Lights! Camera! App!

The touch screen is transforming the big screen. But faster, cheaper filmmaking can come with a human price

The Entertainment Industry Comments

Like most camera assistants, John Reyes, who works on the MTV sitcom The Hard Times of RJ Berger, stores his equipment on a four-foot-tall aluminum cart. Among the lenses and tripods is a viewfinder (a short telescope-like device that helps directors see how a shot will look from a certain angle) and a depth-of-field calculator (a rotating instrument that calculates what portion of the shot will be in focus). Lately, however, the gizmos have started to disappear.

“Slowly each of these pieces of equipment is being replaced by apps,” says Reyes. “If you go on our set, it’s 90 percent iPhones. Pretty soon we’ll probably just use the camera on the iPhone to shoot our shows.” That last part’s a joke. Sort of.

The story of technology in Hollywood has long been one of a few early adopters fighting against the status quo. Each advance in the Industry, from talkies to Technicolor, took a while to catch on. Movies may be flashy and fancy, but movie sets are old-fashioned places, filled with apple crates (for actors who need a boost) and spotlights that have hung from the rafters since David Fincher was in diapers. But the iPhone and the iPad are propelling casts and crews into the 21st century, fundamentally altering the way people collaborate while saving time and money. Recently South Korean director Park Chan-wook went so far as to shoot an entire 30-minute short on his iPhone 4.

“Everyone’s looking to create a standard that will unite every department,” says Taz Goldstein, a director who blogs about production gadgets at Hand Held Hollywood. “That’s the holy grail.”

Here’s an example: A director can now hold up an iPhone to see how the mountains would look through his digital camera and send that image to an app to create a storyboard (the panel of sketches that form a visual outline of a movie) in about five minutes. During shooting, a director can plug notes on each take into his iPad and have them show up automatically in the editor’s Final Cut Pro software.

After the iPhone’s app store launched in July 2008, a group of gregarious Brits who operated a Burbank soundstage took a look at sunPATH, the software that helps cinematographers calculate where the sun will be in relation to a particular location at a particular time. A printout from sunPATH can tell you that at 10 a.m., for instance, the sun will rise over a building from the east at 60 degrees. On set a compass would pinpoint the direction and a clinometer would determine the correct angle. But an iPhone, they thought, could do better. “We wanted to take that functionality and put it in a device you have in your pocket all the time,” says Toby Evetts, one of the partners in the enterprise.

So they created Helios, an iPhone application that charts the sun’s movement. The group eventually formed a company called Chemical Wedding and created a line of apps: Artemis, which has replaced the director’s viewfinder, and Toland, the product of a collaboration with the American Society of Cinematographers that helps a director of photography know how a certain lens will affect what’s in focus and how much light is needed to shoot at a certain speed—questions previously answered via tables in a manual.

One Artemis user is Julian Farino, a director who counts the HBO series Entourage and the soon-to-be-released indie film The Oranges among his credits. He says that, typically, when using a director’s viewfinder, “you have to have a camera assistant run back to the lens box to change out a lens by unscrewing it and rescrewing it and bringing it back to have another look.” Artemis changes lenses with the push of a button. “I wouldn’t entirely rely on it—I think you want to look through as big a viewfinder as possible—but it’s a handy guide that’s immeasurably helpful,” says Farino.

Filmmakers quickly realized that the iPhone’s intuitiveness could help make specialized processes easier for generalists as well. Jonathan Houser, a cinematographer in Seattle, discovered that his film students were too lazy to make storyboards, so in 2009 he created Storyboard Composer, which allows anyone to photograph locations and create primitive storyboards within minutes.


From the moment the iPad debuted last April, script runners—who drive around town delivering 40 packages of scripts a day—found themselves facing extinction. Even the introduction of e-mail hadn’t done away with paper script delivery. Unwieldy as they are, paper scripts can be scribbled on, and their format prevents them from being leaked to outsiders. The iPad is seductive, however, in that it doesn’t just enable you to read a script anywhere; you can interact with it, too.

In the past, UTA agent Keya Khayatian took an extra suitcase on vacation packed with a dozen scripts. These days he carries an iPad, as do almost half of UTA’s 100-plus reps. Last summer, while sitting on the beach on Georgia’s St. Simons Island reading the script for Too Big to Fail, a film about the financial crisis in production at HBO, Khayatian was overcome with enthusiasm. He downloaded the original book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, scanned a few New York Times articles about the subject online, and watched some CNBC clips of financial reporter Maria Bartiromo on YouTube. “It was such an enhanced experience,” he says. “It’s not just a reading device—that’s the lowest bar for what it can do. There are so many avenues.”

The iPad’s interactive capability helps performers as well. David H. Lawrence XVII, who played the villain Eric Doyle on NBC’s Heroes, created Rehearsal, an app that allows actors to highlight their lines in the script and then black out those lines to test their memories by dragging a finger across the page. They can also record themselves performing every role in the scene and act along with that recording. One day Clark Gregg, best known for his role as the ex-husband on CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine, showed up on the set of the soon-to be-released film Thor, thinking he was doing an action scene with no lines. “Suddenly it was this two-page dialogue scene, and I was screwed,” he recalls. He pulled out his iPad, turned on Rehearsal, and learned his lines while sitting in the makeup chair.

The iPad has proved especially well suited to an application called MovieSlate, which mimics those iconic zebra-striped clapperboards that synch film with sound. MovieSlate was originally developed for the iPhone, but then the iPad turned out to be about the size and shape of a clapperboard, making it all the more valuable. The device illustrates how apps help rein in costs. Whereas a regular slate is priced at more than $1,000, MovieSlate is $19.99. Of course, the iPad costs $499, but that amount includes, um, an iPad.

According to Justin Springer, coproducer of Tron: Legacy and producer of Disney’s upcoming Prom, everyone from the location scout to the caterer has begun to wonder, “How can I use this device, which I carry around in my bag to read and send e-mail, to better do my job?” On the Tron set, for instance, actors took advantage of iPads to look at the conceptual artwork before filming scenes in front of a blue screen to get a sense of the computer-generated environment in which their performances took place. On Prom the crew used iPads to look at photo boards, a string of photographic images that map out scenes.

“You could bounce around quickly—here are the photo boards, here’s the script for those photo boards, here’s the schedule for the day,” Springer says. “To have multiple people simultaneously scrolling through the images and looking at this plan for what we’ll be doing was a huge, huge time-saver.”

In September the Irvine-based company Teradek released a device called Cube, a box the size of a deck of cards that attaches to a camera and transmits straight to video whatever the camera sees on an iPad or iPhone. You can’t watch in real time—there’s a ten-second delay with an iPad, less with other equipment. But this process, dubbed “instant dailies,” means that the director and other crew members don’t have to stand behind the camera or sit in “video village”—the cluster of monitors and chairs where on-set honchos hang out—to review a shot. “The director can be walking around with a camera operator or walking with an actor or sitting under a tree,” says Nicol Verheem, a Teradek founder. “The producer, the art department—anyone—can look at the take right after it’s done and start rating it, adding comments to it. You can play it over and over again.”

Apps have found their way into even the most obscure corners of the Industry. Take “photo kills,” a process in which actors, per their contracts, can nix a certain percentage of the publicity photos taken during production that they deem unflattering. Previously photo kills necessitated printing out stacks of proof sheets and delivering them to cast members (or their publicists) all over town. In 2007, a service called PhotoKill Online made it possible to view the stills—sometimes as many as 50,000 per movie—on the Internet. But the actor and a computer had to be in the same room at the same time. Not anymore. In January PhotoKill released an iPad app that allows a publicist to simply walk up to an actor on the set for a quick approval.

Before this app, studio marketing people often had to chase down talent to learn their preferences, according to Chrissy Quesada, director of still photography for 20th Century Fox’s theatrical marketing department. Now, she hopes, the process will be “a bit easier. You won’t have to be tethered to the Internet.”

While integration sounds great in theory, it’s not surprising that many below-the-line folks in Hollywood fear that this new technology will erode personal control and jeopardize their jobs. Others just worry it’ll spark an outbreak of meddling. What happens when a director tells a cameraman, “Johnson, I see from your metadata that you’ve been shooting at a five to one ratio,” jokes Hand Held Hollywood’s Goldstein.

Not every product transforms easily into an app. Take Final Draft, the leading screenwriting software. The ability to edit and distribute a script on set via iPad would be a boon. Final Draft Inc. is currently researching and developing prototypes for the app, a process the company admits has proved tricky. One challenge is that the shortcuts writers use on a regular computer are awkward on a flat-screen keyboard. In addition, the company has had difficulty designing the software so that the script on the iPad and the script on the computer have the same page count, which profoundly affects a studio’s estimate of the length and cost of a film or TV episode. “That page count is the currency the entertainment industry goes by,” says Kirsten Thayer, a Final Draft product manager. “If I have a 125-page Final Draft file and it doesn’t open up in iPad as 125 pages, I have a problem.”

For his part, Reyes, the camera assistant, is more worried about another iPhone-related issue: distraction. When he’s on set he sometimes surfs the Web, texts his girlfriend, and looks for future jobs—and everyone around him is doing much the same thing. “It’s 90 percent waiting and 10 percent actual filming, so the iPhone or iPad often fills those downtimes,” he says. To prevent temptation he stashes his iPhone on that aluminum camera cart, with the lenses and tripods, where it’s likely to remain permanently. 
Illustration by Augusto Costhanzo

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