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'Battle for Terra' and Respectability

Part art film, part sci-fi adventure, Battle for Terra director Aristomenis Tsirbas describes the challenges of balancing both.

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Even though Battle for Terra has been marketed as a sci-fi adventure, it has a lot more on its mind than battles in space. Images courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate.

Battle for Terra (opening today from Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate) turns sci-fi convention on its head by telling its story from the perspective of the aliens whose beautiful planet is invaded by humans fleeing a dying Earth. It's essentially War of the Worlds turned on its head. Featuring the vocal talents of Evan Rachel Wood, Brian Cox, Luke Wilson, Justin Long, Amanda Peet, Chris Evans and Dennis Quaid, Battle for Terra marks the directorial debut of acclaimed short filmmaker and vfx artist Aristomenis Tsirbas (The Freak). The film (based on Tsirbas' short, Terra) is the first in a series of animated features produced by Snoot.

Battle for Terra made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and later won the Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 2008 Ottawa International Animation Festival, among other festival awards for its environmental awareness and animation.

The Montreal-born Tsirbas recently discussed the challenges of making his first animated feature, including the stereoscopic 3-D preparation. The small production team was based in L.A. and split into two departments: character animation, which was created in Autodesk Maya, and the remainder, which was modeled, textured, lit and rendered in NewTek's LightWave 3D.

Bill Desowitz: What was the biggest production challenge?

Aristomenis Tsirbas: Simply getting this film made. It's an enormous task to make any film; creating an epic 3-D animated adventure on an independent budget (under $20 million) even more so. To achieve the seemingly impossible, we started with a highly detailed animatic that was completed prior to bringing in a full team. All assets of the animatic, including camera and lighting, were used as a first pass for production, and most of the big creative choices were nailed during this less expensive phase of production.

The film was finished in three stages: a festival version, which was rushed for the festivals and did really well and got distribution interest; the finished version, which took two more months; and the 3-D version. I had to open my big mouth and say I built this film to be converted to 3-D really easily. I didn't tell the investors because I didn't want to scare them away, but later on, after 3-D started getting really hot, the idea was enthusiastically embraced.

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BD: How was the 3-D handled?

AT: We actually re-rendered the film again with the proper parallax shift for true 3-D. We could've actually done it with the press of a button. Our rendering software, LightWave, has a stereoscopic button. That adds a second camera and you have control over the distance between the two cameras, which is called intraocular distance. But 3-D is so much more than that. You can control a lot more if you have a more robust system that's more than just two parallel cameras. So we took the current film and made that the left eye and added a right eye. So we really stayed away from a lot of 2-D tricks; we stayed away from rotoscoping, anything that couldn't be translated exactly in a different perspective. At least half the film was rendered in camera as well, so we would take a camera, duplicate it and then just re-render everything and that would be it. The majority of the work came from figuring out a pipeline that would allow us to have nuanced control of the 3-D and education ourselves about 3-D and come up with our own methodology/aesthetic.

BD: And what did you arrive at?

AT: We did research on the limitations of the brain and the eye. Fatigue. Things receded in the frame and stuck out at the same time. So we had to be careful that the images diverged a lot, meaning they diverged to create depth or they diverged to let your eyes cross. However, you can go pretty extreme if things fly by camera. For example, if there's snow or momentary motion that whips by. You don't want to have something floating in front of a frame compositionally that's not the center of attention. So we had a lot of over-the-shoulder shots in this film. Typically, we'd have the shoulder sticking out too much and take the focus off the subject, so sometimes we'd have to recompose, which we were able to do by going back to the files and we had full control over rendering the left eye as well. A percentage of the files were re-rendered fully for both left and right eye to compensate for some of the limitations of 3-D.

BD: And what do you think about the prospects for 3-D?

AT: I think, personally, even though it's not there now, that 3-D will be part of cinema [as a natural experience] the way sound and color were. I think what we need are more serious films in 3-D so it's not seen as a fad or a gimmick. Our 3-D is not necessarily conservative, but it doesn't poke out at you a lot. And that was important to us. Coraline was a good, intelligent, conservative use of 3-D. I think that Monsters vs. Aliens had excellent 3-D simply because it was made for 3-D from the beginning and they did their research and came up with a system on a much larger scale than what we did for Terra. Seeing it after completing the 3-D for our film, I was really able to appreciate their choices.

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Director Tsirbas benefitted greatly from his vfx experience as a generalist, learning the craft of modeling, lighting, animation and texturing. Watch this break down sequence to see more.

BD: What about the notion of embracing more thought provoking themes about war and the environment yet still remaining kid-friendly?

AT: That came from two places: I initially conceived Terra as live action with the aliens in CGI. But there was absolutely no way when we got into business with our producing partners that it could be done that way… The next idea was to do it all-animated. I personally see animation as an art form on the same level as live action. It doesn't have to be for children. We have a long way to go to broaden the scope. And I think that CGI reinvigorated the idea that animation could be more than children's entertainment because it could be very realistic and have subtlety and nuance. I love traditional animation, but I think CGI is making the art form limitless.

When making Terra, I thought I'd make a very dramatic film. But as we were making it, I ran into a lot of hurdles along the way, so that it couldn't be straight, dramatic, adult fare. It really needed to appeal to kids. So I brought in a screenwriter who had experience doing Disney films [Evan Spiliotopoulos] and we younged it up and put humor in it. And for the longest time, we were struggling with that. We couldn't revolutionize the animated film overnight. But I still stuck to my guns and tried to keep things dramatic as well. In the end, which is really cool, is that it's being marketed as an action/science fiction film. I don't know if it's schizophrenic, but it has many different tones. As we were making it, we were struggling to figure out this film's audience. My belief is that kids are more sophisticated than most of us obviously think -- and our test screenings proved that. Kids have no problem with the moral ambiguity that's presented early on and they have no problem watching a film that presents you with an impossible choice and introduces you to a new choice. The barriers are more their parents, who are concerned whether they would like this film. It was never conceived as an action film, but it was renamed Battle for Terra to better help market it. Test audiences have been satisfied, so we'll see how it does.

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BD: Your experience as a digital effects artist must've been invaluable, having worked on Titanic and Deep Space Nine.

AT: If you look at Terra, there's a live-action aesthetic with the camera and realism of the lighting. That was done intentionally because of the tone being a little more serious. My background in visual effects was very helpful because I worked as a digital artist often as a generalist, so I needed to know modeling, lighting, animation, texturing. And that allowed me to initially make short films and to be able to do all the work myself. I wouldn't recommend it to do that way, but it was the only way to get my short films done. As a digital artist, I was able to do so much with the quality to get some attention and notoriety. And definitely the digital art experience helped on Terra because I didn't have a very large crew and I was one of the artists. With such limited resources, it was my responsibility to create an animatic that was the first pass of the movie the first year to get financing for the rest. To do 80% of the modeling minus texturing, and then first pass edit, the lighting and camera, and I would take that into Final Cut and record all the voices and then edit it together. We hired some interns and a couple of artists to finish the animatic.

BD: And the character animation was kept pretty simple by necessity?

AT: Yes, I had to model all the characters in their final form prior to going into production because I had to bring in a rigger to rig everything, so everything had to be the final point count, so things are kept pretty simple. What's interesting about Terra is that it looks bigger than it actually is... Learning the craft of character animation was the biggest challenge. Because I didn't have a character animation supervisor, I worked directly with the animators and learned so much.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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