Alita Battle Angel performance capture

Rosa Salazar is the heart and soul of Alita: Battle Angel. The actress, known for her work in the Maze Runner series, breathes life into what’s easily Robert Rodriguez‘s biggest and most sincere movie. The scale of the James Cameron-produced manga adaptation is a treat for the eyes, but Alita is the main attraction of this spectacle, and the reason it’s easy to get lost in the world.

Alita is another major accomplishment for Weta, as well as for Rodriguez and Salazar. The character, who was created via motion capture, is as dense and nuanced as her futuristic world, if not more so. Whether she’s eating a chocolate bar for the first time or playing a game of Motorball, she’s always growing, always learning, and always entertaining. Recently, Salazar told us about the work that went into playing Alita, studying the source material, and one pivotal scene that left her conflicted.

Playing someone who’s a robot or cyborg, what was that prep like, figuring out her physicality and how she needs to move and grow through the course of the movie? 

Well, that’s interesting, because even for the audition when I got the material, the first thing that came to mind was I need to make a differentiation here between robots and cyborgs, because my first instinct was to do something similar to what Alicia Vikander did in Ex Machina.

I realized that she’s AI. She’s not a human. She doesn’t move like a human. She doesn’t know how a human moves. She doesn’t have that same kind of fluidity to her movement, so I abandoned that right away. I said, “Okay, this is just a human story. She just happens to be cybernetically enhanced.”

But, that being said, when Alita’s reconstituted into her doll body, the body meant for Ido’s daughter, his actual daughter, it’s not her body. So, there are some tweaks that need to be made here. First of all, she’s more erect. She’s like chest open to the world, heart exposed, a curious, wide-eyed posture, so I had to remember to stand with my shoulders back and my arms open, my palms open, and my head up, kind of embody that sense of wonder. My tone and my voice needed to be pitched up because Alita is a girl now. She’s 13, she’s 14.

For me, it was really tracking her exponential growth throughout the film over a timeline of a woman’s metamorphosis from girlhood to womanhood, so her most formative years. So, just remembering that with every sort of shift that she makes, once she gets to the Kansas bar she’s investigating her middle teenage years, 15, 16, where she’s got more bravado and she’s got more agency over her body, the warrior past is coming back to her and so she’s able to move in a more precise way. But it’s still not her body and I needed to make a comparison there and say, “Okay, well, this isn’t her body.” Well, when I was a teenager my body felt foreign to me, too. I was exploding at the seams. I felt like, “Hey, this is not my body. I don’t know what’s going on.”

When she finds the berserker body, this is her moment of complete transformation into womanhood, into the her that she truly is. When the berserker body comes into the picture and Alita is finally given the berserker body she becomes more cat-like, more relaxed. Her shoulders drop a little bit. She’s fully her in a comfortable and confident way, and the voice was pitched down again to what my voice naturally is. And I had to really track that growth over the timeline of what it’s like to enter and exit adolescence.

When you saw the final result of your performance and Alita in action, what was most satisfying to see?

I think the most satisfying part is that all of the creative artistic choices that I made in my physicality, in my performance, in the emotional moments, they’re all there, but what’s so marvelous about it is that I was able to create an entirely other person.
As an actor I can transform through prosthetics or makeup, or costumes or hair and I’m creating a character, but partnering with Weta, we can actually build an entirely other person. That was very exciting to me, because that’s the deeper transformation. I can build a new car and put my performance into it.

So, it was really just the visual splendor of what I was able to create was unreal, and they kept taking more and more out of how I actually look and my actual aesthetic and putting it on Alita. So, I think just for other people it’s more weird, especially the people that know me the best, because they say, “That’s you. I keep forgetting that you’re not onscreen. That’s you.” They somehow managed to capture my essence and that’s the beauty of performance capture technology, is that everything that I gave is right up there.

Jon Landau told me about the leap of faith he takes with effects-driven movies. With Alita, do you have to make that same leap? I imagine with Rodriguez, Cameron, and everyone involved, you’d have the utmost confidence. 

I have confidence in my ability. I have confidence in James, and I have confidence in Robert, and I have so much confidence in Jon Landau. He’s the best producer to ever produce. But it’s always 100% a leap of faith. I get weary when people are like, “This could never sink. It’s the Titanic,” I mean, for lack of a better metaphor, because it most definitely can. Nothing is too big to fail, you know? So, it’s always a leap of faith, but I have confidence in my collaborators. Obviously, the thing that was most important to me was the character. All of that technology stuff was really exciting for me, but that’s not where I’m coming from. I’m coming from a character standpoint in a story. I want to make sure the story is intact.

Especially doing the story of a heroine of diminutive size, I want to make sure that this is handled the right way, and who better than the two men who have been putting strong, dynamic female protagonists at the focal point of all of their films to help me bring her to life? So, I felt most confident that we would achieve the goal because of the love they have for dynamic women and portraying realistic versions of women onscreen. That was more my concern, but also it wasn’t a concern, knowing who I was working with.

I just watched an interview with Cameron and Rodriguez, and I liked that Cameron praised him for keeping the scenes where Alita eats an orange or a chocolate bar, like those were the paramount scenes to him. 

Yeah, they care about the breaths. A lot of these big movies, they have these cool action sequences, and I love those just like the next guy, but a movie needs to breathe and they know how to do that. They know what’s essential to the story. We have great, spectacular action sequences, too, but frankly, you don’t give a damn if they don’t service the narrative, if they’re not servicing the decisions the character’s making, if they don’t push the story forward. And I think that’s what Alita does so well. I think that’s what these guys do so well, is that they know that you can sink the Titanic and you can have a guy pick up a guitar case and fire a missile out of it, but none of that matters unless you have the beating heart of the film, which is the story and the relationship.

That’s why those moments are so important to James, because there are these subtle moments of discovery for Alita and for her character, and also I’ll mention that for Weta the chocolate scene was the hardest to accomplish in the entire movie. It wasn’t the motor ball scenes. It was the chocolate, because you want to capture what it’s like to … Everyone’s had chocolate. Not everyone’s played motor ball. Everyone’s eaten a piece of chocolate and it’s one of those telling moments if the technology’s going to fail, is when she takes a bite of that chocolate. They spent so much time making this the photo real version of a human that they wanted to make, and just as an aside, Alita has more geometry, and more mathematics, and more pixels in her one eye than in all of Gollum from Lord Of The Rings.

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