ComingSoon.net Visits the Set of Alita: Battle Angel
On February 6, 2017 ComingSoon.net visited Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas for a set visit we had been hotly anticipating since the project was first announced by James Cameron in the mid-2000’s: Alita: Battle Angel.
The original manga titled “Gunnm” (known in America as “Battle Angel Alita”) was created by Yukito Kishiro in 1990, and was turned into a two-part OVA in 1993. Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment bought the movie rights to the title back in 1999, fresh off their record-breaking success with Titanic. The original idea was for Cameron to direct, but he ultimately decided to do Avatar first, and then ultimately to devote himself entirely to the world of Avatar after that sci-fi epic’s phenomenal success.
Cut to 2015, when fan favorite director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids, Grindhouse) struck up a friendship with Cameron and asked him if there was a project of his that he was never going to get to. Cameron handed Rodriguez the 2005 draft of Alita (co-written with Laeta Kalogridis), which at that point he admitted was far too long. Rodriguez took the script and, without adding or embellishing, simply spent 4 months editing and honing it down to a manageable length. When he handed the script back to Cameron and his longtime producer Jon Landau, they didn’t miss a thing. 20th Century Fox agreed to produce, with Rodriguez taking over the director’s chair.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place 600 years in the future. In Great Wars that took place 300 years prior a lot of technology was wiped out. The only floating airborne city that remains is called Zolum, and the people on the surface who wish to go there live in Iron City, where humans can become cyborg humans, either enhanced or full-body.
In a junkyard directly under Zolum where garbage is dumped, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the torso of a girl that is miraculously still alive. When he awakens her she is Alita (Rosa Salazar), and her journey through Iron City teaches her what it means to fall in love and to be alive. For Ido it’s a second chance at a daughter after his real one died.
Besides being a cybernetics expert, Ido is also a hunter warrior who kills evil cyborgs. She eventually finds her strength in Motorball, a NASCAR meets WWE wrestling on steroids sporting event. She eventually finds a crashed spaceship where a door opens and she finds a new body meant for war. A fight with a cyborg leaves her badly damaged, which forces Ido to give her this new body. Alita vows to get to Zolum the only way she can: Motorball.
After producer Jon Landau showed us a 30-minute art reel that was basically like watching the whole movie front-to-back, we were shown some of the incredible effects tests from WETA Digital. Alita’s first body looks like porcelain with baroque filigree, while the berserker body is sleek and metallic. She also carries an energy sword.
One of the things both Landau and Rodriguez stressed to us while at Troublemaker was that Alita was not a typical Robert Rodriguez film. While he is known for shooting movies fast, underbudget and performing a myriad of other duties including editing, cinematography and production design, on this one he was trying to channel Cameron. That meant more takes than he was used to, a $100 million + budget and inheriting a lot of the production design that Cameron had already developed, with Rodriguez working in tandem with the Terminator creator throughout pre-production, while still adding some of his own signature flair. It also meant acquiescing to using a cinematographer (Bill Pope of The Matrix and Spider-Man trilogies), an editor (Avatar‘s Stephen E. Rivkin) and the effects services of WETA Digital rather than his own Troublemaker staff.
On the backlot of Troublemaker we see the bottom two floors of Iron City entirely built to scale, while the rest will be done with CGI. It has a lot of Havana and Panama City in its color palette and cultural flavor, so it’s not a classical dystopia. There’s a mix of English, Spanish and Asian influence. There’s a dive bar called the Kansas Bar (named after the band), where a huge brawl with 30 stunt people took place. There are half-pipes for Motorball street practice, and painted murals on the sides of buildings show Motorball champions. There’s a pawn shop, repair shop, massage parlor, fruit stands, old satellite dishes. Metal signs hanging on hinges give it a steampunk vibe. By changing some of the signage they’re able to reuse certain areas of the set for a redress. There’s a lot of culture mash, with big iron girders, vents, stucco walls and steps. It is a bigger scale backlot than anything ever attempted in Austin. It’s just another example of Rodriguez wanting to do a Lightstorm-style movie.
“It’s gotta live up to what we do,” said Landau. “The idea of working with Jim went a long way.”
Production designer Steve Joyner, who has worked with Rodriguez on all his films since Grindhouse, said one of the differences was on a normal Rodriguez movie his department would turn out two drawings in one day, but on Alita they would do one drawing in five days. Prep for this film was a full year, while Rodriguez’s usual movies are less than a year all-in.
Today is day 60 of a 64-day principal photography schedule. Landau explains that Rosa Salazar (whose character ages 13 to 18) will be completely CGI in the final film in order to give her the big-eyed appearance of a classic anime character. However, she performs alongside Christoph Waltz and the rest of the cast on set to ground the movie photographically. He also says there will be sequels depending on how well the first film is received, with the other two tentatively titled Alita: Avenging Angel and Alita: Fallen Angel. It says a lot about their confidence in this first film that the backlot will not be torn down, with sets stored for sequels, most of them built-to-last out of steel instead of wood.
In the prop room we see a lot of items being 3-D printed for use in the movie. Ido has a huge rockethammer. The Terminator endo arm makes a cameo (there will be a lot of Easter eggs in the movie). The Motorball itself is a very cool prop, with different knobs all around it. There’s also, of course, a massive green screen stage for performance capture.
We then are taken to the vehicle department, where we see lots of futuristic concept cars. There’s a gyroscopic one-wheeled motorcycle that Alita and her love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson) ride on in a romantic scene. Little rusty carts that act as Taxis have a Syd-Mead futurism vibe to them.
After a delicious BBQ crew meal we are then taken to Kelly Reeves Stadium, a giant high school football stadium where they are shooting footage of Christoph Waltz in the stands at a Motorball rally. The way the game works is the more you control the ball the more points you get. You can’t throw anything, but you can come up to a player and grind them apart.
The extras are dressed fairly contemporary, not too futuristic looking. Waltz is sitting next to a nurse character with a cyborg arm, looking nervously at the track through a pair of binoculars.
“That’s no factory team,” he tells her. “Those two punks in the back, there’s bounty markers on them. These other guys used to be players but now they’re hunter warriors or worse. It’s just a nasty bunch of street iron.”
“What are hunters doing in the same lineup as marks?” she asks him.
“It’s rigged!” Waltz exclaims before jumping out of his seat to head down the bleachers.
Waltz is jovial and smiles between takes, chatting with his co-star. While the first take had a bit of a cheesy vibe to it, the next few takes get progressively better, with them eventually abandoning the line “It’s rigged!” and have Waltz simply get up and run down.
We’re shown inside a tent where FX guys are looking at digital layouts of the roller rink, currently just a huge greenscreen set up on the field.
Based on pre-viz and production art we’ve seen, the Motorball scene seems destined to become an incredible set piece, and Alita: Battle Angel will hopefully become the first time the world on manga and anime has successfully made the leap to a major Hollywood motion picture.