Notes on ‘Battle for Terra’

Battle for Terra, an independent CG-animated feature, opened last weekend to little fanfare.  It got some glowing reviews and some scathing reviews, but mostly didn’t get watched by the movie-going public (the opening weekend was just over a million dollars).  I understand that — it’s an independent science fiction film that takes itself pretty seriously, with odd alien designs, clunky humans, some questionable dialog and story points, and didn’t get much marketing.

That said, I think most people in the animation community miss the significance of the film.  For years I’ve been hearing the mantra that we now have the tools and capability for an individual filmmaker to make an entire animated feature for a fraction of what the big studios spend.  Yet the few low-budget features that have been made have almost all relied on outsourced production, with all the loss of economy and quality that goes with that arrangement.

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Battle for Terra is, to my knowledge, the first independent CG-animated feature that was completely produced here in Los Angeles.  The entire film was made on the second floor of an art deco building on the corner of Wilshire and La Brea, by a crew of about 20 people.  Because of that model, the director’s individual vision is what you see on the screen.  And because everyone was under one roof, working together, with almost every production dollar going to production artists, it looks far better than it’s budget would suggest.

I have a pretty good idea of that budget — I think it was roughly equivalent to what a big studio spends on craft services.  I think it was less than one tenth the typical feature animation budget.  And that despite paying competitive salaries in Los Angeles.

I’m not suggesting it’s a perfect film, or the film I would have chosen to make.  Most science fiction stories have inherently limited audiences, and this one isn’t particularly kid friendly, nor was it well advertised.  I think Terra needed more humor and playfulness, a few story changes, and much improved models/rigs for the human characters to have really succeeded.  But having watched the finished movie in theaters, I think it not only works, but that it looks far better than its budget.  The stereoscopic effect actually adds to the storytelling and, during the climax of the film, I was so caught up that I actually forgot what was going to happen next.  I lost track of trying to judge how my shots looked, and found myself just watching the film.

As the first animated film by this production company( Menithings/Snoot), plenty of mistakes were made.  That actually makes me feel better about future independent efforts.  If first-time producers in a tiny brand new studio can accomplish this, I know it’s a model that can work.  A model that taps into the deep, wide talent pool in Los Angeles.  A model that puts the production budget on the screen.  A model that allows more individual stories to be told.

9 Responses to “Notes on ‘Battle for Terra’”

  1. Fernando Herrera Says:

    Hey Kevin, I can totally understand what you mean.

    I always keep an eye on the independent films as it’s one of the hopes for Brazil’s animation industry.

    I keep thinking if one of this productions gather the talented artists and nail a good relevant story, great things can happen!

    I’ve also seen very low budget productions achieve high acceptable quality standarts. So hopefully it’s just a matter of time.

    Congrats on the film, and here I am also cheering for the independent films!

  2. Ross A. Reyman Says:

    Thanks for the head’s up about this film! As much as I love (or hate? :P) the mainstream CG films out there, it is always great to check out independent films like this. I hope to check it out soon. :)

  3. Ethan Says:

    Thanks for filling me in on this. I saw the trailer for this film and I was wondering where it came from, I had never heard of it. I haven’t seen more then the trailer but I was impressed with the production value. Sure I could nitpick, but to be honest it looks better then must stuff that is out there. I hope it does well so that it could push the idea of the independent animated feature further. I think that there’s a lot of stories you can tell in animation, and a lot of those stories will never be told with a big budget film.

  4. Marvin Says:

    I got to see some early work for this about 2-3 years ago, so I was really excited to see it on the big screen. Since the software my company makes was used in the production of the film, we all went to see it. You guys did a great job!

    Let’s hope more independent films of this quality are made.

  5. Jay Says:

    Kevin,

    you guys accomplished something that few have managed to do, and its an incredible achievement. Even though the box office results have disappointed, that fault lies as much on the marketing and scheduling of the release as it may with the story and character design, if not moreso. Hopefully Terra will enjoy a great run on the video release (I am going to buy it — hopefully it will be in BluRay!)

    You now have a tremendous asset under your belts — experience. As a team, you have a completed and released film, and you took your lumps. That virtually guarantees your next effort will be even better. I’m in.

  6. Chuck Says:

    I enjoyed the film, and I suspect that like many films that don’t find their audience immediately this one is going to come into its own down the road in video release and in broadcast. I look forward to getting this on DVD, and I look forward even more to future projects from this team and from others who will follow now that the trail has been blazed.

    Congrats, Kevin, and congrats to Meni and the rest of the team as well. This is an amazing accomplishment.

  7. Ben Vost Says:

    I so want to see this, I hope for a release date in France, not just the US!

  8. Don Says:

    I just watched it and I thought it was brilliant!

    I’m amazed that it was put together by a crew of 20 people. That’s really quite an achievement. I’ll probably have more to ask/say after I’ve digested it a bit more coz right now I’m in that post-movie state. But suffice it to say I really really enjoyed it, much more than I thought I would.

  9. The Price Of Outsourcing In The VFX Industry « VFX Soldier Says:

    […] include Animation Guild President Kevin Koch and Organizer Steve Kaplan) in Los Angeles for a very low budget: I have a pretty good idea of that budget — I think it was roughly equivalent to what a big […]

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch