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.
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.