a film by R. Zane Rutledge

 
F R O M    T H E    T R E N C H E S
Post-Production Update:
Visual Effects by 668
 
 
by R. Zane Rutledge,
writer, director, co-producer
(...camera operator, water boy, wasp wrangler...
and now...visual effects supervisor)
 
 
 
O c t o b e r    1 9 9 8

 

Since my unfinished directing "debut" in 1994, I've learned a few things. Besides the fact that making movies is hard.

Nothing is ever "done."

Also: nothing is impossible.

 

AN APT NAME 

After spending '94 in the Texas heat, my two close friends Jance Allen and B.Z. Lewis and I finally packed our bags and left the small town we'd called home twice...once as children, and now again as hopeful filmmakers. We were low on cash and low on steam, but at least we had a rough cut of a wacky pseudo-western I'd dreamed up a year before--a clash of gunfights and philosophy, a story of ghosts and eternal friendship.

Jance and B.Z. still had months of audio editing ahead of them, and I still had to figure out some way to carry the project on from rough to final cut, as well as contribute to putting a roof over our heads. It wasn't going to be easy.

Unfortunately, things kinda unraveled from there. Desperate for finishing money, my co-producer Karen Inwood started pursuing Hollywood distribution channels, finding a tough sell with an unfinished film and somewhat nebulous possibilites for getting to the final cut.

Just weeks before every major festival or film market we'd get a string of sleazy offers. We had the opportunity--numerous times--to simply give the film away. Get nothing or very little money up front and a lot of empty promises on the back end. But the worst part of the deal was that these distributors wanted to finish the film themselves. And I for one had a lot of problems with that.

The final consensus between myself and most of the crew was that we had to finish the job ourselves, at the risk of never seeing a release. Unfortunately, between time at work and access to equipment, the film stagnated. It was soon clear it wasn't going anywhere.

 

THE RESURRECTION 

Three years later, Jance and I had a new business in similar channels--this time, visual effects. We'd both worked for two years at Colossal Pictures, a creative mecca of technical and artistic animation, doing wacky things with pixels and paper, traditional and computer, developing skills tailored to the moving image.

These skills, and the tools used to achieve them, eventually found their way into our own home studios. As freelancers, we soon partnered under the banner 668, determined to carry on with desktop filmmaking and break-the-rules effects imagery. So far it's proven worthwhile.



The most significant single discovery was probably Adobe After Effects, which actually started with Jance at Colossal. I was pretty involved in deep 3D stuff, using SGI computers that I couldn't afford to support at home. But pretty soon I found the 3D world constricting on its own, and started reaching back out toward broader disciplines. 'Filmmaker' is the all-encompassing title I was still looking for, and After Effects was just one of the tools I needed.

Technology changed fast. Right before we left Colossal, DV hit. I bought the first Sony DV camera--the VX-1000--because the quality was finally high enough for broadcast, and of course the editing was finally lossless. This for little more than the 16mm camera I had bought to shoot HIT. And of course DV and non-linear editing plugged right in between After Effects and low-budget filmmaking.

Soon the emerging technology just naturally brought Hell Is Texas back into the light.

The challenges of resurrection are numerous. When I shot HIT, I had no idea I'd even have these tools available. So I certainly didn't shoot with them in mind. And I'd do a lot different now, if I were starting today. But you can't go back; a lot of the challenge in finishing is making something I'll be mostly happy with, with my new sensibilities and a lot more experience. There are a lot of things I can't change, can't fix without reshooting, which isn't an option. But...there's an incredible number of things I can do.

 

SALVAGE, FX, AND ADDED PRODUCTION VALUE 

Three things are happening with the Hell Is Texas final cut.

One: I'm tightening the edit. No more "gotta be 90 minutes" drag-out. So the existing footage is going to get shorter. Of course #2 and #3 will make up for some of it...

Two: I'm salvaging shots that I originally thought were unusable. Some of it's color-correction or painting out a continuity flaw. Our 16mm camera had pretty awful side-to-side shake at the head and tail of most of our mags; some good shots were thrown out in the rough cut because with the shake it wasn't usable. I'm stabilizing and reconsidering that footage, thanks to After Effects.


Third and the most exciting thing: I'm adding shots that never existed. In some cases that just means fixing a continuity flaw. But in other cases the effect on the edit is tremendous. Maybe a matte painting or two. A panoramic vista. For the opening sequence, the hero and his antagonist have a game of chicken in a couple of vintage sports cars. Because we didn't have a camera rig, any way of mounting the camera on the hood, there wasn't any coverage of the cars rushing toward each other, except for long shots, which aren't very dynamic. But I did have a few locked-down shots of the cars. Now we've got them screaming down the road toward each other, road and skyline rushing by.

Some of the film has flashback sequences to the 1800s. (Yes, a low-budget period piece. Nuts, ain't we?) So now I'll be able to enhance these sequences with color treatments and some effects filters. There's a number of subtle effects to build...Smoke and light rays. Two or three ghost sequences, some vanishing and appearing that can now be done right.

And of course in the added production value department: I'm letterboxing it.

 

THE TOOLS 

I'm editing with Radius' new EditDV, after transfering all my original footage over to mini-DV. I've always been a big fan of Radius Edit--the Avid-style interface, and the slick metal button look. Mainly I'm impressed with the pristine quality of DV, considering my rough cut was a third generation on 3/4". It's amazing the difference three generations can make. Because Radius' software is totally QuickTime compatible, I'm able to use a really low-quality MJPEG compressed version of the rough cut as a guide, and my old Miro card as an analog input for it. This way my reference barely takes up any disk space and yet it's incredibly easy to match my clean DV footage to each cut, quickly rebuilding the rough cut in EditDV. Once this software has batch capture, editing will be a dream.

I have recently added Puffin Designs' Commotion to my bag of tricks. This application is the perfect compliment to Adobe After Effects. It fills all the gaps between AE and Photoshop, and it truly taps the power under the hood of your Macintosh. Commotion addresses a set of post-production tasks that After Effects just doesn't address. It excels at what After Effects does poorly or doesn't even attempt to handle. Like detailed rotoscope work. Retouching. Garbage mattes. You can do some of these things in After Effects, but not easily. These are interactive, painterly tasks, not rendering tasks. Commotion is the missing link. I've got one "wire removal" shot that's actually a big clumsy rope. Commotion, once again, will handle this like a champ.

I've got to give a lot of credit to the original CoSA team that developed After Effects as well. AE has been stuck at version 3.1 for a few years now, and no one really notices. It's not that it couldn't be improved in a few areas, it's just that what it's primarily used for--compositing--it does extremely well. No need to fix what ain't broke.

Thanks to tools like After Effects and Commotion, there's very little I can't do on my home Mac. These are effects that would cost hundreds of dollars an hour in a Flame suite, but I can tinker and experiment with my footage, building composite shots and camera effects that I never dreamed of back in Texas. All in the luxury of my own home.

And just to clarify, I'm not aiming to compete with Titanic or Star Wars here. In many cases, I'm looking to pull off effects Hollywood can afford to do for real--pyro effects like bullet hits, gunfire, sparks on swords, heat distortion, that kind of thing. (Though we did shoot some real pyro stuff as well.) In one case I'm dropping an actor into a scene he wasn't at (due to scheduling). I'm also building cinematic camera work that would normally require lots of gear, cranes, safety considerations, and tons of time. Instead, we simulate a lot of fancy camera work in post, using ElectricImage and camera projection or a multi-plane composite in After Effects. As they say, the sky's the limit.

 

FINAL CUT 

I have no specific plans for the final release of Hell Is Texas. I won't make promises on when I will finish or where it will go from there.

I'm not making this final cut for Hollywood. I really don't care about that. And I've got to earn a living and move on with other projects as well. But now I am really excited about seeing it completed. Being able to add this level of polish and excitement elevates the film somehow even beyond where it started.


I will always consider this film a success, regardless of the outcome. When we started we told ourselves the attempt was the most important point. Even if we failed at finishing, it would be a far greater loss never to attempt it. So in that sense we already succeeded. It was film school for us. And we learned a lot.

But now I'm finishing it for myself, and for all the other people who gave their time and energy to the project. I want them to all have a final copy, whether Blockbuster ever does or not. Those friends joined us purely on a belief in the story and my conviction that I could pull it off. That we could beat the odds and actually make this beast. There've been some tough times and I've had my doubts. But now I think I can finish it and finish it right. Now...I think I see the light...


Hell is Texas ©1999 by Puppy Dog Head Productions. All Rights Reserved.
668 ©copyright 2000 by r zane rutledge. all rights reserved.