Corey Hels (CHS '87)
Corey Hels attended Meadow Lake Elementary, Hosterman Junior High, and Cooper High School, graduating in 1987. He is now a previsualization artist with DreamWorks Animation in Los Angeles.
Q: When did you first become interested in the arts?
COREY HELS: I was encouraged at first by my family. My oldest brother is a drummer and my mom is a talented wildlife painter. At Meadow Lake, I took first place in a wildlife drawing contest and won a Greenpeace patch for my jacket. I think of this corny moment as a small snowball that began rolling downhill. From that tiny validation, art became cool for me.
Q: Were there specific experiences or teachers who encouraged that?
CH: Robbinsdale Area Schools had a huge impact on my formative years. Hosterman Junior High introduced me to writing and art materials. At Cooper, Ron Chagnon introduced me to clay sculpting. Everyone else was making coffee mugs, and I started making gruesome bas relief sculptures like something out of a Fangoria magazine. I was using anything and everything I could get my hands on. Ron was a huge support and the greatest teacher. Two of my best friends from Ron's classes went on to be professional artists, Tim Quady and Tom Nynas. I'm convinced none of us would have considered Art as a career without the guidance of Ron Chagnon.
High School at Cooper was great for me. With the support of Ron Chagnon and my Humanities teacher Neal Luebke, I essentially earned a permanent hall pass to take my exploration of the Humanities out of the classroom. Neal and Ron encouraged me to use all my open mods and some of my lunch hours to work on art. Neal was more like a godfather behind the scenes, gently pushing you in a creative direction. I spent the balance of my time in the theater scene shop or in Ron's art room sitting quietly at the back of other people's classes. I learned how to build sets and produce a stage play from Frank Plut, Neal Luebke, and Julia Rask. I was acting in stage productions with Steve Zahn and Rob Berdahl who both went on to be professional actors. I was really drawn back to the production going on behind the scenes, and how the Art and Design came together, the mechanical gadgetry of flying scenery or mobility in the sets, trap doors, lighting tricks, the works. That theater magic was right up my alley.
Q: Right after Cooper, you earned a BFA in Media Art from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Then you were working on some pretty major films by the early 90s, is that right?
CH: Yes, I moved to Los Angeles immediately after college and began working in animation production in 1991.
Q: What was your first big break?
CH: I was offered an opportunity to work for a special effects house called Dream Quest Images. It was a huge boost in experience. I was suddenly working at a facility that did it all. They had practical sound stages and model builders, motion control camera rigs, and "real" special effects shoots going on. I did visual effects on films like "The Mask," "Crimson Tide," and "Mission to Mars."
Q: And now you're with DreamWorks.
CH: I've worked for all the big studios at some point, but DreamWorks Animation has been the place where I really hit my stride as a previsualization artist. Previz is a quick turnaround phase where story ideas are refined and the heavy lifting of filmmaking continuity happens. You can't get too married to any of your work, because you have to consistently trash ideas, recreate and improve. In the end, it's often amazing to see how close the film stays to the original concepts we created.
Q: Is there a film or films in your output that were particular favorites to work on?
CH: While at Warner Brothers I worked on a somewhat forgotten classic film called "The Iron Giant." It's one of the last great American traditionally animated films and such a fun story. While at Sony, I worked with Robert Zemeckis' team on "Monster House," another great film and a super fun experience. But DreamWorks stands head and shoulders above anybody, I think. Nearly every film I have worked on here has been a great experience, including "Kung Fu Panda", "Monsters vs. Aliens," and "Shrek."
Q: What are you working on now?
CH: Right now I'm working on "Puss in Boots," which is definitely one of the best films and best crews I've ever worked on. I'm also ramping up an indie live action film production with two friends and a computer-generated short with another friend. I'll continue working in animation professionally as long as I can.
Q: What advice would you have for a student considering a career in animation for films?
CH: If you are someone who already knows that the only thing you want to do is work in animation or direct films, you need to just start doing that. Create a reel and put yourself out there. You'll be surprised what will happen.