BURBANK – On a sunny afternoon in early January, the visual effects team of “Alita: Battle Angel” reunited – along with teams from other Disney and 20th Century Fox films – to discuss their potentially Oscar-nominated work. The next day these four gentlemen would discover “Alita” tied for the most 2020 VES Awards nominations with “The Lion King.” At this moment though, they were discussing the years of work that led to a fan favorite while taking a break from years of work from another James Cameron production, the “Avatar” sequel.”
When asked if the WETA and Lighstorm team were knee-deep in the long-awaited return to Pandora, Visual Effects Supervisor Richard Banehan laughed and replied, “F**king knee-deep would be more appropriate. We are fully submerged.”
Still, the quartet including Banehan, Animation Supervisor Mike Cozens, VFX Supervisor Richard Hollander and Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Saindon were happy to revisit a film that has a fervent fanbase. In fact, it’s a fanbase that will take any opportunity to try and convince the Walt Disney Company, which acquired “Alita” in its purchase of 20th Century Fox, to greenlight a sequel. For Saindon, the reason he believes fans have connected to it so much is that it sticks so closely to the art of its creator, Yukito Kishiro.
“You read the manga and you can see Alita and you see the same Alita in the film,” Saindon says. “And that’s what a lot of the talk is about, right? It’s how they always pictured her as a live-action character, and it’s how they saw her coming to life. And a lot of that is obviously design and how the look of her came to the screen. But a lot of it is also how Rosa was able to interpret that and bring that character to Alita, how she was able to become Alita and give a performance that really worked for Alita.”
The Rosa he references is actress Rosa Salazar, who not only voices the title character but performed the role in live-action through motion-capture. As the conversation with the artists continues, it’s clear they are almost limitless in their praise of her work.
“Even though you have multiple artists touching it, you want them to do it in a sympathetic way to Rosa’s choices,” Baneham says. “So it’s incredibly important that we protect those moments, those little tiny micro-expressions. And that’s what brings it to life. It’s the division between texts, subtexts and in a monologue. How do we make the actor seem present? How do we make the character seem like they’re engaged and on onscreen the whole time? And if we do it properly, you forget that she’s CG.”
Initially, there was some concern from fans when the first trailer debuted in Dec. 2017 that her eyes didn’t look quite right. At the Visual Effects Oscar “bake-off” a few days earlier, Banehan joked to the attendees that Cameron’s response was something akin to “f**k it,” but the team spent the time to get it right.
“There was too much white around her eyes, too much sclera showing,” Saindon notes. “So what Rosa was delivering as a performance wasn’t coming through quite right and it made her look a little bit off because there was too much white around her eyes. You were getting a different performance and Alita didn’t look quite right and that’s why it wasn’t quite there yet.”
Baneham adds, “Growing the iris and having a footprint occupation on the eyes so that we read the emotional intention. Again, above all else, it’s our job to get [her] emotion on screen.”
Looking back at the finished film, Hollander immediately could reference the moment he knew the CG Alita was going to succeed. He recalls, “When we shot the scene with Rosa and Ido [Christoph Waltz] and she grabs the orange and she bites through the peel her face goes, ‘Argh!’ and makes that crazy face that my kids have done when they did that for the first time. When we shot that I went, ‘Holy crap, how are we ever going to make this work?’ Her face is doing some weird-ass s**t. When we saw that rendered for the first time with the orange and everything. And I said, ‘Wow, it’s going to work and we’re going to make this look awesome. And it’s going to be Rosa.'”
Of course, for anyone associated with the production is the constant question of whether a sequel will happen or not. None of the artists on hand had a clue if it would, but they absolutely believed the potential was there to take a bigger leap in Alita’s story on the big screen.
“For me, the background material from Kishiro is so fantastic that I would want to do that,” Hollander says of working on a second film. “I would also want to see it because that story as it goes on, this is just the setup and the story is really amazing and deep and the fun.”
Baneham notes, “By the end of the first movie, she’s only found herself.”
Hollander adds, “And the premise has been so well set up from that standpoint. And there’s a lot to be seen and I know that’s what the fan base is [hoping for] as well.”
“Alita: Battle Angel” is available for digital download.