Until about a month ago, I’d spent much of the past year riding on public transportation around London — 15-17 hours a week on average, in fact. It only took a few weeks of this before I broke down and got myself an iPad which immediately gave me the ability to be productive in my spare time between work and home. Since then I’ve been seeking new apps to help streamline the pre-production process, and would like to recommend a few to you here.
Whether you write it yourself or pay top dollar for it, your film starts with the script. Like most screenwriters I use Final Draft but they’ve yet to launch an app so I’ve had to look elsewhere so I can write on the go.
I’ve tried a handful — Celtx, Scripts Pro, and Fade In — and found Celtx to be the best, although not ideal, program. The pros include it’s ability to synch with several other apps, and you can work on your scripts at home as well as on your tablet, but there are a few downsides as well, the most annoying of which is the formatting isn’t always 100% accurate especially when it comes to page breaks. But all in all, it’s definitely a fine substitute for FD.
Actually lets take a step backwards: your script really starts with your notes.
Over the years I’ve evolved from jotting gibberish on the back of napkins and paper towels, to scribbling into my trusty Moleskin, to typing 100s of thousands of keystrokes into Word and Google docs. Now whenever a halfway decent thought strikes me I type it my iPad’s Note program. When I have enough ideas to justify a script, the next step is to get them organised. There’s no shortage of apps to use to get your ideas sorted, but I like using SimpleMind to see how all those various ideas fit together. There are several apps that can help organise your thoughts (in fact, as I’m writing this I’ve discovered Idea Sketch, and will give that a spin next time an opportunity arises), so find what works for you.
This is the stage where I ask myself things like, “What is the one thing my character wants more than anything else?”, or “What is my character most afraid of?”. This branching of ideas allows me to get to know my story and my characters more than if I’d just jumped into writing a draft.
When I’m comfortable with the flow of the story, I’ll Index Card to add more detail to my thoughts. This is especially helpful for complex stories, and for making notes for things not directly involved with the story — color scheme concepts, camera movements, that sort of stuff. I’ll also make notes for specific dialogue I’d like to include, and gives me space to write up elaborate character bios, or make suggestions for log lines, actor wish lists, production design ideas, you name it.
So now you have a script. My next step is to upload it to Dropbox which I prefer over Google Docs simply because it is so well integrated into many of the apps I use. You (or your 1st AD) can break the script down on paper, or you can download it from Dropbox directly into Shot Lister which will break it down for you. If you’re anything like me, you’ll then spend the next several hours (or days) obsessively inputting all the shots you can think to include. At this point your DOP and 1st AD show up and talk you back a bit while your Producer scowls at you.
Anyway, I love Shot Lister, and it is constantly evolving to be even more functional. You can upload your storyboards or reference photos, you can put your shots into a calendar and rotate them around to create your shooting schedule. There’s so many uses for this app, I can’t possibly cover them all here, but I will say it is absolutely essential and so worth the money. There is a bit of a learning curve, and it’s not perfect but the things that annoy me about it aren’t huge set backs.
(For example, as of right now you can’t assign character numbers yourself; Shot Lister assigns character numbers based on the amount of scenes they’re in and the amount of dialogue they have which is annoying when, say, your protagonist doesn’t really talk much. Like I said, not a big issue but something I hope they adjust in the near future.)
Moving on: your script is locked, it’s been broken down into scenes and you have your shot list completed. You know how many characters you have, and how many shots you want and what elements (jibs, cranes, lights, etc) you think you’ll need on any given day. You might even have your storyboards done.
For me, the next step is to create the movie, scene by scene, in Shot Designer to give cast and crew alike an overview of how you see things playing out. The beautiful thing about this app is it allows you to create your set using either real photographs or their set design tool. When this is done, you place your cameras, actors, extras, props, lights, even your audio guy, and with the push of a button you set everything in motion.
Like Shot Lister, there is a bit of a learning curve but watch the tutorial videos on the website and you’ll be fine.
With your script and shot list done, you’re ready to move out of the fun part of pre-production and get into the more serious stuff. At this point, along with having a strong 1st AD, you should have a wily Production Manager on your team. The first thing they should do is get all your crew to download a task management app called Trello. It’s free, but it does have additional options available through a pay service, although I’ve yet to encounter a reason to pay for it.
Trello is wonderful because you can use it to brainstorm and organise ideas, you can create check lists and schedule meetings, you can create and assign tasks to various crew and move them along through the To Do, Doing, and Done columns. And best of all it allows all users to see any updates in live time. Obviously being hooked up to the internet is key to this, so if you’re doing your prep work in some remote region you may want to find another app. There are reasons that Dropbox (large file transfers) and Google Docs (multiple users changing docs in live time) are so helpful for filmmakers, but Trello goes along way towards making both of them redundant. (What I’d love to see them incorporate somehow is a mind-mapper function similar to SimpleMinds but I suppose nothing is perfect.)
Delving deeper into prep, I’ve heard great things about Scenechronize, it seems fairly comprehensive but it’s quite expensive so it’ll have to wait until I get a bigger budget. In the meantime here are a few other apps I love:
- create and send PDF call sheets using Pocket Call Sheet
- never get stuck without the proper paperwork by using Cinema Forms
- if you’re just starting out, skip the first couple of weeks of film school by downloading SMAPP
- and don’t go on a location scout with MapAPic and Techscout (although I’m waiting for them to make an iPad version)
- I’ve yet to find a good budgeting app so I still use Google Docs for that
I’m still trying to find a good app to help with catering. The best I’ve found is Food by Evernote, but it has limited functionability. (And to state the obvious, the reason a good catering app would be useful is because your cast and crew will get grumpy quickly when you feed them cheap pizzas for lunch every day, but if you’re not paying attention your on set meals can eat up a huge chunk of your budget. On the music video The Pigeon Song, I’d organised feeding 25 cast & crew members a total of 4 meals for less than £200, and we’d received many compliments on the quality and variety of food. But it took a lot of effort to keep things organised, and finding a good food app would make life a lot easier for the next shoot.)
OK, that’s probably enough to get you started. Next time we’ll discuss some apps to help you on set.
There are a lot of really good and thorough blog posts out there with advice on the ever-expanding variety of production apps available for indie filmmakers. My advice is to experiment to discover what works for you and your production. I love working with Shotlister but I know a lot of ADs who are hesitant to break away from their on-paper traditions, which is understandable — on the one hand I have a much easier time learning or understanding when I use my hands so a turn towards 100% digital production hasn’t always been as easy as it seems it should be. On the other hand I’m terrible with allowing clutter to take over my workspace (and my life) which makes keeping organised quite a chore, so I’m always on the hunt for a way around this and apps tend to help quite a bit. On the (other) other hand, I have a terrible memory, so letting computers do the remembering as much as possible is a necessity that allows me to free up much needed brainspace for more exciting things. With all that said, most of the info in this post should be taken with a grain of salt as it’s all just hypothetical at the moment — I’ve used a handful of these apps on various projects, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to combine all of them on one super efficient, app-based production. But when I do, I’ll report back to let you know the results!