Animated Shorts - The Battle for 'Battle For Terra'

Science fiction and animation have never been the easiest of bedfellows, especially when it comes to feature films.

For every sci-fi film that scales the heights of the galaxy, such as Wall*E and Savage Planet, more get sucked into black holes, such as Treasure Planet, Atlantis, Titan AE, and Heavy Metal. Yes, you can argue that Japanese anime has bucked the trends, ranging from Akira to Ghost In the Shell, but on the other hand, anime is more of a home video, niche market success story. Anime doesn't often make a big dent in the domestic box office.

Still, there are those who keep attempting to buck the trend. The latest is rookie director Aristomenis Tsirbas. His first film, Battle For Terra, hits the big screen May 1, thanks to distributors Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate.

Story wise, Terra is an ambitious tale combining elements of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Battlestar Galactica, and a little bit of Laloux’s La Planette Sauvage. It’s the tale of two races. The first is humanity, whose worlds were destroyed in a civil war. The other race is on a planet we humans name Terra. Humanity has ambitions of terra-forming and colonizing Terra. Terra-forming their world will lead to the Terrians' extinction. Will the two races coming to some sort of accord or will it lead to the ultimate destruction of another planet?

If attempting to put such a high concept story into film isn’t challenging enough, try doing it with a budget less than one tenth of studios such as Pixar, Dreamworks, or Blue Sky.

“I think that’s why there aren’t too many independent, animated feature films being released,” Tsirbas acknowledges. “They are quite complex endeavors. It also doesn’t help we did it with a limited budget and schedule.”

It’s not that Tsirbas is a complete rookie. Originally hailing from Montreal, he has been working his way up the cinematic ladder for the last ten years, both as a special effects artist (on such films as James Cameron’s Titanic) and creator of a few notable shorts, particularly his 2002 effort “The Freak.” He found out he still had a lot to learn with Terra.

“It’s completely different from something I’ve done before,” said Tsirbas. “Whether it’s making short films or doing special effects, the difference between them and a feature film is it’s easier to do ten short films in a row than one feature. A feature is exponentially more complicated. There’s a lot more tracking involved. It meant being intelligent in every stage of the production.

“For example the alien designs purposely had no hair or feet, which saved tens of thousands on production costs. I was responsible for creating 80 percent of the models, camera work, and lighting ahead of full production while things were still relatively inexpensive. This again saved a tremendous amount of time and money. During production, a small 20-person crew worked in a single room with me nearby, so communication was quick and efficient. Finally, we adhered to a very aggressive schedule that involved approving shots every week and a limited number of rounds of notes.”

Another important element was work delegation.

“Delegation is integral in any film production,” said Tsirbas. “In my case that meant knowing each artist's job as best as I could, being clear and decisive with notes, and finally trusting the considerably talented animation crew to get the job done. There was less time than usual for exploratory work when we were in the thick of production, so it was important that I knew what I wanted and effectively communicated that to the team.”

As for the story itself, H.G. Wells wasn’t the only key influence. Tsirbas brings up classic golden age writers such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. It becomes readily apparent when he places equal value to the science of his story as well as his fiction.

“The Terrian design came from two mutually inclusive places,” he explains. “First was the idea to take advantage of CGI and its potential to go beyond the 'man in a suit' look. So the concept of a race of buoyant helium breathers came from that design freedom, yielding a very alien look but with relatable components such as eyes and a mouth. Second was economy. Since they had no legs, animation was much quicker than having to deal with the more complex kinematics required in achieving proper walk and run cycles.

“The alien design, especially architecturally, was intentionally opposite to the human's cold, run-down, hard-edged look. The Terrians lived in word made of in raw materials formed into free-flowing curves which extended culturally to their strong ties with their immediate environment.”

Interestingly enough, when Battlestar Galactica is brought up in relation to humanity, Tsirbas had his own point on the matter.

“If you're referring to the latest incarnation of Battlestar Galactica then no, it wasn’t an influence,” he stated. “Our project's story and design was developed prior to the broadcast of that series. My strongest influences were the ground-breaking and often politically charged science fiction films of the early late 60's and early 70's such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and Silent Running.”

As for finally seeing the film hit the big screen?

“I feel both excited and nervous,” Tsirbas admits. “We're the film equivalent of 'David' to the big studio's ‘Goliath'; so we're facing an uphill battle. However I mostly I feel enormous gratitude. This is the ultimate dream for so many directors and animators. So I make sure to appreciate every moment of this incredible and often heightened journey. It's also a reassuring vote of confidence to have such esteemed companies as Lionsgate and Roadside backing us. They've done a tremendous job getting the word out and securing a large number of screens with our limited budget.”

As for his next project, Tsirbas won’t exactly say what, but he doesn’t seem too concerned.

“I'm currently developing a slate of projects that'll shape the next few years of my directing career,” he said. “They range from live-action drama to CG fantasy and quite a bit in between. I don't know which project will strike first so unfortunately I can't tell you exactly what's next. In this business nothing is certain until you're on your first day of production. I'll I can hope for is the honor of continuing to make films. I've learned so much making Battle For Terra, and intend to apply that experience on the next project so that I can continually improve grow as a film-maker.”

If anything, it sounds like a young director’s career will take off this Friday.

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