One of the chief concerns when creating a virtual character, such as the lead in Alita: Battle Angel, is the fact that while you want them to have a fantastical look, they still need to be somewhat believable to the human eye.
As the medium has developed, we’ve seen artists and creators time and time again have problems with the “uncanny valley,” leading to creations that have turned movie fans away from concepts they might typically be on board with. Yet this problem was successfully avoided with Alita herself, and it’s all thanks to the work of lead animator Mike Cozens, and his team at Weta Digital.
CinemaBlend was recently given the opportunity to speak with Cozens about his work on Alita: Battle Angel, and among the many things discussed when it came to the process of bringing actor Rosa Salazar’s battle angel to life, the biggest challenge was one that you may not have guessed. As it turns out, and as Cozens admits, it was all about getting eating to look right.
It’s really hard to get a digital character to eat their lunch, that’d be one. I think the complexities of facial performance that are at the high end, which I think Alita is. We spent a lot of time working out her face, and how her face needed to move in order to get it believable. I think that as humans we’re so innately aware of what is a believable facial performance, even unconsciously.
The facial performance for Alita: Battle Angel started with, naturally, Rosa Salazar’s actual performance being captured while filming the movie. Once that motion capture base was in play, Mike Cozens and his team were able to do the hard work of creating what he calls a “facial puppet."
That puppet went through around 176 different versions, each one striving for that perfect blend of the real and the heightened look that director Robert Rodriguez’s films are known to contain in one way or another. When Mike Cozens said that it’s difficult to get a digital character to eat properly, he wasn’t kidding.
Getting Alita to eat in a believable manner was crucial to two food-centric beats that set up her character in Alita: Battle Angel. As we see the relatively young cyborg trying different foods for the first time, we see her understanding of the world change along with those experiences.
One scene involves learning how to eat an orange without the peel, courtesy of her father figure Dr. Dyson Ido, played by Christoph Waltz, while another sees her falling in love with chocolate, around the same time Alita is starting to fall for Keean Johnson’s Hugo. Both are pivotal beats for her character’s evolution, and if something as simple as eating a chocolate bar doesn’t look normal on the screen, how could the team expect to land myriad other emotions that play across a character’s face?
It all comes down to that facial puppet that Mike Cozens holds as a vital part of the process to bring Rosa Salazar’s intricate performance as Alita to life. While the look of Alita: Battle Angel’s titular protagonist is a pretty impressive interpretation of what an anime character would look like in real life, it’s also close enough to a typical human’s facial characteristics that you’re not shut out by those other elements that stand out.
While there was a popular concern about Alita’s eyes definitely being enlarged outside of human proportions, the rest of her face is so well-defined those eyes are able to stand out in the right context. You believe the rest of her face is in order, so those eyes become not only a highlighted aspect of Alita’s appearance, they’re also a well-defined trait of her character.
Thanks to the work of Mike Cozens and his team of animators, with keen understandings of anatomy, character creation, and what the human eye can perceive to be true, the visual splendor of Alita: Battle Angel is able to dazzle the viewer, but also keep them within a realm of believability. Which only makes the amazing feats the characters accomplish throughout the film all the more notable, as a world several centuries removed from ours still has room for our current understanding of the world, planting one foot in the present, and another way into the future. A future that, should a sequel actually be in the cards, could kick even more ass than the original.
Alita: Battle Angel is now available on Digital HD, as well as 4K UHD/3D combo pack, Blu-ray, and DVD; and you can order your copy in a flash.