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Tag Archive: Weta Digital


Review by C.J. Bunce

A behind the scenes book for a 2019 movie, which consists of a third or more of its images from 2005?  As fascinating as the special effects developed for the film, the history of the movie merits its own book, and it gets it in Abbie Bernstein‘s Alita: Battle Angel–The Art and Making of the Movie, now out from Titan Books.  It turns out executive producer James Cameron and artists were working on the pre-production of Alita: Battle Angel during the development of his film Avatar.  According to interviews with Cameron and Alita director Robert Rodriguez, in the early 2000s the technology was not yet advanced to deliver what they wanted for their adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga novel.  But now that it’s arrived, fans of the film can trace its development over the past 15 years.

Alita: Battle Angel–The Art and Making of the Movie is filled with concept art, split between 2005 digital ideas in advance of knowing what actors might be cast and final characters developed, and a renewed look at the project as it began to get fully underway only a few years ago.  Key interviews with Rodriguez, Cameron, producer Jon Landau, production designers Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner, art director Todd Holland, visual effects supervisors Richard Hollander and Eric Saindon, costume designer Nina Proctor, Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri, and others tell the story–a marriage of practical effects and CGI.  In fact the commenters almost seem to have a battle between those responsible between the practical effects and CGI–all with an eye toward realism.  The most interesting aspects of the discussion are the incorporation of Alita star Rosa Salazar’s motion capture (or per Rodriguez, “performance capture” since motion doesn’t include the “emotion” element required to make a story come together) with Proctor’s real-world costumes, and the CGI layering that ends up as the final image that made it to the screen.

No doubt a highlight of the film and of the book are detailed images of Alita’s cyborg body shell, as created by the character of Dr. Ido in the film.  In real life it looks incredibly porcelain, but the artists discuss how the body and all the components of the film were actually fabricated.  The commenters don’t reference their inspirations for the look of the Iron City in the film or its cyborg inhabitants, but fans of the genre will no doubt see the influences–from the borg designs to story elements–from films including Chappie, Elysium, District 9, Ex Machina, Ghost in the Shell, Mad Max: Fury Road, Cameron’s The Terminator, and even the light cycles of Tron.  Readers will learn more about the science behind the cyborgs in the film–how Cameron and others estimated weights of body parts, including Alita’s removable metal heart, as an example–all needed for 3D and CGI work and viewer believability.

Take a look inside Alita: Battle Angel–The Art and Making of the Movie courtesy of the publisher:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We have a review of the first of three tie-in books to the new Robert Rodriguez film Alita: Battle Angel coming your way.  Alita: Battle Angel should appeal to any fan of cyborgs–the story as envisioned by James Cameron was a pet project of the director for several years, one he’d picked up from Guillermo del Toro.  When Cameron decided to pursue management of his several Avatar sequels directly and finally handed over the project to Rodriguez he did so with more than 600 pages of notes he’d prepared.  The film is an adaptation of the manga Battle Angel: Alita by Yukito Kishiro, a story about self-discovery and empowerment via a centuries-old human brain that finds its way into the cybernetic body of a young girl.  A part-time doctor, part-time bounty hunter, Doctor Ido, played in the film by two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, takes center stage in Alita: Battle Angel–Doctor Ido’s Journal, the new release by writer Nick Aires for Titan Books.

After losing his human daughter’s struggle to live, the Dr. Frankenstein-inspired Dr. Ido finds the “core” of a cyborg in a scrapyard with a surviving, living human brain.  He uses the prosthetics and futuristic body parts he’d designed for his daughter to rebuild a new girl, quasi-Pinocchio style, naming her Alita after his daughter.  The sci-fi story follows Alita as she tries to learn about her past and survive in a dystopian world that mixes inspirations from John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, Neill Blomkamp, and George Miller.  The visions of each of these directors’ best futuristic films comes through in Doctor Ido’s Journal, an in-universe document which reprints concept art, sketches, and photographs from the film, combining them with a diary entry narrative written by Aires in the place of Dr. Ido.  Doctor Ido’s Journal will be familiar to fans of Aires’ past in-universe books, including Oliver Queen’s Dossier, S.T.A.R. Labs: Cisco Ramon’s Journal, and Arrow: Heroes and Villains and works by others reviewed here, including Alien: The Weyland-Yutani Report, The Book of Alien: Augmented Reality Survival Manual, and the Batman v Superman Tech ManualFans will first find a cleverly designed flex-cover that mimics metal (a great design effect that would make for an attractive blank journal), followed by pages of dense notebook entries that track the action of the film, all from Dr. Ido’s perspective.

The artwork is exceptional, vivid engineering-level drawings like those found in Mark Salisbury’s Elysium: The Art of the Film, reviewed here at borg, and the combination of horror and beauty found in production artists Dan Hallett and Matt Hatton’s elaborate designs in Alien: Covenant: David’s Drawings, reviewed here (it’s worth noting the Weta Digital created much of the designs for both Alita: Battle Angel and Elysium, and the similarly realized scrap-metal worlds of Blomkamp’s District 9 and CHAPPIE).  At times the gear-heavy animatronics inside the cyborgs echo the real-world 19th century automaton past of these creations, making these modern borgs into something that feels almost steampunk.

Here are some preview pages from Alita: Battle Angel–Doctor Ido’s Journal courtesy of the publisher:

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One of the under-the-radar previews at this weekend’s San Diego Comic-Con was for the new James Cameron/Robert Rodriguez/Jon Landau sci-fi film, Alita: Battle Angel.  If you compare the trailer previewed Friday night at Horton Plaza’s Regal Theater to the earlier teaser from last December (see both below) you will see a stark difference, with clear improvements made in the interim in post-production, especially with the CGI face and movements for Alita the lead borg character in the film, with motion capture performance by Rosa Salazar.  Director Robert Rodriguez and producer and Oscar-winner Jon Landau headlined the panel Friday with Salazar and Keean Johnson, who plays Hugo.

WETA featured an Alita display at their booth. Hundreds of WETA Digital creators worked on the film.

Based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga comic Battle Angel Alita, the adaptation follows a doctor, played by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, whose character is the latest Geppetto, creating Alita, a cybernetic girl.  The screenplay, written by James Cameron, takes the common borg origin sub-genre of science fiction (Frankenstein, Pinocchio, Edward Scissorhands, Ghost in the Shell, etc.), to make the next sci-fi warrior heroine.  The film co-stars Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, and Jeff Fahey.

Check out the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

This weekend sci-fi and fantasy fans finally get to see French director Luc Besson’s singular vision decades in the planning as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets arrives in theaters.  An adaptation of the fifty-year-old, popular, French comic book series Valerian and Laureline, the film delivers in a magnificent, grandiose way only Besson could deliver.  As with his sci-fi classic The Fifth Element, Besson–who also directed Lucy, The Professional, and La Femme Nikita–has added another genre-defining film to the list of must-see sci-fi movies.  If there’s any criticism due, it may be that the film in places is too much like The Fifth Element, but where Valerian falls short, it makes up for it with wall to wall action and alien creations that look nothing like anything Hollywood has ever produced.  It’s rounded out with spectacular production design by Hugues Tissandier (Lucy, Taken, The Transporter) and a riveting score by composer Alexandre Desplat (The Golden Compass, Argo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

  • Best use of 3D cinematography in a movie to date?  Check.
  • Best visual depiction of strange new worlds and new alien life in a film to date?  Check.
  • Best hold-onto-your-seats spaceship rides through these strange new places?  Check.

Credit Besson, WETA Digital, Industrial Light and Magic, and hundreds of other visual effects, special effects, make-up, costume and prop creators–Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like nothing you’ve seen.  Combine 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and The Fifth Element, and you’ll have an idea of Besson’s big screen epic filled with all sorts of wonderful images.

Valerian is a snapshot of a day in progress in the life of two cocky space pilots.  The leads are two attractive, snarky and sassy, young and very modern, would-be lovers in a typical “will they or won’t they” set up–Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-man 2, True Blood), and Laureline, played by model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne (Suicide Squad, Anna Karenina).  Besson peppers the landscape of the big action sequences with the bare threads of their relationship, showing us if their relationship has room to be anything else beyond mere partners.  Beyond their through-line is a race to uncover the mystery behind an Avatar-inspired race of willowy peacelovers ravaged by war.  How are they related to a vision seen by Valerian, and are these peaceful people really the good guys or the bad guys?  But most of the time Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets is a non-stop rollercoaster ride as the leads assemble clues and rescue each other a time or two, as they try also to rescue a missing commander and uncover the mystery behind two unusual items in their possession: a rare magical pearl and a wide-eyed, pint-sized creature with extraordinary abilities.

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Hobbit Art & Design cover fifth volume

Review by C.J. Bunce

A wealth of concept art for The Hobbit can be found in the fifth volume of Weta’s Chronicles series: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Art & Design.  Writer and Weta artist and designer Daniel Falconer again delivers a stunning hardcover account of the behind-the-scenes artistry that forged the last of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth series.

Including much more pencil sketchwork and inspirations for the cities of The Hobbit than prior volumes, this edition showcases many designs that made it into the final film but also many that did not.  It’s those pieces that did not make it to the final cut of the film that form a rare treasure trove here.  As costume designer Bob Buck writes in he book, “The designs that were never realized are as important as the ones that were, being part of the process and representing the elimination or germination of an idea that grew into the visuals as seen on the screen.”  Buck provides valuable insight into the ideas behind many of the costumes in the film along with many other Weta designers and special effects artists, including concept art director John Howe.

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Highlights of this volume give a detailed look at concept sketchs and paintings from Weta Digital, 3Foot7, and Weta Workshop of Galadriel’s Maxfield Parrish-esque costume design development from her descent into Dol Guldur, and the ghostly dead Ringwraith kings and the Necromancer, who at many times appeared as if he could have been designed by Bernie Wrightson or Frank Frazetta.  Costume designs featured include the elegant Thranduil, Elven soldiers, Bard, an unused but brilliant set of armor for Stephen Fry’s mayor of Lake-town, and every angle and type of Dwarf you could imagine.  Not surprisingly, it is the culture and artistry of Dwarves that fill the bulk of the pages here.

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Hobbit Smaug Unleashing the Dragon cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

To learn what advancements are happening in technical moviemaking, you can always turn to Weta Workshop and Weta Digital.  For the latest in cutting edge film work, you need only turn to the latest book on The Hobbit film series from Weta, its step by step chronicle of the development of the greatest dragon in all of fantasy, Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon.  As a supplement of sorts to their grand Chronicles series detailing the creative story of The Hobbit, Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon is the first look at a single element of the franchise, peeling back the development of one character in all its tiny details and from all vantage points.

A smaller dimension book at 8×10 inches compared to the double size and thickness of the Chronicles series, this format is well suited for similar spin-off works–perhaps a single book on each race in Middle-earth one day?  But like its counterparts, Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon is dense in both text and photos.  Every designer, art director, sculptor, modeller, texture artist, and animator that provided new ideas and elements to arrive at the final creature offer commentary about their thought process and their collaboration with others.

Smaug Unleashing the Dragon excerpt

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Art of the Films Planet of the Apes cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

We all know the apes win and rule the Earth from the original novel and film Planet of the Apes.  But how do they get there?

Not intended as a post-apocalyptic story as much as a chronicle of the birth of an ape civilization, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its July 2014 sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are films that manage to have no villains–by design–where the viewer can empathize with both the human and ape characters equally based on the characters’ histories and individual viewpoints.  Writers Sharon Gosling and Adam Newell have created a deluxe volume documenting the art and design of both movies with the newly released Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of Planet of the Apes.

The Planet of the Apes reboot was an outgrowth of the technologies emerging from Weta New Zealand’s work on The Lord of the Rings franchise, coupled with Andy Serkis’s experience playing Gollum as a motion capture character, and later the giant gorilla King Kong, Serkis was uniquely suited for the role of the sci-fi classic character Caesar from the original novel and film.  The crew credits the acting and chemistry of Serkis and co-star James Franco in part with the success of the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

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The challenge for the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?  For the first time in film history, digital characters finalized in a post-production process would be realized by total performance motion capture of actors initially, and not on a separate green screen soundstage, but alongside live-action characters on a standard movie set as well as on location.

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Hobbit book Chronicles from Weta

We have reviewed many incredible books about movies here at borg.com.  Beginning with Special Effects: The History and Technique and its master class in film study to the book on movie posters The Art of Drew Struzan, to the recent Syfy Channel Book of Sci-fi, we have discussed a variety of the very best books on films and filmmaking, but also the best books on specific productions that the market has to offer.  If you missed them, here are links to some of the best books out there:

Each of these books had great content and a great way of sharing it with the reader, making for an immersive experience for the true fan.  And there are even more great books in our review pile, from Raiders of the Lost Ark and even more from Star Wars.  Then we laid our hands on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Chronicles: Art and Design, thanks to the folks at Weta.  In my view Weta is the best magic and fantasy shop in the world.  Where we once were dazzled by the spectacles created by Industrial Light and Magic as the coolest, newest cutting edge movie factory, since The Lord of the Rings trilogy ILM has been replaced by the artists, the painters, designers, sculptors, modelers, costumers and builders at Weta studios in New Zealand.  Their elaborate sets, props, costumes, make-up–you name it–in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made for the most incredible fantasy world put on film.  Ever.  So it’s awesome that Weta put together a book that not only highlights The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s wondrous creations, but the actual artists that made it all happen.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Chronicles: Art and Design was compiled by Weta Workshop senior concept designer Daniel Falconer.  In itself it has the look and feel of a prop from the film, from its finely tooled cover to its pull-out, glow in the dark Thorin’s map inside the front cover to the three page fold-out of Bilbo’s contract.  It’s the first book in a series to cover different artistic aspects of The Hobbit movies.  Containing 1,000 images of concept art, sketches, a cross-section of the 9,000 paintings created for The Hobbit, props, costumes, hair designs, and sets, it reveals the vision behind the Weta departments that created them.  Unlike any book I have seen before, it has a key code that credits each department, designer, or artist that developed what you see in the photos.  Some of these are tried and discarded face applications and wigs, like this one for the dwarf Oin:

Hobbit chronicles Oin spread

Other pages focus on characters’ props, including pencil designs, paintings, and detail that any cosplayer would love to delve into for his or her favorite character, like these hand props for the dwarf Ori:

Hobbit Chronicles props

Other pages show the elaborate costume designs.  And all include commentary by the artists who came up with concepts and designs.  Production designer and Academy Award winner Dan Hennah sums up why this focus on the artists make so much sense: “Film is a collaborative medium and requires the complete attention of every person involved to find the images that will make the final cut.  Each artist is encouraged to bring their individual vision to the project and work it in with others to make a cohesive part of the big picture…. For a fantasy movie to succeed, it must transport the viewer into a totally believable world where Dwarves, Dragons, Wizards, Elves, Goblins, Orcs, Trolls and hobbits all exist in a seamless mix of complimentary environments.”

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The book begins with views of Hobbiton, which had to be re-created from The Lord of the Rings in exacting detail and fleshed out for expanded use in The Hobbit.  We find Bilbo and his costume designs and concept art for Bag End.  It moves on to Thorin and his band of dwarves in comparison art showing final designs down to each dwarf’s boots.  Dwarf by dwarf we’re given access to trial shots of each dwarf, all used to develop the final look for the film.  Each belt, purse, sword and shield is shown for each character, again, with explanations why one design was chosen over others from Dan Hennah, “3 foot 7” Costume Designer Ann Maskrey, Academy Award Winners Peter King, and “3 foot 7” Make-up and Hair Designer and Weta Workshop’s Design and Special Effects Supervisor Richard Taylor.

Hobbit contract in Weta Chronicles

The book then turns to the flashback scenes of historic dwarves, of ancient battles and armor designs.  We get an introduction to Radagast the Brown, the new wizard we meet in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  Two chapters turn to environments chosen, from real life cliffs modified digitally for scene use to a revisit to the elf town of Rivendell.  And we get to see up close trolls, stone giants, and goblins, including the thoughts behind the development of the hideous Great Goblin, and a look at the familiar Gollum.

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The book showcases the art of concept art directors Alan Lee and John Howe, and work from the several artists of the film’s “3 foot 7” Art Department, Costume Department and Weta Workshop–dozens of creative filmmakers who live and work in Wellington, New Zealand.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Chronicles: Art and Design  can be purchased from Weta at their website here.  Their second volume, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Chronicles: Creatures and Characters will be published in April 2013 and we will preview it here at borg.com.  It can be pre-ordered now here.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com