Special Effects Supervisor Explains How Alita‘s Big Eyes Were Made

“Alita: Battle Angel” – Rosa Salazar stars as Alita in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL.

In the new sci-fi movie Alita: Battle Angel, the lead character has unusually big eyes. However, the rest of her is normal. According to some reviews, the eyes are not a distraction, but how did they do it? I had the opportunity to interview the visual effects supervisor for the movie, Eric Saindon, to find out.

Alita: Battle Angel is queued up to be a success. The script was written by producer James Cameron, director Robert Rodriguez, and Laeta Kalogridis. Rosa Salazar of Maze Runner plays Alita. However, Salazar has normal shaped eyes, so why did the filmmakers choose to enlarge them for her character in the movie? Alita is a cyborg, but according to director Robert Rodriguez, there were other reasons for the decision.

“The manga anime [Japanese cartoons/comic books] eyes that we’ve seen since the 30s and Astro Boy has never been done photo-realistically. So, usually, when we see an anime translated, it doesn’t feel like that,” Rodriguez told IGN. “The early artwork I saw that Jim [Cameron] had before it was even technically possible, had that in her [Alita]. It was so striking and so arresting, I thought, ‘My god, we have to do that. We have to be the first to bring a true manga and anime character to life.’”

Some may feel this choice may be distracting. However, the Associated Press recently wrote: “She’s been given huge CG eyes but they’re not as distracting as you may fear. Somehow, Salazar still conveys deep emotion without a crucial acting tool.”

So how was Salazar able to convey the emotion? Well, she was not necessarily left without her eyes as acting tools for expressing emotions, the special effects crew just had to reproduce them.

“As she activates a muscle in her face, it pulls her nose, or it pulls the corner of her lip in a certain way,” Saindon told ModernAmerican.News. “We wanted to make sure we fired those exact same muscles in Alita, so we are able to capture the high fidelity in Rosa’s performance.”

“Rosa does some pretty interesting things with her face,” Saindon continued. “When you really start looking at her face when she moves, different parts of her face move in ways you wouldn’t expect, like the way she rolls her lips when she makes an ‘m’ sound. Her eyebrows move in a way you wouldn’t expect when she smiles in a certain way. It is all of these little subtleties and nuances of her performance that make Rosa Rosa, and we wanted to capture all of that extra information and put it into our Alita character.”

For further accuracy, Saindon’s team modeled the eyes themselves after Salazar’s.

Keean Johnson (left) and Rosa Salazar (center) in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL.

“We scanned Rosa at a high-res and then used Rosa’s eyes in Alita,” explains Saindon. “They are scaled up, obviously, so they are bigger than Rosa’s eyes, but the eye shape and wrinkles are all from Rosa. The iris itself isn’t Rosa.”

Saindon says Salazar’s irises need to be different for two reasons. The first was that they wanted a slightly different color for Alita’s eyes than Salazar’s. He says the pigment affects the structure of the eye. To get it right, they took close-up photos of many different people’s eyes. They not only wanted to see the structure but they also wanted to watch how the pupils reacted to different lighting scenarios.

However, other challenges meant the special effects could not stop there. When asked what sort of problem Saindon meant, he said “like a director putting a camera right where you don’t want it to be. Like right at the end of the nose looking at the eyeball.”

According to Saindon, “If you look at an iris very close, they have lots of layers and details and depth.” Saindon says to get a realistic close-up of the iris, “we actually simulate the fibers of the eye.”

This meant painstakingly creating the fibers of the iris, including broken ones. It was hard works says Saindon, but it was worth it.

“Now you can place a camera near the eye, and our eyes will have all of that extra depth and detail in it,” says Saindon.

Director Robert Rodriguez, Keean Johnson, and Rosa Salazar on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

It wasn’t just the eyes Saindon’s special effects crew had to pay extra attention to. He says getting realistic hair was important too. This meant creating every individual hair on Alita’s head “so when she runs her fingers through her hair, we are actually getting proper volume and movement through her fingers in her hair.”

Saindon says this level of detail was necessary for the movie because Alita is in many scenes with the other characters who are not CG.

“Alita is always on screen with someone else and interacting with them and emoting with them,” explained Saindon. “So she has to fit in with them and have the detail level of those other characters to work well with them and not stand out as a weird digital character next to live action.”

However, this level of quality comes with a price. Saindon also worked on the special effects for Lord of the Rings. A prominent CG character in that movie was Gollum.

“50,000 polygons was how big Gollum was,” says Saindon. “One iris for Alita is 9 million polygons. The amount of detail in Alita is staggering compared to other characters.”

Saindon laughed, “It’s and blowing in some cases.”

There were other technical aspects of Alita’s movement that required novel solutions. To get the movement of her clothes right, they made the clothes in real life. This way they could test how the clothes react to movement, wind, stretching, etc. They were also able to put the clothes on actors and have them act out Alita’s actions to see how the clothes move. One case was a bit extreme.

“[Alita] has a scene where she jumps into a lake and has to walk along the lake bottom,” Saindon explained. “So we took an actress and put her in the same clothes and cut her hair the same way. She was a free-diver who could hold her breathe for eight minutes. We dropped her into the bottom of the local pool here and put weights on her feet and actually had her act out all of the scenes.”

This allowed Saindon and his team to know how Salazar’s hair, clothes, and body would move underwater.

“There have been a lot of movies where we have made characters from an actor’s performance, but this is the first time we have done a whole humanoid character to fit this level for an entire movie,” says Saindon.

The hard work has paid off. In the AP article referenced earlier, they wrote that the plot of the movie is complicated, but “somehow stays true to its mesmerizing vision and emerges as a sci-fi success, if not a triumph.”

Alita: Battle Angel premieres tomorrow, February 14, 2019, at a theater near you.

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