Archive for the ‘For Students’ Category

Freeware, Shareware, and Cheap Mac Software for Filmmakers

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

It’s been a long time since we’ve done a post that wasn’t related to Something, Anything. Back in 2007 (!), I did a post on shareware for filmmakers. That’s still the first hit you get if you google the term. So I figured it was time to do an update.

Looking over this list, it’s kind of remarkable what kind of tools you can assemble for very, very little money.

Happy New Year!



Audacity: Free. From the audacity website: “Easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems.”

Audio Hijack: $49. Allows you to record any streaming audio. Useful for all sorts of things — skype interviews, etc. Also, you may want to compare Fission (Rogue Amoeba’s $29 audio editor) against Audacity.


DaVinci Resolve

DaVinci Resolve 12: Free and Paid versions. Resolve would be on this list alone because it’s an industry-standard color grading app. What’s equally amazing is that it’s now a very useable NLE. When Apple introduced Final Cut Pro X and abandoned its venerable (but aging) Final Cut Pro 7, there was a seismic shift in the NLE landscape. Some people moved to Premiere Pro, others moved to Avid, and some adopted FCPX. I clung to FCP 7 in hopes that something would come along that was less buggy (and better supported) than Premiere, more intuitive than Avid, and more “traditional” (for lack of a better word) than FCP X. DaVinci Resolve is not perfect, but it’s elegantly designed, and the free version does 90% of what the paid version does. And of course, it’s a must have for the grading tools alone.



Apple Compressor: $50. Apple’s venerable Compressor app (part of its old Final Cut Studio suite) got a make-over when FCP X was introduced a few years ago. Now an affordable standalone app, it’s $50 and works pretty well. Users of Adobe Creative Cloud (which includes Adobe Media Encoder) probably don’t have a use for this, but some people (I’m one) still prefer it. VLC, Handbrake, and MPEG Streamclip (all below) are other alternatives, but I tend to go with Compressor.

MPEG Streamclip: Free. In their own words, MPEG streamclip is a “free video converter, player, editor for Mac and Windows. It can play many movie files, not only MPEGs; it can convert MPEG files between muxed/demuxed formats for authoring; it can encode movies to many formats, including iPod; it can cut, trim and join movies. MPEG Streamclip can also download videos from YouTube and Google by entering the page URL.”

Handbrake: Free. From the Handbrake website: “HandBrake is a tool for converting video from nearly any format to a selection of modern, widely supported codecs.”



Celtx: Free (for scriptwriting app only; other features are paid). I teach first-time screenwriting students, and this is the app I always send them to because it’s free. There are paid upgrades if you want additional features (scheduling and so on). But I’ve not tried those, and I’d be reluctant to use them over Scenechronize (see below). My favorite screenwriting app is Fade In (see immediately below), but this gets the job done if you have absolutely no money.

Fade In

Fade In: $50. This isn’t shareware, but it’s affordably priced, especially considering the competition. The best, and simplest, screenwriting app I’ve ever encountered — and I’ve paid for Adobe Story, Final Draft (vers 6, 7, and 8) Movie Magic Screenwriter, and several other also-rans (plus Celtx). Fade In works with files from other screenwriting apps flawlessly, in my experience. You can import files from Final Draft, Fountain, Celtx, Adobe Story, Scrivener, PDF, and plain text, among others. The interface is just what I want: It looks good, it puts a focus on the words, and it’s easy to navigate through the script. I actually LIKE using it. There’s also an iPad app. Unfortunately it’s not nearly as solid.

Scrivener: $45. Like Fade In, this isn’t shareware. But it is an awesome tool for keeping notes, research, and drafts in order as you prep a project. The one downside is that the developer has been promising an iPad version for years, and during that time people have been leaving the app for other competitors (like Ulysses).

Libre Office and Open Office: Free. These are essentially open source versions of the applications you find in Microsoft Office. (Do I really need to explain what you’d use these for?) Anyway, some people prefer Libre Office, others prefer Open Office. My day job supplies me with a free copy of MS Office, so I don’t have much of an opinion. They’re both free — download them both and give each a spin. Of course, another option is to work in the cloud using Google Docs (see below).



App Cleaner: Free. If you’re reading this, you probably like trying new apps. The problem is that when you install new software hidden files and folders often get installed all over your computer. App Cleaner the easiest way to thoroughly uninstall unwanted apps. I use this all the time.

Super Duper: Free / $28 and Carbon Copy Cloner: $40. Backups are essential, and these are two great backup and disk-cloning solutions. I far prefer either to Apple’s Time Machine (which is a different thing altogether). I use SuperDuper, but Carbon Copy Cloner is very good too.

Cyberduck: Donationware. As the website states, Cyberduck is a “FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, S3, Azure & OpenStack Swift browser for Mac and Windows.” My go-to app for FTP stuff.

Movie Thumbnails

Movie Thumbnails: $3.99. This is really one of the best-kept secrets on the list. Movie Thumbnails lets you “create an overview or contact sheet of a movie combined with metadata like resolution, codec details and so forth.” We used this app to create contact sheets for every video file shot on Something, Anything, which helped us check on the wardrobe continuity or lighting for a shot from previous days of filming. Invaluable!

Pacifist: $20 shareware. This is one of those apps that you may only use once or twice, but you’ll be so glad it exists when you need it. Basically it allows you to drill down into Mac software packages to extract a single file from an installer. You may think you have no need for it, but like I said, it’s great at what it does.

QuickTime Movie NoteTaker: Free. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is still supported, and I confess I’ve not needed to use it in years.But this made the list last time and it might help someone out, so I’m listing putting here.

Self-Control: Free. The internet is a factory of distractions. If you don’t trust yourself to stay focused on that screenplay, use Self-Control to shut off the internet for a while. It works.

Transcriva: $30. Transcription software for the Mac. I’ve not used this in a while, and some folks are using their NLE’s voice recognition software, but it’s still useful. While looking at Transcriva again I ran across Express Scribe — never used it, but it also worth a look if you need something like this.

White Noise Free: Free. I get distracted if I can hear random conversations, music, etc. while doing deep dive work (e.g., writing or editing). Listening to white noise and a pair of good headphones helps me stay focused.

VLC Media Player: Free. From the website: “VLC is a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player and framework that plays most multimedia files as well as DVDs, Audio CDs, VCDs, and various streaming protocols.” Plays almost anything you throw at it. We use this to cue up trailers at Public Cinema screenings.



This could be a really long list, but here are a few that I use.


Scenechronize: Free and Paid versions. I used to use a very old academic edition of Movie Magic/EP Scheduling, which is really expensive, to do stripboards and scheduling. Then a few years ago we discovered this. We used the free version of Scenechronize on Something, Anything, and it was amazing. It’s so amazing that I’ve bumped it to the top of this section, out of alphabetical order. The paid version allows teams to collaborate.

Dropbox and Copy: Free and Paid versions. You know what Dropbox is. Copy is pretty much the same thing. There are lots of other web apps out there that do what these two do. When Something, Anything started being invited to festivals, each one would ask for their own set of (sometimes unique) deliverables. Instead of using Dropbox (which I use for tons of other things) I created a new Copy account and created files for each festival. This kept things clean and organized. Again, you could do this with one service (like Dropbox) but with so many players in the free cloud storage area, why not use a few?

Google Apps: Sheets and Forms. Free. I’m ambivalent about cloud computing (as in, it really sucks if you lose internet service), but I use Google’s Spreadsheet and Survey apps quite a bit. We used the spreadsheet app to keep track of everything from casting information to festival submissions to publications to approach for reviews or other coverage. Google Surveys are great, too. We used them one, for example, at the beginning of Something, Anything to poll our crew about dietary restrictions, medical conditions, and so on.

WordPress: Free. Many a great website was built on the back of WordPress. (In case you’re interested, this site is built on WP; Something, Anything‘s site is SquareSpace. SquareSpace will cost you money, maybe too much money, but it’s appealingly no fuss.)


Blender: Free. Blender is used for, as the website says, “3D computer graphics software used for creating animated films, visual effects, art, 3D printed models, interactive 3D applications and video games.” If you’ve ever seen my films you might suspect I know virtually nothing about this stuff. And you’d be right.

Lightworks: Free and Pro (Paid) Versions Lightworks was one of the first non-linear editors, and it’s been used to edit films like The Wolf of Wall Street, LA Confidential, Pulp Fiction, Heat, and Road to Perdition. You can compare the free and paid versions here. After Apple’s FCP debacle in 2011, I was curious about exploring this, but by the time the Mac version of Lightworks was released Resolve had emerged as a NLE candidate.

Evernote: Free and Paid versions. I’ve never been a convert, but some people — especially writers — are almost cultish in their devotion to Evernote.


Hopefully this post introduced you to one or more apps that helps you be more creative and productive. If you like something that I’ve not listed, or have thoughts on any of the above, let me know in the comments, via email, on Twitter, etc.

Advice to Young Filmmakers

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

I recently received a request for some advice from a young filmmaker in Kansas City who’s conducting informal interviews with people in the industry. As I wrote my reply, I thought I’d publicly share her questions and my answers:

-What advice would you give to young filmmakers, fresh out of school, who are looking to start in the industry?

Don’t wait for permission—from funders, programmers, production companies, etc.—to make your movie. All the tools you need are within your reach. Great stories have been told with Fisher Price cameras. You can make a moving film with nothing more than clear film leader. It’s not about the camera. Or the actors. Or the budget.

Make something people want to watch. Try to tell uncommon stories. Don’t imitate other filmmakers—try to make something the world needs, a story only you can and must tell. As Rainer Maria Rilke told a young writer who looked to him for advice, if you don’t wake up in the middle of the night yearning to make your work, then you should probably consider another vocation.

-Is it difficult to build contacts/connections when you are just starting out?

If you have lots of money or went to a fancy film school, it might not be. But generally speaking, building a network requires a lot of work, a lot of sweat, and a lot of rejection. Ten years into the business, I feel I’m just now getting a foothold on a network of my own. It’s very possible, but roll up your sleeves.

-How do you begin to make connections?

Start in your own backyard—meet people with common geography, interests, ideas…Go to as many film festivals as you can afford. Meet other filmmakers who are doing work you respect and admire. Better yet, meet other artists—musicians, writers, visual artists, and so on. They can help to inspire you and, sometimes, help you with your film in a more direct way.

Be good, gracious, and kind to the people who find their way into your life. One of the best connections that has helped me to date was with my college study abroad advisor. I sent him postcards from all the countries I visited in college. Years later, he was repping a musician whose work I wanted to license for my first documentary.

Get a producer—they are excellent network builders. Consider following really great blogs. Try starting here or here or here. Read. A lot. The internet provides opportunities for learning and developing a network well beyond where you might live or be able to travel.

-How important/vital do you think these connections are in the industry?

Filmmaking is a collaborative venture, so by the very nature of the art and business, you need other people. Particularly, filmmakers rely on programmers to lend a stamp of legitimacy to their work and to get it in front of bigger audiences than one can get without them.  I believe the most influential network a filmmaker can have is among programmers and critics.

-What are some common mistakes you see young/new filmmakers making?

Derivative work. Work without soul. Pretty but vapid pictures. Unabashedly and unnecessarily violent films. Films that only make us more asleep, less in touch with the world and people and concerns around us.

Doing it for the money. If you’re in it for the money, there are much better, faster, and more reliable ways of getting rich. So don’t do it for the money. In fact, you’re probably going to need a day job.

I make films to wake people up, to change lives—that is where I set the bar for whether or not a film should be made.

-What are some of the most difficult challenges you face when working on a film?

Every film is a tiny miracle. It is harder to do than you will probably ever be able to explain to anyone who wasn’t there. We all have our war stories for every film we make. I think it’s actually better to not know what those challenges will be or just how damn hard it’s going to be, otherwise you might not do it. So, this is one area of life where naiveté is actually a blessing. Hang onto it for as long as you can.

I once heard Jonathan Demme say, it doesn’t matter if you’re 19 or 91, with each film you’re a first-time filmmaker. So, with each film, let yourself be a newborn.

Should I Get An MFA? : Pros & Cons from Someone Who Did

Monday, April 29th, 2013

I recently got a request from a filmmaker for advice on whether or not he should go back to school to get a master’s degree. As someone who did get an MFA and has both teaching and non-teaching work experience (that is, life making a living as a full-time maker) under my belt, I  thought I’d reply to the blog-o-sphere for others who are pondering the same decision:

I think the first question to ask yourself is this: why do you want a degree? If you just want to learn more about filmmaking or film studies, you could do yourself much better with a library card, a Netflix subscription, some free classes on iTunesU, and slaving away as a PA on a few productions. Better yet, take the amount you’d spend on tuition and spend that time in NYC and LA working–as a PA or in an agency mailroom–cultivating your network…or buy your own DSLR and make mistakes for free in your own proverbial backyard.

To my mind, there are two strong justifications to pursue a higher degree in Film:

1) It’s already paid for (i.e. you’ve gotten a fellowship or assistantship) and you can learn with the wonderful safety net that graduate school provides. (I do *not* recommend anyone go into debt more than the cost of an old, used car–no matter what the reputation of the school–for a film degree.)

2) It allows you to teach, which is a respectable way to support yourself as an artist, especially as someone who wants to make independent films, experimental work, or films with less-than-great commercial prospects.

If it’s the latter, then you must also consider that there are beaucoups of people out there who are unemployed holders of MFAs in film. Film teaching jobs are few and far between–just take a look at the listings on the Chronicle of Higher Education or the University Film and Video Association website to get sense of the scarcity. But, if you’re willing to live somewhere fairly off the grid (i.e. not in a big or even medium size city, relatively isolated from the industry and other filmmakers), then there are more positions that may have less competition. This can be a workable situation for the self-reliant or DIY type, especially if you make sure to travel several times a year to keep your inspiration levels up and industry ties strong. But, it can also be, well, depressing and frustrating. My requirements are that a job is too far off the grid if there’s not a post-production or equipment rental house within a 3-hour radius. For each person, that threshold is different.

More importantly, I think the best teachers are those who also make–people who are really doing it and have a lot to offer their students in terms of work experience, connections to your industry/field, and a real-world perspective. Anything less poses an ethical dilemma for me: if you can’t provide the above, why should students pay tuition to learn from you?

Another consideration for any would-be teacher is that teaching is more than a clock-in/clock-out commitment. While teaching, I more often than not put in above and beyond the 40 hours/week in terms of committee meetings, university and community service, advising, endless emails, etc., on top of my course teaching load. It’s work that follows you home, unlike, say, a kind of survival job where you can punch your time card. On the other hand, summers are free for making your own work and the flexible schedule is tough to beat!

Teaching at a research-oriented institution is the ideal job, as it carries the smallest teaching load and encourages (expects, actually!) a high degree of research productivity, which for you translates into filmmaking. And some of your best students may actually be people you want to have collaborate with you on your work. These full-time positions, however, are also the rarest and most competitive. It will be expected that you have made one or more films with a certain level of success (e.g. strong festival run, distribution, critical praise, etc.), have a positive reputation in the industry (e.g. demonstrated by awards, grants, professional organizations, or other acknowledgement), and previous teaching experience. Of course, there are all kinds of schools: liberal arts colleges, typically with a strong emphasis on teaching and student relationships; community colleges, who usually emphasis both teaching and community service; for-profit schools and film programs (which I don’t have any first-hand experience with); and part-time teaching positions.

Adjuncting is fairly common for new MFAs, but the pay is rarely great and usually does not carry any fringe benefits, such as health care. That said, I know many a freelance film producer and writer/director who use adjunct classes and part-time lecturing as a way to have some sort of stable income while spending the bulk of their time as makers.

It’s also worth saying that there are folks who do teach without an MFA. Guest lectureships, artist visits, workshops both at universities and community organizations often pay successful filmmakers to share their knowledge in short or long-term capacities. I’ve had a few of these gigs and they are usually a lot of fun but were never enough to sustain me in and of themselves. After a certain level of success, though, it’s not unheard of for a filmmaker to become a professor without an MFA at all…but we all can imagine those odds.

So, to sum up:

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Good Idea: 

  • Stable income without selling your soul.
  • Great schedule.
  • Intellectual and creative freedom for the kind of work you make without as much commercial pressure as full-time filmmaking or freelancing.
  • Helping shape the future of the industry.

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Not-So-Good Idea: 

  • Highly competitive, especially for desirable cities/schools.
  • Lots of responsibilities beyond teaching for full-time positions.
  • You need to be a maker before you become a teacher. And teaching will take time away from making.

If after all this, you want to take the back-to-school plunge, then I recommend you check out these previous posts from the blog. They will give you a good start on the advice we’d give about looking for a film program:

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part I 

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part II

15 Essential (and Inexpensive) Tools for Wardrobe, Hair, & Make-Up

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Filmmakers love to talk about tools. The blog-o-sphere is rampant with posts about cameras, lights, and cinematography accessories, but despite all the attention on achieving great looking films from an equipment/technology standpoint, there is far less discussion about low-fi ways to make your film look like a million bucks via attention to wardrobe, hair, and make-up.

I’ve recently jumped on the Mad Men bandwagon, catching up on the last four seasons. Whether you love or hate this show (a quick look at the Mad Men Wikipedia page will give a sense of the heated debates this show has provoked among critics), it’s hard not to be in awe of its production values, in general, and art direction, in particular. While probably no one reading this post has the budget that Mad Men does, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attend to art direction with the same care.

Both as a film festival programmer and as a university instructor, I have seen how, all too often, art direction (much like sound design!) is neglected in first films and student films. It’s easy to spot an amateur effort when gangsters are wearing Converse One-Stars (yep, I’ve actually seen this) or an MRI machine is made out of cardboard (After Last Season, anyone?).

A single post can’t address the complex and time-consuming process of art direction–how to do it, how to do it well, and how to do it on a budget–but assuming art direction is receiving at least some of the attention it needs in your production, here are fifteen of my favorite inexpensive tools–none of them should run you more than $25–to help get you through the inevitable wardrobe, hair, and make-up emergencies:

  1. Fanny Pack — While these might conjure memories of bad ’80s fashion or annoying tourists, a good art director has essential tools on her at all times (without needing to run to find her tool bag) and needs her hands free. And, unlike decades past, you can find cute and functional fanny packs these days. Try Natural Life for styles with flair or Mountain Smith lumbar packs for a more muted look. All of the supplies/tools below should fit into your pack.
  2. Downy Wrinkle Releaser — Wrinkles are a continuity nightmare, and on a DIY set, lugging and plugging in a clothing steamer or iron isn’t practical. This spray works best on cotton or cotton blends; avoid using it on delicate fabrics (e.g. silk, satin).
  3. Mini Lint Roller — Keep hair, link, and other fuzzies off of clothing to help preserve continuity.
  4. Mini Sewing Kit, with needle/safety pins and mini scissors. — Fix rips, tears, or buttons right on set. In a pinch, borrow some gaffer’s tape to repair a seam–I’ve created makeshift curtains on set with fabric and gaff tape alone.
  5. Seam Ripper — If you have never used one of these before, prepare to be amazed! Seam rippers are specialized tools–something between a razor blade and scissors–with a very pointed tip and sharp base. Unlike scissors, the tiny point can be easily threaded under a stitch for easily cutting out seams without hurting the surrounding fabric or causing holes. Remove an annoying clothing tag, lengthen a hem, or deconstruct a garment in seconds!
  6. Flexible Body Measuring Tape— You’d be surprised how often you can use this, either for wardrobe measurements or on loan to the camera department for focus pulling and actor marks when they’ve forgotten or misplaced their measuring tape.
  7. Instant Stain Remover (such as Tide To-Go mini) — This really works on stains caused by foundation, lipstick, and coffee — three common art emergencies. I prefer the stain remover pens to the wipes, as they don’t rub the stain into the fabric.
  8. Clear Medical Tape (and/or double-sided Fashion Tape) — Medical tape is sweat-proof and nearly invisible on skin–great for taping lavs to bare skin or securing clothing straps. Fashion tape comes in pre-cut double-sided strips and is great for invisibly holding clothing in place.
  9. Mini First Aid Kit with Blister Cushions and assortment of travel size packs of Acetaminophen/Ibuprofen/Aspirin/Pepto Bismol/Bug Repellant/Sunscreen — The producer should have a full-blown first aid kit on set at all times, but I like to have supplies of my own for the unexpected emergency situation or when that kit is out of reach. Blister blocker band-aids are amazing for stopping blisters but can also be used to protect skin from irritation from mic packs or other costume nuisances. Having pain killers and stomach ache cures on hand is essential for keeping talent and crew happy. I also like to keep Hot Hands available for cold mornings on set.
  10. Assorted Bobby Pins — Having a few sizes and colors (gold for blonds, black for brunettes) will help hold stray hair in place, pin back clothing, etc.
  11. Sharpies — I use black to cover scuff marks, silver for writing on black gaffer tape, and red for when I need what I’m writing to be seen! You might want to get the mini sharpies that can be tied to lanyards for instant access around your neck.
  12. Concealer, such as Max Factor Pan Stick , to cover blemishes. This pan stick will also cover tattoos fairly well (if airbrushing isn’t in your budget–ha!) and the price is right. A shine reducing, translucent powder is also make-up’s best friend.
  13. Hand Sanitizer — Alcohol based ones double as stain removers and can take out ink stains fairly well.
  14. Breath Mints or Gum — Again, the talent will love you for this.
  15. Super Glue — I recommend a few of the mini tubes for situations where tape won’t do.

If you’ve got other art tools you can’t live without, please let me know in the comments!

Attending to wardrobe, hair, and make-up comes with less glory (and, perhaps, on the positive side, ego) than that of Cinematographer or Director, but it’s no less responsible for making the difference between a successful film and an unsuccessful one. It can make the story world credible or incredible, real or surreal. What’s more essential than that?

UFVA 2011 – DIY: Distribute It Yourself

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

I’m moderating a panel today at the University Film & Video Conference in Boston. The panel’s called, “DIY: Distribute It Yourself.” My other esteemed panelists are Bart Weiss, Caitlin Horsmon, and Ashley Maynor.

As part of the panel, I’m giving a talk on social networking and film distribution. Among other things, my talk suggests that there are (at least) ten questions you should ask of yourself as you start to think about social media with regards to any film project. Instead of asking my audience to remember (or write down) those ten questions, I’m posting them here:

Am I trying to connect with my audience for one film (or issue) or for a body of work?

Who are these audiences?

What makes me/my work distinctive, especially to my audience?

How might I use social media to manage expectations of my work?

Where do my audiences congregate online?

What style/forms of communication does my audience trust?

What modes of communication would be most useful between me and my audience?

What do I want people to do after seeing my work? (e.g., take political action, buy my DVD, change a behavior, etc.)

What and how much do I want to share — of my project, and of myself?

How much time can I commit to working on promotion and distribution via social media ?


Also, at the end of my talk I’m sharing a few excellent resources with regards to social media and/or film. Here they are:

Think Outside the Box Office — both the book and the website

Friends, Fans, and Followers by Scott Kirsner

Tribeca Film Social Media Toolkit

Workbook Project

Social Networking Sites and Our Lives – The Pew Internet & American Life Project

Big Boards


UPDATE (from Ashley):

The blog post I mentioned in my presentation, by Ted Hope, which is still relevant for those with films without distribution, can be found here. If you want to follow his blog, it’s now hosted at Indiewire here.