Battle For Terra
BEHIND THE SCENES
BATTLE FOR TERRA: LIFT-OFF
"I often found myself more interested in the aliens' motives than our reaction to them," Tsirbas says. It was a pattern he observed in the alien-invasion genre as a whole, and it gave him an idea that flipped these conventions on their head. "If the aliens in these stories behave like us, why not just turn the tables and actually make them human, experiencing the invasion from the alien's point of view?" Tsirbas says. "And an important component of this idea was to give the invaders-us-some depth and motivation that went beyond simply being the bad guys."
Tsirbas wrote a treatment for the idea, and the seed for Battle for Terra was born. But it would be seven years before the idea would come to the big screen in its present form. In the meantime, Tsirbas (who goes by the nickname Meni) threw himself into building a career in short filmmaking and visual effects in hopes of one day realizing his idea.
One of Tsirbas' projects during this time was the 2003 animated short Terra, which won the Audience Award for Favorite Animation at the 2003 Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and the Director's Choice Award at the 2004 Black Maria Film and Video Festival, among other accolades. The short caught the attention of producer Keith Calder, who in 2004 was in the process of founding the animation and live-action production company Snoot Entertainment.
"We were looking through all the festival short winners when we came across Meni's short, Terra," Calder recalls. "We thought that the reverse alien-invasion premise was really strong. And visually, it was unlike anything we had ever seen before."
Teaming up under the Snoot banner, Tsirbas and producers Calder, Dane Allan Smith, Jessica Wu and Ryan Colucci set about developing Tsirbas' short into a full-length feature. "We came up with a treatment all of us really liked, and then screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos worked his magic and did an amazing job of fleshing it out," Jessica Wu says. "Evan had extensive experience writing for animation at Disney and other studios. Not only did he deliver an amazing script, he lent us his expertise and patience."
While Battle for Terra is first and foremost a family-friendly action adventure, it also carries potent underlying social and environmental messages. The very reason the humans take an interest in the planet Terra-a name the humans give it from the Latin word for earth-is that they have destroyed not just Earth itself, but also the human-colonized Venus and Mars in an interplanetary civil war.
"One of the reasons humans were forced to abandon Earth in the film is that they exhausted their natural resources," explains Tsirbas. "Since a large portion of the film's audience will be kids, it was important to me that the idea of conservation be included in the story. We're leaving the next generation an Earth that most respected scientists agree is going through an increasingly dangerous human-generated environmental change. Battle for Terra presents a worst-case future scenario: an inhospitable Earth that forces our race to look elsewhere in the universe for a home."
Calder says the best science fiction hits close to home and is grounded in reality. "We have always considered Battle for Terra a family film and thought that the preservation of our planet is an important topic of discussion for families everywhere," he says.
BATTLE FOR TERRA: THE JOURNEY
Three years ago, the filmmakers behind Battle for Terra were told that making a sci-fi action-adventure epic outside the studio system was "impossible." Undaunted, the team of first-time feature animation producers and untested feature animation director Aristomenis Tsirbas, set out to find out if it was true.
As far as Calder was concerned, there was never any question that Tsirbas, who attended film school at Montreal's Concordia University, would direct the film. "He did an amazing job of directing the short Terra, which was actually used as a template for a key scene in the feature-film version," says the producer. "He has lived and breathed this film for seven years. There would be no Battle for Terra without him."
Although Tsirbas originally conceived the film as a live action science-fiction epic, when the opportunity presented itself to make Battle for Terra using cutting-edge CG animation, he didn't hesitate. The animation process gave him the tools he needed to create the visually intriguing world of the Terrians, the Earthforce's vast spacecraft and the film's thrilling battle sequences-while at the same telling the story in a way that is accessible to younger children.
From the beginning, Tsirbas had very specific ideas about the look of the film. For instance, he says he wanted the character animation to skew toward the realistic, while retaining the interpretive quality of hand animation. Similarly, the camera animation intentionally emulates the limitations and imperfections of live-action setups.
Battle for Terra also uses 3D to eye-popping effect. "3D is a perfect match for this film," Tsirbas says. "The stereoscopic effect beautifully complements and enhances the immersive quality of the alien world while also heightening the kinetic nature of the battle scenes."
The film was originally created in 2D, but was shot in such a way that a second camera with editable stereo properties could be added to give a true 3D effect at any point in time. "After our success on the festival circuit and interest in distribution, we got the go ahead to bring in a small team and render the entire film once more from a second perspective," Tsirbas says. "We developed a proprietary system that gave us precise control over how we wanted the stereo effect to behave on a shot-per-shot basis."
The process was not without its challenges. Tsirbas recalls the team's palpable anxiety as they created a pipeline to connect two very different CG software programs-LightWave 3D and Maya-in order to take advantage of the two package's strengths in rendering and character animation, respectively. "After extensive scripting and problem solving, we sent our very first shot through the pipeline and, to our utter amazement, it worked perfectly," the director recalls. "We all kind of looked at each other in disbelief. It was exactly then that I knew for sure this supposedly impossible project was going see its final cut."
Calder applauds Tsirbas' approach to the 3D process, saying the director chose to apply three dimensional effects in a seamless way that lends to the unique quality of the film. "Under the direction of someone else, Battle for Terra would be full of easy 3D tricks to grab at the audience, but Meni chose to integrate the 3D in a way that doesn't take you out of the story but pulls you deeper inside the world of Terra," Calder says.
True to the mission of Snoot Entertainment, which independently develops, finances and produces both live-action films and CG-animated features, Battle for Terra boasts studio-quality production values but was made for much less than a comparable studio film. That was made possible in part by the company's hands-on approach to producing.
"We're not afraid of getting our hands really, really dirty," Calder says, adding that crew size is also a factor. "We specifically chose to have a small crew, so that everyone involved, from the artists to the director and producers, had a lot of creative input into making this film," he says.
Tsirbas also credits past experience in another medium with increasing the crew's efficiency. "It certainly helped that much of the crew and I have been involved in television for several years leading up to this film," he says. "This aided us in getting the most bang for our independently-financed buck. We employed many of the cheats and tricks learned along the way to make this film appear a bit bigger than it actually was budget-wise."
In service of greater efficiency-and artistic quality-the filmmakers decided to keep the production local, setting up an independent animation studio in Los Angeles as opposed to going offshore, as many animated feature and series productions do.
"It was important to us make this movie in L.A. because of the incredible talent pool of artists that exists right here in our city," says Wu, adding that the team made a point of hiring people who were far more experienced than they were to help shape the vision of an animation studio. "While for some films it may be more cost-effective to go offshore, it didn't make sense to us because our creative process is very linear, and sending away the work would have muddled that process," she says. "By keeping it small and local we hopefully were able to have better communication between everyone creatively involved and a happier work environment."
To create the film's unique sound design, the filmmakers turned to a small team of gifted artists and technicians assembled by Wow and Flutter, an award-winning post-production facility in nearby Santa Monica. "Remember that every sound had to be designed, often from scratch, for two extremely different worlds, so the challenge was enormous," says Tsirbas. "The final mix is very detailed, covering every event onscreen and quite a bit off to broaden the perceived scope of the film, adding substance to every frame."
Tsirbas says he was blown away when he saw the completed film in full 3D paired with the final Dolby 5.1 surround mix for the first time. "The sound design was done with a great amount of taste, attention to detail and even restraint," he says. "None of the effects feel misplaced or distracting."
Calder says he was equally wowed by Wow and Flutter's work. "They attacked the project with passion, making sure every single spaceship fly-by had the perfect sound and was in stereo, that every single movement of the robot Giddy was unique, and that the world of Terra felt alien and not just like another version of Earth," he says.
For the film's musical score, the filmmakers tapped Polish-born composer Abel
Korzeniowski, who is best known for his 2004 soundtrack for the Fritz Lang-directed 1927 silent sci-fi classic Metropolis. Wu says Battle for Terra music supervisor Bryan Lawson raved about Korzeniowski from the get-go-and with good reason.
"When we listened to Abel's score for Metropolis, we knew that he had the unique compositional voice we had been looking for," Wu recalls, adding that the composer used such unusual instrumentation as glass harmonicas and 7-foot drums to build the world of the Terrians. "He was able to give us the familiar feel of a traditional action-adventure score while also having a fresh other-worldly sound that breathed life into the world of Terra."
Calder says everyone involved in the making of Battle for Terra took the project as a chance to try to do something remarkable. "We might have made some mistakes along the way, but we learned from those mistakes and from the people we worked with," he says. "We set out to make a low-budget, high-quality CGI film, entirely produced and animated in Los Angeles. Three years later, we can say that we have done the 'impossible.' Now, with the knowledge and experience we've gained, we can't wait to do it all over again."
THE VOICES OF TERRA
With screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos' finished script in hand, the filmmakers had little problem attracting an extraordinary voice cast, including such acclaimed actors as Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler, Down in the Valley), Luke Wilson (3:10 to Yuma, Blades of Glory), Brian Cox (Zodiac, The Bourne Supremacy) and David Cross (Kung Fu Panda, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
The first actor to commit to the project was Cox, who voices the character of General Hemmer. "He read the script and really responded strongly to our environmentally themed message," Calder says. "Once everyone knew we had an actor of his caliber onboard, we were able to assemble a cast around him. Even though he plays the film's villain, he was able to convey such depth in his performance that he made even a war-hungry general seem relatable."
As the rebellious and heroic teen-aged Terrian Mala, Rachel Wood's performance is very much the heart and anchor of Battle for Terra, Calder says. "We recorded her part first, so every other actor was able to work off her emotionally pitch-perfect performance," he says. "Through her voice alone, she is able to make everyone feel her tears, her laughter and her fear."
Luke Wilson (3:10 to Yuma, Blades of Glory) plays the role of the downed human pilot who befriends Mala, Jim Stanton. Calder says the role has the greatest character arc of all. "With his everyday guy charisma, Luke added to this role a grounded reality," Calder says. "Through his performance, we realize that any one of us could be called upon to make difficult choices, and it's these decisions that really define who we are. Only Luke, with his reluctant hero charm, could take this character and have him grow into someone who has the strength to stand against his brother and his people, and to do what is right."
Calder notes that the role of Jim Stanton's brother, Stewart, is one of the hardest in the film to pull off because he represents the "follower" in times of war. But Chris Evans (Push, Sunshine) carried out the task of portraying such a potentially unlikable character in a way that inspires a degree of empathy. "Luckily, Chris is one of the most charismatic and caring actors out there. He took this role and really fleshed it out and allowed for the audience to understand his character and the decisions that he makes within the film."
Danny Glover (Shooter, The Royal Tenenbaums) also immediately responded to the thematic message of preserving our environment and nonviolence, recalls the producer. "It would have been easy for us to slide into portraying the humans as two-dimensional ruthless invaders, but Glover's incredibly empathetic performance ensures that the humans are represented in as richly fleshed out a way as possible. His role as President Chen is that of a leader who is torn between the survival of his species and doing what is right."
James Garner (The Notebook, Space Cowboys) plays the role of Doron, the leader of the peaceful alien species. "We were all unanimous about trying to get James to play this role," Calder recalls. "Only an actor of his long and varied career could pull this role off with the gravitas and kindness needed."
For the role of Maria Montez, an Earthforce scientist who is against General Hemmer's invasion plan, the filmmakers felt that Amanda Peet (Syriana, A Lot Like Love) was a natural fit. "With every role that she plays, she shows a quiet intelligence and a strong independent spirit, and she delivers those same qualities in our film," Calder says.
For the role of Jim Stanton's canine-esque sidekick bot, Giddy, actor-comedian David Cross (Kung Fu Panda, Arrested Development) was chosen. "David is one of the funniest men alive today," Calder says. "He can read html code and it's hilarious. But more than just being funny, he is very environmentally conscious and incredibly smart, so when we were trying to cast for the role of Giddy, we looked no further."
The ever-charismatic Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point, Traffic) plays the nuanced role of Mala's father, Roven. "In his scenes with Evan Rachel Wood, you really are able to feel the connection between them," Calder observes. "Although it is never explicitly stated, the film implies that Mala's mother has passed away, and Dennis was able to convey this loss without ever saying the words. You completely understand how close his character has become with his daughter since his wife's passing."
The hip, youthful face of Apple Computer, Justin Long (He's Just Not That Into You, Zack and Miri Make a Porno) plays the role of Senn, Mala's best friend. "He is in many ways the counterpart to Chris Evan's role," Calder says. "He, too, plays the follower, but through his improvisational skills and heart-tugging performances, Justin can make us feel for him even when we don't like the decisions he is making."
For Tsirbas, one of the memorable moments of the production came during the session in which Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Alien: Resurrection) lent his distinctive baritone to a small role as the alien elder Vorin. "He graciously thanked us for the opportunity to work on the film since he's a big sci-fi fan," Tsirbas recalls. "I found this epically ironic. After all, he was Hellboy and we were a struggling indie production."