Now moving onto Alita. Even just looking at the trailer demonstrates that a staggering amount of work has gone into this movie from a visual perspective. Is it fair to say that this was a very demanding project?
SJ: I’d say one of the most difficult things we’ve done would be the television version of From Dusk till Dawn. Just because we are making an hour-long movie every few days.
CE: Right. As for Alita, this project has been in gestation for quite a long time. I think we received our first email about it back in October 2015. So this is basically our 4th year involved with the project. We wrapped physical production almost two years ago. My last day on-set was February 24th of 2017. Since then it’s been in post, so the visual effects team have clearly had their work cut out for them.
When you look at your life in this business, it’s definitely an endurance race rather than a sprint. You need tenacity and the ability to pace yourself. Alita was certainly a challenging endeavour in this sense. For us and of course for the visual effects department over at Weta.
Have you been continuing to work on the project since 2017? Or did your involvement pretty much end then-and-there?
CE: Good question. I don’t know if you know much about this, but for the last five months we’ve been submerged in an Alita ”Immersive experience”.
Ah yes, I’ve seen this! It’s like an escape-room, walkthrough exhibit right? In L.A?
CE: There’s one in L.A, one in Brooklyn and one in Austin Texas. That required us to build a separate environment for all three locations, then transport everything, figure out the logistics for it to arrive on time, and finally get teams working on each of them. The Austin one opened just 2 nights ago actually, so it was a completely consuming process. We’re only just coming up for air. I think we need to be put in a decompression tank for a while [Laughs]. But it was absolutely exciting.
I was gonna say, it must be a nice change from doing TV or film. You know, building something that is an attraction itself and that the audience actually gets to walk around in and inhabit.
CE: Right. These are all great thoughts!
Thank you [laughs] So how did it differ from working on the film?
CE: Of course, when you work on a film-set you have absolute control. You are able to make adjustments, improvise and fix problems at your own pace. And everything is designed to work for a finite amount of time as well, whether it’s a set or a prop. I mean, you obviously try to make everything as robust as possible, but it only has to last for a certain amount of time.
But now that we’re looking at the immersive experience, every piece needs to last for a minimum of three months. The producing entity is looking at having it open for that long, so durability is a number one priority.
And that’s something that most of the visitors won’t even think about.
CE: Exactly! Both Steve and I – as well as our fabrication, set-dressing and construction crews – had the opportunity to watch a few of the play-testing rounds. Which is good, because obviously you want to see what works, what doesn’t, and what can be added.
So we got a chance to think about where we needed more lighting, where we needed better acoustics, where we needed to make interactive pieces clearer. So those are all design elements that we wouldn’t normally have to think about as much. It was challenging. Whenever you think you’re done, there’s always something coming up. It’s an evolving process and you have to adapt to devise new solutions.
That sounds really fun! Returning to the film for a moment, this movie is based on pre-existing material. Is that daunting in any way? Do you feel a sense of responsibility when your designing for an adaptation?
CE: That’s another good question. Robert had scanned all the artwork from the first 3-or-so volumes of the manga and filled several binders with it. But before we studied that, before I even looked at a frame, we had to consider the script. We had a first draft to ingest, giving us an edited platform so that we didn’t get lost in an overwhelming amount of data.
Also, Jim Cameron and Robert had been developing places like Iron City for a while. So, it kind of felt a little distilled down for us. It gave us an idea of where we were gonna go. It was also made clear from the beginning that we had the freedom to address the environment in terms of diversity. We wanted to represent a melting pot, which we tried to do through the architecture, the signage, the graphics and I hope that we were able to succeed.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but is this the most high-budget project that you’ve tackled?
CE: In terms of both numbers and real-estate, yes. By far.
Was that a scary thing to have in the back of your mind, or was it freeing?
CE: No matter the budget, you must always be responsible as a production designer. Sometimes, when the numbers are bigger, you’ll have more to attend to. Fortunately, we had a crew that was absolutely top-notch: a combination of teams from L.A and Austen. The Austen crew are people that we have worked with for years and years, so we have a really streamlined and efficient method of working together. We do a lot of fabrication here. You know, a lot of things are created in-house – props, set-dressings, rubber weapons- all that stuff.
Meanwhile, for our Los Angeles crew, we had people like Robert J. Carlyle, who was our construction coordinator. I think we had between 350 and 360 people in our art-department. And that includes fabricators, sculptors, painters, construction workers, set-dressers. The entire range. They all came together to form a tight team and there’s no way this project could have happened without them.
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