When I entered film school in 2005, the experience was a cloistered world — part arts conservatory, part bootcamp. You do nothing but eat, sleep and drink filmmaking — all our nutritional needs met by a phalanx of vending machines in our building.
When we weren’t shooting directing exercises and short films on Canon camcorders, we were screening 35-millimeter films in the projection room. We spent entire nights in the editing lab. Aspiring to be nouveau Sofia Coppolas, Wes Andersons, Darren Aronofskys, among other indie auteurs, we learned the gospel of Scorsese, mastered the art of sound bridges between shots, gained weight from junk food and generally existed in a blissful bubble of creative inspiration.
Of course, we barely noticed what was going on in the world, so the release of the iPhone and the general rise of the mobile technology at the time were barely blips on our radar. Smartphones? What did that have to do with filmmaking? They came handy when production assistants went on a food run and we needed them to pick up batteries for the walkie-talkies. But to us, that was it.
We only cared about high-definition cameras, particularly the ultra-high resolution RED units. With just over 4,000 lines of resolution, RED promised film-quality resolution, at a fraction of the cost of typical 35-millimeter cameras. Groups of students schemed to pool resources to buy the $30,000 package. We didn’t know much about technology as a larger industry, but we guessed that, over time, cameras would provide better quality at cheaper prices.
As it turns out, the ultimate democratization of filmmaking did happen, but not in the way we expected. No one expected that our camera phones would become an important tool in filmmaking, spawning a need for mobile editing — and perhaps even directions in storytelling.
Those RED cameras we coveted became an industry standard, and Peter Jackson even used it to shoot his epic blockbusters Hobbit series.
Filmmakers also shoot HD video with digital SLRs, like Canon’s EOS 5D and 7D, which add a valuable tool in any cinematographer’s arsenal, particularly for contemporary stories that need fine control over the image. Cinematographers for movies like Oscar-nominated drama “Black Swan” and Sundance favorite “Like Crazy” love them for their ability to use lenses and filters to add beautiful effects to the image.
Those films — lauded not just for the lead actor performances, but for their cinematography — proved that the tools aren’t just cheaper versions of celluloid, but practical artistic choices in their own right.
But smartphone are rising as a viable filmmaking tool. Of course, the iPhone is often the default choice of consumers looking to capture home movies. It killed camcorder sales — a 42 percent drop at the end of 2011, according to NPD — in much the same way it decimated digital point-and-shoot cameras. But it’s also eking out a place in the filmmaking industry.
In 2010, for example, acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook shot a short film, “Night Fishing,” on an iPhone 4, which released in South Korean cinemas a year later. Capturing scenes with an army of 10 iPhones, Park embraced the constraints of the small-format cameras to shoot in a looser, freer way, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But beyond short films, in 2010, filmmaker Hoonam Khalili shot his feature film, “Olive,” entirely on a Nokia N8. Though it had a brief theatrical release, it didn’t blow up the box office, but it did made history as the first feature shot entirely on a smartphone.
More recently, director Malik Bendjelloul shot “Searching for Sugarman,” which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, partly with an iPhone when he ran out of money to film. Hard up for a solution, he used his smartphone and the $2 Vintage 8mm app to shoot the rest of his film.
“I started shooting on super-8 film, which is expensive — and I ran out of money,” he told CNN. “I needed more shots, and then realized there was a $1 app, and it looked basically the same.”
The Oscar for Sugarman was a major milestone for mobile filmmaking, proving that mobile-captured footage can stand its ground with higher-end devices.
Smartphones — and the growing number of apps that can change the look and feel of raw video — have become a powerful tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. In fact, if I started film school today, it’s highly likely I’d be shooting our directing class exercises on our phones, instead of lugging around bulky camcorder cases. It used to be near impossible to sneak into locations like museums and other New York landmarks to shoot with them, but with iPhones, we could blend right in with the tourists.
Smartphones made it easy to capture video footage on the fly, providing a cheap, portable way to make a movie, but every aspiring filmmaker knows the real magic of moviemaking lies in what you do with that footage. Editing is one of the most important, yet least understood, arts.
Joining together disparate pieces of footage, while trying to keep the illusion of a seamless reality — and, of course, trying to shape a story or performance that will pull viewers along effortlessly — take veteran editors years to master. It’s the ultimate craft for making sophisticated, complex work appear invisible.
In film school, I spent hours in the editing lab, learning how to match motion, split shots and create sound bridges between shots and other tricks of the trade. I worked on Final Cut Pro, though we were also fluent in major editing workhorses like Avid — systems so powerful they required specially built PCs and servers. Interfaces were complicated, and the amount of functionality they offered was dizzying. They featured multiple tracks of effects, video and sound — in fact, just mastering the keyboard commands required a special lesson or hours of experience.
Now, of course, free video editing apps promise to splice and join your footage in a quick and easy format. But if there is room for improvement in an app category, it is in video editing — because most are frankly lackluster. I started off with Vimeo’s editing app because it promised direct uploading to their site. It features a great visual design and interface, but often froze, forcing me to lose valuable work. I wasn’t the only one with issues — others so vociferously complained about various technical issues that Vimeo finally dumped it.
I then moved to Splice, a free iOS video editing app that gets the job done, but misses some advanced options to take it to the next level. You can string together and trip clips, move them around and add basic transitions and some audio. The results are fast: on-the-go mobile video editing that doesn’t need a film production degree to master. But there’s no special effects razzle-dazzle — the most you can do is change the clip speed.
Sound is a crucial element of film editing, and apps don’t often give much in the way of editing that aspect of video. Splice does lets you trim the sound of your video and add transitions and multiple tracks to layer music, dialogue and commentary, but it’s still far from perfect: you can’t easily add titles, for example, and it only exports at a max 640-pixels width. You can’t export within the app to YouTube or Facebook, either, so you’ll have to take extra steps if social sharing is part of your strategy.
If you’re just looking for a quick home movie, Splice is fine, but if you have bigger ambitions — look elsewhere. It’s a pity, because it’s generally stable and reliable — a rarity for a class of apps that can drain batteries and tax CPUs.
Cute Cut, a free iOS app, has enough bells and whistles to satisfy your inner James Cameron. It’s a multi-track editing app with the ability to layer music, photos, videos, text and narration in one movie. Working with multiple tracks takes time to get used to, but once you have the hang of it, you’ll love giving your iPhone movies a more cinematic feel.
Editing takes place in one cleanly designed window: first, click on the plus icon to start a new movie, then select whether you want a widescreen or standard aspect ratio, before selecting landscape or portrait. The app talks you through the process, with pop-up windows of advice, explanations of icons and other system features. Pay close attention to those because you’ll get lost without them — the interface is nice and clean, but the icons are confusing. You have to poke around to find many of the functions, but if you really get lost, video tutorials are available in the help section.
Once you get the hang of it, the app proves its mettle. You can easily import different types of media, trim off the boring bits, add customizable transitions and adjust the image quality within each clip. To re-sequence items, simply go back to the main editing window, press and hold on the clip and shuffle it around. There’s even a fun “self-draw” feature that lets you add a hand-drawn touch to your movie. And when you’re done, sharing to Facebook and YouTube — or just saving to your camera roll — is a cinch.
Cute Cut has robust features, but it takes time to play with to learn the ins and outs. It relies on a lot of gestures, and sometimes on a tiny screen, editing can get frustrating — it’s better suited for the iPad. Exporting movies adds a watermark to movies, but an in-app upgrade removes it, as well as any time limits on mini-masterpieces. But best of all, the app isn’t crash-happy, proving remarkably stable considering all the functionality it offers.
Of course, anything beats slaving away at a workstation in the editing lab at all hours of the night, knocking back can after can of Diet Coke while growling at Final Cut Pro to render faster. The idea of editing directing exercises on an iPad, curled up in pajamas in bed, sounds much more appealing, even if the app is slow and laborious. Overall, video editing on tablets and smartphones still has some ways to go — those are resource-intensive, power-draining tasks, and it’s unrealistic to expect professional-grade results. But as mobile hardware improves, so will editing on the devices — and the idea of truly being able to create movies on the go will get even closer to reality.
The Scorsese Algorithm
Soon, actually, I may not even have to go through the nuts and bolts of editing clips, stringing them together in a beautifully seamless approximation of reality. There’s a small class of apps on the rise that will do the editing for you.
The idea is simple: just add photos and video into the app, tap a button and the app spits out an entire small movie, complete with transitions, music and graphics. Of course, you lose creative control — you often don’t get a choice, for example, in the look of graphics or even the choice music. But if you’re looking to do something with all those random clips on your phone — or just want to have some fun — those apps are an interesting experiment.
The foremost example is Magisto, which professes to offer automated video editing. The app uses algorithms that supposedly allow it to deduce the gist, or emotion, of the video. Available for free on iOS, Android and the Web, Magisto handles the heavy lifting when it comes to the highly technical task of editing. Fire up the app, select the footage to include, and then select a pre-created theme, which ranges from “Love” to “It’s My Party” to “That’s Cute.” Then select a soundtrack, either from audio tracks it provides, or from your own albums. Hit a few buttons, wait several minutes and voila — your very own professional-looking movie, complete with complex transitions and snazzy effects.
Magisto takes a while to process videos and images, and it only works with up to 600-megabytes, or 15 minutes of footage. But the results — if not exactly “Citizen Kane” or even “Zoolander” — are fun, often rendering lively videos to entertain friends on Facebook. The twist? You need a Magisto account to save videos, and the final work exists on the Magisto website. Don’t worry, though — videos are set to private by default. If you want to save your pre-fab masterpiece on the camera roll or computer, you’ll have to pay $1 for each movie, or sign up for a paid membership.
With a simple interface and a bright, fun look-and-feel, it’s easy to use. Magisto is a bit more complex than Vine or Instagram, but with a lot fewer hours of work than with a traditional video editing program. It’s s a lot of fun, but you don’t have much control over the result outside of the footage and photos you select.
For more creative control, Animoto may be a better choice. It’s the same principle as Magisto: upload photos and videos from an iPhone, let algorithms work their magic and send back a polished video. The interface isn’t very user-friendly and the look-and-feel is not energetic, but you’re able to at least choose your own audio, as well as add text.
Both services are fun, but with some drawbacks. Clips have a limit in terms of duration — but you can upgrade both apps to be able to include longer videos. Overall, both Magisto and Animoto are great if you’re looking for a way to corral random bits of footage into a pleasing film. But the results are fun MTV-style collages of sound, image, graphics and flashy transitions.
Until they come up with an algorithm that can create a film with the theme of “Small Child Has Epiphany and Grows Up to the Sound of Cellos Sighing” — a very common student short film subject — they likely won’t find a place in a typical film school curriculum, though they’re great for the casual consumer who wants a slick movie for little effort and a bit of pocket change.
How to Be a Directr
Filmmaking professors and instructors would be aghast at the thought of an app, algorithm or tech tool replacing human creativity, intuition and craft. After all, we don’t just go to school to learn how to use a camera or master an editing program. We learn how to work with actors, how to structure a scene, how to stage and choreograph action and how to move a camera for maximum narrative impact.
In short, we learned how to think visually, internalizing storytelling instincts so that it became second nature. Visual intelligence and emotional acuity are really what I learned as a director in film school — not to mention the delicate ins and outs of working with people in a collaborative discipline.
There isn’t yet an app that can coax a fantastic performance out of an insecure actor, but as it turns out, an app can help you create substantive mobile content beyond the flashy collages of Magisto and Animoto.
Directr isn’t an editing program, or an image processing one. Instead, it aspires to be a creative community centered on mobile video, much like Vine or even Instagram. But instead of photos or just tiny postcard-like snippets of filtered video footage, it asks a bit more of its users — to make movies with a theme, focus and some semblance of thought. In short, it’s a bit like a directing class, where you get an exercise and have to execute it with a fair amount of ingenuity and creativity — and there are people waiting to watch and cheer on your work.
What makes Directr unique from Vine and Instagram are the longer formats and guidance it offers in making compelling content. You can freestyle your own videos, of course, but if you’re at a loss, the app offers several ingenuous ideas to get you started and pique your creativity. It offers “storyboards” of preset ideas, telling you how many shots you need, how long they are and what order they’re in. Using sketch-like thumbnails, storyboards tell you what kind of information to communicate with the shot. Short explanations say why certain shots in certain places are good, and if you’re confused, you can tap for an example.
Ideas range from something as simple as 7-shot “I’m Waiting” to more complex stories like the 16-shot “Moving Day” to “Making Coffee” to more ambitious ones like a 32-shot “30 x 30” movie, where you record an entire month with a shot a day. The prompts range from prosaic to whimsical, with a nice variety to fit your current mood.
You can start storyboards, and then save them to work on them later. Once finished, you can save to your camera roll or share them to the larger Directr community, which has proven remarkably active and passionate over the few months the app has been released. Of course, you can choose also to share with Facebook and Twitter.
The app features a slick, elegant design that’s both inspirational and simple, and it’s easy to learn and use, though it takes just a bit of concentration to pick up on the navigation menus and features tucked away in the interface. Its drawbacks, though, include a lack of control on the preset ideas — you can’t choose the music, for example, though the app offers an option to shoot your own movie and select your own track from your phone. Control freaks won’t take well to the inability to alter fonts and the placing of the text in clips, and those looking for slicker razzle-dazzle will be disappointed by the lack of transitions, filters or other visual magic shortcuts.
But despite the lack of bells and whistles, there is something genuinely creative and inspiring about Directr. Its storyboard approach guides you through thinking about how to communicate a theme or simple story shot-by-shot, and it’s not that much different from a first-year directing class. There’s not a lot of nitty-gritty, nor the delving into theory you’d get when studying with a professional — but it’s a great tool for wannabe and fledgling directors, or anyone who’s longed to capture something of their life and thoughts on video, and need an easy, user-friendly guide.
It’s sometimes bittersweet as a film school graduate to look at apps that can render slick videos from just some photos and video footage — something you know would take hours of sweat and thought can be done in a few minutes by an app and an algorithm. I get both wistful and excited thinking about the proliferation of mobile tools, and how it would’ve transformed my film school experience — and how it’s changing visual storytelling now.
But the resolute simplicity of something like Directr assures me that there isn’t yet an algorithm that can replace the human desire to create, observe and communicate just a bit of their imagination. No algorithm can yet take the place of curiosity and creativity, and though we can boil the style down to a set of mathematical calculations, we can’t outsource the content to fill in the blanks — that comes from our heart, our intelligence and our own unique perspectives on the world. ♦