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Martin Scorsese Masterclass in Cannes

 

 

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Terra09


Official Blog for Battle For Terra
http://www.battleforterra.com/

 

 


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FROM FESTIVAL SHORT TO 3D FEATURE: THE MAKING OF ‘BATTLE FOR TERRA’

 

“The idea of a reverse alien invasion popped in my head a couple of decades ago while reading H.G. Well’s classic War of the Worlds.” recalls director Aristomenis (Meni) Tsirbas, “Beyond the novel’s allegorical use of imperialism, I was intrigued by the Martians’ backstory and their motives for invasion. However I was left wanting to know more about these violent aliens, and specifically why they were painted as uniformly evil. So out of these thoughts came the idea to do my own spin on the invasion story by making us the invaders and explore ideas of war and imperialism in a science fiction context.”

So Meni wrote up an outline and drafted up some sketches. Still living in Canada and fresh out of film school he also needed to concentrate on a means-to-an-end visual effects career in order to get to the rare position of making his own films. So Meni tabled the idea until he found himself in a better position to pull off such a big idea.

 

MENITHINGS

Meni spent the next ten years alternating between visual effects work on projects like “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and directing short subjects such as SIGGRAPH 2000’s electronic theater opening film. As more opportunities opened up to do original work, producer Dane Smith entered the fold in 2000 to create the production company "MeniThings".

 

Their first project together was the short film “The Freak”, animated entirely by Meni while working with the LightWave 3D development team in San Francisco. Once completed Meni moved back to Los Angeles in 2002 to supervise visual effects on the TV movie “A Wrinkle in Time”.

During this time “The Freak” became a huge film festival hit, so Meni and Dane decided to quickly follow up with another short film. The reverse alien invasion story was the perfect next step. Darker in tone than “The Freak” it would help to round out their film portfolio.

 

The first step was to secure time and resources for production of the short. Eden FX’s John Gross (where “A Wrinkle in Time” VFX were partially produced) lent the duo a month’s worth of computers and render farm time to pull off the project, as long as everything was done after hours and renders submitted at low priority. This was typical of the early Menithings productions where Meni and Dane would work on their personal projects using borrowed resources and collaboration with talented friends.

They needed to distill the feature film treatment into a 6 minute short film, and a scene early in the film was chosen where the film’s main alien character, Mala, flies up to a tall spire in order to observe a mysterious object in the sky. This was taken verbatim from the feature film story. Bookending this scene was an abbreviated introduction to Mala’s world, and a simplified ending revealing the human aggressor.

 

Meni explains that “the biggest deviation the short took from the feature film was its trick ending. In the feature treatment Mala’s discovery leads to a planned invasion from a population of humans that’s morally split on campaign. However the short required a simpler wrap up, so I distilled the idea by having a massive American-made orbiting cannon aimed at the alien planet. The planned release of the short was 2003, right in the middle of two American-led invasions. So the ending was deliberately made topical and controversial in order to encourage debate, which was a good fit for the film festival venue.

 

After nailing down the short story Meni spent a couple of weeks sketching up the look of the characters and world, knowing that many of these concepts would also carry over to the potential feature. Then it was on to three months of making the film after hours while supervising visual effects during the day. The short would break down into the 3 traditional phases of pre-production, production and post-production...

 

TERRA SHORT: PRE-PRODUCTION

Pre-pro was further divided into voice recording and CG modeling. Dane organized casting and auditions for the 2 voice roles. The voice sessions would be recorded at composer Matt Messina’s studio. Matt scored Men’s previous film “The Freak” and returned to do the same for the Terra short.

 

During the audition stage Meni simultaneously worked on modeling and rigging all the characters and environments at EdenFX, the visual effects studio where he was working at the time. All CG work was done in NewTek’s LightWave 3D. Several time and render saving techniques were employed. For example clouds, usually accomplished with expensive voxels, were instead constructed with ‘jittering’ geometry. Since LightWave calculates motion blur using time slices, the cloud geometry shifted shape in each render pass (the short usually had 16) to yield a soft-edged look. The same temporal trick was used in the lighting by jittering a single point light to simulate a softer but more render intensive flood light.

 

Back at the sound studio Actors Cricket Leigh and Steve Weingartner were eventually cast as the Mala and her father. Meni used his recent concept art and some early CG model renders to help the actors further understand the alien characters and setting during the day-long recording session.

 

TERRA SHORT: PRODUCTION

Armed with the voice acting selects, detailed storyboards and completed CG assets, Meni went straight into an intensive month of animation production. Due to the accelerated schedule Meni folded animatics, animation and final render into a single process, so CG models were already textured and rigged for immediate animation and render.

 

As shots were completed, at least one per night, they were placed in an edit timeline with the voice recordings and rough sound effects, all on the same computer used for animation. This was so long ago that real-time DV playback on a PC was still marginal, so everything was viewed through a Perception VR video card and edited with Speed Razor. The film was more or less constructed in story order since there were no location or crew limitations placed on the one-man animation team. Most of the work was done between midnight and dawn after long production days on visual effects projects that paid the bills. 'Terra' was born out of many sleepless nights.

 

In great contrast to the peppy ‘Freak’, Meni’s Terra’ short was deliberately edited with a much slower pace to lend a sense of epic wonder. “All my films were rather quick and aggressive in their edit style up to that point” Meni explains, “so I thought for experimentation’s sake that I try something a bit more down tempo and meditative in pace and tone. It also made sense in terms of production since this was a considerably smaller project than ‘The Freak’, and therefore benefitted from keeping the fewer CG assets longer on screen.”

 

TERRA SHORT: POST PRODUCTION

Since the film was rendered and edited during animation production only steps left were music and output to film. Meni worked closely with Matt Messina to come up with a sparse, somewhat avant-guarde approach to the music. “I wanted to isolate single instruments like the flute and piano and have them play subtly non-traditional melodies. We were in this totally alien environment and I wanted the music to embody that. But I also needed the score to connect with the viewer on an emotional level, so Matt crafted something both unique and accessible. Pushing the other-worldly feeling was important to me because it would make the film’s final image of a familiar American flag that much more unexpected and shocking.”

 

A big concern since ‘The Freak’ was film output. That film was rendered in letter-boxed SD with CG blur and film grain, so it didn’t fair so well when blown up to 35mm. “For the ‘Terra’ short we were also hardware limited to SD resolution, but I rendered everything at 16:9 anamorphic full screen, so it occupied every pixel of the 720x480 D1 video frame. l also skipped any artificial blurring (other than depth of field) or film graining. So the renders were represented the best possible quality SD video could produce.

 

The film was exported as a single image sequence directly from the Perception hard drive and sent to the post facility Fotokem. To everyone’s surprise the unsqueezed D1 frames held up nicely in 35mm. Since this was a 1 to 1 digital output without the any degradation associated with compressed live video, the final film output could almost be mistaken as coming from HD source material.

 

FEST SUCCESS

Like ‘The Freak’, ‘Terra’ did well on the festival circuit and eventually went on to win a dozen international awards; and most importantly it led to the eventual development of a full blown feature film version. Fore more information on the 'Terra' short and other MeniThings films visit www.MeniThings.com and select the 'Movies' tab.

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