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Skin or CGI? Alita: Battle Angel takes manga to photorealistic levels

With the film set to open Feb. 14, director Robert Rodriguez, producer Jon Landau and actress Rosa Salazar share the challenges of balancing CGI and realism.

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron team up for an effects-driven adaptation of the classic manga Alita: Battle Angel.
20th Century Fox

Watching 3D clips of the upcoming manga cyberpunk film Alita: Battle Angel, I was struck by a particular scene. In it, the main character, Alita, lies in bed with sun hitting her face, and the extreme close-up gives an intricate view of the light touching her skin and even reflecting off her minute facial hair. The way her skin moves and breathes convinced me I was looking at a young woman's face.

Amazingly, I was seeing pixels.


Keean Johnson (left) and Rosa Salazar (center) in a scene from Alita: Battle Angel.

20th Century Fox

I sat down with producer Jon Landau, director Robert Rodriguez and Alita herself, actress Rosa Salazar, during the Crunchyroll Expo manga and anime celebration in the fall, and asked them how they had me questioning whether I was looking at skin or computer-generated imagery.

The film opens Feb. 14, but later this month, fans in Austin, Los Angeles and New York will get to attend an immersive experience called Passport to Iron City before the film's release. 

"[Visual-effects house] Weta Digital has been working on that for a number of years," Landau said. Skin "is something they know is so key to making a CG character look real. They put a lot of research into that."

The film, 20 years in the making, is based on Yukito Kishiro's manga Battle Angel Alita, about a young cyborg girl who wakes up in a postapocalyptic city without knowing who she is and embarks on a journey to understand where she comes from. Supporting her is Dr. Dyson Ido, a father figure who specializes in health care for cyborgs.

Salazar (The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Parenthood, Maze Runner: The Death Cure) enters the room at Crunchyroll Expo with a big smile, greets everyone and takes in compliments from Rodriguez on her geometrically striking blue dress. It's quite a different look from the motion capture suit and infrared dots she wore on set. She jumps right into the conversation to talk about how Weta worked closely with her to achieve the film's realism.

"They are engineers, but they are also poets in a way, and they are on set all the time and with their imagination, engineering things we may need for just that day," she said.

But storytelling goes beyond the use of technology. It's about performance too.

"When we cast her, I knew her performance was going to give it -- the whole mechanism that moves, that has the skin, and that has all the texture -- a reason to move and a way to move that you'll go, 'That's human, that's humanity in there,'" director Rodriguez said of Salazar.

There's always a delicate balance when it comes to the overlap of performance and technology. Movies like the Star Wars Special Editions and Green Lantern have been heavily criticized for overusing computer graphics. In the case of Alita, finding the balance wasn't easy.

"Rosa made it even more challenging for [Weta] because in her performance there's an asymmetry to everything she does. And they look at a frame and they'll go, 'How did she do that? The corner of the mouth is up but [the corner of her eyebrow] is down,'" Landau said. "A whole new experience to them to train their models because we don't want Weta's interpretation of the performance, we want Rosa's."

Finding a balance between CGI and human performer was part of a promise Landau and Rodriguez made to Salazar -- that when she saw the CGI character on screen she'd also see herself. That promise was put to the test the first time Salazar watched the trailer. It turned out to be an emotional moment for her.

"I'm crying and also on the edge of my seat. I was so impressed because I got to see myself in this other body, but it is my body," Salazar said. "But it's also like a whole new part of me to its own person."   

This search for realism is new to Rodriguez, whose filmography includes whimsical stories like Mariachi or Desperado that don't take physics into account. "My movies are more like a dream state. This is not. This should feel like a dream is happening while your eyes are open, and it has to feel like it's actually real," he said.


From left to right: Alita director Robert Rodriguez, actress Rosa Salazar and producer Jon Landau. 

Tania González/CNET

It's been a long road for Alita, which has been in the works since 1999 for producers James Cameron and Landau. It got delayed due to Avatar, whose upcoming sequels became Cameron's main focus.

"Technology-wise, we always thought that when we made Avatar before we made Alita, that Avatar will make Alita easier to make," Landau said.

By October 2015, Rodriguez started negotiating to become director. A year later, shooting started in Austin. 

Sharing the screen with Salazar will be critically acclaimed Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained,) Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth, Requiem for a Dream), Mahershala Ali and Michelle Rodriguez.  

First published Sept. 8, 2018.
Update, Jan. 8, 2019 at 11:10 a.m. PT: Adds that an immersive Alita experience will open in some cities before the film's release. 

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