Battle for Terra

The director talks about the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release of his animated sci-fi epic

This September 22nd, director Aristomenis Tsirbas' original sci-fi animated epic Battle for Terra hits both DVD and Blu-ray for the first time. The film tells the story of Senn (Justin Long) and Mala (Evan Rachel Wood), two rebellious alien teens living on the beautiful planet Terra, a place that promotes peace and tolerance, having long ago rejected war and weapons of mass destruction. But when human beings fleeing a civil war and environmental catastrophe invade Terra, the planet is plunged into chaos. During the upheaval, Mala befriends an injured human pilot (Luke Wilson) and each learns the two races are not so different from one another. Together they must face the terrifying realization that in a world of limited resources, only one of their races is likely to survive. We recently caught up with Tsirbas to discuss this stunning CGI achievement. Here is what the director had to say:

Is it true that for this DVD release you've gone back and CGI'd in more hair on some of the characters?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: (Laughs) That sounds like a joke. The film is identical from the theatrical release to the DVD. But there are a lot of bald characters. That was one of the many cost saving measures for this super low budget film.

But it makes sense. Most of the human characters are in the military, so they wouldn't have hair anyway.

Aristomenis Tsirbas: It's funny. This being a super-Indie film, we were looking for ways to cut corners, but cut them in a way that the audience wouldn't know they were cost saving measures. The loss of hair was one of them. Both the humans and the aliens in this film have a certain lack of hair. Of course, there are a couple of human characters that have hair. We had to make it feel realistic. We have a female character that has hair, and a General that has some hair tucked up under his hat.

Terra is based on an original concept and live-action short that you created. Why the decision to do the full-length film in animation, and will we get to see the original short on the DVD?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: The short was actually done in all CGI. It was a proof of concept. The original idea was to have this done in live action. The reason we went with CGI is because when we finally got the funding for the film, there was no way it could have been done in live action. Not on the budget we had. Filming live action people and putting them in a photorealistic environment couldn't be achieved with our means. What we did instead was make it all CGI and pull back on the realism. We decided to stylize everything. We took a chance, and made a film that had more dramatic elements than one would expect in an animated film. There is a lot of stuff on the DVD. There is a making of. There are deleted scenes. I don't think the short film is on the DVD for legal reasons.

You made this film with a crew of about twenty people. What were some of the challenges you faced having such limited resources at your disposal?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: There were a few things. We didn't have a proper crew. We didn't have costume designers, or animation designers, or lighters. No camera people. All of that fell on me. A year before production, I tried to figure out as much of that stuff as possible. We tried to save a lot of money by having me and a couple of interns go in and model about sixty percent of the film. We did the CGI modeling and the rough texturing. I was responsible for the lighting and the camera. That saved a lot of money up front. It was just four people completing a rough pass of the movie. When we brought in the crew, we had a very definite template of what the film was going to be. The first half was already edited. We weren't wasting much time at that point changing things. We went straight into production. Various other decisions were made in the early stages. If you look at the aliens, they float and breathe in the air. They keep to the helium in the atmosphere, and they are buoyant. Because of that buoyancy, and their mermaid like tails, we were able to save a lot on the animation time. Because as it turns out, having someone walk across the room is a hard thing to pull off in animation. There are a lot of subtleties going on there. If you don't get it just right, you will definitely notice it. Having someone float across the screen is something we can play with more quickly, and people won't be suspect of it going in. They won't question whether it is right or wrong.

Going into that, can you tell us how you designed the look of the humans to fit into this otherworldly fantasy?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: That was a long process in itself, especially in terms of designing them from scratch. We went through a lot of different looks. At first, we went with very realistic looking humans, just because of the dramatic nature of the piece. We thought we were going to fall into the "uncanny valley", were they look kind of realistic, but they are, at the same time, kind of creepy. They look too much like reanimated mannequins. We needed to pull back. I did a lot of research. I ended up going with a look I like, which comes from a lot of graphic novels. Which has a more chiseled, fifties look. I went with that, because it is a slightly serious look. But it is also caricatured. It would fit in an animated film as opposed to a photo realistic film. We played a lot with those proportions. Our humans are certainly a lot more chiseled looking than a real human.

How hard is it to get an original science fiction based film off the ground in this day and age? It seems like one of the most challenging genres to ease into.

Aristomenis Tsirbas: This was a really long journey, because a science fiction animated film is a hard sell. The only way I knew I could get it done was to make a small independent film. I didn't think a studio would be interested in this story. We had a small upstart studio that got very interested in our short film. We went into business with them to make an animated film with them, and that's how this got started. It snowballed from there. We were going to make a smaller, quirky film that dealt with less common themes. Stuff you wouldn't find in an animated film. We made the thing, and it turns out we were able to squeeze in a theatrical release. There was enough interest from Roadside Attractions and ultimately LionsGate to get this thing in the cinemas. That was pretty exciting.

How long did it take you to create this world, and all of the intimate details that went into bringing it to life?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: This took a total of four years to make. From writing it, to making it, to selling it. But actual production was one year of myself and a few interns designing the film in rough form. And then another year of actual production work. We took another year to make it 3D and to put a final polish on it. So, it took about three years in total. Just over a year included having a full crew involved. That is a short time frame for an animated feature.

The cast is quite extensive and amazing. How did you convince all of these great performers to come in and do voices for this thing?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: That was another snowball effect. The actors really responded to the script and the material. It started with Brian Cox, who loved the script. He really wanted to work on it. For personal and creative reasons. Once he signed on, it caught the attention of a lot of other actors in the community. Brian Cox has that kind of caliber. Because of that, it got some attention and some buzz. More people signed on. Because it was an animated film, the actors didn't all need to be in the same room at the same time. We were able to land a lot of fantastic talent.

I am particularly interested in David Cross, since this seems a little different than some of the stuff he's done in the past. Did he come to you to be a part of this?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: He was another part of the snowball effect. We really wanted him for this project. We gave him the script, and we told him that he had a really cool role. He plays a robot, which was actually one of the characters that had some funny lines. David's robot does have a comedic edge, which works. David really loved the script, that is why he signed on. What is interesting is that David took it really seriously. When we started talking about the robot, he didn't want to joke around that much. He wanted a subtle balance. By having a robot that is kind of logical, but at the same time human. He is cynical, but warm. We had to strike that perfect balance. I just really loved what he did with the role.

What sort of science fiction, be it literature or films, did you look to in creating the look of this film?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: As far as Terra is concerned, I just started drawing what I thought would work for the story. It is a culmination of my influences in watching science fiction films and reading books in the genre. I really can't pinpoint to any one source of inspiration. I love the works of Hayao Miyazaki. I loved the science fiction films of the 70s. I liked the social themes that were interwoven into them. It is kind of hard to pinpoint anything specific. This is definitely the result of many influences.

I read that the War of the Worlds was a big influence on both you and this film. Why do you think that story resonated with you so strongly?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: With the original War of the Worlds, I loved both the book and the film. But I wanted to know more about the aliens and who they were. I didn't feel that their motives were purely evil. I wanted to know why they wanted to take over the planet. Was there any compassion to their motives? The more and more I thought about this, and how they behaved in that film, it seemed to me that their patterns of behavior were very similar to human patterns of behavior. That's when I decided to flip the concept 180 degrees. That's when the concept of Terra was birthed. I developed it from there.

The big movie coming out this December is Avatar. A lot of people have looked at both your film and the CGI film Delgo, and made quite a few comparisons. How do you feel about that, and do you think James Cameron is ripping off your film, as well as a few others?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: I think that is ridiculous. So many films get made with the same parallels. I remember when there were two Volcano films that came out. I remember when there were two meteor films that came out at the same time. Even when I am developing something, it becomes frustrating. I will think of something that I don't think has ever been done before, but then I will do some research, and find out that it has been done. Almost every story has already been done to some extinct. When I devised Terra, I thought it was a cool and original idea. But then when we were in production, someone told me that there was a Twilight Zone with the same basic story. It wasn't exact, but it was close. Right there I thought, "Every idea is taken!" Other films with similar themes are just going to happen. A lot of films have the same premise. There is no relation. But people are going to try and make comparisons, especially on the internet. I am pretty sure that James Cameron's idea is completely original.

It helps, because making those comparisons make other people want to see your film, just to see how it is different, or the same.

Aristomenis Tsirbas: Right.

How did you hit on the stylistic look of the alien concepts for this film?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: I saw this as the perfect chance to create an alien biology that wasn't restricted by a man in a suit. It is truly alien. The trick is to make the concept relatable. And the budget was also a limitation. This had to be animated quickly. So, we came up with a biology that had them with no legs. They float. The logic behind that is they breathe the air, which is helium. They keep that helium in their chest, so they are buoyant. I wanted a face that adhered to the Anime concept. They have big eyes and small mouths. That was easier to animate. But you could also look at them and instantly have compassion for them. Having larger eyes made them look more alien as well. They have a hole in the back of their head, which imitates hair. But it looks more alien. All of those notions helped come up with the Terrian designs. They have a nose between their eyes as opposed to below their eyes. Just to make them look alien. We tried to not make them too strange or different, so that you could identify with them.

Which aspects of the film make you most proud when you see it play out?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: I think getting it done. It is amazing how complex this task has been. The crew was tireless and wore many hats. I am proud that we got it done. The crew was able to pull it off with me, which makes it a tremendous achievement. I also like having made an animated tale that serves as an alternative to what else is out there. It gives you something else to chew on. It's a different way to view the art. It's more than a family comedy. We wanted to push that in animation. It is so much more in comedy. I am proud that I am part of that movement.

Where do you go from here? Are you gong to do another Terra film? More animation? Or are you going to do a live action project next?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: Right now I am developing two live action projects. One with the same producers as Terra. The other is a studio film. But both are live-action with a CGI element to them. My hope is that I can bounce back and forth between live action and animation.

Battle for Terra lands on DVD and Blu-ray September 22nd.

B. Alan Orange at Movieweb
B. Alan Orange