When the denizens of a peaceful planet are imperiled by an alien invasion in Battle for Terra, the threat literally hits home -- the invaders are not monsters but refugees from Earth, searching for a new home after destroying not only our planet, but the colonized Mars and Venus. It’s a future that resonates in the present with environmental themes that both parents and children -- the target audience for the animated adventure -- can embrace.

“It’s basically projecting what we’re doing today into a worst-case scenario 500 years into the future, if we’re lazy and we haven’t learned our lessons and we continue wasting and not investing in renewable energy and so on, to the point where our planet becomes inhospitable to human life and we’d need to look for other worlds to colonize,” outlines director Aristomenis ‘Meni’ Tsirbas, who has spent the better part of 15 years bringing this idea to the screen.

He was inspired by reading The War of the Worlds, “I was fresh out of college and fancied myself as someone who would one day make an epic science fiction film,” says Montreal native Tsirbas, who liked the idea of “turning the premise on its head and making us the invaders,” but giving the motive an eco-twist. He became a visual effects animator, working on projects like Titanic and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and directing TV commercials and animated shorts to finance a five-minute short version of the project in 2003 to serve “as a calling card and show what the [feature] film would look like.”

Focusing on a young alien girl who looks through a telescope and sees a weapon pointed right at her from Earth, the short Terra, a film festival favorite, needed to be expanded considerably for the big screen, but it served its purpose in garnering interest in Hollywood. “It all started to come together in 2005,” Tsirbas tells MNN, but it took another three years to make.

Writing the script and creating the animatics -- rough animations -- with a handful of artists took almost a year, followed by another year of full production with about 20 animators. “We showed a rough cut in Toronto at the end of 2007 and it was well received,” ultimately leading to a distribution deal with Roadside Attractions. Tsirbas spent 2008 “polishing the film, making it 3D, doing the final sound, and readying it for release May 1.”

Of course, a major part of any animated movie is the voice cast, and Tsirbas got almost everyone on his wish list to come aboard. “Brian Cox signed on first and that really got the attention of other actors of his caliber,” including Danny Glover, Dennis Quaid, Luke Wilson, James Garner, Ron Perlman, David Cross, Evan Rachel Wood as the heroine and Justin Long as her pal. Tsirbas raves about all of them, especially Wood. “She’s the center of it -- she plays an alien so we really need to connect with her. She really becomes the character.”

Judging from the positive response at preview screenings, Tsirbas finds that kids are connecting with the characters and themes. “Kids being very sophisticated, there seems to be an appetite for films that are fun and have adventure but also give kids something to chew on. They want more than just distraction. Kids are smart. They want to be challenged.

“Kids are inheriting the Earth and what we’ve done to it,” Tsirbas continues. “I think an environmental message is very important for that generation more than any other. It’s amazing how aware and responsibly minded kids are. The film speaks to them, and they get it on a personal and very immediate level. They know that their activities will directly affect the world they live in when they grow up, and that if they don’t take care of the Earth they won’t be able to live in it for much longer.”

As for decreasing his personal carbon footprint, Tsirbas considers himself fortunate “that I live in Southern California where recycling is very important and easy to do. I can’t afford a Prius,” he claims, but says he gets comparable fuel efficiency driving a four-cylinder gas engine car gently, though he’d consider diesel and electric autos for his next vehicle. “I hope that both begin to get wider acceptance in the United States,” he says.

Currently, he’s developing several projects including possible Battle for Terra sequels. “One has a continuation of the ecological theme,” says the director, “I like to make films that matter and have a purpose.”


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(Blog photo and MNN homepage photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Earthlings attack in 'Battle for Terra'
A 3D animated movie with an environmental message -- starring the voices of Luke Wilson and Dennis Quaid -- arrives in theaters this weekend.