By Russ Pond - Producer, Director, and Editor
After sixteen years in corporate America, I decided to toss my suit and tie to pursue my passion for filmmaking. My love for storytelling became evident early on, as I would sneak into the back of my dad's photography studio, grab the 8mm movie camera and start making movies. After school, I would rush back to my dad's studio to watch the stories come alive on the screen. Throughout high school, I continued to dabble in arts and music. After graduating, I went on to obtain a degree in Engineering from the University of Texas in Austin.
With my filmmaking days long behind my (or so I thought), I moved to Dallas, Texas and went to work for Uniden in 1989. However, years later I found himself wanting to return to the craft that so fascinated me as a young boy. In 1995, I purchased a video editing system that enabled me to add music, sound effects and animation to home videos. This past time became my creative outlet. It also provided an unexpected means of income. In 1998, I formed an independent media company called Top Pup Media. I used this business to hone my craft as a filmmaker, working on a number of corporate video projects for various clients.
In 1999, I accepted an offer from Nokia. I worked with them for six years in business development, product marketing and helped launch new products for the North and South American markets. In spite of my thriving position with the telecommunications giant, I continued to grow Top Pup Media's corporate clientele roster. When Nokia became aware of my "video hobby", they hired my company to produce many of their own corporate videos and commercials.
After listening to a local filmmaker talk about narrative storytelling in 2003, I decided to delve into screenwriting and film production. I experienced immediate success with his first short film “Treasure” which was picked up by an LA cable show. The following year, I produced another short entitled “The Light.” My third short “Growing Up” won the Audience Choice Award at the San Antonio Independent Film Festival the subsequent year. Winning this festival really encouraged me to take my filmmaking to the next level, which was to produce and direct a full-length feature film.
After receiving more than 450 submissions, we selected the script “Fissure” as our debut, feature film project. I knew this story was the one when I was completely captivated by the script after only twenty pages into it! Three decades after producing my first “motion picture” with my father’s 8mm film camera, it is with great pleasure and excitement to now have finished this feature film.
Russ currently lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with this wife of fifteen years, Angela and Caleb, their twelve-year-old son.
The Fissure journey started back in the summer of 2006. My business partner at the time, Rick Morrison, and I decided to make a movie. First, we were going to do something cheap and fast: three kids lost in the woods. Now there's a novel idea! Our goal was to get a quick, easy feature film under our belt.
Initially, we were going to write the script ourselves. But writing is hard and a very skilled craft. Done right, and it's powerful. Done wrong, and it's embarrassing.
So, after weeks of trying to put some ideas on paper, we came to the brilliant conclusion that we should find a script that's already developed and written. We started by putting out a query on a few screenwriter forums. Our request was simple. We only had two requirements: First, it has to be a low-budget script. No period movies, no over the top effects, no big name requirements, and keep the locations limited. Secondly, the story had to be redeeming—the good guys win, the bad guys lose or the hero gets the girl. That's the type of story we wanted to tell.
We created a quick webpage for submissions, and in 7 days, we received about 450 submissions. After wading through the loglines and synopses, we narrowed it down to about 30 key stories. From there, we narrowed even further to our top 3. At this point, we hadn't read any of the scripts. We were only reviewing loglines and synopses. (Note to writers: learn to summarize your stories well.)
I remember reading through Nick Turner's script called Fissure. After page 10, I was thinking to myself, "What is going on?" Then, after page 20, I thought again, "What is happening?" My curiosity kept me reading. Then it hit me: "If I can capture that mystery on the screen, then I've got a great movie."
At the end of the summer, we optioned the script from Nick and began work. But, before we started producing anything, we continued to polish the story. It didn't quite have the redeeming ending that I wanted, so we brainstormed and re-wrote, and we eventually found an ending that was perfect. It was redeeming and the symbolism was powerful. It really wrapped up the story well.
The initial script was 115 pages. My goal was to have a 90-minute movie. So, I had a choice: do I shoot 115 pages and cut it down in post, or do we edit the script now and save money on the shoot, but risk falling short on time? I decided to do all of my editing up front in the script and save money on production. Nick and I worked hard on trimming down the script. After a few weeks, we had it down to 88 pages. The story was tight and the pace was good. It was really coming together!
On January 15, 2007, we officially opened our production offices for Fissure. We setup our offices at Lucid Post, a new post facility at MPS Studios in Dallas. At this point, I had filled my three key positions:
Line Producer: Jennifer Beasley
Director of Photography: Alan LeFebvre
Production Designer: Eric Whitney
With each of these positions filled, I would rely on them to help fill all of the additional crew positions. Jennifer was also our Unit Production Manager (UPM), and headed up the search to find the right people.
Our first day of shooting was schedule for Monday, February 12th. We had only four weeks to get everything ready.
Prior to setting up shop in Dallas, I had met with a casting director out of Los Angeles back in November. A few weeks after that meeting, I contracted with her to find our lead actor.
It was also during my visit to Los Angeles in November that I had coffee with James Macdonald. It was through my Associate Producer, Rand Chesshir, that I met James. They were neighbors and friends. Rand thought James would be a good fit for the role of Grunning. So, I wanted to meet him.
Back in Dallas, we hired Nikki Nanos to cast all of the additional roles, which were mostly local to the Dallas area. We had auditions and callbacks in late January, just a week before we started of shooting. At that time, we still hadn't secured our lead for Fissure. We had made a few offers through my LA casting lady, but none were hitting. At the same time, we were in negotiations with James' agent, and it was taking longer than expected. Just a few days prior to our start date, we finally closed the deal with James and started moving forward. We were also able to attach Barry Corbin to play the role of Police Chief Hudson.
Now, I'm not typically a "down-to-the-wire" kind of guy. I like my ducks in a row, and my contracts in place before moving into full production. Being both the director and sole producer was a bit schizophrenic at times. In one role, you are the hard-line producer, making difficult decisions and making people mad. Then, when that's done, you put on your director's hat and start making people happy to work for you. It's a very odd place to be at times. It's like being both the good cop and bad cop.
I learned quite a bit about producing during my experience with Fissure. First, don't produce alone. There are so many different areas that need to be covered, and doing them all by yourself spreads you really thin. A good producer knows how to build a team, and then learns to trust that team.
Secondly, I find that it's important to cast two or three deep for each role. Be prepared with your cast. There are lots of issues that arise just prior to production. We were still talking with agents regarding contract issues the weekend before the shoot. Cameras were rolling in two days, and we were still negotiating contracts. That's too close for me. On the next production, I will set stricter contract deadlines, making sure that we can fall back on other cast and crew.
One of the agents we worked with was very upset, saying that we were unprofessional, that the movie studios and television networks don’t operate like that. That's probably very true, but we're not a big movie studio or a television network. We don't have the resources and the legal staff to operate like the big guys. So, we have to protect ourselves differently.
To keep your budgets low, you need to keep your locations to a minimum. Fissure was written with the budget in mind. Nick did a great job of telling a great story in primarily one location.
The bulk of the story takes place in the Ulster home. In many ways, the house itself was a character in the story. Of the 18 shooting days, 12 of those were in this one house. The other 6 days were scattered around the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Three of those days were shot in my own house. My wife was a trooper, but quietly whispered to me after they completely emptied our house, We'll never do that again.
Finding the right Ulster home was key to this movie. The script called for choreographed movement through the house. Certain rooms had to connect with other rooms. And, it had to be a two-story home with certain rooms upstairs. We initially talked about building the inside of the house on a sound stage, but our limited budget kept us from going that route.
Carolyn Hodge headed up our location scouting. We spent quite a few days driving around the DFW metroplex checking out houses and walking through them. After weeks of looking, we found a house in east Dallas near the Swiss district. It was an empty house that was for sale. I was hoping to find a full house or a model home to avoid the costs of set dressing, but the layout of this house was perfect. So, we signed a one-month lease and started work.
The house was under renovations, and we asked them to stop so that the house would look a bit older and have more of a lived in feel. Yet, when we did one last final walk through on the Friday before the shoot, they had gone in and painted the entire inside of the house beige. Before, it had all these vibrant colors, and now it was flat. Carolyn called the owners immediately, and by Sunday, they repainted the entire inside of the house back to the way it was before.
The morning of February 12th arrives. There's an excitement and energy on set. To watch the crew find its rhythm was very exciting.
It was cold that day! Thirty-four degrees. And, our first day of production was all outdoor shots. The crane arrived on time and the Dallas police showed up because we were blocking traffic that day. But it was cold! Very cold. My first AD, Bobby Bastarache, went to his car and found some full-length overalls for me to wear. He was keeping the producer happy!
About 10am on the first day, I get a call from Jennifer, my UPM. The Dallas Film Commission wants to know if Fox News can come out and do a story on our production. They wanted to do a story on Prison Break (which was also being filmed in Dallas), because that Monday was the same day that the Texas legislation was voting on the new state film incentives. So, Fox News arrived and we did a quick interview.
Over the next three weeks, we pressed on at a feverish pace. We averaged about 6 to 7 pages a day. Every shoot day started at 7am, and we typically finished up about 8pm or 9pm. We shot 6-day weeks, Monday through Saturday. And, as a producer, I've decided never to do that again. I feel it's worth the extra money to keep your crew rested and not overworked. That pace was a bit too much.
On the final week of the shoot, we scheduled the last Saturday to shoot the Police Chief scenes. So, Nikki, our local casting director, called Barry Corbin's agent on Monday to confirm his shoot that Saturday. But, Barry had been double booked. He was shooting in North Carolina that week for One Tree Hill, and he wasn't able to make it back to Texas in time. So, we released Barry and quickly started searching for a replacement. An urgent casting call went out, and we had some good nibbles, but nothing concrete. So, on Thursday, we decided to cancel Saturday's shoot and reschedule the police chief scenes later.
After weeks of looking for a replacement and reanalyzing both the story and the budget, we came up with an off-screen solution for the Police Chief. We found that this solution actually helped the story aesthetically, and it lowered our budget, giving us more freedom in post. So, we decided to forego our on-screen police chief, and hired voice over talent, Mar Graue, to voice the role of Hudson.
Prior to starting production, I worked with my co-producers, Daniel Millican and Blake Calhoun, to establish the post-production workflow for Fissure. We decided early on to shoot the movie on Panasonic's Varicam. It provided a convenient digital workflow along with 24p capture and some nice gamma curves to give it a filmic look.
Lucid Post helped with the dailies. Each night, we would deliver our tapes to Lucid, who would then transfer those tapes to a hard drive. The next day, we would get those drives on set to review footage and even begin some rough layouts of the sequences. We had a MacBook Pro on set running Final Cut Pro 5.
At the end of the shoot, I had one hard drive loaded with all 28 hours of HD footage. I had immediate access to every clip we captured on set. Each clip was captured in its native 720p, DVCProHD. Since Final Cut allowed me to edit in this format in real time, I was able to jump right into editing without having to log or capture any footage, or with any transcoding.
Having got into this business through editing, I was really excited about watching this story come to life. It was a bit daunting, having never cut a feature film before, and faced with 28 hours of footage, but the excitement of assembling the story pushed me forward.
The process started slow. Since I had all of the footage captured, I was able to edit the movie sequentially. In other words, I started editing the first scene. Then, I moved to the second scene, and so on. I was able to assemble the story as it happened. This made for some exciting editing, because the story was unfolding before me as I assembled the edits.
Sifting through 28 hours of footage was a bit intimidating at first. It was a lot like a sculptor standing before a huge rock. Like a sculptor, I knew within that rock was the art, the beauty, the story waiting to reveal itself.
As I reviewed the footage, I would look for those moments, those instances when everything came together. Slowly, I would assemble those shots. Initially, I was too focused on the technical side of editing—a matching head turn, a hand position, flowing camera movement, etc. But early on, I read somewhere that editing should be more emotional and less technical. So, I went back and started focusing on the emotional aspect of the story. How should people feel right here? What do you want people to sense at this moment?
Editing pressed on for four months, and soon, it was time to lock the edit. I had to get the edit to a point where we could make no more edit changes. Color grading, sound design and scoring required that we lock the edit. But I didn't want to lock the edit until I first showed it to a few people. I wanted to get their feedback to make sure I wasn't missing something or that certain edits made sense. Being both the producer and director, I was pretty close to the story, and being too close can sometimes keep you from seeing things clearly.
After a few private screenings with fellow filmmakers and friends, I tweaked the edit some more. My litmus test for the edit changes was simply this: if two or more people commented on something, it most likely needed changing. I typically didn't make changes based on one person's suggestions. I found that different people have different opinions about art, and I received their opinions openly, but unless there was a pattern that needed addressing, I didn't respond to everyone's thoughts.
It was time to lock the edit, so I spent a few days digging through the edit one final time, looking for anything that wasn't needed. I trimmed a few frames here and a few frames there, and ended up knocking off another minute just in tightening it up. On July 27th, we locked the edit. And what a feeling it was! I felt like we had hit a major milestone in the project.
It was time to move from editing to polishing. Now that the edit was locked, we had four things left to do: color the film, score the film, master all the audio and finish all of the visual effects.
Our post workflow was very efficient, both from a cost point of view and from an operational point of view. Right in the middle of the editing process, Apple announced Final Cut Studio 2. Up to that point, I had been editing the movie in Final Cut Studio 1. As I did some research on the new upgrade, it had two new features that were essential to our production workflow.
First, they added a new color-grading tool called Color. Previously, it was called Final Touch and sold as a separate application for thousands of dollars. Now, it was being bundled with Final Cut Studio 2 simply as an upgrade. Nice. Up to this point, I had been speaking with a colorist out of Austin, Omar Godinez. He was proficient in Final Touch, and the migration to Color would be a simple step for him.
Secondly, Apple announced a new "virtually uncompressed" codec called ProRes 422. It is a very efficient codec that allows you to have virtually uncompressed quality at very low data rates, which means I wouldn't need a big disk array to hold the high-quality video.
Our Fissure workflow was coming together. But, there was a risk of upgrading in the middle of the project. It's a major no-no to upgrade any program in the middle of a project, because you don't know how it's going to affect your project. But, the cost savings was worth the risk. So, with my computer engineering degree operating at full capacity, we methodically migrated to Final Cut Studio 2 with total success.
The new workflow was pretty simple, and very cost efficient. We created 28 different sequences, each ranging from 2 to 10 minutes long. They were laid out in a master sequence using the native DVCProHD codec as its base. Then, we color graded each sequence by first sending it to Color, and then grading each clip using the new Color application. We then rendered each of the 28 sequences in ProRes 422 (HQ) directly in Color, and then sent them back to Final Cut. Now, within Final Cut, we were working with a higher quality, ProRes 422 timeline. From that timeline, we can now master the movie to D5 using my Kona3x card, because it can handle real-time up conversions.
Early on, I knew I would need some simple visual effects, from cell phone screen replacement to some higher end visual effects. To start with, I checked with some effects companies to find out how much it would cost to do the screen replacements on my cell phone shots. We had six, 2-second, cell-phone shots that needed new screens. To change out the screen on all of those, it was just over $3500. So, I decided to try and wing it myself, not really sure how they would turn out. I know After Effects and other composting programs just well enough to be dangerous. So, with raw footage in hand, I went for it. What did I have to lose other than an afternoon.
Amazingly, it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. I started with After Effects and successfully created some clean tracking shots. It worked well. Then, for kicks I tried the tracking shots in Apple's Motion, and again very successful. I found that for my situation, using Motion provided the best results. So, in an afternoon, I created my six special effects shots and saved myself more than $3,000. Sweet!
I continued using Motion to fix a few things in the edit, like boom mics dipping into frame, cables in the background, clock positions, etc. Again, it was relatively easy. Only a couple of times did I have to rotoscope around certain objects when creating the effects.
We also had a handful of visual effects that needed more than just simple effects. Early on, I was hoping to use a quick cross dissolve for these key visual effects scenes with hopes of really enhancing the effect through sound design. And, it worked for the story. But, it needed more. I wanted some serious eye candy to really enhance the story. So, I hired Chad Briggs at Element X Creative to take my 8 other visual effects shots to the next level. And, he did a great job in a short amount of time.
The color grading for Fissure was a challenge, and not because of technology or any other technical issues. Those were all smooth. The challenge was mostly because of the nature of this story. Without spoiling the movie, the color grading actually became part of the storytelling as well. With each room, we had to focus specifically on the color of that room to tell the story. And, it had to be done in subtle ways in order to move the story along without giving away key elements and the plots twists.
After mapping out the coloring strategy, Omar Godinez got to work. He was able to color all 960 shots in a matter of three weeks. He worked directly on same machine that the movie was edited on. We connected both a broadcast accurate Sony monitor and a 42" Pioneer Plasma, each providing key information to the color grading process.
While we worked on the color and visual effects in Texas, our sound team in Burbank worked hard on the audio. Bryan Miller and his team at Sensory Overload Music were responsible for every bit of sound in the movie. We provided them with the raw audio files, and they were responsible for every aspect of sound, including score, dialogue, ADR, Foley, mixing, sound design, mastering and deliverables.
It was great working with Bryan and his team. Our initial meetings were spent listening to various movie soundtracks laid over the Fissure video. I would comment on what I liked and what I didn't like. From that information, Bryan was able to map out a score and sound design strategy.
Early on the mix before we locked the edit, I needed some temp music to help me with the pacing and editing. Trying to capture a similar genre, I bought the soundtrack to Sixth Sense and started chopping it up. I took various elements of the Sixth Sense soundtrack and used them to help tell the Fissure story. It was great having something to hear while cutting the movie together.
When I would show my rough cut to others, many said that it reminded them of the Sixth Sense. They didn't realize that they were listening to the Sixth Sense soundtrack while watching the rough cut. It also helped that my lead, James Macdonald, looks a bit like Bruce Willis.
The entire experience has been absolutely phenomenal. Everyone came together and worked very hard to deliver an amazing product. It has far exceeded my expectations. The cast and crew were great to work with. The fact that we were on schedule and under budget is a testament to their proficiency.