Wow! I guess when you watch the film, the idea is that you forget all about that stuff and get absorbed in the illusion, but it’s just mind-boggling to think of all the effort involved.
When it comes to doing something like this, that involves quite a lot of CGI, how strong is the need to collaborate with the digital effects team, in this case Weta?
CE: Part of what makes something really succeed in this business is that you need to have adequate pre-production and adequate pre-pre-production! I mentioned it was October 2015 when Steve and I first started on Alita, but it wasn’t until June of the following year that we actually started building sets. During that time, Jon Landau and his incredible fleet of concept artists were working around the clock to get key-frames created and to flesh out the story in visual terms. This meant that we were all on the same page in terms of what we needed to achieve. That pre-vis was a long and intensive labour of love, one that really helped us to anchor our vision.
SJ: As for the collaboration between the art-department and visual effects, that was key! It’s critical for any movie where we are doing complex practical sets and then augmenting them with CGI. The thing that it made it work in this instance was that we had that 8 months of pre-production.
Meanwhile our visual effects supervisor, Richard E Hollander, pioneered some of the computer-controlled effects on Blade Runner. The original! Having him there from day one – so that we could have regular meetings and draw the lines between where real sets would end and enhanced sets would begin- was a big help. The mandate was ‘’do as much real as possible’’, to ground the film.
CE: For example, the set of Iron City is 62000 square feet and it’s built on a back-lot here at Troublemaker studios. We walked the decks constantly with Richard Hollander, so that we could plan out the matte lines for all our digital extensions. Like for the skyscrapers and the matte paintings in the background. Having him as an ally was absolutely essential. That guy thinks about everything and his attention to detail is second-to-none.
On the subject of making everything feel believable and tactile, did that involve a lot of research into real places?
CE: Steve and I have travelled a great deal throughout Mexico and there are a lot of visual cues that we took from Latin American cities. As well as Cuba, which was referenced in early concept art, circa 2005. We’ve also been to Panama City and, for me, that had a lot of useful stuff because it reflects its social strata in its own architecture. That’s exactly what we wanted for Iron City!
Plus, Jim made considerable allusions to a city called Kowloon in Hong Kong, which was bulldozed in around 1993.
How did you research it then?
CE: There is an incredible book, that I think is out of print, and we purchased a few copies. It’s called ”City of Darkness”, I think.
SJ: ”City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City” by Greg Giard and Ian Lambot.
CE: The photo references there are stunning.
What would you say was the biggest challenge with this particular film? Was there a specific environment that was tough to nail-down?
CE: It’s interesting because we had such a great crew. So everything was challenging, but at the same time nothing seemed out of reach.
SJ: And we had such an unusual amount of pre-production too, working with incredible concept artists. We did so much work visualising that, when the time finally came to put it all together, everything flowed really well. Normally pre-production lasts like six-seven weeks, which just isn’t enough time for something like this. But Jon Landau, Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron gave us the time we needed to prepare. It was a very pleasant working environment. There were stresses obviously, but we had the chance to plan and work through those at the beginning.
CE: I have to say, I couldn’t wait to come to work each day. And when that happens, when you look forward to seeing everyone you work with, then it’s great. That was my big takeaway on this, everyone knew what they were doing and it shows in the stature of what we built.
If I slightly adjust that question then, is there a specific environment that you are especially proud of?
CE: Iron City is one that we are all clearly very proud of. Every single person put their heart into it and you would always see people looking up with a sense of wonder. Which showed us that it was actually working. Also, I have to say I’m really proud of Dr Ido’s (Christoph Waltz) interior. And Vector’s (Mahershala Ali) as well. I won’t say any more about it here, but I hope that these environments convey a proper sense of emotion in relation to the character’s that they support.
To round off, I thought we could return to the subject of research and drawing inspiration from other places. Aside from real places and the manga, did you have any other touchstones? Perhaps certain movies?
SJ: To answer your question, earlier you asked what the most challenging aspect of this project was. Well, as production designers, we were tasked with the challenge: ‘’show us something we’ve never seen before’’. Which is probably the most terrifying thing you can ask any creative department to do!
So immediately we discarded everything that we loved. Blade Runner, Star Trek, anything that reaches into the future. And then we tried to look at it from a completely different perspective. I really feel like we did come up with something that feels unique and that’s the ultimate task.
I can imagine! Before we wrap up do you have anything else you want to add?
SJ: Please visit AlitaExperience.com to see the game rooms.
CE: And on Instagram. That’s where you can see a lot of the cool props and things that we made. A lot of really fun visuals there, I think you might enjoy it.
Sounds interesting. Well thank you very much for taking the time to do this today, I really appreciate it. I’m really looking forward to seeing all of your hard work on the big screen.
CE: No, thank you for caring!
Many thanks to Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner for taking the time for this interview.
Alita: Battle Angel is released on February 6th in the UK and on February 14th in the US.