ALITA BATTLE ANGEL
Production Information (Cont'd)
Building Iron City
From the earliest stages of imagining Alita, James Cameron had a vision of
putting audiences inside the tumult of Iron City, a 26th Century city reeling
from war 300 years prior and but also pulsing with life. He always envisioned a
deeply layered place of abundant contrasts, at once a cyborg-filled Wild West of
rampant crime and bounty hunters, but also a place where Alita experiences the
thrill of discovery, love, elation, street life and the inspiration to change
the city for the better. No matter how tough times have become in Iron City, the
human instinct for fun, for art, for achievement and for joy still runs rampant.
"Iron City is the place that people have come from all over the world to find
sanctuary. So it's an ad hoc kind of slum superimposed on the high-tech world
that existed there before the war. It's dangerous but it also has this amazing,
chaotic energy," says Cameron.
Iron City also evokes a whole history of evolution and devolution, with hints of
sophisticated technology falling into disarray. "You can feel the disparity
between the technology that was created before the war but is still in use, and
the living conditions that people now endure," says Cameron.
For technical reasons to do with Zalem's seemingly "magical ability to hover in
the sky above the bustling and teeming iron city and the space elevator that
once connected it to earth, Cameron chose to present Iron City as an equatorial
city, somewhere in South America, though more a melting pot than representative
of a singular nation. That concept hit home with Rodriguez. "Kishiro didn't set
Alita in Asia," he notes. "He had Kansas in mind, but years ago Jim realized
that for scientific engineering reasons, Iron City would realistically have to
be closer to an equator. I loved that because it instantly gives you more color
and richness than you've seen in a sci-fi story. Iron City isn't dreary and
gray. It's inviting, vibrant and full of diversity."
The construction of Iron City began on paper, with the production's voluminous
concept art started a decade ago. Ben Procter and Dylan Cole, co-production
designers on the Avatar sequels, took on the challenge of serving as concept
design supervisors for Alita: Battle Angel. Says Procter: "The mandate for Iron
City was to bring out lots of energy, intensity, street art and the feel of
classic, timeless architecture melded with influences from the high-tech world
before the Fall."
Adds Cole: "It was important to us that Iron City have a futuristic culture
unlike any you've seen before. We've seen so much rain-slicked, neon-lit sci-fi
and the fact is, you can't top Blade Runner in that regard. So we wanted a
completely different kind of tone. We've created a dusty, sundrenched look for
Iron City that suggests that life goes on in this place despite the oppression
people are living under."
The concept art moved all who had the chance to see it, but the task of turning
these bold and lyrical paintings into functional sets on the backlot of
Troublemaker Studio was going to be massive. That's why Rodriguez brought in a
team that has always been undaunted by any creative mission: production designer
Steve Joyner and his colleague Caylah Eddleblute, who have been working with
Rodriguez since Dust Till Dawn. Says Rodriguez: "Steve and Caylah figured out
how to turn Troublemaker's lot into a textured city that took on a life of its
own. They used secret tricks to make eight streets feel like an entire world. It
helped ground everything. It anchored Alita in that palpable reality that we
The pair's simpatico knowledge of Rodriguez was an advantage. "We knew going in
that Robert is all about depth. We knew he would want a city that seems to go on
forever," says Joyner. "So we knew we had to create an intricate network of
streets, allies and corridors that all interconnect. Ultimately, the sets were
so complex there were nooks and crannies even Caylah and I didn't know were
The sets demanded all manner of logistical parameters-each space had to be
constructed to accommodate the unwieldy performance-capture process. But the
main focus was on something else: to generate an environment visceral enough to
transport the actors to a fresh reality.
Joyner and Eddleblute's approach to the future boiled down to one phrase: "What
does the future look like? It looks like the past with the future layered over
it." Eddleblute elaborates: "Times change, but many things stay the same. The
film is sets hundreds of years in the future, but if you look back at life 400
years before today, people still sat in a chair to eat breakfast in the morning,
just as we do. So we thought a lot about using everyday objects to make Alita's
world feel accessible and relatable to us now."
Joyner and Eddleblute began forging this imaginary realm by researching Panama
and Cuba, taking in the colonial architecture, the cosmopolitan vibe, the
barrios and the fusion of modernity and history. Then, they imagined what would
happen if a South American city was suddenly jam-packed with people from every
corner of the globe. "Because so many people came to Iron City from all over
after the war, it had to feel like an amalgamation of cultures blending
together," says Joyner.
When it came time to erect the city, they enlisted more than 200 carpenters,
painters, plasterers and craftspeople to join them in Austin for an
unprecedented adventure. "This kind of build happens once in a career," notes
Joyner," and it felt like an amazing gift to share that."
Landau recalls Alita creator Kishiro's first visit to the set. "Kishiro is a man
of very few spoken words, but when he walked out on the set of Iron City, the
smile on his face said more than any words could."
One of the first locations audiences encounter in Alita: Battle Angel is the
scrapyard where Dr. Ido spies the discarded Alita. As the origin moment of the
entire fabled story, it needed to have a tinge of the mythic to it, so Joyner
and Eddleblute carefully built the scrapyard out of metal and mechanical
detritus sourced at a military salvage yard in San Antonio. "We brought in huge
crates of various scales of scrap from chunks of metal to the finest material
that literally could fall like rain," says Eddleblute.
Ido's clinic and lab have a decidedly cludged together, low tech feeling. "It's
an open space that was once a hotel or bank lobby," describes Joyner. "Now it
serves as everything to Ido: his living quarters, office, kitchen and surgical
suite all in one room, which is a very Central American thing to do, and also
again gives Robert that thing he loves most: depth!"
Chiren's lab contrasts starkly with Ido's lab, highlighting the split in their
philosophies: he turned his grief towards helping others while she has focused
on gaining power and leaving Iron City behind once and for all. "Ido's clinic is
rough and tumble, while Chiren is getting top dollar for her work," says
Eddleblute. "She and Vector live in a penthouse where everything is top of the
line for Iron City but terribly cold feeling. It's a loveless environment, so
all the lines are very hard and severe."
Then came the Kansas Bar...the fan-favorite, hunter-warrior dive bar from the
Manga (named after the classic 70s prog-rock band), which was envisioned anew in
order to host an off-the-charts cyborg bar-fight. "The Kansas bar is canon to
the book," notes Joyner. "But in the book, the bar is underground, so we
modified that part. We were inspired by an original piece of concept art that
instead had Kansas built into the bones of an old monastery. It was another
chance to show the old and new coming together."
26th Century Action: Motorball
If there is one obsession that unites the people of Iron City it is Motorball:
the glam and brutal gladiatorial sport whose champions are the heroes of an
otherwise desperate city. The game takes place on rocket-propelled wheels, as
hulking cyborgs fitted with chains, spikes, blades and armor race at 100-mph
through the hairpin turns of a trap-filled track designed to damage cyborg
parts. Those who win at Motorball not only attain rock star status in Iron City
but a chance to ascend to Zalem forever. Jon Landau describes Motorball as
"NASCAR meets WWF meets MMA on steroids."
Everyone in Iron City watches Motorball. Kids play street Motorball, which is
how Alita is first introduced to the sport. Later, with her Berserker body,
Alita tries out for the 2nd League - the "minors" of Iron City Motorball. "It's
all new to Alita but she eventually becomes the LeBron James of Motorball," says
Salazar. "I really like that, because the cyborg guys are like, 'look at all my
bells and whistles.' And she takes them all down."
For the street Motorball sequences, the production recruited a quartet of
world-class inline skaters to take on the park-our-like moves that needed to be
captured. Still, many of the pro Motorball characters had to be almost entirely
computer-animated because there simply is no human analog for the way they move.
"Some of our characters just don't work like humans do, so you can't really even
performance-capture them," notes Richard Hollander.
Art director Todd Holland became the in-house expert on the fictional sport,
expanding from the Manga's inspiration to come up with scoring and rules. "Motorball
is not about shooting into an end goal or a hoop-it's about possession," Holland
explains. "The longer you're in possession of the ball, the more points you
score. There are seven person teams, but there is also a more cutthroat version
which is everybody pitted against each other, which is what Alita experiences in
What Alita believes will just be a low-key audition turns into an all-out,
life-or-death chase. Rodriguez had the whole team watch race car movies to
inspire the scene's whiplash camerawork but once things fly off the track, there
were no precursors for this kind of action. "The Motorball chase is one of my
favorites," says Rodriguez. "The action's already blistering when Motorball is
just a game, but things quickly turn from a game to a hunt sequence as the
cyborgs try to annihilate Alita."
Action, from the otherworldly Panzer Kunst martial art form designed for zero-g
combat to the relentlessly-paced street Motorball clashes, is woven into the
very fabric of Alita. Orchestrating it all was stunt coordinator Garrett Warren,
who has collaborated with both Cameron and Rodriguez before. "Garrett is one of
those guys who asks what you want, and then he'll quadruple it," says Rodriguez.
"That's what we needed."
Warren says veracity was the bottom line for his work-which is why nearly
everything you see on the screen began with real moves, rather than being
created digitally after the fact. "Even though Alita and the other cyborgs are
animated bodies, we still did it all for real, because it makes a big difference
to have a person tangibly kicking, leaping and being thrown around," he
explains. "Combining real stunts with performance capture technology has the
ability to take audiences places they've never been before in action sequences.
We're unlocking Pandora's box for the imagination with this way of making
Warren worked in tandem with fight choreographer Steve Brown, known for his work
on Wonder Woman. Brown was pushed to think way outside even the vast action box
as he faced such challenges as training a seven-foot-tall stunt performer to
fight on stilts in order to digitally capture Grewishka's moves.
It was also a chance for Brown to create a wildly dynamic, original fighting
style for Alita, keeping in mind that style evolved a world beyond earth's
gravity. "The idea is that the way Alita fights, her whole body becomes a
weapon. It's never about just her hand or her foot. Her body works as a unit, as
she bounces off targets, creating momentum to make more powerful strikes," Brown
Alita's style and skill also progresses through the course of the story as she
hones her self-identity. "She starts to have even more and more confidence in
her fight style. And then when she gets her Berserker body, it's like everything
just makes perfect sense, and there are few limits," says Brown.
Layering the Emotion
One of the last layers of creation added was the music, including the brand new
single "Swan Song," co-written and performed by double Grammy nominee Dua Lipa.
Says Dua Lipa of how Alita inspired her: "I see a little of myself in her, in
both her badass spirit and our shared haircut. Alita is all about empowerment
and standing up for who you are, which are two things that resonate with me."
Then there is the score by Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL, the Netherlands-born
producer who's become a close collaborator with Hans Zimmer and a go-to for
searing action. Rodriguez knew he was the one after hearing his iconic
wall-to-wall score for George Miller's non-stop Mad Max: Fury Road. "Junkie XL
is all about propulsive music," says Rodriguez. "His music can drive a huge
action sequence but also let you into the soul of a character. I felt he was
about to bring both the 'battle' and the 'angel' to Alita."
Alita was always about recombining contrasts-the battle and the angel, the real
and the digital, and also the styles of Rodriguez and Cameron. For Jennifer
Connelly, the final film is a union of both filmmakers' sensibilities. "You have
the epic scale of fantasy that we all associate with Jim but also the
playfulness, sense of fun and a little bit of the subversiveness and dark humor
of Robert," she says.
As Rodriguez put the finishing touches on a film that began nearly two decades
before as the dream of Cameron, the mood was anticipatory. After all the
visualizing, drawing, designing, rendering, performing, capturing and refining,
everyone was ready for the fully alive Alita to meet the world.
Rodriguez's only hope is that audiences emerge from theaters with an emotional
connection to Alita and the movie rather than wondering how the immediacy of
this photo-real world of the imagination was achieved. "At the center is always
Alita's human journey," he says. "And that's also what Alita realizes. She may
have lost much of her memory, but she has found her humanity, which is what
Upon viewing the finished print of Alita: Battle Angel, its originator, Yukito
Kushiro, could not have been more effusive. "I wanted to become a movie director
and make fantastic films when I was a child. Though I was not able to realize
that dream, I was able to pursue a career as a manga artist. So now seeing my
manga series turning into this brilliant film, Alita: Battle Angel, is a
dream-come-true for me. The visuals, the characters, the storytelling - all the
factors that make this film are fantastic! I can see the passion, love and
respect for my work in the film. It makes me feel that I would actually want to
live in the Iron City! And I would very much love to see more Motorball scenes!"
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