Essential software for independent film-makers

Software is crucial to every aspect of film-making these days.

I’m making no claim that this is the best software, or even the best example of each type. What I am saying is that this is the software we use at Zolascope, and we’ve decided on these packages for good reasons. (Disclaimer: we have no connection to any of these products, except one, and these are not affiliate links.) So, in no particular order:

FinalDraft1. Final Draft

It really has to be on this list, doesn’t it? It’s not a particularly sophisticated piece of software. In fact, for the feature set it provides, it’s overpriced. But it does what it does very well, which is why it has become the industry standard.

Final Draft makes writing the script very fast – for example, by predictive entry of character names. And its reporting functions are extremely useful. As a case in point, there comes a moment where we switch from the screenplay being a reading script to a shooting script, as shot descriptions start being added. However, the shot descriptions can be confusing for anyone not directly involved in the cinematography (such as actors). With the reporting function, it’s possible to output a version of the script with everything except the shot descriptions.

There’s also a handy mobile app, Final Draft Writer, that lets you put the script on a smartphone or tablet – although, to be honest, I find that a PDF works pretty well for this.

More details about Final Draft here »

Shot list in shoot day mode

Shot list in shoot day mode

2. StoryFlow

Well, I couldn’t not include this – it’s my app, after all. StoryFlow let’s you create and edit shot lists, add pictures for basic storyboarding and more. It runs on iOS (an OS X version is in the pipeline).

If you use Final Draft (or a screenwriting app that can output .fdx files), StoryFlow will pull the shot descriptions directly from the script, so you don’t have to enter them again. You can assign shots to specific days and order them how you want, and mark shots as ‘done’ as the day progresses. It’s an essential tool – but then I would say that.

There’s lots more info about StoryFlow here »

movieslate3. Movie*Slate

Even the humble clapper board has joined the digital age. Movie*Slate is a mobile app (we use it on an iPad, but an Android version is available) that provides all the functions of a clapper board, but also much more.

For one thing, because you can add all the camera settings for each take, it also acts as a camera log, which you can subsequently email to yourself. There are facilities for marking ‘circle’ takes and making notes for continuity purposes, although I find that typing notes on a tablet is much slower than scribbling them on a paper form. You can also set the app to rapidly display all the camera settings during the ‘clap’ process so that when you come to edit they’re easily visible on screen.

The app is highly configurable, so that it shows the information most pertinent to your production.

The ‘clap’ noise it makes is loud enough, if you have the tablet’s volume control turned all the way up, but you can also opt to have the tablet emit some beeps prior to the clap. I find that, when syncing audio and video in Final Cut Pro X, these beeps make for a completely unambiguous sync point – I’ve never yet had video and audio clips fail to sync automatically where Movie*Slate has been used.

The app runs on smartphones, too, which can be handy when you need to get a slate into a tight spot – for example, during close-ups.

There are some limitations. The app will show a colour card, but given that this is a backlit LED display, it’s a bit meaningless. Colour cards are normally used to monitor the colour of the ambient light. However, the Movie*Slate version might be useful for colour matching shots made on two or more different cameras during grading.

The other issue is the tablet’s glossy screen. This picks up reflections so easily it can obscure what’s being displayed. But that’s just a matter of careful positioning.

Perhaps the most significant thing I can say about Movie*Slate is that, while we have (custom-made) traditional slates, we still prefer to use this app.

More info on Movie*Slate here »

4. Scrivener

This has been my go-to writing tool for years. As a journalist and author, I like how you can gather and organise all your materials (text notes, PDFs, audio clips, images and more) in one place. Its hierarchical organisation means it’s a snap to quickly outline a project which you can re-organise just as easily later.

I use this for writing everything – articles, books, project notes and, of course, screenplays. While a script will, eventually, end up in Final Draft, it always starts life in Scrivener. That’s because it’s so easy to manage notes, sources, URLs and images in the same file.

Scrivener in screenplay mode

Scrivener in screenplay mode

There is even a screenwriting mode, which doesn’t work quite as fluidly as Final Draft, but isn’t far off. And you get the same options for viewing items as index cards, complete with colour-coding. Exporting to Final Draft is simplicity itself.

I’ve tried Celtx and can’t get on with it. I hate how they push you towards the cloud-based model (I’m often out of the reach of the Internet and dislike paying monthly fees for the tools I use). For me, Scrivener remains the pre-eminent writing tool bar none.

By the way, it used to be Mac-only, but there’s now a Windows version too.

More details about Scrivener here »

5. Final Cut Pro X

Discussions about non-linear editors (NLEs) tend to get religious. Some people like Final Cut Pro X (FCPX), others prefer Avid or Adobe Premiere. Some liked FCP 7 but hated the radical changes that came with the X upgrade.

I like FCPX because it gives me everything I need now at a very reasonable cost. Avid is too demanding in hardware terms and is expensive. And Adobe has moved to that awful subscription basis, which is good for them but bad for anyone who doesn’t make a living from the software and isn’t in the habit of updating to every new version. It was  greedy move by Adobe and one I won’t support. And in any case, the software still works out very expensive.

At Zolascope, we’ve augmented FCPX with Motion and Compressor, which I think are pretty essential to give you the full range of tools. We also occasionally use Logic Pro for audio editing. But, too be honest, we can achieve most things right there in FCPX, providing we use a large-enough monitor to be able to exercise final control over the audio clips.

You will hear lots of people complain about FCPX, or dismiss it as an amateur’s tool. But the truth is that it gets heavy use by professionals while being accessible to beginners. One day I might upgrade to Avid, but only when I’m very, very rich.

Final Cut Pro X page at Apple »

6. ChronoSync

Backup. Backup. Backup.

Computer files are strangely fragile things. Who among us hasn’t had that moment of fear when you think a disk, representing an entire day’s shoot, has become unreadable?

I know people who invest a bizarre amount of faith in SSDs, thinking they are somehow more reliable that traditional spinning-rust hard drives, just because they have no moving parts. It’s not true. Flash memory (which is what’s inside SSDs and thumbdrives) is notoriously flaky and prone to ‘bit rot’. Interesting fact: the (let’s say) 32GB thumbdrive you have in your pocket/bag/PC right now probably has 64GB or even 128GB of flash memory on board – it’s just that the onboard processor has marked much of it as ‘unusable’ due to manufacturing errors.

During a shoot, every lunchtime (when feasible) and every evening (mandatory) we backup the day’s files to two hard drives. As we don’t erase the files on the original SSD/HD until after the film is complete, that means we have three copies of all the raw files. (As an aside, when importing the files to Final Cut Pro X, we opt to copy them into the library, rather than working on the originals. At that point we have four copies of everything that’s being used, although two are on the same drive).

My software of choice for backing up is ChronoSync, which is for OS X (Windows users will probably find something similar). It’s very good at handling incremental backups and also at managing backups from one filing system to another, or one machine to another (you can tweak settings to allow for slight differences in the machines’ real-time clocks, for example). I use this not just for movie files but all my backups, including my photo library of about 30,000 images. It can be safely left to work on its own, and you can schedule regular backups. Best of all, once bought, all upgrades are free forever. In terms of peace of mind, this one of the best software investments I’ve ever made.

More info on ChronoSync »

7. NameChanger

This is a life-saver when processing files from a shoot. It’s a Mac program, but Windows almost certainly has something equivalent. When we pull the files from the Ninja, they have long filenames – eg, Ninja-S003-S010-T004.MOV. I like to use a more compact format – 03_10-04.MOV to mean scene 3, shot 10, take 4. NameChanger allows me to bulk-rename files using pattern matching. I bless its name at the end of every day’s shooting.

Best of all, it’s free … although donations are appreciated.

More info on NameChanger »


Is there anything you find you can’t live without? Let us know in the comments…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *