In the making of Alita: Battle Angel, director Robert Rodriguez, writer/producer James Cameron, and the artists designing the film made some bold moves when it came to the look of the titular protagonist. In addition to making their lead a performance capture character (played by Rosa Salazar), one of the earliest concepts for the design of movie was the idea that she would have eyes significantly larger than a normal human’s – a callback to the look of Alita in the Manga comic where she originated.
Of course, bold moves like that are rarely met with universal acclaim when first introduced, and Alita: Battle Angel proved to be no exception. When the first trailer for the film was released in December 2017, there was a whole lot of commentary on social media about the look of Alita’s eyes, and to put it politely, not a lot of it was super positive.
With the film still more than a year away from release at that point, the reaction did cause a bit of a stir behind-the-scenes of the movie, leading to questions about the chosen road still being a good idea to travel. Two people who never experienced any kind of doubts, however, were Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron, who, per WETA Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Saindon had a very clear attitude towards the early negative response: “Fuck the haters.”
Saindon was a part of a group of Alita: Battle Angel visual effects and animation supervisors – including Richard Baneham, Mike Cozens, and Richard Hollander – that I had the chance to sit down with yesterday during a themed award season press day on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California. Early in the conversation the subject of post-trailer changes was mentioned, and I followed up with the group asking specifically about the evolution of Alita’s eyes.
The WETA filmmaker directly addressed the commentary that surrounded the first Alita: Battle Angel trailer, and acknowledged that it inspired some internal conversations:
We had the original design, right? The designs all the way back to 2005. Once you build that and you put that next to a live-action actor, they do have to always change a little bit, because it does look a little strange. And after the first trailer came out, right, everyone said 'Her eyes are pie-shaped! They're gigantic!' And blah, blah, blah. And we did go to Robert, and we went to Jim, and said, 'Hey, we're getting this feedback. What are your thoughts?'
As noted, the response they got from Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron wasn’t a lot of hemming and hawing. They had a clear vision for what they wanted Alita: Battle Angel to look like, and a big part of that was the character’s Manga-inspired eyes. Saindon continued,
Both of them said, 'No, we want to go bigger on the eyes! Jim said, 'Fuck the haters,' right? He said, 'We're going to go bigger on the eyes, and that's how we're going to do it.'
That’s called sticking to your guns, ladies and gentlemen.
Those who have seen the film obviously know that the Alita: Battle Angel filmmakers most definitely did not steer away from their foundation-level ideas for the hero, and she does have significantly larger eyes than the human characters. You may notice in side-by-side stills that things did change a bit, but the move was never to go smaller.
As Eric Saindon explained, the visual effects artists didn’t quite take James Cameron literally and go defiantly bigger with the eyes, but there were particular adjustments made to have them feel more natural in the finished film. Said the filmmaker,
At the end of the day they were both right. We didn't actually go that much bigger on the eyes, but we went bigger on the iris, and we filled the space of the eyes a little bit more, and it just popped her character to life even more.
Alita: Battle Angel took a long time to get made – both in pre-production and post-production – but the finished result was one of the most impressive blockbuster efforts that we saw on the big screen last year. It’s stunning how immersive the world of the film feels, and hopefully we’ll someday get the chance to revisit in a sequel.
Hopefully we’ll continue to hear a lot more about Alita: Battle Angel during this year’s award season, as well as updates about a potential follow-up. Stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for all of the latest news, and also be on the lookout for more stories from my interviews with the VFX filmmakers behind Captain Marvel, The Lion King, and Avengers: Endgame.