Shhh is a scary short film by VFS Film Production and 3D Animation and Visual Effects grad Freddy Chávez Olmos and his creative partner Shervin Shoghian, which is based on the childhood dreams of Guillermo del Toro. It’s about a boy who is terrified to go to the bathroom at night because a hair-eating monster waits for him there. His cruel bullying sister doesn’t believe him and mocks the drawings he makes (the only thing that helps him deal with his own fear), and who laughs at his hacked-up haircut. The boy feeds the monster bits of his own hair to keep it at bay, but his hair is getting very short – what will happen when he runs out?
Freddy Chávez Olmos has done a lot of great work with companies, such as, Prime Focus, IMAX, Image Engine and Industrial Light & Magic. He’s worked on such films as Watchmen, District 9, Tron: Legacy, The Dark Knight, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 as well as the upcoming films Pacific Rim (by Guillermo del Toro) and Baja Dunes [aka Elysium] (by Neill Blomkamp). But Shhh has a special place in his heart. He was involved in several aspects of this collaborative project, including co-supervising the visual effects (creating a fantastic monster), co-writing, co-producing and co-directing (much of it with Shervin Shoghian).
One of the highlights of the short is definitely the hair-eating monster. It’s a brilliant bit of makeup design, but there’s a person is there too! Freddy says casting for that part was a challenge: “The prosthetic took over seven hours to apply, and required a lot of physical work, not to mention limited movement and vision. Sarah Ann Chisholm (our production manager) introduced us to Ashley Whitehead, who’s a truly talented contemporary dancer. Ashley’s energy and experience in performing arts truly brought the monster to life.”
We talked with Freddy about stretching your capabilities, collaboration, creative process, the importance of forming relationships with companies like Vancouver company Image Engine, Festival support for creative talent in Canada, and what is coming next for the creative team.
Interview with Freddy Chávez Olmos
Hi Freddy! You went through two programs at VFS – Film Production and 3D Animation and Visual Effects – plus you studied in between the two. You definitely seem committed to learning new things, to stretching yourself and expanding your skills. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from this process about collaboration and trying to handle a number of different aspects of creating a film at the same time (writing, producing, directing, supervising visual effects) – What would you say was the most challenging aspect of this process?
Freddy: The most challenging aspect was time management, for sure. Having a day job in the visual effects film industry can be very demanding, especially when it comes to meeting deadlines. So, it was pretty helpful to be working with Shervin Shoghian (co-director). We managed to delegate responsibilities, bounce ideas back and forth and make better decisions within a demanding schedule. We were lucky to have a great team who always had our backs and loved this project from day one.
VFS: What do you think you’ll carry forward for the feature film you’re now developing?
FCO: A lot of what we learned during this process will help us on our feature film. When you’re wearing a hat as director, you’re pretty much multitasking, but also, you learn how to delegate and trust other people. The most important part is always to maintain your vision and trust your gut. You have to be persistent and be sure to have very good communications with every department.
VFS: What was the biggest surprise going through this process, or the greatest lesson?
FCO: The biggest surprise, I guess, is the overwhelming response from film festivals so far. We are very grateful to be able to showcase our work around the world in festivals like the Rhode Island International Film Festival (where we were awarded Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi Short), Scream Fest in Los Angeles, Eerie Horror Film Festival in Pennsylvania, Guanajuanto International Film Festival, Short Shorts Film Festival and FIC Puebla (in my hometown) in Mexico, where we recently won Best Short, Maelstrom International Film Festival in Seattle, and others. On the other hand, the biggest disappointment has been the lack of support from Canadian Film Festivals. Can you believe we haven’t had the chance to premiere the film in Canada, even though it’s a Canadian co-production shot in Vancouver? I guess it’s like they say: “No One is a Prophet in their Own Land”. We just hope Canadian festivals open up more for genres like sci-fi, fantasy and horror. There is a lot of Canadian talent and Market out there.
How do you think your education at VFS prepared you for your career?
Freddy: The film industry and art schools were very limited back when I was growing up in Mexico. Most of the things I learned were very intuitive – just by trying to replicate things I watched on TV and Movies. Going to VFS opened the doors to expand my knowledge and educate myself with technicalities I wasn’t familiar with. It also expanded my network of friends and colleagues in the film industry, which is something very valuable VFS offers. It feels like a family reunion when you run into a VFS grad at work, or you get a chance to collaborate with them again.
Do you see yourself in the future continuing to work in different capacities on films, or do you see yourself going more in one direction, be that directing, supervising special effects, writing, or makeup design?
Freddy: I think it’s very important to have a general knowledge about how every department works in the industry, even though you don’t actively do everything yourself. As I mentioned earlier, you learn how to delegate and trust your crew in every part of the process. You just have to make sure you all speak the same language, and that you fully understand what needs to get done and how it will get done. Having some experience with visual effects and the makeup side of things has worked very well for me. I’ve come across directors who are dealing with prosthetics and digital effects, but they have no idea how it’s done or how much it costs. Nowadays, I think it’s essential that you fully understand the post-production side of things, especially if you want to direct a sci-fi or horror film.
You work for great companies on great projects, how do you find the time to do something like a feature film?
Freddy: I think with Shhh we learned how to stay busy all the time, be fully productive, sleep little, but stay healthy, and take the time to maintain a good relationship with our girlfriends (heehee). It’s all about time management and scheduling. Once you set a goal in your head, you just go for it, even if it requires you to put extra time in at night or on weekends. Shervin Shoghian and I are very passionate about what we do and what we want to achieve, and that’s fuel that keeps us going.
Co-directing, itself, must be a interesting challenge, how did you structure your working relationship?
Freddy: Shervin Shoghian and I met while working at Image Engine on projects like District 9, so we knew each other as friends and co-workers. We share the same work ethic and creative ideas, so I think that defined our working relationship on projects like Shhh. Even when we started our short film, we always had in mind that our main goal was to make a feature film and the short film was just a test. I’m happy that everything went well with the short and now we are developing our feature.
You mention that you worked with Image Engine to do some of the visual effects. It’s quite an accomplishment for a small production company to manage this kind of partnership – how did you pull it off?
Freddy: I’ve been lucky to be part of many key moments and film projects at Image Engine in the last 7 years (Dictrict 9, The Thing, Twilight Eclipse, Immortals, Elysium [aka Baja Dunes]) and I have a pretty close relationship with one of the founders of the company, Robin Hackl. One day, I presented the script to him, along with the concept designs and some of the footage we had already shot for Shhh and he liked what he saw. He then consulted with Jason Dowdeswell, head of the studio back then at Image Engine, and Shawn Walsh, Exec. Producer (and VFS 3D Animation and Visual Effects grad) and checked if it was a project the studio could take on during their downtime. Luckily, they believed in our project and we are very thankful for that.
Moving forward, I think this is something other VFX studios should generally be doing, too. The talent is there and eventually it will pay off when they bring work back to these companies. Just look at talented and successful directors like Neill Blomkamp and Gareth Edwards – they used to be visual effects artists too. Down the line, if everything works out, we know what studio(s) we will approach for feature film work. It’s a win-win situation for both parties.
Looking back on this whole process – what would say is the one thing you are most proud of?
Freddy: I’m proud of my whole production team who made this film possible. Now that I see the film taking on a life of its own in the festival circuit, it makes me nothing but thankful for all the people who contributed and believed in this project. And for all the words of encouragement we received from our friends, family and girlfriends to make it happen.
What can you tell us about the feature film you’re working on?
Freddy: We have been developing a new original idea for a feature film since we wrapped Shhh. It’s a sci-fi film that deals with a socio-political issue, and we’re very excited about it. There are a few more VFS grads we are recruiting for this one, like Norm Li, one of the best cinematographers Canada has to offer in terms of style and creativity.
In my opinion, two of the most important things we got from making our short film was the network we built and the interest we garnered from potential producers for our feature film project. We are already in talks with a couple of producers and working hard to get them fully on board. Hopefully we can give you an update early next year :)
Thanks very much for your time, Freddy, and we wish you and Shervin great success with the feature film. We’re certainly eager to see it – so, please do keep us updated!
VFS Shout Out!
Freddy would like to give a shout out to a few other fellow VFS Grads who helped with the creation of Shhh. Here’s a list of luminaries and their credits:
At Image Engine, Visual Effects Department
Julianna Kolakis: Creature texture painter
Jacob Curtis Miller : Creature animation and match move
Chrisdela Rocha: Motion Graphics
In the Writing Department
David Cameron: Narration
In the Sound Department
David Burnett: Sound mixer/sound designer
Eduardo Parra: Concept designer
For full Shhh production credits for writing, direct of photography, production, cast and crew, look here.