couple days later and said, 'Man, I've got to make
Lightstorm Meets Troublemaker
While Cameron is renown for some of cinema's most sweeping epics, from
Terminator to Titanic to Avatar, Rodriguez cut his teeth in the indie world by
making madly inventive, hyper-vivid action thrillers on lean-and-mean budgets,
often writing, directing and shooting them himself. After gaining acclaim with
the micro-budget El Mariachi at age 23, he continued cultivating his creative
freedom and high-energy style on such hits as Desperado, Once Upon a Time in
Mexico, Sin City, Machete and Planet Terror, as well as becoming an early 3D
innovator with the Spy Kids series of family films.
There was little doubt that he had the kind of extreme commitment to vision
required but Alita: Battle Angel would take Rodriguez into a whole new scale of
production. It would also take him to his very favorite place: way outside even
his wide-open comfort zone.
A long-time fan of the Kishiro books, Rodriguez says he was hankering for
Cameron to make the movies. "I'd been dreaming about it and waiting for it," he
muses. Yet, when Cameron asked him to step into those shoes and realize the
dream on his behalf, it was irresistable. Rodriguez loved how the initial script
took the world Kishiro created and, while staying true to the spirit of it,
translated it into a Cameronesque tale of love and adventure. "I identified with
Alita. I identified with Hugo. I identified with all the characters-and that's
what Jim does amazingly well," he says.
The meticulous work Cameron and team had already done gave Rodriguez a home base
from which to blast off in his own way."Jim's thing is making sure even the most
sci-fi elements believably work," says Rodriguez. "He'd already figured out how
every part of Iron City would operate from an engineering POV. So from the
start, nothing felt imaginary. It was ready to come to life."
Every frame of art Rodriguez saw, from the sun-washed, color-splashed streets of
Iron City to the cyborgs whose machine bodies were infused with human qualities
of charm, humor and hubris, spoke to him. The chance to play with all the tech
Cameron, Lightstorm and Weta had invented for Avatar-the facial performance
capture system, the Simulcam system for superimposing digital characters onto
actors in real-time, the 3D Fusion Camera system and more-was also a strong
magnet for Rodriguez.
A playful innovator who enjoyed blowing past conventional boundaries from the
start, Rodriguez had already been a 3D pioneer-his Spy Kids 3D became the first
all-digital movie in 2003, Now, he was like a kid let loose in the ultimate
cinematic candy store. "Tech has always been a big part of what I do," says
Rodriguez. "But with this film, I knew I would have a chance to go exponentially
further because Jim has already innovated so many different technologies for
visualizing, pre-visualizing and making 3D films. I took it as a real chance to
learn. I knew I'd be really challenged, which I thought was fantastic."
Throughout the process, Rodriguez says, he was hoping to channel a whole lot of
Cameron. "I tried to ground the story in reality the way he does. I tried to
honor his style because that's what I always wanted: to see Jim Cameron's Alita."
As the project got underway, a constant flow of ideas and knowledge passed
back-and-forth between the two men, as each compelled the other to up the
So too was forged a catalytic merger of the minds between Rodriguez's
Austin-based Troublemaker Studios and Cameron's Manhattan Beach-based Lightstorm
Entertainment. Landau notes that this cross-pollination inspired everyone: "We
learned from Troublemaker while Robert learned a lot from the team of artists
who had worked on Avatar that we've had long had around us at Lightstorm
Entertainment. It was a just a great, creative symbiosis between our groups."
Life imitated art and vice versa as this movie about human-machine interfaces
incited hundreds of artists to head for the edges where live action and digital
filmmaking fuse into one aesthetic.
Cameron was gratified to see Rodriguez tackle the project with all the gusto and
gutsiness he knew he'd bring. "It's been exciting to watch because I can see
Robert loves the process, he loves the technology, he loves the design elements,
and he's insanely collaborative," says Cameron. "He was very respectful of
Kishiro's world and also of what I had written, yet not afraid to make it his
own. I wanted to give him as much space as he needed creatively and I was
emphatic about that from the beginning."
In early days, Rodriguez decided he would build from scratch the heart of Iron
City-later to be extended digitally into a full-scale metropolis- on
Troublemaker's backlot, by far the most ambitious build in its history. "I
wanted to build the first level of the city, the old bones of the city, and then
Weta could take it the rest of the way up. I loved that I could step out of my
office and be in Iron City."
When Yukito Kishiro visited the set, he could not believe where his hand-drawn
Manga had led. The moment was dizzyingly surreal as he walked entrancing streets
that once existed only in his mind's eye. "It was truly like a dream," says
Kishiro. "I'm so honored by what James and Robert created."
Embodying the Characters
When Alita re-awakens to a brand-new life in Iron City, she goes through a
series of intense transformations. She begins as a nearly blank-slate, devoid of
memories, so that even the sour tang of an orange peel electrifies her taste
receptors. With no clear identity, she wonders if she is just an "insignificant
girl" who has no real purpose, no real family, even as she begins to forge
fledgling bonds. Then, when she discovers the body that was intended to be hers-
the so-called Berserker body that has faculties the likes of which Iron City has
never seen, Alita has to contend with a whole different idea of her destiny.
Ultimately, Alita realizes she is definitely not going to be an insignificant
girl, and she refuses to be just the weapon of destruction that the Berserker
body was created for. Instead, she turns herself into a passion-fueled
instrument for justice.
A massive casting search ensued to find someone who could embody all this-a
diminutive person with a mammoth persona, with both high-flying moves and the
sheer force of a bright and openhearted spirit. There were no particular
criteria as Alita. As Kishiro wrote in the Manga, Iron City is not so much a
nation as a last outpost of humanity; and Alita herself was born in a human
colony on Mars. What mattered most was believability. After all, tiny Alita must
stand up to 13-foot tall cyborg brutes, so the audience had to trust not only in
her battle virtuosity but in her growing confidence and determination to both
understand the vastness of her power and use it wisely.
After endless casting calls, the film's Alita revealed herself in Rosa Salazar,
the Canadian-born Cuban-American who has been seen in the Insurgent and Maze
Runner series and in the thriller Bird Box. Here, she would have to carry an
entire movie on her shoulders, but everyone intuited she would rise to the
challenge. Cameron recalls: "It's almost impossible to quantify just how big the
reaction was that Robert and I had to Rosa. She brought such heart and vitality
to every moment. I've never seen anything like it."
Adds Rodriguez: "It's like a dream when someone walks in the door and you see
that thing you were looking for that you couldn't even describe. That's what
happened with Rosa. It was magic."
The massive search ground to a halt in an instant, explains Landau. "Once we saw
Rosa, there was nobody else in our minds who could ever play the part. She
brought such a purity and joie de vivre to her performance. And while she can
make you believe in the crazy strength of the Berserker Alita, no matter what
she is doing, Rosa never loses sight of the compassion that makes Alita so
Salazar knew she'd be walking a tightrope in the role-so she thrived on the
safety net provided by Cameron and Rodriguez. "Jim explained all the
nut-and-bolts of Alita to me, but also, Jim has such tenderness towards Alita
and that gave me a lot of insight. And with Robert I felt an immediate artistic
and human connection," she says. "He's so energetic and always creating, yet his
demeanor is calm. When he listens to you, he really hears you. I always felt my
words had weight with him."
Months before production began, Salazar leapt into intensive training, studying
the demanding arts of Wushu, Muay Thai and Kung Fu, and honing her inline
skating repertoire as well. "The training almost killed me," she admits. "I had
to get my endurance way up, build lots of strength and start to think like a
regimented warrior. A lot of it was learning the forms, harnessing that energy
Though Salazar did some of her own stunt work, the overwhelming complexity of
the shoot necessitated having up to nine different "stunt Alitas" in play,
including world-class gymnasts and contortionists. "Alita kicks a lot of ass and
she kicks the asses of huge, enhanced cyborgs," Salazar muses. "What I like
about her fierceness is that I think it gives girls permission to realize you
can be both soft and brave, you can express your emotions but also be determined
never to let evil win."
Things notch up further when Alita finds her Berserker body-a sleek, iridescent
work of biomechanical art with a complex network of neuronal connections that
morphs to her subconsicous. "Alita's body change is a kind of metaphor," says
Salazar. "She's starts out as an awkward teen, then she becomes a strong,
capable young woman with the Berserker body. When she does, it's like, 'Finally.
This is my true skin.'"
Alita comes to feel deeply grateful to Dr. Ido, the brilliant cyberphysician who
uses his medical training to help the needy of Iron City, even while prowling
the night as a hunter-warrior. It is Ido who, in trying to assuage his own
emotional pain over the loss of his own daughter, gives Alita a warm, loving
home where she is free to explore her true self. As a father, Rodriguez related
to Ido. "I identified with Ido trying in some ways to control her but also
learning to trust her and let her go, believing that she will make the right
choices," he says.
Rodriguez had one actor in mind for the poignant action role: two-time Academy
Award-winner Christoph Waltz. Though Waltz has a way with the sinister, here
his character is driven by decency. Rodriguez liked the idea of pairing Waltz
with a scientist character. "When Christoph says something very technical, you
listen to every word, and it doesn't sound technical anymore. So, I thought we
have to get this guy. I could never imagine another person playing Ido, so we
got lucky that he agreed to do it."
"Christoph can say a thousand words with a single facial expression," comments
Landau. "He brings to Ido a mix of compassion with intellect that is going to be
relatable for audiences all over the world."
Waltz was convinced via conversations with Cameron. "We talked a lot about this
being the story of a father coming to terms with his daughter's independence,
realizing he can't always protect her. And I think that's what most excited
Christoph about the role," Cameron explains.
Iron City also held an allure for Waltz, as a warning. "I found it to be an
attentive observation of a society where there's no room for civility, where
everybody's out for himself," Waltz says.
Waltz says another draw was the fact that Alita: Battle Angel felt so opposite
to the kind of movies to which he's usually drawn, and he liked making a
complete left turn from the expected. "I like Robert's whole approach to
moviemaking because it's on the other side of the spectrum from where I am as
more of a traditionalist. He's a master of the digital way of shooting movies,
which is a whole different mindset for me. But I found it is simply a completely
different art form in its own right."
Once he settled into the process, Waltz made a very deep human link with
Salazar, which became a linchpin of the entire production. "What Ido and Alita
go through had to feel real," says Salazar. "They go through all of the moments
that a father and daughter go through: the struggling, the love, that moment of
the bird leaving the nest. And it had to all based on love like any real
father-daughter relationship. It's something really beautiful: Alita replaces a
piece of Ido's broken heart and in return he gives her life. I felt so lucky
because Christoph has such a raw, innate ability to take on characters. We had
these amazing conversations together and he inspired me the whole way."
Just as vital to Alita's evolution is her first love Hugo, who unlike Alita, is
highly adapted to life in Iron City as a non-enhanced human. He has honed his
self-reliance to a sharp edge, to the point that it's a revelation to him to
learn to live for somebody else. Casting Hugo was another crux for the
production. Audition after audition left the filmmakers unconvinced until
newcomer Keean Johnson came in and nailed the essence of the character.
"Keean captured just the right balance between vulnerability and the toughness
that allows Hugo to survive. Watching this young man mature into a refined actor
over the course of production has been really exciting and he's added so much to
the feeling of the movie," says Landau.
"It was hard to find someone who could match Rosa's intensity and focus," notes
Rodriguez. "Keean felt very much like the kid in the Manga: a wide-eyed dreamer
with a cool, mysterious quality to him, but he also came through with the
emotionality. More than that, he brought something out in Rosa. And then she
brought more out in him. There was that classic chemistry between them."
Right away, Johnson felt a link to Hugo's tenacity, as he keeps aiming at his
sky-high dreams no matter how impossible. "Hugo's had to be a hustler to survive
in this tough, tough world," he observes. "He could have gone the route his
father did as a factory worker, but he's driven by the hope of getting to Zalem,
which has led him to do things he isn't proud of. Even so, there's a lot of good
to Hugo. He's passionate, open-minded and when he puts his mind to something, he
expects to accomplish it."
As it turns out, Hugo is also a "jacker," an Iron City outlaw who takes
cybernetic body parts by force-a dark truth he tries to keep from Alita. "Hugo
believes jacking is his way to Zalem, but when he falls in love with Alita, he
is no longer sure if Zalem is worth it to him," says Johnson.
Hugo certainly doesn't expect to fall for a cyborg, but Alita's exuberance about
the world is intoxicating. When he teaches her to play street Motorball, only to
watch her excel beyond his wildest fantasies, his heart takes off racing. "Motorball
is Hugo's game, so when he sees her incredible talent, it blows him away. But he
also sees such a pure soul in Alita," Johnson comments.
Johnson says his connection with Salazar felt organic from day one. "Rosa and
I really vibed off each other. We were friends from the start and we had these
incredible talks that cemented our bond."
Hugo may not have the enhanced physicality of a cyborg, but he has his own
skills. He knows every secret alley and shortcut in Iron City. Then there's
Hugo's gyrobike, an amped-up, aggressive, single-wheeled version of a
motorcycle. "When I first saw it, I thought it was the coolest thing ever,"
Johnson confesses. "I assumed I'd be doing that on a green screen, but when they
put me on a rig that could move by remote-control any way I leaned, it made the
role that much more fun. The whole production was designed to immerse the actors
so far into this world."
The more Alita reveals about who she is, the more she also develops enemies
across Iron City. One of the first to recoil in her presence is Dr. Ido's
ex-wife, Chiren, also a skilled cyberphysician, but one who has turned grief
into the pursuit of money and power in the high-stakes world of Motorball.
Chiren is aghast to see that the body Ido used to give Alita a new chance at
life was the one they designed for their now-deceased daughter.
Taking the role of a complicated woman running from pain and seeking a way home
is Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly.
Connelly views Chiren as longing for a path back to joy."She was born in Zalem
so she sees returning there as a kind of magic balm for her life, a way to
escape her memories of grief and loss in Iron City. She wants to be transported
away with every part of her being and there's no way she's going to surrender to
existence in Iron City. Her extreme drive is a measure of her desperation and
In an indelible moment, Chiren's iced-over heart almost cracks when she first
catches sight of Alita. "She sees this intricately carved, beautiful cyborg body
Ido had made for their daughter...only it's not their daughter she sees," notes
Connelly. "Chiren immediately perceives Alita as a threat because she brings up
all this pain she doesn't want to confront. And she also starts to realize that
Alita is going to disrupt Iron City and challenge all the institutions that
still exist there."
Yet, Chiren cannot fully hold at bay the feelings Alita spurs in her."There are
emotions she can't deny anymore. She experiences something like a thaw when she
realizes she's trying to kill someone who looks like her deceased daughter. It's
a moment when Chiren recognizes she's become all that she abhors," says
Connelly. "And from that moment forward, things move in a different direction."
Chiren has allied herself with one of the darkest forces in Iron City: Vector,
who has amassed great influence as the city's top broker of cyborg parts.
Mahershala Ali was cast as Vector before he had won a Best Supporting Actor
Oscar for Moonlight. "I always felt we needed somebody really charismatic,
because all the street kids look up to Vector," says Rodriguez. "Mahershala
impressed me already in 2010's Predators, and we watched as he grew more and
Vector, who is 100% human, views himself as an elite and looks down upon the
striving masses of Iron City. "Vector has fully absorbed that only way to win in
Iron City is to prey upon the weak," Ali explains. "He'd rather be a king in
hell than be at the bottom of the totem pole in heaven."
His need to stay on top makes Alita an immediate adversary. "Vector will do
anything in his power to not lose his status," says Ali. "He craves control, and
Alita's way too much of a wild card."
Still, though Vector lives better than most in Iron City, the truth is that he's
given up his freedom in exchange, allowing himself to be overtaken by the
mysterious Nova, an entity on Zalem with the ability to inhabit Vector's body.
"Vector is a villain but it turns out he's really just following orders," notes
Ali. "The plans are all being dictated by Nova and Vector is sadly just his
Alita soon learns she is not the only cyborg in Iron City. In fact, large
portions of Iron City's denizens have cyborg parts. Even cyborg dogs roam the
streets. But what she does not know is that she will become the target of the
city's most feared cyborgs, including the colossal Grewishka. A fallen star of
the Motorball games, raised in the sewers of Iron City, Grewishka has never
known anything but darkness and fighting for whatever he can get, which along
with his super-charged frame of parts, makes him the ultimate henchman for
Vector. His body goes through several iterations: growing larger and larger each
time he must be rebuilt, becoming a massive metal gargoyle, but always plastered
with his synthetic face, a reminder of the human within.
The casting of Grewishka was unexpected, as Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley,
not a behemoth himself, took the role. It was Haley's ability to make
Grewishka's roiling persona real that interested Rodriguez. "Grewishka could be
this big, dumb brute, but Jackie gives him a lot of color and pain. People can't
believe this huge presence is Jackie, but you see Jackie in all the nuances,"
Haley found empathy for Grewishka. "He's had this horrible, tortured life,"
Haley explains. "The only way that he actually derives happiness is through
having this enormous, powerful body and the only way he can find self-esteem is
by abusing others. That psychology runs deep in him."
Also posing a grave danger to Alita is the total replacement cyborg Zapan, with
his sleek, high-tech body replete with synthetic skin. Bringing Zapan to life is
Ed Skrein, known for such roles as Daario Naharis in Game of Thrones and Ajax in
Deadpool. "Ed is just so swaggery," says Rodriguez. "As far as he wanted to go,
I would say go further and we just had a gas. Zapan is one of my favorite
designs, too, because he looks like a Porsche. He's so ornamented up."
Sharp as his wit is, Zapan is most renowned for his Damascus Blade, an ancient
URM-built sword that can slice through armor like butter. Skrein could not help
but be intrigued by the hunter-warrior's vanity. "Zapan is an ostentatious,
almost theatrical person," he describes. "Most hunter-warriors are dirty and
rusty, but Zapan prides himself on his ornate body. He's a dangerous mix of ego
Weta Digital and The Frontier of the Human Face
No decision was needed to bring Weta Digital on board Alita: Battle Angel; it
was simply a given. From the lush wonders of Pandora in Avatar to Gollum in Lord
of the Rings to the sentient primates of Planet of the Apes, Weta has propelled
nearly every performance-capture milestone of the last two decades. In
particular, spurred largely by Cameron's aspirations for Avatar, Weta has
revolutionized real-time digital capture of the human face, allowing for an
actor's natural expressions to be fully mapped and translated-the stuff of raw
emotions intact-into CG animation. They remain the leaders of the field.
Says Cameron, "Weta still does the best facial animation of anybody out
there-the most human, the most alive, the most emotional. So many other houses
are trying to catch up, but Weta remains in front. I knew they had to do Alita,
because you have to believe in her even in the tightest close-ups."
Weta has kept surging forward since Avatar. Every aspect of their distinctive
process has progressed, from more efficient workflows to more versatile digital
lighting to an improved ability to simulate muscles and skin. This was all vital
to infusing Salazar's performance into Alita's CG body and to blending the
blistering action and emotional drama that had to feel equally real in the
Senior visual effects supervisor for Weta Joe Letteri elaborates: "What Jim did
that was so prescient on Avatar was to break down the barrier between live
action and digital filmmaking, showing that they could integrate in ways no one
had previously attempted. On this film we're taking that integration even
further because we're in a live action world that has digital characters brought
Weta's knowledge and command of the human face has also become deeper with every
production, reaching a new zenith with Alita. "I've worked with digital faces on
many films, but I've never seen faces like these," says animation supervisor
Mike Cozens, who also worked on Avatar.
For Alita, Weta orchestrated a new level of CG facial sophistication. Explains
Eric Saindon, visual effects supervisor for Weta and a two-time Oscar nominee
for The Hobbit series: "We're now able to work at the level of the facial
musculature-so it's no longer about just moving the surface skin but moving the
underlying muscles. You can see it in how the movements of Alita's face look so
much like Rosa's. We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours just working with
Alita's mouth, because what makes even a big action scene work is getting the
most human expressions and Rosa has a very expressive face."
He continues: "We're also constantly working on the performance capture system
to get higher and higher fidelity, so there are many little subtleties you see
in Alita that you wouldn't have seen in Avatar or Planet of the Apes. It's those
little natural details that create that extra feeling of life."
There was also zero doubt going in that the film would be shot in native 3D.
"The best 3D is native 3D, you can't just convert it later," says Cameron.
"Luckily, Robert had shot native 3D before, so he was completely familiar with
the rigs and how they work."
Rodriguez was indeed familiar with the basics, but he was exhilarated by how
systems have leapt ahead. "The advances have been incredible over the last few
years. I even forgot at times we were shooting with 3D cameras on Alita because
they don't slow you down at all anymore," he says.
Both Cameron and Rodriguez share the view that 3D is just another tool in the
filmmaker's toolbox-a powerfully immersive tool but still in service to the
storytelling. Editor Stephen Rivkin, an Oscar nominee for Avatar, sums up: "Jim
has always maintained that 3D must be an element of the story and not the star
of the story."
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