Updated: Jan 31, 2020
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.
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.”
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.