Alita: Battle Angel co-production designer Caylah Eddleblute on creating Iron City

Alita: Battle Angel co-production designer Caylah Eddleblute

Alita: Battle Angel is now in theaters, and it has surpassed box office expectations during its opening weekend with an “A-” CinemaScore from audiences. Over the weekend, it opened big in China with over $60 million and has earned over $286 million worldwide. The big-budget sci-fi film from director Robert Rogriguez and producers James Cameron and Jon Landau features some impressive action sequences and the beautiful world of Iron City. Co-production designer Caylah Eddleblute chats with Nerd Reactor to give us details on bringing the futuristic world of Alita: Battle Angel to life, which included studying the art from the manga like a microscope.

Nerd Reactor: Did you know about the manga or the anime before tackling this project?

Caylah Eddleblute: I was a complete virgin when it came to knowing anything about Alita. Robert was so wonderful as to scan the first three volumes into large formats so that we have large format prints of every single page of the first three volumes. You get to see a lot more in the larger scale. But I did promptly go out and purchase volumes of material. Steve Joiner (co-designer) and I began to study fastidiously every frame that we could. And the thing about the manga is you look at it, you try to observe every visual cue and every frame that you can, and you go back the next day and you see something brand new. The artwork is just so layered. There are so many nuances in there and little moments of discovery. You can spend a lifetime just in the process of study.

Fortunately, we had a script that was written, a first draft, and that helped provide an edited version for us so that we could have an anchor as far as what we needed to tackle right out of the gate. Jim had clearly done a lot of work early on. He was enamored by the project for a long time and had a lot of references and a lot of concept art since 2005, and a lot of notes that he had taken. We were fortunate to already have a distilled down set of elements from which we could jump off to start creating an environment.

Nerd Reactor: When creating the environment, do you have a lot of freedom on what you wanted to add, or did you try to keep it close to the concept art?

Caylah Eddleblute: One thing about working with Robert is that he does give Steven and me a lot of freedom. We worked with Robert for many years. We had a pretty good sense from some of the notes from Jim, Jon Landau and Robert that we would have the freedom to really expand a little bit from the manga in terms of making the environment even more with broad strokes. Diversity was absolutely a key element in the narrative. The world is a melting pot. The bringing together of people from all parts are now together in Iron City, working to live and make a life for themselves every day. We took a lot of the elements from our travels working and traveling with Robert over the years. We have a lot of Latin American influences, a lot of colonial Latin American architecture keys, a lot of references to Cuba, and a lot of references from cities that were in Hong Kong.

Being able to travel through Iron City and get different senses like walking through the blocks and feeling like you’re in different neighborhoods was something we definitely wanted to capture, just like how life existed in real cities, in real locations where neighborhoods develop and communities grow.

Credit: Rico Torres/Twentieth Century Fox

Nerd Reactor: Now I have to see this on DVD or Blu-ray and pause each scene to really get a sense of all these influences.

Caylah Eddleblute: It would be great if people could have the time to really look closely at set designs in these times. Of course, you know as a production designer, you’re always aware that the environments that you’re creating are basically the background painting to support your characters. You want to be able to make every nuance of your set really help ground your actor and ground your director and ground your DP. When all those people really feel like they’re in an environment, it comes across on the screen. It’s basically creating that kind of background painting that everyone can feel alive in. If you can do that, you feel like you had a great day.

Nerd Reactor: What was the most exciting part about working on production design?

Caylah Eddleblute: I would say the most exciting part about working in production design on Alita was definitely the people and the crew that we were able to work with and cultivate and bring together. Alita was shot in Austin, Texas, at Troublemaker Studios, which is Robert’s facility. We had a crew of about 350 people in the art department alone. That included a crew that came from Los Angeles. It included set designers, draftsmen, construction crew and scenics. Steve and I have a facility at Troublemaker Studios where we’ve been able to build a fabrication shop. That specifically is one of the key things that really helped us bring Iron City to life in a very short schedule. From the day we first started building Iron City, that was on June 13th, 2016, I think we were shooting on October 24th, so that was exactly a four months time span to build all of Iron City. And that was a 52,000 square foot set.

We have a huge fabrication team and group of people that we’ve been able to collect together in Austin including our set decorator, set dressers, fabricators and costumes. Having all that as a resource that you can develop and really hone everybody’s abilities so that the work you do can really happen in a more rapid, efficient way. We can turn ideas around. We can prototype things if we need to change. We can make it overnight. Those are the things that are a great asset when you have everything in-house so to speak and at your disposal, as far as a CNC machine and plasma cutters and things that help you create unique elements in a set where you don’t have to worry about massive turnaround time.

Nerd Reactor: How much of it is the actual set and how much is it special effects?

Caylah Eddleblute: We had a wonderful visual effects supervisor Richard Hollander, and he’s been in the business for a very long time. It was great to work with him. We built Iron City at a height of 24 feet and that gave the opportunity, at any time that we were shooting, to be able to cover the actors, to make sure there’s always a real physical environment around the actors and that visual effects didn’t have to come in and put background behind them in the streets of Iron City and in the marketplace. That’s all real. The visual effects will come in of course. At a height after 24 feet, they come in and fill in with beautiful matte paintings with skyscrapers and lofty elements of Iron City that shows Zalem and all the buildings that create height and that kind of thing. We also, in Iron City, created certain streets and pathways that we could interchange or change out so that our city blocks could double as other city blocks at any given time. That was done by either removing a set wall or opening an area up and putting a blue screen if visual effects wanted to create a different look as if it was a different street. With that in tandem with our set dressing department coming in and redressing streets as different streets, it helped give us more bang for the buck and helped made Iron City bigger for us.

There was another element that we added, and it was something that Jon Landau got a real kick out of. We built something called the scenery bus, and it was basically a 5-ton truck that we had that we used on a previous job. We took that truck, stripped off the box on the back and built a welded frame and flaps on each side of the truck, scenic them, put dressing on them, and built wild sidewalks. At any given time we could take that (we call it the scenery bus) and bring it to the end of the street, drop it in, put in some wild sidewalks in the foreground that we brought in with a forklift, drop them in, and we had a completely different building that was literally portable and driven around on a truck.

Nerd Reactor: Do you have a favorite set?

Caylah Eddleblute: Oh my gosh, Iron City. I was enamored by Iron City. Iron City was definitely created with a number of subset neighborhoods. We had what we sort of called the older section of the city where the stone ruins are. That was painted in a very neutral palette sort of warm with greys to represent that older section. From there other elements of the city grew over the century. That’s really a section that I do love simply because it did feel historical. Of course, Ido’s Clinic, which has a pretty significant footprint in Iron City, was another favorite just architecturally. Todd Holland, our supervising art director, Al Hobbes, one of our set designers, and Paul Alix, assistant art director, were three key people creating that beautiful set to life as was our incredible scenic department who put beautiful washes and layers to really give the buildings the ability for light to really pass through the paint and feel luminous. That was a big part of how we tried to scenic Iron City.

About Alita: Battle Angel

About the film: From visionary filmmakers James Cameron (AVATAR) and Robert Rodriguez (SIN CITY), comes ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, an epic adventure of hope and empowerment. 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 doctor who realizes that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg shell 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 come after Alita that she discovers a clue to her past – she has unique fighting abilities 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.

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