Alita: Battle Angel hits US theaters this weekend. It is a live action adaptation of a popular manga comic series, Battle Angel Alita. Dalton Duong had an opportunity to travel to Wellington, New Zealand to visit the Weta Digital studios on behalf of TechSpective and get some firsthand experience with the technologies used to transform human actors into science fiction anime characters on the big screen.
Alita: Battle Angel
Let me start with a brief synopsis of what the movie is about. The IMDB entry for the movie describes it, “A deactivated female cyborg is revived, but cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is.” That is technically an accurate description, but fairly terse and doesn’t really explain much.
The Kodansha Comics website for Battle Angel Alita has a more in-depth explanation of the Alita story:
“In a dump in the lawless settlement of Scrapyard, far beneath the mysterious space city of Zalem, disgraced cyber-doctor Daisuke Ido makes a strange find: the detached head of a cyborg woman who has lost all her memories. He names her Alita and equips her with a powerful new body, the Berserker. While Alita remembers no details of her former life, a moment of desperation reawakens in her nerves the legendary school of martial arts known as Panzer Kunst. In a place where there is no justice but what people make for themselves, Alita decides to become a hunter-killer, tracking down and taking out those who prey on the weak. But can she hold onto her humanity as she begins to revel in her own bloodlust?”
Bringing Alita to Life
Manga comics have a distinctive artistic style. In the comics, Alita has a large head with a pointy chin and exceptionally large eyes. It would be challenging to find an actress that matches Alita’s features in real life, and reproducing the look with makeup and prosthetics would be difficult—and most likely still fall short of the intended vision.
That’s where Weta comes in. You might not be familiar with the name Weta Digital, but—unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last decade or so—I can virtually guarantee you’re familiar with their work. Weta is responsible for the digital effects in many iconic blockbusters, such as Avatar, the Lord of the Rings movies, and Avengers: Infinity War. Weta has mastered the art of digital effects and continues to pioneer and break new ground with each project.
Dalton had the privilege of spending some time with the Weta team and sitting down with some of the actors and crew involved in the film. He asked about the challenge of striking a balance between the “rule of cool” philosophy of manga—that as long as it looks cool, it doesn’t matter if it’s realistic—and what can be achieved cinematically in a live action film. The Alita team acknowledged that it is a challenge, because you want the finished product to look cool, but it also has to be physically believable.
The goal is to find a way to have characters hit strong poses and exhibit realistic physics, while still retaining the “rule of cool” and doing it in a way that can capture the imagination and entertain the audience at the same time.
Pushing Digital Boundaries
Dalton sat down with Joe Letteri, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor for Weta Digital, to talk about some of the technology and digital wizardry that went into making Alita. He asked Joe about the lighting effects used, the role of sub-surface scattering, and what advancements in the technology allowed them to deliver the level of realism in Alita.
Letteri told Dalton that the sub-surface scattering effect was originally developed for creating Golem in the Lord of the Rings movies. “For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, before that the kind of surfaces we could create with computer graphics were very simple—light just hit a surface and bounced off,” explained Letteri. “So, everything had a very hard look to it.”
Weta came up with a way to emulate human skin and the way it diffuses light. Since then, though, as Weta has continued to use the technology with different characters, they’ve felt that there is more detail they could get out of it “if only”.
“That ‘if only’ part was trying to figure out that skin is actually—light doesn’t just go in and come out one way like a candle,” said Letteri. “There’s a lot of things going on in the skin, and if you can start to capture those effects, you get detail that’s just under the surface.”
Putting It All Together
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but—based on what I’ve seen in the trailer—the net result is very impressive. Combining the Battle Angel Alita manga comic, the vision of James Cameron, the directing of Robert Rodriguez, and the digital effects wizardry of Weta Digital seems like a winning recipe.