“Battle for Terra” is a 3D animated picture about an invasion force that attacks a peaceful planet. But it’s different from most others in that the invaders are human survivors from a destroyed earth. And in that it’s a small independent picture rather than a big studio production. During a recent Dallas visit, director Aristomenis Tsirbas, who also fashioned the story, talked about its genesis in a premise which he then turned into a short film.
“The short was based on an idea I’d come up with after fifteen years ago of taking the concept of alien invasion and deepening the motives of the aliens, because I thought a lot of those films were very one-dimensional,” Tsirbas said. “And at that point came the idea the aliens’ behavior would parallel historically what humans had done over the last few centuries. That’s pretty organically where the idea came from, to turn the premise a hundred and eighty degrees and have us be the aggressors, and look at both sides with a degree of compassion….[The] short film kind of distilled the idea of my feature film treatment [and] did two things—it was a calling-card for the feature film and functions as a short film itself….Out of that we got some interest for the feature film.
“I wanted it to feel like a classic alien-invasion film,” he continued, “where things are fairly simple and straightforward, pure good and pure evil, and then to show that doesn’t exist in the real world—there’s no such thing as pure good and pure evil, there are always shades of gray, there’s always history, there’s always doubt, always argument and controversy. So with the Terrians, I wanted them to feel idyllic and simple, but then [show] that they are that way because they had a very violent past, and they wanted to get away from that, so they covered it up. So that’s why it was revealed slowly over time. And as we learn more about the humans, we realize that there’s debate, there’s concern…is this the right course of action? That was an intentional dynamic of the film. The more you live in a different culture or experience something new, you realize there’s always something deeper, below the surface.
““When you look at the film you think, ‘Oh, this is all about humans being the bad guys.’ We’re not—our backs are against the wall, and we feel we have no other choice. That’s where the theme of the film comes out of, which is when you’re presented with what seems to be a mutually exclusive moral dilemma—do one thing and you will perish, do another thing and an entire other race will perish—you have this impossible choice. What the film says is, think about it some more, and there’s going to be a third choice, where you don’t have to resort to such extreme measures.”
And as the project proceeded to production, many facets changed along the way.
“It was initially conceived as a live-action film, a dramatic adventure,” Tsirbas explained. “And when we realized that it was impossible to make it live-action and CGI with the budget that we had and with the caliber that I wanted to achieve aesthetically, we decided to make it animation.
“First, since the budget was so low, I thought I wanted to make it a quirky, ‘Triplets of Belleville in Space’ kind of film. But when the producers saw the first tests come back with the animation, they felt as though the film had great potential for broader appeal. And so we modified things again so that it could be more appealing to a broader audience. As a result you have a film that kind of pushes and tries to expand the general idea of what animation is. Generally animated films are thought of as family-oriented comedy, light fare, at least in North America. I think we have a ways to go to expand the conception of that, and I’m hoping this film, in a small way, helps in the perception that animation is not a genre but an art form and can be anything—even for kids’ animation. This film is very much made for the younger generation, because it’s basically about taking care of the world you live in, the fragility of the world you live in, and the younger generation is inheriting a bit of a problem with our world and they need to make sure that they take care of the fragile ecology of the planet. That’s really meant for them. So it made sense to make it an animated film, and make it for kids. Kids have an appetite for this kind of film these days.”
Nor was the film intended to be in 3D. “I initially wanted to make the film in 3D, but we couldn’t sell it to the investors at the time,” Tsirbas recalled. “This was a few years ago, so 3D didn’t have the cachet and the marketability and the awareness it does now. But I still felt that maybe one day toward the end of production this could be changed to 3D, so I just laid down certain restrictions during production so that one day it could be turned into 3D. And that meant rendering it in a way thinking that the current render is actually the left eye, and that one day maybe we would add a second camera which would make the right eye, because that’s what 3D is—two perspectives. So that meant avoiding certain things that might give it away or make rendering from another perspective difficult, such as paint fixes or weird rotoscoping or 2D tricks like painting that might give away that it’s fake in 3D. Just making such that technically we could go back and re-render it any time from a second perspective. It couldn’t have worked as a live-action film. Because what we needed to do was re-render the entire film, basically re-film it, to go back to every shot, reload it into our computers, and play it back exactly as it was initially final, over and over again. You can’t do that with live-action. You can’t go back and re-film it and get exactly the same performances. There’s no way.
“So with all those precautions put in during production, it was designed so that at any point we could convert the film to 3D. And it happened actually after a rough premiered at Toronto in late 2007. It was well received, and we started getting interest in distribution at that point, so in early 2008 we went in and finished the film, polished it up, did the sound design, and at that point I opened my mouth and said, ‘By the way, we can actually convert it to 3D, and it’s not going to be a nightmare.’ And at that point people got really excited. So we added another three months to the schedule and converted the film into 3D by going in and adding a second camera, and doing a lot of R&D and coming up with a philosophy as to what kind of 3D we wanted. Because I feel that 3D is here to stay, and it’s only going to get less intrusive in terms of the glasses. And so we wanted to make sure that we treated it not as a gimmick, but as a way of complementing and assisting in telling the story. It’s about story, not about gimmicks. And I think that the 3D works in tandem with the story in this case. The film plays about the same in 2D as in 3D. It’s the exact same story, the same film—it’s just that in 3D you feel a little bit more immersed in the world. It’s a little bit more realistic. It’s like the difference between looking at a picture and looking at a Viewmaster. The Viewmaster has a little more depth. It just has that added element of—literally—dimensionality.”
As the release date approached, Tsirbas said it was a new experience for him—“euphoric, but nerve-wracking at the same time. Euphoric because it’s a dream come true for any filmmaker to have his film released wide. And at the same time, the stakes are so high in this case. This film is being released pretty big, and it’s a tiny little independent film, and yet there’s all this wonderful support behind it, and it’s kind of scary, because it’s out there now, and I have no control over it. We have no idea how it’s going to do. I’m a little nervous, and yet at the same time I’m thrilled.”