September 10, 2008

A Day in the Life of a Filmmaker: Interview with W. Ross Wells

W. Ross Wells is a film director and the co-owner of Zenfilm, a film production company and HD post boutique specializing in broadcast advertising, music videos and viral media. His company website is and his director’s site is

What’s Your Job?

I am the creative interface between Zenfilm and our agency and record label clients. I work with agency creatives to help storyboards and scripts make the leap to motion pictures. I oversee all aspects of production, casting, prepro, principal photography, color grading, editorial, visual effects and motion graphic design. In essence I am the creative director that works for the creative director and am ultimately responsible for the quality of the finished work and the satisfaction of the agency and their clients. I also provide creative strategies that can enhance the presentation and the effectiveness of the finished work.

How do you explain your job to your mother?

I make TV commercials. She doesn’t get the music videos and the viral media stuff… It took many years of success before my parents relaxed about my not having an accounting degree…but now they are completely on board.

How did you get started?

Oddly enough I was hanging out in my college roommate’s office in a real estate title company in Austin, TX complaining about how I couldn’t find a job in my field. As we were talking, his boss walked by the door and said, “Hey I am part owner in a video production company upstairs…want to meet the President?”

Naturally I said, “of course.” The lucky break was that they were hiring for an editor and the post-production manager was on vacation. I was unqualified for the job and the President shouldn’t have been interviewing me. He hired me on the spot because of his partner’s recommendation. When the post manager returned, I had moved to Austin to take the job. He said he felt obligated to give me a shot at the job but if I couldn’t cut it I was out. I worked really hard and kept the job.

What's your educational background? How did you get experience?

I never finished college because I was a Psych major and discovered the film department in my third year and realized I had too much to redo in order to get the degree. All of my real experience came on the set and in the post house. My first day on the set was a freaky, scary, hazing, fascinating, wonderful experience. My second day was better. Now the night before every shoot is like Christmas Eve.

What was your first job in the industry?

I worked for the first company to nationally syndicate cable advertising in markets around the country. My job was writing, shooting, lighting and editing low budget cable ads for small businesses all over the U.S. I would drive out from Austin in a Ford Aerostar loaded with production equipment and go from Arkansas to New York and back shooting “The Hog Pit Barbeque” and “Survival Specialists” and all kinds of businesses. When I returned to Austin I would edit all the spots and then go out again and do it all over again.

From there I went to work for a contractor for the original Travel Channel. In this job I would spend two to four months in countries all around the world with a small production crew creating travel docs for cable broadcast and videocassette rental. I would act as cinematographer, director and editor on a team with a writer/producer and a grip/soundman. We worked on destinations as nearby as Cancun, Mexico and as far away as China. It was a terrific experience and gave me a very well-rounded perspective. When I got into serious production and started working with real crews and real budgets I had a truly global perspective on the world of film production and a real appreciation for the new level of professionals that I was now able to work with.
How do you sharpen your skills and stay motivated?

I work with extremely talented and motivated people that push me and challenge me…and hopefully I do the same for them. We have been able to maneuver and position our business so that we are working for a lot of people that do good things for people and the planet and it is always easy to get excited about messaging that saves lives, promotes your hometown or brings an exceptional musical talent into the public eye.

What advice do you give to those who want to join your profession?

There are no job openings in the film industry…you have to make your own. You make
your own job by getting in the door any way you can, work for free, show what you can do. If you are truly talented, you become indispensable and you have created a job for yourself. We have three people working for our company that have been here a long time that just showed up one day and said they were ready to work…for nothing if need be, just to learn the business and show us what they can do. They were all on the payroll within a few weeks having proved themselves as a member of our creative team. Not everyone made the cut that way, those that washed out were not suited to the hours and the challenges of the job or simply found out that film was not the career that they imagined.

Where do you hope to be career-wise in another year?

I have learned over the years that every artist you bring to a project brings distinctly different qualities to the screen; the more diverse the team, the stronger the work. I hope to be doing a lot more collaboration with artists of other disciplines, using creative fusion to develop altogether more striking and effective media. Another goal is to put to use all the experience we have gained in viral/social/web 2.0 strategies for deployment and distribution of our clients’ message, music and media.

What was the last project you worked on?

We just wrapped up a national imaging campaign for the City of Houston called MyHouston featuring local celebrities sharing their experiences of our truly underrated and wonderful city. I am in prepro for a national spot for Kiddie- the third in a “true stories” series about Kidde’s smoke, CO alarms and fire extinguishers. I am moving into post with two very exciting new music video projects, one for psychedelic rockers, “The Southern Backtones,” and another for classical/celtic/goth, rocker Jennifer Grassman. Both are due out later this month. I have quite a few other irons in the fire but don’t want to jinx them.

Describe a typical day (or week) in your life when you're working?

Never the same thing twice. Some days I go from breakfast to meeting to meeting to lunch to meeting to meeting to dinner to recording session. Some days are shooting. Some days are traveling. Lots of days are spent in editorial as I cut a lot of my own stuff. Some days are spent hanging out in our offices in a converted paint factory in downtown Houston, playing my guitar and mulling over ideas.

A series of questions:

What’s the best thing about your job?

Everyday, every project, every moment provides a new challenge. There are new hurdles to overcome everyday and it is never static or dull. I work a lot in comedy and music and spend a lot of time laughing and cutting up… getting paid for the things that got me in trouble in school. I also enjoy the people I work and collaborate with tremendously. I have been fortunate to work with some amazingly talented people and I learn something new everyday.

What major job annoyance would you eliminate forever?

The dancing wet dog syndrome: The belief of some creatives that if you do not already have their current project on your reel that you are not qualified to shoot their current project. We call it the wet dancing dog syndrome… the agency is doing a spot with a wet dancing dog, you have a wet dog spot and a dancing dog spot on your reel… but you don’t get the gig because your wet dog is not dancing and vice versa.

Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere… pop culture, literature, human nature and things always come to me just before I go to sleep. I used to keep a notepad but now I use my iPhone to keep track of concepts that pop into my head. Situational creative seems to come to me rather easily and many times my head will fill with possible approaches during a creative brief. I then have shed the detritus and present the two or three strongest concepts.

What’s your personal motto/slogan? I have many, some of them are…

Just go for it…99% of the time you will pull it off.
Never do the same thing over and over hoping for different results.
If you can only go to two-day film school, make sure you go both days.

If you could go back in time and meet to your pre-professional self, what would you tell him/her?

Don’t worry…everything is going to be great, and eat.