Preparing Setups with Shot Designer

Following on from their line of successful film making tutorials for Directors, Per Holmes and the Hollywood Camera Work team have launched their new app for iOS/Android and Mac/Windows – Shot Designer.

This is a ‘blocking’ tool – a visual way of mapping out ‘who or what goes where, does what and when’ in a scene, and where cameras should be to pick up the action. For a full intro to the craft of blocking scenes from interviews to action scenes, check out the DVDs, but whilst they can be – and often are – scribbled out on scraps of paper, Shot Designer makes things neat, quick, sharable via dropbox, and *animated*. A complex scene on paper can become a cryptic mashup of lines and circles, but Shot Designer shows character and camera moves in real time or in steps.

You can set up lighting diagrams too – using common fittings including KinoFlos, 1x1s, large and small fresnels, and populate scenes with scenery, props, cranes, dollies, mic booms and so on – all in a basic visual language familiar to the industry and just the sort of heart-warming brief that crews like to see before they arrive on set.

Matt's 2-up setup

My quick example (taking less time that it would to describe over a phone) is a simple 2-up talking head discussion. The locked off wide is matched with two cameras which can either get a single closeup on each, or if shifted, a nice Over Shoulder shot. A couple of 800W fresnels provide key and back-light but need distance and throw to make this work (if too close to the talent, the ratio of backlight to key will be too extreme) so the DoP I send this to may recommend HMI spots – which will mean the 4 lamp Kino in front will need daylight bulbs. So, we’ll probably set up width-wise in the as yet un-recced room – but you get the idea: we have a plan.

Operationally, Shot Designer is quick to manipulate and is ruthlessly designed for tablet use but even sausage fingers can bash together a lighting design on an iPhone. There’s a highlighter mode so you can temporarily scribble over your diagram whilst explaining it. The software is smart too – you can link cameras so that you don’t ‘cross the line’, Cameras can ‘follow’ targets… It builds a shot list from your moves so you can check your coverage before you wrap and move to the next scene.

Interestingly, there’s a ‘Director’s Viewfinder’ that’s really handy: Shot Designer knows the camera in your device (and if it doesn’t you can work it out), so you can use that to pinch and zoom to get your shot size and read off the focal length for anything from a AF101 or 5D Mk 3 to an Arri Alexa – other formats (e.g. EX1R or Black Magic Cinema Camera) will be added to the list over time. Again, this is an ideal recce tool, knowing in advance about lens choice and even camera choice).

This really is not a storyboard application – Per Holmes goes to great lengths to stress that storyboarding can push you down a prescribed route in shooting and can be cumbersome when things change, whereas the ‘block and stage’ method of using multiple takes or multiple cameras gives you far more to work with in the ‘third writing stage’ of editing. You can incorporate your storyboard frames, or any images, even ones taken on your device, and associate them with cameras. Again, that’s handy from a recce point of view right up to a reference of previous shots to match a house style, communicating the oft-tricky negative space idea, keeping continuity and so on. However, future iterations of Shot Designer are planned to include a 3D view – not in the ‘Pre-viz’ style of something like iClone or FrameForge but a clear and flexible tool for use whilst in production.

There is a free ‘single scene’ version, and a $20 license for unlimited scenes over all platforms – but check their notes due to store policy: buyers should purchase the mobile version to get a cross-over license to the desktop app, as rules say if you buy the desktop app first you’ll still be forced to buy the mobile version.

Shot Designer may appear to be for Narrative filmmaking, but the block and stage method helps set up for multicam, and a minute spent on blocking and staging any scene from from wedding to corporate to indie production is time well spent. The ability to move from Mac or PC app to iPad or Android phone via dropbox to share diagrams and add notes is a huge step forward from the paper napkin or ‘knocked up in PowerPoint’ approach. It will even be a great ‘shot notebook’ to communicate what the director wants to achieve.

Just for its sharability and speed at knocking up lighting and setup diagrams, Shot Designer is well worth a look, even at $20 for the full featured version. If you combine it with the Blocking and Staging aspect and its planning capabilities, it’s a great tool for the Director, DoP and even (especially) a Videographer on a recce.

Edit: For those of us who haven’t bought an iPad yet – this might be the ‘killer app’ for the iPad mini…

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iPad – or should that have been LooBook Pro?

Or even ‘a little something for the weekend’?

Like the 2000 network engineers whom I’m filming in Barcelona this week, I downed tools to watch the Apple announcement of their new toy: the iPad.

It is, to all intents and purposes, a big iPhone. Big enough to watch stuff on, read stuff (in colour, in magazine format, rather than a Kindle-like virtual page), browse stuff, send stuff, tweet stuff, and do a whole lot of things that iPhone applications do and more besides (page layout, spreadsheets and so on).

So is this brand over substance?

Well, here’s my thoughts after watching it through.

This is the computer that non-computer users will like. One could say it’s the Flip Camera of the notebook world, but that would be unfair.

I think it’s the computer my parents would want, now that they’ve owned an iMac for nearly a decade.

A computer more at home on the sofa than the desktop. A computer that they can take on holiday, or take to the dentist, as well as accompany them round the TV or even in bed.

One could get all techy and think of it as a mix of portal to the cloud, media browser and communication tool, but like the iPhone blended a music player, phone, satnav, torch, blackberry and gameboy (but better), so the iPad does the main jobs of email, web, photo, music and video browsing, adding books, magazines, then there’s the games, the distractions, the visual toys, the educational toys, and so on.

So it’s a computer for people who don’t like computers – and that, ladies and gentlemen – remains a huge untapped market. And a steep mountain to climb in getting the message to them that the iPad is a Nice, Useful Device.

It is also going to appear in places where a laptop is currently used, but not comfortably. Tried using a laptop in Economy? Ever wanted to catch up with reading in a waiting room and couldn’t find a power point and a horizontal surface? Ever wanted to fire up the BBC iPlayer in bed? Ever burned your lap whilst surfing in the loo? Okay, don’t try that at home, kids.

Noteworthy is the lack of a camera. I think this is Jobsian purism at work here, and that future iPad devices will have them. Ye Gods, try the ‘PhotoBooth’ app that encouraged use of the built-in webcams on Macs. Think about skyping home, virtual meetings, guided tours, quasi augmented reality. The iPad needs, REALLY NEEDS front and back cameras.

And then there’s the really amazing things that iPhone application developers do, filling in with niche products.

I am going to use my iPad as a prompting device on my camera. I am going to use it as a clapper board for filming. I hope soon to be at least doing rough edits of freshly shot footage on it whilst chilling in the hotel bar. But I think those are fairly pedestrian in comparison to what the community, the ‘crowd’ will create over time.

The iPad is a very clever, very well researched device that I really hope will set alight a whole new world of computer usage. My fear is that its best target market (the non computer user) is going to be very negative and a very hard sell.

In 20 years time, I could be buying one for my grandchild for the price of a box-set of books, but right now lots of people who could really benefit from such a device will not pay the price, and get a cheap laptop from PC world instead. And they will still hate computers.

iPad isn’t all sharbat fountains and shang-ri-lah. Apple is a shrewd company adept at emptying the pockets of its fans, telling them that is the price of simple things that work well. But they are also the company with the bone-head policy of banning some applications that might be something Apple doesn’t want, or falls foul of some idiotic interpretation of draconian rules – a news reader application is classed for Adults Only, may contain nasty stuff… News can be nasty. A browser gets an 18 Certificate because it’s possible you might see a saucy picture or too. An app might upset the hidden marketing of an Apple Partner, so you’ll never see that one. Yet a crass and shameful prank app (Shaken Baby – you can guess) is passed and approved.

Apple may have billions of apps and millions of units shipped, but they still can’t work out how to intelligently vet their App Store, and continue to muck up the businesses of many developers – big and small.

I’m not a developer (I wish I could be). But I am a media maker, and I’m very interested on what this class of device will excel at in media terms. Casual learning like Rouxbe.com?

So the iPad might drown in a sea of apathy that surrounds the tiny island of the Mac Faithful. The iPad may shrivel on the vine of ‘a good idea badly marketed’. The iPad may fall at the first fence of performance by being too little too early like its embarrassing uncle Newton.

But it could be good. Very good.

Feeling my way

So Apple’s looking for somebody to ‘Take Maps to the Next Level‘. If ever there was a phrase that falls with a dull thud, there it is.

There’s nothing wrong with maps. Not Maps, just maps in general. They’re great. It’s an amazing spin on our experience of the world, where our vision is translated into a top down view of the world. We dream of flying, yet our imagination does this over abstract concepts and three dimensional experiences with ease every day. It’s not even a particularly modern or hi-tech thing, but more an innate human understanding, as the Mappa Mundi and Australian aboriginal art demonstrates.

So that’s why I have two rather un-thumbed tomes on my desk: Objective C for Dummies and iPhone Application Development for Dummies. Hey, I had a Sinclair ZX81 and learned BASIC on a Commodore PET, I’ve written Lingo that makes an Interative CD-ROM do vaguely useful things. I too can write iPhone apps!

Because maps are Old Skool.

When the iPhone 3Gs came out, with its combination of GPS and compass, I was so excited. In an interface-geek kind of way.

I want to fondle my iPhone in my pocket or wear it up my sleeve. I want to wave it hither and thither like a hyper accurate dowsing rod and follow a route that you can feel as little ‘bumps’ by rolling over a virtual string that’s been created by location-aware helper apps.

Your GPS location and your iPhone’s compass orientation work together to give a simple non-visual feedback that works in any language, in any environment. Reach out and feel the virtual guide rope. As you wave your arm around, or simply spin it in your pocket, there’s a little ‘clunk’ – not a buzz, but a short yet heavy ‘clunk’ you can rock over. Like rolling a mouse over a big bit of grit. Just like Derren Brown feeling for micro-motor anomalies in an Italian passer-by, but a lot easier and quicker; you navigate round a strange space by a sort of virtual touch.

So all I need is to work out a direction finding routine – surely built into Maps already, and tap into the APIs for the GPS, the Compass and the wobbler (sorry, the documentation I’ve read so far doesn’t say what the API refers to to make the thing go ‘clunk’).

I’ll then generate some really great marketing spin at the tail end of beta testing – do some viral video with lots of people waving stuff in front of them, the parody of dowsing, then cutting a deal into a bit of pulp fiction centering around some American city that also has ties into more European cities, then sit back and wait for the millions to roll in from the iStore.

Except I fell at the first fence.

I really shouldn’t write code. I am really bad at it, I don’t have the mathematical knowledge, the patience or the raw skill to get beyond the ‘hello world’ stage. And I haven’t enjoyed getting that far. It’s like trying to write poetry in a foreign language or write a National Anthem for an obscure musical instrument. You really need to know stuff that’s not about what you want to do. There’s so much stuff you need to know just to get over the Programming 101 that, well, really, look – I don’t do Pointers or memory management or all that stuff. I thought I could explain a bubble sort, but I got it all wrong. Programming will shorten my life, and the gravestone will have a syntax error.

So maybe I’ll make that ‘iPhone Torch’ app that’s a tenth of the quality of the worst of iStore but I will use because I WROTE IT (no I didn’t, I copied the code from an example and modified it in the hope I could make a 2900K version but settled for ‘white’). And even that will develop a memory leak and my once reliable iPhone will require a twice-weekly restart until I restore the thing from scratch.

So folks, ideas are cheap. Implementing them is really hard. Funding their implementation is extremely risky. Risk gets more reward than hard work. Hard work gets more reward than coming up with an idea. But coming up with an idea, working hard at it and backing it up at risk to yourself can be very successful… or not.

So I really hope we can take Maps to the next level. Not just super-maps, but something beyond abstracted wiggly lines. Even just a little quiet variable-pitch whistle that does the ‘warmer/colder’ childhood game to find your goal.

And no, that’s not my idea. Ian Flemming, Goldfinger, the book, not the film.