Federico Heller, the writer and director of UNCANNY VALLEY, which was a Best Film nominee in the Judges 6 at Exit 6 this year, talks to festival producer Mark Brennan about the making of his sci-fi spectacular that's looking to take Hollywood by storm.
It's Friday lunchtime in Argentina when Federico Heller merrily answers the call to talk about his short film Uncanny Valley. The fact it was a Friday may have played a part in his enthusiastic mood, but it's soon apparent that it's the chance to talk about his film, and filmmaking in general, that has Federico buzzed. He's immediately forgiven for not making the journey from Buenos Aires to Basingstoke for the festival.
"I really would like to go to all the festivals where the short is, but I would have to be like an eccentric millionaire with a private jet! We got into many festivals and it's really good, and I got to make friends with a lot of festival organisers which is really cool. Even today I'm talking with some of them for projects. It's really cool to remain in contact."
Like I said, forgiven. And how could he not be after making such a remarkable film?
Uncanny Valley is an exploration of virtual reality technology, how it might affect people in the future and the applications and implications it might have beyond gaming. It's a special-effects laden spectacle the likes of which rarely seen in short film, more so in Hollywood, which is one of the reasons why the film has garnered an awful lot of attention from that direction.
This is thanks in no small part to the animation and visual effects company 3dar, where Federico works. It's a company that is not only a successful client-focused outfit, but one that actively encourages artistic and creative experimentation by those on the team.
"The manager set a contest for scripts to get finance to make a short film. That was the motivation to start. I had 45 days to come up with something that had to be sci-fi, adventure or action oriented so I sat in my office and started thinking of cool ideas that could work. Honestly though, my process was more about polishing. Yesterday one of my partner's was telling me a phrase that I really like which was, "Do something so we can change it." It's a phrase I really like because sometimes the obstruction of coming up with a good idea is too much to deal with. You come up with any idea, so you can change it into a better idea and then you can change the better idea into a really good idea."
If you haven't yet seen the film, we recommend you watch here before reading further...
So what was the idea that lead to Uncanny Valley?
"I remember that after two or three days of not coming up with any good ideas, we went to see a soccer game at a friend's house. The girlfriend of that friend was playing this Candy Crush game, and she was completely absorbed. She had an attitude as if the game was work. She was very, "Okay. I'm doing this. I'm very busy here." Then I remembered thinking it would be really interesting if there was a way to fool people to make them think that they're playing, but in fact they're working. That was something I really liked and I kept that premise all the way to the end."
At last, something good has come from Candy Crush! We were all thinking it... With inspiration found, developing that idea was a lengthy process, justifying individual scenes to fit the narrative and deciding the best technique to deliver the information in terms of storytelling.
"I started working with a voice-over from the point of view of an addict, but it was't working. I thought, "Well, maybe I don't want the story to be told from the point of view of an addict. What if we give it a documentary tone?" Suddenly, this voice-over thing evolved into a documentary thing and by merging styles I found it way easier to hide the twist of the plot. In a documentary, you're not expecting a twist as much as you might if somebody was describing the situation to you in a voice-over. One of my biggest challenges in the story was, how to organise information. I think there are all these rules we sometimes don't even perceive as an audience. I was thinking the other day, about the difference between the audience and the film-maker. You probably have friends that are up to date with all the Netflix series and all the films and are familiar with common story structures because they see them all the time, but you don't become a chef just by going to a lot restaurants and eating all the food. You might get obese [laughter] but you don't become a chef, right? But if you don't understand those structures as a film-maker, you won't find better or more original ways to make your own stories work."
It's clear that a lot of time, talent and effort has gone into the construction of a story that relies on it's narrative as well as it's impressive visual effects. However, Federico sees the work involved dependent on effort rather than talent.
"My humble opinion is that sometimes things become really good because they have a lot of detail, because you went to every pixel and tried to redefine it. An audience seeing the film can feel stimulated because the director has found a way to go beyond the clichés of the scenes. It's actually the result of a lot of practice and polishing, and I wouldn't call that... I mean, you could call that a great talent but in the end, it's the result of hard work."
And speaking of hard work, it's fair to say that the making of Uncanny Valley was as complex as you would expect from a film of such scale.
"We had a total of seven shooting days. Given that there were so many visual effect shots, we actually did the all the shooting with a cheap camera and got to test many of the visual effects in a very cheap way as we went. That was very useful because seven days for shooting the whole thing, with the level of visual effects supervision that was needed, really wasn't much. There were locations that were very challenging. The one at the end of the film was an eight hour drive from Buenos Aires, a very muddy place you couldn't even enter with your car, a very hard location to shoot. The way we found of accelerating the processes was taking a very small team with very cheap camera on a few trips (ignoring proper photography, lighting, so many things) and do an edit of the whole sequence with that footage. Once we got the actual shooting team assembled we already had a little edit that showed the sequence we were aiming to capture. Like an animatic. It was way easier to move the team forward because any questions that arose, I would take my tablet and point and say, "Look, this is what we're doing." Everybody was on board immediately because there was a good reference point. But, I'm not going to show you that animatic because it's ugly as hell!"
If the shoot sounded like hard work, it's fair to say the post-production process was in a whole different league. Despite the support and encouragement of 3dar, it was still a working company that wasn't always able to afford time and resources to the film. It meant the whole process took much longer than Federico and the team would have liked.
"We were more organised towards client work than we were with our experimental work. That's one of the things that is changing in the company right now. Before we could only allocate spare resources which is a very hard way to produce a film. We're currently doing another experimental film for VR and we decided to change the system because it was a little too stressful for the artists. When they're making good progress, then have to go back to client work and then back to the experimental project, it's very tiresome. The whole process took a year and a half which is way more than it takes for us to do client work. In the end I reached a point where I said "Okay, if we don't start treating this as a client project, we're never going to finish it. Let's get a chunk of money and make it priority number one." When we did that, the project moved forward at a speed that it hadn't moved at in a whole year. That was a learning curve. Right now, when I see a short film or even a feature film, I always have certain admiration for the fact that they managed to finish it. No matter how bad the dialogue might be, the script or the photography. You got to finish it which is more than most people can claim."
The positive side-effect for 3dar of allowing their artists to experiment with their own projects, is the expansion of their own portfolio and what they can now offer to potential clients. Thanks to the personal projects of Federico and others at the company, the skills they've developed and the variety of projects they have completed have helped generate more income and enabled 3dar to evolve into a creative agency rather than just an animation and visual effects facility.
"3dar from the very beginning was a visual effects company but what's happened through time is that we're getting more and more involved in the whole creative process. At this time, we're also offering services as writers and directors. We can develop an idea that works and we can execute from the idea to the storyboard to the shooting to the post production to the final piece. That's obviously something it took many years for us to get into, and one of the things that gave us the ability to do so was experimental work doing our own short films. It empowers the company to say, "Hey, we can produce powerful ideas as well."
And as well as new clients, their work has also understandably attracted interest from Hollywood.
"Right now, I'm working at visual effects supervisor on the film called NUMB with Harvey Keitel and Hayden Christensen and they came to us because they saw Uncanny Valley. They came and said "Hey, I saw these amazing effects and we want to work with you on the effects of this film that has lot of similarities." I feel that creating your own work is a great way to upgrade yourself too, it doesn't just apply to a studio."
There is also still the plan for Uncanny Valley to be developed into a feature film, something that was always the plan should the film be a success - and it's safe to say that it has. It's been a long and educational process for Federico, navigating Hollywood, and one about which he has a lot to say.
"So far, I can say that a couple of production houses from Los Angeles have shown interest. We're engaged with one of them and we are now together with a fantastic team of writers from Hollywood. We are actually in a buying season to take the project to the studios and trying to get it financed. It's been a really long year, I've flown to LA like four or five times. It's not really the skill set you would think you would need as a director, trying to move your project forward, trying to network with the right people. I've learned a tremendous amount about the whole Hollywood structure. It's really hard to approach Hollywood when you come from your own mindset of just grabbing a camera and making a film with the people you like and moving forward with a creative impetus. Right now, Hollywood works in a different way where you have to prove to a lot of people, that your project is a good investment. It works pretty much like real estate. A lot of people get really angry with it because it seems like there's no art to it but I can say that, to me, it was very good lesson. Find a way for your project to have all the key points that the buyer wants and present your project in a way that sells. That's what the market is about.
However, with that lesson learned, Federico believes there is still power that newcomers have in the face of such a seemingly impenetrable system.
"Some directors look too much at the buyer. You have to look at them to understand how they work, but at the end of the day, you are calling the shots if you can put together a piece that's irresistible for them. Yes, a lot of the time you're waiting for the phone to ring, but use that time to focus on other projects. If I start calling the production house and my agent saying, "Hey, why are things not moving?" I start losing my real power, which is that I can create more stuff they want to buy. Keep creating. My name isn't a big enough in the industry to move a project forward, but if I have a good idea, people in the industry will have to go through me to execute it. To be honest, I think studios would prefer that you disappear so they can do what they like with the material and hire the director they want, but that's where your leverage is, the fact that you created the product. To me that's where you find you place to start in this industry.
There is no weariness to Federico at all when speaking of the Hollywood machine, just a matter of fact acceptance of the way things are and a conviction that his time to make his name within it will come. And with that in mind, his advice to his fellow filmmakers is pretty emphatic.
"I think the biggest lesson I learned revolves around courage. I think the director, or anybody taking a project forward, needs to be really courageous walking a very uncertain path and where nobody will give you any guarantee of success. There are so many things in life that are like that. You just move forward not knowing exactly what's going to happen but you face your fears all the way. That facing of the fears to me is the biggest guarantee that the process is worth it because you're really making progress in redefining your career or your professional evolution, or your evolution in any realm."
Federico may no longer feel the urge to say it, but if you're listening Hollywood, on behalf of Exit 6 and everyone who attended the Judges 6 screening back in September, get a move on!
You can follow 3dar on Twitter: @3darVFX