Alita: Battle Angel – Bringing Yukito Kishiro’s Manga Graphic Novel To The Big Screen

Two of today’s leading creators of game-changing movie realms, James Cameron (Avatar) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), have combined their mutual zeal for world-building and empowered female heroines to push the possibilities of visual story-craft into a new zone with Alita: Battle Angel, an epic adventure of hope and empowerment, based upon the Manga graphic novel series by Yukito Kishiro.

They now invite audiences to enter directly into an intricately alive metropolis of the future—and into the high-octane yet heartfelt mission of Alita to fulfill her human potential—forged through an alchemical mix of evocative performances, creative design, state-of-the-art performance-capture technology, CG imagery, VFX and native 3D filmmaking.

Based on the graphic novel series by Yukito Kishiro, Alita: Battle Angel re-imagines a mythical post-apocalyptical world as a photo-real city full not only of behemoth cyborgs, furiously fast sports spectacles and dark justice but also of compelling human stories.

In the 23rd Century, Earth underwent “the Fall,” a shattering war that halted all technological progress  and left in its wake a society where every last shred of tech is repurposed and the strong prey on the weak.  300 years later, the heart of life on Earth beats in Iron City, a rich melting pot of survivors–a city full of ordinary people and cybernetically-enhanced humans living side-by-side in the shadow of Zalem, the last of the great Sky cities. Iron City may be an oppressed factory town, cranking out goods for the invisible elites who live in the sky, but it has its own color and energy, its thrills and its aspirants. And now it is about to get an unlikely hero, a teenage cyborg who emerges from a junkyard to discover her identity and become a source of buoyant hope.

Plunging the audience full-bore into Alita’s deeply felt experiences of beauty and chaos after being reborn in Ido’s clinic was always central to Cameron’s vision of the film. That idea continued to be a lodestar as Rodriguez took the reins to realize Cameron’s vision with his own irrepressible energy and a crack team drawn from both their companies—as well as from the award-winning Weta Digital, which takes the performance-capture technology they pioneered on Avatar to new heights here.

Rodriguez notes that what you see on the screen in Alita: Battle Angel is a result of many combined imaginations synching up, but most of all it is meant to be Alita’s vision of Iron City.

“You see this story through Alita’s eyes, eyes that have an innocence to them and see the beauty in things,” Rodriguez says. “We set out to create something that feels very tactile, that’s immersive, that has unexpected moments, all the things you anticipate in a Jim Cameron movie. What’s amazing is that Jim has been working on Alita since 1999, but even now, nobody has made anything like it. Making it finally happen has been an incredible process of collaboration.”

The fervor, risk-taking and fusing of mind and machine, that drove the making of Alita echo what Alita discovers about pouring your all into what you do. “At its core, this is the story of a girl who gets a second chance at life,” says Rodriguez, “and decides this time it will be about following her heart.”

Alita Falls From The Sky

James Cameron first fell under the spell of the mysterious Alita almost two decades ago, long before he directed the barrier-shattering 2009 3D science fiction-adventure blockbuster Avatar, which has set the bar for cinematic world-building ever since.  In the late 90s, fellow filmmaker and global cinema connoisseur Guillermo Del Toro recommended to Cameron a short anime film based on the nine-volume, cyberpunk Manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro.  Del Toro suspected it was right up Cameron’s alley.

Indeed, the brew of a fresh vision of the future mixed with thunderous action and themes of exploration, curiosity, self-discovery and a yearning for freedom ignited something in Cameron. He saw in the tale of a young amnesiac cyborg a universal story of discovery and identity and what really matters. The attraction was more the humanity of the story than its 26th Century setting. “I had an emotional reaction to it.  I reacted to it especially strongly because my oldest daughter was young at the time and I saw in it a great female empowerment story,” Cameron says. “Then I started checking out the books and realized Kishiro had created this an incredibly rich, detailed world full of cinematic potential.”

Cameron felt the intricacy of Iron City, this fallen technopolis, could be the ultimate sandbox in which to play with cinematic ideas he’d long hoped to explore, blending the bleeding edge of digital tools with the art of epic, human storytelling. He began a script, fusing story elements from the first four Alita books, and bringing in co-writer Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island). In addition to the script, Cameron drafted 600 pages of wide-ranging notes on each of the characters and the life and even the physics of Iron City. He began working with a team of conceptual artists to produce early sketches that became legendary for their photo-real designs that would surely test the limits of computer-enhanced imagery.

The history of Iron City, and the gleaming presence of the paradisiacal Zalem looming over it, so close yet ever unattainable, was rich with metaphors.“The story takes place 300 years after a huge war has devastated the planet and a plague weapon left only a tiny percentage of human survivors,” Cameron explains. “Most survivors streamed towards the one remaining sky city, Zalem, the apex of civilization at the time. But Iron City remained as essentially a giant refugee camp. It’s full of all these people trying to get to Zalem, to get to the land of opportunity and dreams that they can see but always seems just of reach.”

Life in Iron City also intrigued Cameron—this world in which cybernetic body parts are routinely melded with human bodies and brains to create cyborgs of all shapes, sizes and abilities. (Cyborgs are not robots; they’re humans enhanced by biotechnological components built into the body.)  Today, the cutting edge of medical prosthetics research is pioneering new ways for the human brain to both directly control and sense artificial limbs. But what if the fusion of mind and machine was to make such a quantum leap that it could grant humans the promise not just of restoration but of total reinvention?

“It began because people had to replace limbs due to the effects of the worldwide plague,” Cameron explains. “Then, it became a normal way of life for people to have replacement parts.  There are no bad connotations to being a cyborg—it can even be a sign of wealth. The highest-end cyborgs are what are known as TRs or Total Replacements. That’s when all you have left is an organic, human brain but your entire body has been replaced by parts that are stronger, faster, whatever you aspire to.”

Kishiro had, from the very birth of Alita, believed we’re already living in an early iteration of a machine-reliant cyborg society. “Even before the internet, we couldn’t live without electricity or technology, which makes us similar to cyborgs,” observes Kishiro. “We just accept it and try to live our lives, as cyborgs do in Iron City. I think it only puts the emphasis on how can we be more human.”

Even when a cyborg’s body has been damaged beyond repair, the human brain can live on and be connected to a new body, which is why Dr. Ido is able to save Alita. But the fact that Alita has no clue who she is, where she comes from, or what her life story is, sparked Cameron’s imagination further.

“When Ido rebuilds her, Alita has no memory. She’s completely open and curious about a world that’s new to her,” says Cameron. “But as she finds out more about herself, she becomes a more complex character, one who is not only looking for who she was but must decide who she wants to be.”

James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez

Alita’s innate fearlessness, programmed into her long ago when she was built on the human space colony known as URM (United Republic of Mars), became the catalyst for deepening her character.  “Alita has no fear for herself. It doesn’t matter how big or menacing an opponent, she just goes right at it.  Now that’s a hard character to write because you have to find a vulnerability,” Cameron says. “I came to realize her true vulnerability is that even though she’ll never fear for herself, she does fear for the people she loves. So the story became about Alita’s bonds, betrayals and all she learns about human nature.”

Landau recalls that Cameron’s draft was a starkly emotional read. “At its heart were two love stories:  a love story between Alita and Ido, the father figure who rebuilt her, and a love story between Alita and Hugo, a street kid and cyborg jacker who never thought he’d fall in love with a cyborg.”

Ardent fans couldn’t wait for Cameron to tackle the Manga. But by the mid-2000s Cameron stood at a fateful crossroads: forced to choose between his two creations, to go all-in on either Alita or Avatar. It goes without saying that he took the path of Avatar, sensing the technology was ready to be pushed where he needed it to go. But the exponential leap that followed would also make Alita possible.

Cameron never stopped dreaming about giving life to Alita. Yet the worldwide hunger for Avatar sequels kept him expanding that universe and he saw no clear space for Alita on the horizon. It wasn’t until one day when he was talking with his good friend Robert Rodriguez that it came to him that he would feel comfortable passing Alita on into the right hands—into say, Rodriguez’s hands. Cameron and Rodriguez often had stimulating conversations about cinematic techniques, but now Cameron had the idea of going further, of inviting his friend to be creative partner on this project he held so closely.

“It happened in a split second when I thought, ‘I would let go of Alita for Robert.’ He has the energy, the creativity, he’s done tons of effects stuff, he’s great with kick-ass action, and I also felt he could tap into some of that outrageous sensibility that Battle Angel occasionally needs.”

Sensing a passing of the torch, Cameron sent Rodriguez his script.  Recalls Cameron, “Robert called me a couple days later and said, ‘Man, I’ve got to make this.’“

Lightstorm Meets Troublemaker

While Cameron is renown for some of cinema’s most sweeping epics, from Terminator to Titanic to Avatar, Rodriguez cut his teeth in the indie world by making madly inventive, hyper-vivid action thrillers on lean-and-mean budgets, often writing, directing and shooting them himself.  After gaining acclaim with the micro-budget El Mariachi at age 23, he continued cultivating his creative freedom and high-energy style on such hits as Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City, Machete and Planet Terror, as well as becoming an early 3D innovator with the Spy Kids series of family films.

There was little doubt that he had the kind of extreme commitment to vision required but Alita:  Battle Angel would take Rodriguez into a whole new scale of production. It would also take him to his very favorite place: way outside even his wide-open comfort zone.

A long-time fan of the Kishiro books, Rodriguez says he was hankering for Cameron to make the movies. “I’d been dreaming about it and waiting for it,” he muses. Yet, when Cameron asked him to step into those shoes and realize the dream on his behalf, it was irresistable. Rodriguez loved how the initial script took the world Kishiro created and, while staying true to the spirit of it, translated it into a Cameronesque tale of love and adventure.  “I identified with Alita.  I identified with Hugo. I identified with all the characters—and that’s what Jim does amazingly well,” he says.

The meticulous work Cameron and team had already done gave Rodriguez a home base from which to blast off in his own way.“Jim’s thing is making sure even the most sci-fi elements believably work,” says Rodriguez. “He’d already figured out how every part of Iron City would operate from an engineering POV. So from the start, nothing felt imaginary. It was ready to come to life.”

Robert Rodriguez

Every frame of art Rodriguez saw, from the sun-washed, color-splashed streets of Iron City to the cyborgs whose machine bodies were infused with human qualities of charm, humor and hubris, spoke to him.  The chance to play with all the tech Cameron, Lightstorm and Weta had invented for Avatar—the facial performance capture system, the Simulcam system for superimposing digital characters onto actors in real-time, the 3D Fusion Camera system and more—was also a strong magnet for Rodriguez.

A playful innovator who enjoyed blowing past conventional boundaries from the start, Rodriguez had already been a 3D pioneer—his Spy Kids 3D became the first all-digital movie in 2003, Now, he was like a kid let loose in the ultimate cinematic candy store. “Tech has always been a big part of what I do,” says Rodriguez. “But with this film, I knew I would have a chance to go exponentially further because Jim has already innovated so many different technologies for visualizing, pre-visualizing and making 3D films.  I took it as a real chance to learn. I knew I’d be really challenged, which I thought was fantastic.”

Throughout the process, Rodriguez says, he was hoping to channel a whole lot of Cameron. “I tried to ground the story in reality the way he does. I tried to honor his style because that’s what I always wanted: to see Jim Cameron’s Alita.” As the project got underway, a constant flow of ideas and knowledge passed back-and-forth between the two men, as each compelled the other to up the creative ante.

So too was forged a catalytic merger of the minds between Rodriguez’s Austin-based Troublemaker Studios and Cameron’s Manhattan Beach-based Lightstorm Entertainment. Landau notes that this cross-pollination inspired everyone: “We learned from Troublemaker while Robert learned a lot from the team of artists who had worked on Avatar that we’ve had long had around us at Lightstorm Entertainment.  It was a just a great, creative symbiosis between our groups.”

Life imitated art and vice versa as this movie about human-machine interfaces incited hundreds of artists to head for the edges where live action and digital filmmaking fuse into one aesthetic.

Cameron was gratified to see Rodriguez tackle the project with all the gusto and gutsiness he knew he’d bring. “It’s been exciting to watch because I can see Robert loves the process, he loves the technology, he loves the design elements, and he’s insanely collaborative,” says Cameron. “He was very respectful of Kishiro’s world and also of what I had written, yet not afraid to make it his own. I wanted to give him as much space as he needed creatively and I was emphatic about that from the beginning.”

In early days, Rodriguez decided he would build from scratch the heart of Iron City—later to be extended digitally into a full-scale metropolis— on Troublemaker’s backlot, by far the most ambitious build in its history. “I wanted to build the first level of the city, the old bones of the city, and then Weta could take it the rest of the way up. I loved that I could step out of my office and be in Iron City.”

When Yukito Kishiro visited the set, he could not believe where his hand-drawn Manga had led.  The moment was dizzyingly surreal as he walked entrancing streets that once existed only in his mind’s eye. “It was truly like a dream,” says Kishiro. “I’m so honored by what James and Robert created.”