Hydraulx’s Greg Strause: An entrepreneurial spirit
by Heather Courtney Quinn
Greg Strause is the CEO and co-owner of Hydraulx, an award-winning visual effects house that has worked on numerous blockbuster films, including 300, Avatar, X-Men, Fast & Furious, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, along with many commercials and music videos. The company has offices in Playa Del Rey, Vancouver and New Orleans.
He and his brother, Colin, who are referred to as the “Brothers Strause” directed the box office hit Skyline and they are in the midst of producing a sequel. They just sold a feature script entitled War of the Ages to Relativity, which they are producing and will direct next. They are developing a series based on the book, The Uglies for MTV with Davis Entertainment. Additionally, they are currently working on the VFX for Midnight Special at Warner Bros., Into the Storm and San Andreas for New Line.
Greg and I are working together on a project called Apocalypse How, that we are in the process of selling to a cable network. Greg is incredibly talented, deeply committed to his craft and is simply just a fun guy to work with… (experience has taught me that sometimes life can be too short if you are not working with people that you actually like to be around). He is definitely a passionate soul of the biz.
Heather Courtney Quinn: What was your first break? How did it happen?
Greg Strause: Our very first break was working on a low budget TV commercial right out of high school. We did some title and graphics work and probably got paid $150. It was for local access, but it lead to bigger commercials. You know, what was really eye opening was when were working out of the basement of our house in the midwest and we got paid $30,000 to create CGI characters for a Speedway Gas commercial. That was significant because our house only cost $30,000. It was 1993 or ’94…I was 19 and my brother was 17. My dad only made about $35,000 a year and we made that in 3 weeks. That’s when we said, “Ok, something is going on here.”
HCQ: Describe your day.
GS: Constantly changing hats all day long… from producer to director, to visual effects, to investor, to lawyer, to artist, to editor, to landlord… it’s crazy.
HCQ: With regard to the VFX aspect of what you do, at what point do you usually get involved in the process and how are creative decisions made?
GS: It depends on the project. There are really two ways it goes down. Either we get brought on at the beginning of the project so we are there before they shoot and we help out with the planning. Or we are brought on at the end when it’s a sprint to the finish line… part of the cleanup crew.
HCQ: To fix something?
GS: Yes, usually the deadline is creeping up and the studio gets nervous about delivering on time. Either there’s new work that needs to get assigned or they reassign work from one vendor to another.
HCQ: With regards to the creative decisions, are you usually working with the director or the studio?
GS: Again, it depends on the movie. Involvement with the director is definitely preferred, but it doesn’t always happen that way. There are times that we do an entire project where we never directly talk to the director and we only see written notes. We like to try to be as involved in the process as possible, but the sprint to the finish is fun too.
HCQ: It seems that you guys are unique because you own your own sound stages and all your own cameras…
GS: Very early on in our directing career we wanted the freedom to go film anything you want, whenever you want. My biggest frustration with the production process is that once a unit is wrapped and you want to go film something else, it is a giant clusterfuck trying to get a production together. You have to build the machine back up from scratch to go film something, which is very frustrating because it shouldn’t be that hard or that expensive. The fact that no one actually owns any of this equipment is what I saw as a huge flaw in the way the system is designed.
HCQ: What keeps you motivated?
GS: Working on cool movies that people talk about. When your name is burned in the beginning or end of a movie — that is forever. Fifty years later, when someone is watching that movie, they are going to see your name and that is cool.
HCQ: What movies have inspired and enlightened you over the years and why?
GS: The one that was the most important movie in our life was Terminator 2. My brother and I were sitting in the theater watching that movie and when we came out, we said, “That is what we want to do with our lives.” We watched it at least four times and we actually forced our mom to come watch the movie. Jim Cameron was our hero and we thought it was important that she came along and saw what we saw. This was back in ’91 so I was a junior in high school and my brother was in eighth grade.
HCQ: Did you guys know that you wanted to work together?
GS: No. We used to fight as much as any kids do. But, we did realize that working together had a lot of advantages. Our personalities really compliment each other.
HCQ: Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
GS: The best answer to that question would be our parents. They instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in us. They started a company when we were quite young and Mom basically ran the company out of our kitchen. Instead of getting an allowance, we would actually do work for the company and get paid. They taught us that owning your own business is the most important thing. It’s the American dream… having control over your own destiny. We worked hard and we worked long hours.
HCQ: That’s why we love working with you guys – you really have such a “can do” attitude.
GS: It was a shocker when we were twelve years old and paying income tax. I was saying, “How is this possible? I can’t vote! Isn’t this like The Revolution… no taxation without representation! What’s going on here? If I am going to pay taxes, then I should be able to vote.” I just remember being really upset about that.
But anyway our summer/family vacation money always came from the business and it allowed us to enjoy a better middle class lifestyle than a lot of our neighbors. We were well aware of that. We just didn’t want to do what our parents were doing, which was selling engineering equipment. We wanted to get into the movie side of thing, but that business they started was the foundation for us. We’re still actually using the same corporation that they started in 1981.
HCQ: What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to face? What factors/traits helped you?
GS: The shift of the tax credits over the last five or six years is the biggest challenge. Unfortunately, things aren’t based on merit anymore. It’s not about what’s best, its about who gives the best incentive. So much of this business used to be solely based on merit, now you see these incentives slowly polluting the decision making process. It’s odd when it used to be about what’s best for the image going on screen and then it became about, “well, if we go here to these guys even if they aren’t that good, we can get 30% back”. There is a bit of hypocrisy with the people who make those decisions because they get to stay here in L.A. All the above the line people aren’t getting forced to move to New Orleans (sure the actors may have to go for two months)… but they’re not getting their livelihood ripped up and shipped out. My brother has been in Australia for six months now.
HCQ: You’ve been forced to adapt by opening up these other offices and going to places you wouldn’t have gone to before…
GS: And, its not like a great deal for us. I get to pay rent here and Vancouver. I get to sign my name on all these leases and pay for the Internet connection between them. We don’t get to charge more for the work.
HCQ: What does “soul of the biz” mean to you?
GS: For me, it is getting to create new and original stuff. We’ve had so much fun on the producing side. You sit there and say that was an idea I had when I was taking a shower and to see it two years later in a movie theater… to me, that’s the soul of this whole thing.
HCQ: When was the last time you took a risk?
GS: I don’t know… two questions ago? (laughs) I am the biggest gambler that I know and I don’t even go to the tables in Vegas. Everything is a gamble.
HCQ: How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
GS: When we were younger, we never thought that we would be directing movies. There was a point when we were working for all of these other directors and someone actually told us, “you guys should be doing that”. We had our VFX company and it just wasn’t something that we thought was realistic. We never thought we would be directing music videos for famous bands when we were in our twenties. The 2nd live action music video we did was for Linkin Park. We also did some for 50 Cent and Usher.
HCQ: If you could pass along one piece of advice, what would it be?
GS: It is always better to do, than talk about it.