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Emerging: Federico Heller - From Uncanny Valleys to Hollywood Hills

As audiences lament the death of a Hollywood that used to celebrate and elevate the best and brightest new voices and stories in film, the short film world is offering up new stories and new filmmakers promising to change the game. Federico Heller takes time out from his rapid ascension from freelance 3D compositor to feature film director for a one-on-one with Cameo Launch.

Watching the incredible achievement that is high concept short film Uncanny Valley, one can be forgiven for thinking that Federico Heller, the film’s writer and director, is a socially and politically driven artist. A fearless filmmaking warrior who pursues his vision heedless of the obstacles or consequences. But within a few minutes of speaking to the auteur of possibly the most scarily thought-provoking and intelligently action-packed short film of 2015, a picture emerges of a measured and level headed pragmatist; Someone who understands the importance of balancing artistic freedom with commercial viability. Despite cutting his teeth in film school in Buenos Aires, Federico was not blind to the difficulties in establishing himself as a filmmaker in Argentina.

With little to no support available for young people seeking a career in film, Federico instead turned to post production and digital compositing. “The whole scenario in Buenos Aires didn’t seem too eager to help filmmakers,” he explains. “The big industry that was moving and that was making money was advertising.” Interestingly, the birth of 3dar, the 3D animation company that has been the vehicle of Federico’s career and the platform from which Uncanny Valley would eventually be born, was rooted much more in practical necessity than in creative desire, leading Federico to collaborate with a partner who had literally been on his doorstep. “I started in an advertising agency and one of the biggest post-production houses in Buenos Aires. I started working as an intern there but after a while I felt I wanted to start my own project so I was a freelancer for about a year and a half. Then my brother (German Heller – executive producer of Uncanny Valley) [who] was working with 3D…wanted to start his own company as well. So…we got together after so many years and we found a way to combine his process with 3D animation and my process with digital compositing.” Foresight seems to have been a gift that played well into the fortunes of 3dar, as Federico spent much of the company’s infancy trying to convince advertising agencies that 3D animation and compositing was the future for their industry.

Thinking back to 3dar’s early days of pushing to land those all-important first clients, Federico remembers that, “3D was kind of a new tech and many of the other advertising agencies were a little scared about using 3D. So we had to encourage them…again and again and again…because there were sort of myths that it would take too long. At the beginning, people thought that it was just one aesthetic. Now as time passes by and you say 3D’ you don’t even know what you’re referring to. It’s like saying ‘computer generated’. You can use a computer in a billion different ways.” Given how intrinsically interwoven 3D graphics and animation is in filmmaking, even at a novice level, to say nothing of its importance in a sophisticated advertising campaign, Federico’s insistence in getting 3dar in on the ground floor of using this tool in the advertising medium seems like an act of supreme prescience. It is an act that paid off in spades as 3dar quickly racked up a host of big name clients including Seat, Dell, Sony, Ben & Jerry’s and many more. Despite the slow but steady ascension to the front line of post production prominence in South America, the question still hangs in the air as to whether the movie making bug that took Federico to film school in the first place was still alive and waiting for the opportunity to take centre stage.

“I was always a person that was trained to have desires that seemed possible,” he explains. “When you [leave] film school you don’t feel like you’re gonna make a movie soon. In South America it’s even worse. At some point I had to leave that aside and say ‘I’m twenty-something years old. I want to make some money and work at something that I like. So at some point you leave aside whatever fancy ideas you had. In a way I think that was good because it allowed me to focus on something that was tangible at the time.”

While Federico goes to great lengths to stress the logical impetus behind his career trajectory as well as the need to put lofty ideas aside, when you speak to him, you still get the impression that he has been hiding a well of experience-driven human stories that he has patiently been harbouring the desire to tell. The need to scratch that creative itch suddenly burst forth in the form of 3dar’s first short film, the wacky animation Shave It, which Federico produced. “Shave It was kind of a creative urge. At that point we were doing a lot of work that the team was tired of doing,” Federico remembers. Despite the security of having a full docket of work from new and repeat clients, Federico realised the need to show that 3dar had more to offer. The alternative was to run the risk of spending years doing the same jobs and becoming supplanted by other start up companies doing the same thing. Diversifying the operations of the company seemed the only way forward.

“Suddenly, among the guys it started to spark the idea…’why don’t we do something different?’ And so we had this internal contest” Federico remembers. “We had a pool of 15 or 20 ideas for shorts and everybody could submit and then we would vote. And Shave It won the contest and the guys that wrote it Jorge [Tereso] and Fernando [Maldonado] directed it in the end.” “It was interesting because it channeled a lot of the need to do something fresh. It helped to move the company forward in many ways. I think that was one of the key points where we moved from [being] a services company to a storytelling kind of company.” Perhaps already being on the radar of a number of big companies as a service provider gave 3dar and ‘Shave It’ the kind of visibility that helped them break through to the next level.

Whether or not this was the case, the creative ambition of writer/directors Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado, married to the skilled and fearless nature of 3dar itself found an incredibly arresting outlet in the form of an animated narrative that hooks in seconds and never lets go. Wisely doing away with dialogue so as to maximize their potential global audience, Shave It strikes a perfect balance between being a madcap, high-concept adventure and an environmental cautionary tale. It tells the story of a monkey, displaced by the destruction of his natural habitat by careless human developers, who then shaves his entire body to disguise himself as a human and moves into the city to begin his plans for world domination and ultimate revenge.

Shave It made quite a splash upon its online release, scoring a Staff Pick label from Vimeo (where it currently has over 768 thousand plays), a Short of the Year award from Short of the Week and was an official selection in film festivals in Amsterdam, Rome, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and many more. “The success kind of surprised us,” Federico recalls. “We were getting offers from Hollywood to try to adapt it into a feature. But it was awkward because even though it was tempting, we didn’t make the project with that goal. So after that we felt we needed to make a project that served that kind of purpose.” Uncanny Valley would not come along for nearly two more years but Shave It had opened doors to another world for the founders of the once small Argentinian start up company. The exposure provided by the success of their first major creative project led to meetings in Los Angeles, obtaining representation and before they knew it, scripts for them to produce and direct were heading their way.

Despite all of this sudden success, Federico and company were under no illusions about how up in the air things still were. They had been given an opportunity but that breakthrough project continued to elude them. Being the pragmatists that their careers had taught them to be, they refused to be dazzled by the lights of Hollywood but had no intention of wasting the momentum that they had created. “There was this whole process but…it wasn’t really clear what we should pursue at that time. So we went back to the office and said ‘Okay, let’s now do a [new] project.”

As fate would have it, a prominent Hollywood institution had just announced a scriptwriting contest that would allow 8 short films to be financed for production.

Wasting no time, the dream team got to work on a new concept, generated a script and concept art for what would become, in our opinion, 3dar’s greatest achievement to date. Federico, taking the lead on writing the script, began to tell the story of homeless people addicted to virtual reality in which they can immerse themselves in a new world and abandon the complexities and difficulties of real life. Most disturbingly, many of the VR junkies in the film find incredible amounts of release in the violence-driven programs that they lose themselves in. High concept ideas in film are far from new. We are very used to seeing sci-fi movies set in a dystopian future or rebellions of the downtrodden against super-advanced autocratic dictatorships, and while some of those elements are to be found in Uncanny Valley its primary character focus is on issues such as addiction, poverty and social exclusion.

Early concept art from 'Uncanny Valley'.

With such a strong societal focus, one could be forgiven for suspecting that there is some personal experience at play and Federico does not shy away from confirming these suspicions and how he uses these experiences creatively. “I think when writing something, you are always better off writing something that relates to you,” he muses. “I had many friends with drug addictions and I sort of walked through that world in my past and I know how deep it can be,” Federico says, in as forthright a manner as possible. “I’m certainly not better prepared to write an American high school comedy because I haven’t gone through that experience. I try to find topics that relate to me somehow.”

Steve Kisicki plays an addicted gamer in 'Uncanny Valley'

A recent VR project that 3dar had taken on highlighted another point of interest with Federico. While VR is not a new concept, its recent explosion into mainstream tech markets has raised many an eyebrow, particularly in the filmmaking world. But Federico was more intrigued by the wider and potentially more terrifying implications that VR represented. “I was always interested in an idea I had in mind of people who were working without knowing. Because I feel that we’re somehow moving in that direction, when you see a person playing Candy Crush or Pokemon Go or whatever, it’s like they’re using their mind as a tool and they’re really focused and put a lot of energy into it. And I thought at some point ‘what if they’re working? What if they’re working for someone? What if the huge database of the internet can translate … the play of some people into the work of someone else?’” The idea immediately takes hold the moment that it is suggested and almost without realising it, you find yourself willing to explore whatever possibilities this concept throws your way.

Having watched a lot of documentaries on video game and heroine addition around that time, Federico began to formulate an idea rooted in his musings on the future of interactive technology and his real world experiences in the world of drug addiction. Federico’s experience of watching people he knew fall victim to addiction is translated into the environment of the film in a very tangible way. Without shoving the viewer’s face into the squalor and dysfunction of the VR addicts in the film, Federico is able to get across the degree to which these people no longer care about the outside world. The terrible conditions in which they live and the lack of human contact that they receive does not even register with them. The only thing that matters is the next VR session. As a result, the character beats end up having as much, if not more impact than the breathtaking CG visuals used for the heart-stopping action sequences that we are treated to once we follow the addicts down the rabbit hole.

Federico never loses the movie to the need to impress with visuals and 3D animation. Everything he puts to screen is there for the purpose of reflecting the state of mind of the characters we encounter. With the manipulation of the mind being one of the key themes of the movie, every element is meticulously placed to put us in the same mindset of tranquility or exhilaration as the characters. Whether it is the denial of reality reflected in the indifference to the putridity of their real world environment or the immersion in the tranquility of a tailor made nirvana or the adrenaline-fuelled battle sequence in which every disturbing violent tendency is given release, the palate of each scene is carefully considered. This is a journey to be experienced not simply observed.

Fantasy becomes reality as the gamers go all in.

The magic of Shave It appeared to be repeating itself in this markedly different style of film, until red flags started to go up, specifically with the one thing creative people don’t like having to deal with – the contract. The process that followed undoubtedly reinforced to Federico why he took the path of running a business in the creative industries rather than focusing solely on his own filmmaking ambitions. As an aspiring director, he could easily have fallen prey to the unfavourable agreements that often come along with striking that first crucial deal. But as a service provider - a businessman - he was well aware of the importance of the terms of a contract. Indeed, his livelihood depended on knowing whether or not he was being cheated. He is also no stranger to the horror stories of a bad deal. “Everything should be seen in the contract.” Federico is as emphatic about this point as he is enthusiastic about the film itself. “That is why [some] people make a huge blockbuster…and become rich and some people did the same thing and got nothing.” Seeing an all too familiar story in the wording of the agreement that would be the binding factor in getting ‘Uncanny Valley’ made via the competition, Federico made the gutsy choice to withdraw the application. The journey, however, was far from over. “We already had the script and we had developed some visuals for it so we were super excited…so at some point we said we want to do this anyway. We had crossed a no returning point.”

With no chance of funding from the competition, Federico and his partners knew they had to come up with the budget themselves. Driven by their belief in the script and its potential to be the basis of an incredible film, the 3dar team committed themselves to making Uncanny Valley by hook or by crook. After so many years of logical pragmatism, they suddenly found themselves becoming oddly similar to those fearless filmmaking warriors. Obstacles and consequences be damned. Or perhaps this was yet another example of Federico reading the terrain. After all, with the success of Shave It having opened important doors for 3dar, funding a jaw-dropping follow up that demonstrates their blockbuster potential could be perceived as a calculated risk.

While the accepted wisdom regarding short films is that any money spent on a project is money you will never see again, does that mean that the cost of a short film can’t be regarded as a long-term investment? Increasingly, first-time directors are replacing or at least supplementing spec scripts with short films or proof-of-concept shorts. In his article in MovieMaker magazine earlier this year, William Dickerson astutely observed how the current climate in Hollywood practically demands a proof-of-concept short film before any deals on a feature film become a possibility. It was an observation backed up by several high profile examples including Ruairi Robinson’s The Leviathan, Joseph White’s The Brain Hack and most recently Jeff Chan’s Code 8. All self funded short films that resulted in studio acquisition or in the case of Code 8, a crowd funding campaign that resulted in amassing funding of $1.7 million (860% of their $200,000 goal).

So was this Federico’s plan all along? “A lot of people ask me…’Was it planned in advance?’” Federico shares. “I wouldn’t say planned like ‘let’s do this for it to become a film’ but one thing I learned is that when you’re doing an ambitious short, you should have in mind how you would adapt it into a long form because it’s one of the things you’re gonna be asked the most if it’s successful.” And successful it was. At nearly 1.3 million views in 11 months, Uncanny Valley thundered past Shave It’s 768 thousand three-year tally. As well as picking up yet another Vimeo Staff Pick stamp of approval, Uncanny Valley went on to collect the Best Sci-Fi and Best SFX awards at the Freedom Shorts festival earlier this year as well as the Best Visual Effects award at the Toronto Arthouse Film Festival. In addition the film went on to gain what now seems like inevitable attention from Hollywood, landing Federico and 3dar in development for the feature film version of this barnstorming success. All of this from the film that Federico was determined not to make under the wrong conditions but equally determined not to abandon.

Watch Uncanny Valley below.

In essence, Federico’s refusal to offer his film up to a bad deal, despite the funding that would have come along with it, turned the Uncanny Valley project into a bargaining chip that he could play on his own terms. This put him in an unexpected position of strength as he found himself fielding offers from Hollywood studios desperate for an original film that they could be confident would be a hit. With every executive too afraid to pitch ideas to studio heads that are unattached to an existing franchise, best selling novel or comic book, coming across a genuine original concept that had all of the hallmarks of a breakout hit is an opportunity that few industry operators would dare pass up. While details of the studio that finally secured the rights to the Uncanny Valley feature film remain under wraps, Federico assures us of an official announcement at the end of this year. While Federico is by no means at the finish line of the long journey from short to feature, the growth of 3dar from post-production start up to a company based in Argentina, Brazil and the United States to a production team behind an upcoming potential Hollywood hit is certainly a story worth paying attention to. As the ground continues to shift beneath the feet of first time filmmakers and industry stalwarts alike, Federico Heller and 3dar may well provide the new template for short filmmakers to follow.

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