Ever wanted to make a film but doubted yourself or felt you don’t have the resources in place? Or are just bogged down by the enormity of bringing it all together? Here’s some inspiration from Emmy Award winner Gairo Cuevas, who shares his filmmaking journey with us — the doubts, the challenges, the fears. He breaks down the entire process for you — one frame, one shot at a time, every detail, every personal note, of making his 5-minute horror short Hazard. It’s a valuable, enriching read for every film student and aspiring filmmaker out there!
Before I start explaining how I went about directing the short film Hazard, it probably makes sense to watch it first, right?
Okay, so now that you watched Hazard, I’ll talk about the journey from beginning to end by focusing on just highlights. I’ll try not to bore you, but I probably will. Did I bore you already?
The idea of Hazard came to me when I was walking my dogs super early one morning before the sun had a chance to rise, and suddenly a parked old white faded van quickly flashed its lights on then off. It was a super creepy moment made even spookier by the fact that nobody was inside the vehicle. I chalked it up to faulty wiring, and just kept walking.
As we made our way home, and I looked beyond the street lamps, at some point the road blended into obscurity.
I thought about how scary it would be if my car broke down in complete darkness, and all I had were the lights of my car to make me feel a little safer.
Another striking aspect was just how quiet everything was around us. I get that it was early, so lots of people were still asleep, but I couldn’t even hear crickets. It’s one thing to not see through the darkness, but to also not hear much while surrounded by darkness, well it just didn’t seem natural. We walked back home super fast. Super super fast.
Writing The Script
I would usually scribble or type down ideas during lunch breaks at work. Then in the evenings at home I would write a bunch of nonsense until my eyes couldn’t stay open anymore. Day after day I would repeat the steps. Some days I wrote more than others, but as long as I kept momentum, then that’s all that mattered.
I should mention that I work at Pixar, where I work 45 hour weeks (on occasion closer to 50), so there were nights where I really just wanted to sleep. However, once I forced myself to sit at my desk in my home office, my tiredness would dissipate the more I kept working on the script. I ended up finishing the first draft in about a week on 8/15/2018. By the time I finished the 4th draft, the date was 9/3/2018. Here are some things that changed from the first draft to the 4th draft (the shooting script):
- In the first draft, Hangman Harry went by Psycho Sam, but I wanted the villain’s name to be more specific to how he died in his backstory.
2. In the first draft, Sally (the friend on the phone) was called Daisy, but I changed her name to Sally because I liked how Psycho Sally sounded. I guess I like alliteration.
3. Instead of Jane saying she was near an abandoned school, in the first draft Jane said she was near a hiking trail called Cascade Falls. I know the location doesn’t matter from a visceral standpoint since we never see Jane’s surroundings, once I gave Hangman Harry the school shooting backstory that Sally mentions, I figured it made more sense from an overall story perspective to change the location. Plus, abandoned schools terrify me.
4. Originally Jane was never going to hang in the end. Psycho Sam was going to appear as a light shadowy figure near Jane as the Hazard lights came on. Jane would scream as the figure approached her. Lights would go off, and nobody would be around when the lights came back on. Cut to credits. I figured though since the villain’s name was changed to Hangman Harry, maybe it would make more sense if he hung her (connecting the action to character and story).
I always went back and forth on the title. Should it be called Hazard or Hangman Harry? I stuck with Hazard because of the surprise factor. If I titled it Hangman Harry, then in my mind I felt like as an audience member you would say, “Well, he has to show up. His name is in the title!” With a title like Hazard, I was hoping you would be thinking somewhere in the back of your mind, “Maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t show up?” There’s also the actual hazard lights, which I thought was just a fun tie-in to the story itself. I don’t know, maybe I should have just had the hazard lights blow her up.
Those were the major alterations I made as the script evolved and little details about location and character changed. Dialogue changed here and there, but nothing on a major scale.
As I mentioned above, I finished writing the 4th draft of the script on 9/3/2018. I scheduled the shoot for 9/29/18. On 8/22/2018 I sent one of the drafts to the practical effects designer Margaret Caragan so that she could have context for the legs she would be building. Margaret met with Joanna (plays Jane) to get her measurements, and Margaret started building the prop and rig with her husband, Tony Aldrich. Joanna bought a few pairs of jeans for the prop and for herself. We wanted to make sure they matched.
We also bought a few pairs of the same shoes so that Joanna and the leg prop would match, too. The phone Joanna uses in Hazard is actually mine, but I always had it in a black case. I worried if I kept the phone in the black case, it would be harder to see it. I bought the light blue case, which worked out well since the phone case ended up matching the color of the car.
Oh yeah, the car. I never wrote the description of the car in the script because I just thought I would use my Nissan Pathfinder. Then I thought, “What if I could find a classic 50’s or 60’s car?” This stressed me out. I shouldn’t have had that thought. Why didn’t I just use my car so that I didn’t stress out? It’s a good question. I don’t have an answer for you, other than that maybe I just like to torture myself? I could say so that it fit the story, but like I said, I never wrote the description of the car in the script.
Anyway, I reached out to a friend that maybe knew someone with a classic car, but it didn’t work out after days of waiting.
One day I drove past a flyer in my town that mentioned a classic car show happening downtown on 9/9/2018. On the day of the car show, I walked downtown to check out the cars. The first car that caught my attention was a 1955 blue Chevy, but the owner wasn’t around. Bummer. I walked around for another hour or so looking at other cars, and getting rejected by various owners. This car show was turning out to be a bust.
As I was about to leave, I decided to check out the blue Chevy again. This time the owner was there. His name was Al. I pleaded my case, and for some odd reason (maybe the dejection in my voice) Al decided to let me use his car for the shoot. A stranger trusting another stranger. Crazy, right?
Once I got that cool classic car, I figured Joanna might as well have a 50’s/60’s look to her. Margaret, on top of designing the legs, also is a make-up artist. Margaret and I chatted about a few looks, Googled reference images, and Margaret took it from there. The jacket Joanna wears in the short is her own personal jacket (I think). Oh yeah, Joanna, I worked with her on a previous project. I always had Joanna in mind while writing Hazard, since I’d worked with her before. I was super happy when she agreed to come on board.
Joanna has a way of immediately drawing your attention to her, and that’s what I needed. From the get-go her persona commands your focus. In this fast 5-minute short, she really developed a superb well-rounded character. That’s not easy for just anyone to do. Joanna just has that captivating talent.
For the role of Sally, a few people turned me down. Then I realized, why don’t I just ask Deane, whom I have worked with on another project. I hadn’t asked her before because she was busy with plays, but she didn’t actually have to be at the shoot (this made scheduling her a little easier). I always wanted Sally as a contrast to Jane, and Deane was able to bring her infectious humor, heart, and turmoil into the role. That was important since you never actually see Sally.
Deane’s voice had to entertain, and through her vocal talent, Deane was able to inject an enthralling verbal arc for Sally. We ended up recording Deane’s voice during post-production. Since we couldn’t rehearse in person, Joanna sent me a video of herself reading the lines, Deane sent me audio of her lines, I edited Deane’s lines over Joanna’s footage, and made a rehearsal video. This rehearsal video helped me tweak the script, and also helped me shape their performances.
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Equipment was probably the easiest to acquire. Our DP Marlon was more than happy to film Hazard with his own personal red helium camera. Here he is cramped in the backseat.
He also has a grip truck, so he was set with lights and miscellaneous equipment. I rented two high roller stands with aluminum and metal pipes to drop the legs from. Regarding a shooting location, my friend, Steve Jones was kind enough to let us shoot outside of his house. He lives in the outskirts of Napa with some big open land, which allowed us to be pretty loud. I also typed up the schedule which included names, contact info, location info, call times, maps, prop information, and the shot list. Here’s part of the schedule.
You’ll notice in my shot list that 1A and 2B mention PR (pan right). Originally I thought maybe we could perhaps shoot the film all in one take. However, shooting one takes would have been too difficult since we didn’t have a focus puller. Also, we’d have to time Jane’s hanging just right, meaning having Joanna get out of frame during darkness, and then drop the leg prop from above. We figured it was safer to cut the camera at certain times.
Production happened on 9/29/18.
Not sure if you can tell, but in the top left corner of the picture there are clouds. There was a chance of rain, which stressed me out the entire night.
When night arrived, Marlon started setting up his lights. I’m near the camera checking the frame. Annabel Sandhu, awesome script supervisor, sat in the front seat to help Marlon check focus and exposure while Joanna was busy getting makeup.
Joanna was so well prepared, and the crew moved so fast, that we moved through all our shots rather quickly. The most time consuming shots were the angles involving the legs. Marlon set his lights to turn on and off automatically, which meant just Tony releasing the legs over and over and over again to capture the legs dropping into frame. If the legs suddenly appeared in the shot, then we tried it again. It was important to see the legs making the downward motion. Those legs were 75 Ibs, which ended up weighing even more with the addition of gravity as the legs fell.
We would all get tense everytime the legs dropped. What if the pole came loose and hit someone? What if the stand broke, and fell on the car? Lots of things could have gone wrong, but luckily everything worked out well. The rain never came either, so I was stressed out for no reason. We aimed to wrap the shoot by 2 am, but we ended up finishing around midnight. Chelsea Walton, our editor, was on set uploading cards to the drive (as well as assisting wherever needed). Once Chelsea finished uploading the footage, we all went home. Shooting was done.
So production was just one night. We were done on the night of 9/29/18. For a second we thought that maybe we could get it done in time to release the short on Halloween. However, we quickly realized that would have been too daunting on us. There was no way we could complete Hazard in a month with our work schedule. I am sure other filmmakers would have been able to finish Hazard in a month. We didn’t want to take on that challenge. Therefore, Chelsea and I agreed that we would aim to have the film done by Halloween of 2019 instead. That gave us a deadline of one year, which made us feel a whole lot better. Chelsea also works at Pixar working long hours, so I think she breathed a sigh of relief when we extended the deadline.
Chelsea showed me her very first rough cut of Hazard on 10/13/18. First rough cuts are always fun (actually, I mean dreadful) because first rough cuts are basically the worst version of the movie. You would be crazy to show people the first cut of the film. Why would you ever do that? By the way, you can see it right here.
So that’s the rough cut of the film. No fancy color correction, no sound design, temp music, and bland text/credit placeholders. In this version, Sally was played by our script supervisor since Deane’s voice hadn’t been recorded yet. Everything about it is just rough, and it might cause you to lose sleep because you’ll think that you wasted everybody’s time.
It’s okay to have those thoughts. I had them. Oh boy did I have them. You gotta look at the rough cut as a starting point though. A starting point for exploration and conversation as you tackle questions like: how long should a shot last before cutting to the next shot? Which performance is better? Should we cut out that line? Should we keep that line in there? Why was that line written? Who the hell wrote this thing? How long should the logo and title appear at the beginning? None of those questions are ever fully explored until you see the first rough cut of the film.
Chelsea is an extraordinary editor who was constantly shaping the film, and keeping me sane as she pieced together the intent and spirit of the script. I’d be lost without her. The more Chelsea and I started to converse and explore, the closer we got to locking the picture. Every now and then we would show the evolved cuts to friends. They would give us feedback, and then keep on exploring and conversing. Don’t ever be afraid to show versions to people because their perspective might surprise you. Here is an example of how I would type feedback for Chelsea:
Start of notes:
Overall Thoughts: This is wonderful!!!! Def think the next steps will be building tension and release. I hope my suggestions below are helpful. My main thought would be to try and see how much you can limit yourself on using the creepy voyeur shots. Below I try to point out times for when to use them a bit more sparingly. I wonder if by using those scary shots less, then maybe that won’t give the audience enough time to get used to those angles (thus hopefully creeping them out more). But who knows. I also know SFX and music will be a big part, too, which isn’t fully fleshed out yet since we’re still in rough form. Overall though, it’s coming along nicely.
1:00:00:00 – 1:00:26:11 – Make this a little shorter, and let’s hear Jane and Sally’s dialogue frames after the logo starts playing. √
1:00:26:12 – Start on CU profile of Jane, and see if by the time we see her, she is on this dialogue “Hangman Harry? So creative. Maybe he’s the one who killed my car. Are you on your way to pick me up or what?”√
01:0105:23 – Cut to front MS of Jane. The shot from behind her is great. √
01:01:40:15 – Cut to MS profile shot of Jane saying, “No.”√
01:01:56:16 – Bring in Sally’s voice little sooner to interrupt Jane. √
01:01:58:04 – Cut to CU profile of Jane for her “Are you fucking serious…”line.√
01:02:09:04 – See if there is another take of Jane being annoyed with her friend after Sally says she is not actually turning around. There were some good takes of Jane like visually upset, and even one where she flips off the phone. √
01:02:28:19 – Maybe replace this shot with CU profile or MS profile. √
01:02:45:14 – Don’t use this take because it’s the one where Marlon lit the BG a little, and the other’s don’t have that background lit. Also, give more room at the head of the clip so we can see Jane walking into the spot. √
01:03:11:06 – See if there is a take where Jane says “Hangman Harry” a little softer.√
1:03:25:05 – 01:03:30:16 – I think right now it goes MS, MCU, MCU. Was wondering if it could go MS, MCU, CU. See if you can also add a few more seconds of black to add some more tension between the name calling.? (not sure if I accomplishes this! Let’s look at it together?
01:03:43:06 – Stay on CU till you get this point here. √
01:03:53:18 – 01:04:04:09 – Really good 1st rough to the torturing of Jane. Def want to see if we can avoid Jane looking at the camera until it’s her final moment before she gets pulled up. I think playing up the music here will also help with tension. This is a good reminder for me to make sure we record Deane sounding very worried and scared for her friend. √
01:04:06:09 – When we see the legs drops, Want to have Sally more in a state of fright and shock. So more of Sally yelling Jane’s name out. Also, was wondering if you could first use the shot of the legs falling where the light inside the car is off. Then we’ll play with sound effects to make it sound like the car is working again, and then use the shot where the legs are dangling and the light inside the car is on. Let feet dangle for a few seconds, and then cut to credits. Don’t bother cutting to the car. If anything, maybe the car shot can be used after the title of the movie? √ End of notes.
After a few months, Chelsea ended up locking the picture towards the end of February 2019. She edited about 25 versions of the film. The movie was now ready for sound, color, music, and graphics.
Before we met with Mark Dinicola (color correctionist) in March 2019, we sent him this email:
8K (8192×3456) Shot anamorphic.
The logo, title, and end credits are still IP. The actual live action clips are all locked.
Please let me know if you need anything else, and if you prefer a prores file that’s less than 8K.
As you can see, even though the picture was locked, the logo, title, and end credits were still in progress. Mark said that was okay though because we could always just deliver the final logo, title, and end credits later. I always envisioned Hazard in black and white; however, when I noticed how rich and detailed the colors came out just from the camera, we all agreed that keeping the movie in color was the way to go. So for Mark, it was just about enhancing the colors, and crushing the blacks as much as he could.
The idea was to really make Jane feel like she couldn’t look past her car’s lights. Remember in the inspiration section above when I mentioned, “As we made our way home, and I looked beyond the street lamps, at some point the road blended into obscurity. I thought about how scary it would be if my car broke down in complete darkness, and all I had were the lights of my car.”
That’s what I had in mind when talking to Mark, and that’s exactly what he delivered. He also added a little grain for grit. Mark also works at Pixar color correcting all the Pixar films, so it took him a while to finish Hazard since work kept him a little busy. That was totally fine though. I never wrote out notes for Mark. We had a notes session in person, and most of the suggestions were small things like matching exposure from shot to shot, and figuring out grain amount.
He delivered the final color corrected footage in early October 2019. Mark nailed the look.
One more thing to add is that Robin Leigh, mastering supervisor at Pixar, was instrumental in helping schedule Mark’s time to help color correct Hazard.
In May of 2019 we had our first sound meeting with Adrian Maruri and Samantha Benedetti (yes, they also work at Pixar). We watched the movie together, and really my main sound note was to make Jane feel isolated by taking away as much sound as possible.
In the inspiration section above I talked about when walking my dogs I couldn’t even hear crickets, and that’s exactly what I wanted.
I didn’t even want the sound of other cars. Maybe now and then Jane could hear an animal sound in the distance. Really it was just about Jane being surrounded by auditory darkness. That being said, the other thing I asked for was a loud neck crunching sound when Jane hangs to her death. They created such a cool gross sound.
They also enhanced the Hazard lights flashing on and off, and overall created a super creepy atmospheric vibe. There’s also sound added to the moth flying by Jane when she’s in the car. Their sound helped elevate the eerie tension, and helped make Jane’s experience real. Here are some sound notes I suggested for them:
Start of notes:
This is great and scary!!! I like the whistle at the end over the logo! Everything sounds super duper cool!
01:00:39:01 – 01:00:55:19 – Was there always a long pause here without music? I feel like the music used to extend longer, but maybe I am wrong.
01:01:17:21 – 01:01:20:21 – The music here can probably be turned down a bit. It’s really just a note that comes in high for those 3 seconds.
01:03:53:14 – 01:04:06:06 – Are the hazard light sounds a few frames off from the visuals? Also, I like how you made the hazard light sounds louder and louder as she’s grasping for air. Would it be possible to make the Hazard light sounds even louder, and even having them echo/reverb? Almost as if the sound is inside your head and it just rings throughout your skull.
01:04:11:02 – Not sure if this would work, but do you think it would sound even more terrifying if you cut off the scream here the same time the bone breaks? I think right now the scream ends around 01:04:10:23, so really just wondering what you think about extending the scream by a few frames so it ends when her neck snaps. Would love to hear your bone break idea you have in mind, too.
Chelsea and I love all you have done! Can’t wait for people to experience your mayhem!
End of notes.
Even after submitting for festivals, they still made little tweaks here and there. They delivered their final sound in October 2019.
Music is always hard for me because it’s very subjective. What I find scary, someone else might find happy. Mouzhan and Sylvain are amazing musicians who have a great deal of patience when it comes to working with me. I am always stumbling and fumbling how to best describe the music I have in my head. That’s where temp music comes into play. You probably noticed that the rough cut I shared above had some music in it. That was just temp music from other films to help the composers understand what style/tone we’re going for.
Since we have worked together on a few projects already, and their general attitude is super chill, they always put me at ease when I’m talking through the feelings I’d like the audience to feel. It’s always good to hear their first attempt because then from there it becomes a little easier to give feedback, like this:
Start of notes:
Really love how all this is sounding. Below are just a couple of ideas that came to mind. Once I get the final end credit sequence from Abe, I’ll send it your way because I think your music will definitely rely on his graphic with the hanging of the words and how things turn on and off. I really enjoy how the music plays in the car while Jane and Sally talk, and there’s a moment I think where it kind of breaks its subtle nature, which I marked down below. Overall this is sounding amazing, and I hope my feedback below just helps ya explore other ideas. Awesome work!!!
01:00:03:00 – Start music as soon as logo starts playing.
01:01:08:00 – 01:01:17:00 – This section just feels a tiny bit too loud. Breaks past subtle, so maybe just see if you can bring the volume down a bit is all. This is really the only time in this section where I felt the music was trying to manipulate me instead of naturally leading me towards the fright.
01:03:22:11 – Completely kill the music on this frame (first black frame after Jane last says Hangman Harry).
01:03:45:06 – 01:04:01:15 – This sounds great, and I wonder what would happen if you somehow played around with having the music cut in and out when the hazard lights turn on and off on her face as she chokes. Maybe it happens towards the end of this section? Maybe throughout the whole thing? I like the ringing sound you have in there, and I wonder if you can make that sound go even further over the top. Maybe there’s multiple short ringing or bulb light humming sounds that play continuously in an eerie way (the shower death scene from Psycho comes to mind).
01:04:19:15 – This is very scary, but I was wondering if you could speed it up a little more. Perhaps somehow incorporating the humming of lights, and maybe even using whistling in your music, too. I know you don’t have the finished end credits, so this is a little tough, but matching the speed of when the words fall into frame and move around. I don’t know if also using wind chimes somehow makes sense? Really the most important thing here is to just keep it energetic. As if a killer is chasing us and is super close to grabbing us. Hunting us down.
End of notes.
They actually were working on the music before we had even picture locked the short, which gave them time to explore. They delivered their final music around April 2019 (though I am sure some tweaks were made along the way). Their music made Hazard come alive. I heard someone say that sound makes a movie real, and the music makes you feel. Sylvain and Mouzhan made me feel every sense of spook and thrill.
Abe Dieckman, a beyond awesome VFX artist, is someone I have known for about fifteen years now. We’ve worked on various projects together, and is always my go-to pal when it comes to effects. Abe was great at implementing the story and theme of Hazard into his graphics. For instance, the Loser Status Production logo appearing and disappearing at the beginning and end ties into the fact that Hazard is about a supernatural entity. The Hazard title is reminiscent of car headlights, and turns on and off like hazard lights. The end credits he also made the words hang down, which is how Harry kills his victims. Here are some notes I gave him as he neared completion of his work:
Start of notes:
Regarding HazardLogo_V02.mov – This looks great! There is something very ominous about letters flashing on and off!!
Feedback: See what happens if you start the letters flashing a little further back so that when Hazard appears on screen, we are able to fully read the word for about 3 flashes (so the movement might slow down for a bit when Hazard appears) before it starts to go off screen as it gets closer to us and then passes us. This means you might need to add maybe 3 more seconds to the whole video. It also seems that when Hazard appears on screen, it’s out of focus, but maybe the first time we see the whole word it can be in focus, and then go out of focus. The out of focus stuff looks awesome.
So yeah, just give us a bit more time to read Hazard on screen before it goes away. Chelsea, anything you noticed? Seriously awesome title, Abe! I really love the vibe you created. It looks super cool. ANOTHER THING TO MAYBE TRY – After the last letter flashes, maybe then you can have two letters flash at a time like maybe H Z . and then maybe Z D, and then maybe flash to HAZARD. Just thinking of ways to keep it alive more because I think we need it to last 15 seconds. And with sound and music it’s already coming off as scary, so it’s not coming off as boring. Let me know what you think of that. The idea though is that we want it to last at least 15 seconds. Thank you!
End of notes.
Abe started around January 2019, and since he was busy working on other projects, he finished Hazard graphics around August 2019 (of course there were tweaks afterwards).
On Thursday, October 31, we screened the movie at Pixar.
We also released it online the same day, and it’s been pretty well received as it has been written about on some cool sites (slashfilm.com, FirstShowing.net, Geektyrant.com, and others). Out of the twelve film festivals we submitted to, it has only played at three of them. The film festival market is tough! At least it’s online, and it’s been nice reading the kind reviews from movie sites I admire. I hope people who have watched Hazard have enjoyed watching it.
I gotta say it was quite a blast working on Hazard, and completion of the film would not have been possible without the help of the spectacular cast and crew who helped along the way. Without them, there would be no movie (Hazard would have just started and ended at the inspiration stage). So to everyone who had a helping hand along the way, and who I may not have mentioned in this article, thank you so very much for your dedication. Collaboration is the key to life.
Those wanting to make films, I hope this was useful. If you want to see what else I’m up to, feel free to follow me here on Instagram. Reach out if you’d like.
Now go and make your movie, or whatever it is you want to do in life!
By Gairo Cuevas
Gairo Cuevas works as an assistant editor at Pixar Animation Studios.
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