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Performance-Capture Leader WETA Advances and Reaches Zenith with Alita: Battle Angel

From visionary filmmakers James Cameron (Avatar) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), comes “Alita: Battle Angel,”  an epic adventure of hope and empowerment, based upon the Manga graphic novel series by Yukito Kishiro. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens with no memory of who she is in a future world she does not recognize, she is taken in by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate cyberphysician who realizes that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg core is the heart and soul of a young woman with an extraordinary past. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious history while her street-smart new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson) offers instead to help trigger her memories. But it is only when the deadly and corrupt forces that run the city, headed by Vector (Mahershala Ali), come after Ido and Alita that she discovers a clue to her past – she has unique fighting abilities ingrained in her that those in power will stop at nothing to control. If she can stay out of their grasp, she could be the key to saving her friends, her family and the world she’s grown to love.

               No decision was needed to bring Weta Digital on board Alita: Battle Angel; it was simply a given.  From the lush wonders of Pandora in Avatar to Gollum in Lord of the Rings to the sentient primates of Planet of the Apes, Weta has propelled nearly every performance-capture milestone of the last two decades. In particular, spurred largely by Cameron’s aspirations for Avatar, Weta has revolutionized real-time digital capture of the human face, allowing for an actor’s natural expressions to be fully mapped and translated—the stuff of raw emotions intact—into CG animation. They remain the leaders of the field.

               Says Cameron, “Weta still does the best facial animation of anybody out there—the most human, the most alive, the most emotional.  So many other houses are trying to catch up, but Weta remains in front. I knew they had to do Alita, because you have to believe in her even in the tightest close-ups.”

               Weta has kept surging forward since Avatar. Every aspect of their distinctive process has progressed, from more efficient workflows to more versatile digital lighting to an improved ability to simulate muscles and skin. This was all vital to infusing Salazar’s performance into Alita’s CG body and to blending the blistering action and emotional drama that had to feel equally real in the visuals.

               Weta’s knowledge and command of the human face has also become deeper with every production.  “I’ve worked with digital faces on many films, but I’ve never seen faces like these,” says animation supervisor Mike Cozens, who also worked on Avatar.

               For Alita, Weta orchestrated a new level of CG facial sophistication. Explains Eric Saindon, visual effects supervisor for Weta and a two-time Oscar® nominee for The Hobbit series: “We’re now able to work at the level of the facial musculature—so it’s no longer about just moving the surface skin but moving the underlying muscles. You can see it in how the movements of Alita’s face look so much like Rosa’s. We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours just working with Alita’s mouth, because what makes even a big action scene work is getting the most human expressions and Rosa has a very expressive face.”

               He continues: “We’re also constantly working on the performance capture system to get higher and higher fidelity, so there are many little subtleties you see in Alita that you wouldn’t have seen in Avatar or Planet of the Apes. It’s those little natural details that create that extra feeling of life.”

               There was also zero doubt going in that the film would be shot in native 3D. “The best 3D is native 3D, you can’t just convert it later,” says Cameron. “Luckily, Robert had shot native 3D before, so he was completely familiar with the rigs and how they work.”

               Rodriguez was indeed familiar with the basics, but he was exhilarated by how systems have leapt ahead. “The advances have been incredible over the last few years. I even forgot at times we were shooting with 3D cameras on Alita because they don’t slow you down at all anymore,” he says.

               Both Cameron and Rodriguez share the view that 3D is just another tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox—a powerfully immersive tool but still in service to the storytelling. Editor Stephen Rivkin, an Oscar® nominee for Avatar, sums up: “Jim has always maintained that 3D must be an element of the story and not the star of the story.”

               “Alita: Battle Angel” opens February 6 in cinemas nationwide (available in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX) in PH from 20th Century Fox.

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