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'Hector Corp.': Revenge of the Penguins

DreamWorks animator Gary Lee discusses his live-action short about the horrors of corporate downsizing with VFXWorld.

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Watch a clip and trailer from Gary Lee's new comedy thriller short, Hector Corp...

Gary Lee has worked in layout or previs on three DreamWorks features ( Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens). Prior to that, he worked at Lucasfilm as a previs and postvis artist on Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Now he's been promoted to head of layout on the Kung Fu Panda sequel, The Kaboom of Doom, scheduled for release in June 2011.

Like many artists, Lee has wanted to direct his own film and recently completed the independently produced, live-action short, Hector Corp. (www.hectorthemovie.com), which concerns a deadly and diabolical plot to lay off employees with killer penguins. The short has begun making a few festival rounds, and I recently spoke with Lee about the vfx demands.

Bill Desowitz: So the penguins fight back in your short. Talk about the genesis of this.

Gary Lee: Well, I feel like a lot of times people who work in the film industry and once you get settled in a working environment, you work on one filmmaking process. And for me it was practice to tell a story and to see something through from beginning to end. In the future, I'd like to direct an independent feature or some other project. For me, it was important to do this, despite my busy work schedule. As far as the subject matter, what inspired me was doing kind of a truncated version of Twilight Zone with corporate downsizing, but then making it into a very theatrical format. It's meant to be a fun, dark comedy.

BD: Your timing couldn't be better.

GL: Yes, the funny thing is that when most people see this film they think I must've had a crystal ball to make such a timely subject matter. But this took four years to complete. I kind of underestimated the amount of animation and effects that are required to do a film like this. So, although I had no idea that this downturn was coming, corporate downsizing is an ongoing thing. The other thing that people ask me is if this is how I feel about working at DreamWorks. I go: "No, no, no!" This is inspired by people around me.

BD: When did you actually make the short?

GL: The whole film -- the live-action parts -- was shot in four days. That was pretty much exactly four years ago. And it took about six months to get an edit. And then from that point it was all about the post effects. And it was ongoing while I worked on the DreamWorks features. So a lot of it ended up being what I do after I get off work. Again, I didn't realize how big a job it was. However, sometimes I think to myself, if I had known then how hard it was going to be to make the film, I would've stopped then. But I think it's that naive quality that kept me going.

BD: How much animation and visual effects were involved and how much help did you have?

GL: Everything except for the main character's office is all digital. And the reason being was I didn't have the money to secure locations. Before DreamWorks, I worked at Lucasfilm, and from that experience I learned a lot about compositing and post effects. So that became what I thought would be the easiest route, but, again, it turned out to be bigger because of the amount of work. I pretty much did 75% of the post myself with one additional person, an old friend from Lucasfilm who is actually now at DreamWorks but wasn't when we made Hector -- Dorian Bustamante (Avatar, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek]. Basically, we had to rig the penguin and animate it, key out the greenscreen and composite everything and do 3D tracking for the camera shots, and that's both live-action and CG elements. And a lot of shots needed hand tracking: the camera we used to shoot was the Sony F900 HD camera, the very first film production HD camera. And the problem with it being the first generation camera was that the color doesn't hold up all that well, so it's difficult to key out greens so we had to roto a majority of the shots. The compositing was a big challenge as well because a lot of the lighting wasn't right so we had to fix that in post, too. The whole process was a labor of love and if I had it to do all over again, I probably wouldn’t do the post effects basically on my own.

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BD: What tools did you use?

GL: We used Photoshop, Maya, After Effects and Final Cut Pro.

BD: You've begun showing it in festivals and have had some screenings for your colleagues at DreamWorks. Have you screened it for Jeffrey Katzenberg?

GL: I have. It's actually an interesting story. I had a screening at DreamWorks and at the time I only invited a lot of friends and producers I know. I didn't invite Jeffrey because I thought you just don't do that -- it's like inviting Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. Until I had a dinner with my girlfriend and a bunch of friends, and they [persuaded me] to [reconsider]. So I just sent Jeffrey an email and invited him to a screening. I immediately got an email back and he said he couldn't make the screening but asked that I send him a copy to watch over the weekend. So I gave him the copy and didn't hear back for 10 days or so. I started thinking that he hated the film and that I ruined it for myself, but I got an email back from him and he said the film was very nicely done and has a good story and a few surprises and it has a lot of wit. "Good job -- keep going." And that blew my mind: I was really happy about that.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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