Alita: Battle Angel is an adaptation of an almost 30-year-old manga series and the culmination of a 20-year passion project from James Cameron, but you probably know it from the trailers as that movie with the absurdly big-eyed woman. It's an idiosyncratic decision - true to her look in the manga while setting aside the fact that such characters tend to have big eyes in general - that’s just one of many ways the film is pushing the intersection of visual effects and real-life performances in unexpected directions.
“What we have been able to achieve in terms of the performance capture... is unprecedented,” producer Jon Landau told our sister magazine SFX for its latest issue. He explained actress Rosa Salazar had two lightweight HD cameras mounted on her throughout the production, capturing all the “subtleties and quirks” of her performance to use as Weta Workshop digitally transformed her into amnesiac cyborg Alita. Put pictures of the two side-by-side and you may notice a resemblance, but once Salazar herself saw Alita in motion, she was shaken (in a good way).
"I kept repeating: 'That’s me!' I didn’t know what to expect," Salazar said. "When I saw how much of me they put into her, I was pleasantly shocked. And it was more than I could’ve ever imagined or dreamed of. It’s never been done."
The film plays up Alita's huge eyes and mechanical body - no VFX-budget-sparing Terminator skin here - to make her feel like something else; not quite human, but not less than either. Despite her uncanny appearance, she still has to inspire empathy. Director Robert Rodriguez noted that Weta had an even bigger task than usual, no longer "hiding behind the face of an ape" as it could with the mixed live-action/CGI performances of the Planet of the Apes reboot: “You’ve got to see the warmth in her and you see with Rosa, she’s just got that.”
Alita: Battle Angel's widespread debut (February 6 in the UK and February 14, Valentine's Day, in the US) will show whether audiences are captivated or repulsed. Either way, I doubt they'll be bored by this vision of our far future.
“We’ve gone to the whole next level,” Landau said. “It’s a real world. It’s Earth! It’s not Na’vi talking to [an] avatar. It’s Christoph Waltz, an incredible actor, playing a dramatic scene with Alita, and you have to believe both of them. That’s an even higher standard than we had to reach on Avatar.”