When Earthlings Attack!

After winning the Best Feature Prize at Ottawa, Aristomenis Tsirbas’ indie labor of love, Battle for Terra, is ready for its 3-D blitz.

Only a few weeks after DreamWorks’ splashy Monsters vs. Aliens opened in 3-D theaters across the country, a smaller-scale indie movie about a different kind of alien invasion will debut in glorious 3-D on select screens. Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas and written by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Battle for Terra offers a refreshing twist on the old aliens-invading-Earth storyline. In this truly independently produced feature, it’s the human beings who are the invaders and the aliens who are living peacefully on their own planet.

Tsirbas, who has an impressive background as a vfx artist’he’s worked on Titanic, Hellboy, Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise‘made a splash in the animation festival circuit with the shorts Freak in 2001 and Terra in 2003. As it turns out, the seven-minute-long Terra became a blueprint for the new movie, which will be released by Roadside Attractions in May.

‘I loved the novels of H.G. Wells when I was a kid, and really got into War of the Worlds,’ recalls Tsirbas during a phone interview from his studio in the heart of Hollywood. ‘But the aliens were always portrayed as shallow, evil beings. I wanted to know more about them. Why would they want to invade Earth? Why would they follow the pattern of imperialism and conquest that’s parallel to human history? So in my movie, I tried to turn things around and explore that idea from the point of view of the aliens ‘ what if humans invaded their planet?’

Not one to opt for easy solutions and pat storylines, Tsirbas also wanted to stray away from any black-and-white depictions. ‘As the film develops, we learn that the humans aren’t evil either’they feel that they have no choice’while it’s also revealed that although the aliens lead an idyllic, peaceful life now, they had a very dark past as well.’

Like many indie animators working around the world today, Tsirbas was weary of playing the waiting game with the big studios. ‘I guess you can say that our na’vet’ worked in our favor,’ he says. ‘Our producer Dane Allan Smith and I had worked together in visual effects for many years, but we’d never done anything like this before. We really didn’t know what we were going against ‘ We didn’t want the larger studios to make the decisions for us ‘ and it was taking them forever to get it off the ground. So, we decided to take things in to our own hands.’

Both Smith and Tsirbas also point out that they were very lucky to run into the team at Hollywood-based studio Snoot Entertainment. ‘There are so few outlets for emerging filmmakers today,’ says Smith. ‘Having a presence at fantasy and shorts festivals helped us a lot, and the timing was right, too. The folks at Snoot saw our short and wanted to get involved with the movie.’

Smith says it took his team months to develop the pipeline for the feature’a framework that would make sense economically. ‘We reverse engineered a software package we call the Beaver project that exports files out of LightWave into Maya,’ he notes. ‘We created an animatic over an eight-month period in LightWave, then exported it to Maya, and our character animators would feed the MDF files back to LightWave. We really maximized the efficiency of both packages without getting bogged down.’

As Tsirbas explains, the team’s background in episodic TV effects helped them create a sophisticated CG-animated world with remarkable efficiency and speed. In 2005, they took a key scene from the project and screened it at SIGGRAPH, and given the great feedback they received, it was a breeze to put together top-notch voice talent (Dennis Quaid, Brian Cox, Danny Glover, James Garner, Evan Rachel Wood and Chris Evans, to name a few) for the feature.

The decision to up to ante and make the feature a stereoscopic 3-D release was made about two years ago. ‘We knew that 3-D was a strong possibility, but when we started out, the technology wasn’t as prominent as it is today,’ says Smith. ‘However we took certain precautions in the event that we did decide to go 3-D. Every scene existed in a true virtual environment and we didn’t add a lot of compositing trickery which would’ve compounded the transition to 3-D later on in the game.’

The team added a second camera and proprietary software was developed to control the depth of the scene and the divergence of the objects in each shot. Smith says overall, the transfer to 3-D cost about one-eighth of the total budget. ‘For a more expensively produced feature, this would have been a lot more,’ he points out. ‘Everything is relative’ Let’s just say that ours was about 1/20 of the total budget for WALL’E! The biggest expense was getting the media to the theaters.’

As a filmmaker, Tsirbas is most proud of the fact that he and his relatively small team of talented artists (at the peak of production, 20 people were working at the studio) were able to do what many considered an impossible dream. ‘I think the fact that we all worked closely together under one roof helped us with our daily give-and-take and exchange of ideas,’ he adds. ‘We set a very tight schedule and adhered to it. We had a finite amount of tasks. Because most of the creative work was done during the animatic stage, it helped us with the camera moves and lighting stages.’

The journey to Terra and back has been a huge learning process for Tsirbas and company. ‘I think if you have a dream to make it in this business, you are going to need that passion to fuel the energy and hard work,’ says the director. ‘You also need a thick skin because you’ll hear the word ‘no’ a thousand times. If you love what you’re doing, then the hard work won’t feel so bad.’

He also believes that the outlook is quite good for indie animators who like to branch out from the family genre. ‘We have films like Waltz with Bashir broadening the perception of animation everywhere,’ notes Tsirbas. ‘Animation has taken a long time to break through the family genre. Pixar is also helping this process by diversifying the art form. This helps the indie animated films come to the market and get distribution. Just like digital video changed the game in the past, I think we’re witnessing an indie animation revolution, thanks to the availability of off-the-shelf software used by animators. It’s all good!’

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will release Battle for Terra in theaters on May 1, 2009. For more info, visit www.battleforterra.com.