Terra Transformed Thanks to Filmmaker Meni Tsirbas
By Madelyn Ritrosky and Jared Winslow
Battle for Terra is the first animated feature from Canadian filmmaker Aristomenis Tsirbas. It has exciting action, stunning visuals, and a message of hopeful cooperation. It was just awarded the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award.
Jared and I saw the film at the Heartland Film Festival under its original title, Terra, and in its original 2-D format. Meni Tsirbas, as he prefers to be called, explained that he was working on the 3-D transformation for theatrical distribution.
The filmmaker's previous short films include The Freak and the short version of Terra. His inspiration for Terra came when he was watching the 1953 version of War of the Worlds (with Gene Barry) over ten years ago.
Reading against the grain, so to speak, he couldn’t help wondering about the viewpoint of those aliens. In fact, he found himself more interested in the aliens than the humans struggling to defend themselves.
He sees what the aliens do in stories like War of the Worlds as more or less analogous to what humans have so often done to each other and the rest of the planet. An idea emerged what about a story that reverses those viewpoints and positions?
Thus, as Heartland’s description reads, “Terra is a reverse alien invasion story in which the aliens are humans... The earthlings plot to make Terra livable for humans, but this would be deadly to Terrians.”
Photo left: Meni Tsirbas
At the same time, Meni said, “I didn’t want to vilify the humans in this turnaround.” This is a film that says the win-lose attitude doesn’t have to be the answer win-win is always an option if we want it to be. “I always feel there’s a third alternative with cooperation and understanding,” he added.
Jared was especially drawn to this reversal of ‘alien’ and ‘us’ because he doesn’t like the stereotypes that suggest ‘others’ are always the ‘aliens’ who are not ‘us’. In Battle for Terra, the Terrians are the peaceful ‘us’ going about their lives, with homes and families, living harmoniously with their planet.
The humans are the antagonistic ‘alien’ beings who are the unknown ‘other’ threatening the peaceful Terrians. The humans are willing to obliterate the native beings in order to make Terra’s air breathable for humans which would make it toxic and deadly for Terrians.
It’s a bit ironic that this film “about hope, choices, and alternatives to aggressive tactics,” as the filmmaker articulated, ends up titled Battle for Terra. Of course, there certainly is aggression action and reaction as the desperate humans go on the offensive and the Terrians mount a defense.
But driving the story are two individuals from the opposing sides, Terrian Mala and human Jim, for they get to know each other as individuals when Mala helps Jim after he crashes. Ignorance is replaced by understanding and empathy.
They then have to battle Jim’s commander because he is determined in his single-minded purpose of making Terra suitable for human habitation. It’s not easy, and as Heartland’s synopsis says, the characters “learn what it means to truly sacrifice.” The film is symbolic, of course, of what’s happening on our own, real Terra, our planet Earth. In fact, the National Wildlife Federation and its Ranger Rick magazine have promotional tie-ins this month with the movie.
Terra began in earnest as the short, playing film festivals and winning awards in 2003. Then Meni began on the feature, this time with twenty animators working in “intense production” for eighteen months. Altogether, it was in production for over three years.
The main character Mala is female, and when we asked Meni about this positive portrayal, he said it was a conscious choice. He agreed that such a character in similar types of stories is typically a teenage male. He was proud that “Mala is very proactive and she wants to get things done.”
As for the several recognizable actors providing some of the voices, Meni said his producers wanted a few big names if they could get them. It turned out that actors like James Garner, Dennis Quaid, and Danny Glover were indeed interested. As Meni noted, actors of that stature “are affordable for one afternoon of voice work.” And they like that they get to do it in old jeans and sweatshirt.
Battle for Terra is in theaters May 1, 2009. It will be available in 3-D in selected theaters.