It’s the kind of story Hollywood would love to have you believe, but rarely, if ever happens.
A young man, in this case named Gary H. Lee, is working his way up the creative ladder at a major studio, DreamWorks Animation. Is he satisfied? Mainly yes, but…
“To give you a little bit of background,” Lee begins. “I did study art and film. Like anyone who’s ever studied cinema, I’ve always had a passion to tell my own stories. Like many students, when they get into a studio, they only get to work on a portion of a film and never, ever get to do one of their own. In other words, they only get to put a touch on the entire storytelling process.”
As you might guess, Lee wanted more than that, although that's not to say he isn’t doing well inside Jeffrey Katzenberg’s end of the Dream Factory, either.
“I do cinematography,” says Lee. “I’m the head of layout for Kung Fu Panda 2. That’s the equivalent of being a cinematographer on a live action film. It’s actually probably one of the best places to work, to be honest.”
That doesn’t mean Lee hasn’t heard stories. Lots and lots of stories. The byproduct of hearing these stories has now made its debut. Entitled Hector Corp, it’s Lee’s first professional animated short. The work is so well done that Dreamworks Animation is actually going out of its way to support the independent film, even though the only real connection they have to it is Lee being an employee of theirs.
“Dreamworks has nothing to do with Hector,” says Lee. “It’s actually based on what’s happening to a lot of my friends who are now entering the regular corporate world, like law firms or other more business-oriented corporations. What drew me into this whole thing is I love storytelling. The only way for me to do it, outside of being a director, was to actually shoot my own film.”
The film tells the tale of a young man who works in one of those corporate structures that virtually touch the sky in their post-deco magnificence. One day, each and every employee finds a miniature action figure on their desk. It is of their corporate mascot, an innocent enough looking penguin with the company’s logo imprinted on his belly.
This penguin doesn’t have happy feet though. He doesn’t have a name like Chilly Willy, Skipper or Kowalski. Heck, he doesn’t even cry ice cubes when Bugs Bunny won’t take him to the South Pole. Actually, Hector is part of his corporation’s employee downsizing scheme and is positively lethal with office items such as stick pins, fountain pen tips and safety scissors.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Penguins of Madagascar are a completely separate entity,” says Lee. “The penguins were straight up CGI. Are you familiar with the Linux Penguin? I actually wrote to the guy who created the Linux Penguin to get permission to use him in my film, and I got approval. Now I wouldn’t say it is that penguin, but mine is based on it.
“Hector was a reaction of someone coming fresh out of school and going straight into the working world. It’s such a different environment when you go from academia to a huge corporation. Basically, I came up with my own truncated version of a Twilight Zone episode, especially when it comes to corporate downsizing. It was never triggered by the Penguins or anything specific to any Dreamworks film that’s been produced.”
What’s truly impressive about this film is how much work Lee actually put into this live action/CGI hybrid.
“Obviously, when it came to Hector the difficult part of it is I’ve worked on four different Dreamworks films while making this,” Lee recalls. “I worked on Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda 1, Monsters v. Aliens and now Kung Fu Panda 2. It was kind of a struggle to make this film as a side project while I had a full time job here.
“There were many times when I would have to put Hector on hold while I worked on a major sequences like Tai-Lin’s escape or the bridge fight in the first Kung Fu Panda. Then again, it’s something that if you are a true artist that you just have to do. You have to have that drive/passion for your own work.”
You also have to have a bit of knowledge. In his near ten years in the business, Lee has picked up his share.
“Getting on to the production process, from the beginning to the end, from concept to completion, took four years to make,” he admits. “One thing I actually underestimated was all the visual effects. Another thing was we had to go out and rent space and build an actual office. The office is the only thing that’s actually constructed; everything else is digital, from the hallways to the actual Hector building, that’s all shot on green screen. The only reason I went that route is I simply didn’t have the money to find the locations.
“My first job was doing pre-this and post-that for Lucas Film. I worked on the third Star Wars film. I learned a tremendous amount about putting live action elements into the digital world there. It gave me the knowledge that even if I didn’t have the capital to do something on location, I could do it on green screen.”
The Hollywood end of the story is it looks like Lee’s efforts are starting to finally pay off. Dreamworks actually let him have his debut inside their own facility.
“Dreamworks has been really, really supportive. My actual premiere was at Dreamworks. It was an actual lunch screening. Then for a lot of people who didn’t work at Dreamworks, they arranged for me to have an evening screening.
“I mean it’s you don’t make a film just to make a film. You make one in order to show it to other people,” says Lee. “Now when I started this film, my first thoughts were not I want to show it to the world. My first thoughts were to develop my storytelling ability. I thought that after I did the film, if I was happy with it, that would be it. Then you work on it for four years, and you really do think ‘I really want this to go somewhere.’ What’s the point if you don’t show it?
“Dreamworks has been helping me get to a lot of film festivals. Now I’m learning that process,” says Lee. “Right now I got into DragonCon in Atlanta. I also got into one in Rhode Island, the International Film Festival and that’s an Academy Award qualifying one. I’m actually taking some work days off to go there.”
The biggest kudo so far? Why a congratulatory email from Dreamworks' Animation's big man himself, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
“He saw my film and emailed me to say he enjoyed the film. That there was a good story and quite a bit of wit. He also told me to continue to do what I do. He would look forward to seeing more. To me, that was huge. When I did my premiere, I didn’t feel I was in the position to invite Jeffrey. Then a friend of mine came to me and said that I had been working on this film for so long while helping him develop all his own films. Technically, I did work for Jeffrey, and he would probably like to see it.
“So I talked to some people, some supervisors and others who have been here a long time, and they told me that Jeffrey would actually be upset if he didn’t get to see it. So I did invite him to the screening, but he couldn’t make it as he is one of the busiest people in the world.
“But he did request a copy of it so he could watch it over the weekend. Then after the weekend I got the email, and it was a genuine response, not just a cordial thank you. He even went on to say what parts he liked. Just for the fact he took the time to watch it and hand me some personal notes just blows my mind.”
So what does this young creator have planned, besides going to the aforementioned film festivals?
“I’m back on Kung Fu Panda 2,” Lee says. “I really do love that project. Quite honestly, it’s going to be phenomenal. I’m really super stoked about it. I’m actually looking forward to devoting a lot of my own time on that, although I will admit I’m developing another side project while I’m at it.”
And who knows? This could the start of a Hollywood story, the one that usually happens in the movies. Just keep your eyes peeled for the name Gary H. Lee and see what happens.
Fans who want to see Hector Corp. for themselves can go to the site www.hectorthemovie.com. .