iPad Filmmaking On A Budget

Many filmmakers waste years saving up to have the “right” equipment before attempting to make a movie. But according to filmmaker Jerry Kokich, all you really need is an iPad and a few great apps. Jerry stopped by filmmaking stuff to provide his tips for iPad filmmaking on a budget.

I love technology. I grew up loving science fiction, Star Trek, the fledgling US space program and all types of high tech-gadgets. I also love simplicity. Needlessly complex things annoy the crap out of me. Add to that my old-fashioned nature and It has been difficult, at times, to reconcile these things, especially in the area of filmmaking.

Technology and filmmaking go hand in hand. Even in the days of hand-cranked silent film cameras, they were state of the art, the most advanced filmmaking tools available. Most of the time, technological advances have been great. We now have better sound, better lenses, better film stock. And then there was digital technology with better sensors. You get the idea.

Stop Buying Filmmaking Equipment and Make Something

Despite all the good, some of the time, these advances have stopped filmmakers on their tracks, especially now, when state of the art changes day by day. Many filmmakers get stuck because they insist on having the latest and greatest of technology. If it came out yesterday, but today’s version goes to eleven, the old one is crap, and the new one is God’s gift… Until tomorrow’s version.

Filmmakers who have to have the latest stuff do this all the time. They are also the people who never get anything done, because they are always waiting for the next best thing. And the next best thing is SOOOOO much better than what they have. Keep in mind that the equipment they have in their closet used to be the next best thing. They’re also spending money on things that might make their stuff look great, when they should be focused on telling a great story.

I love technology, but only when it helps you get things done. I love simplicity. And for the perfect low budget filmmaker, there is a tool that combines both both technology and simplicity, at relatively low cost, I give you…

The iPad

Let me give you a little background before we get into the joys of iPad filmmaking.

I wrote an article about making a low-budget web series, The Adventures of Superseven, which I star in and am one of the producers of. We’ve won awards without spending much money, and by using very little tech. We’ve paid for a location twice, I think, keeping a low profile in the places we shoot that we haven’t paid for. The most equipment we’ve ever used behind the camera has been two lights and a loose-leaf binder used as a bounce card.

I’m now working on a series I created (still doing Superseven), a Doctor Who parody called What, Doctor? – And this takes low-budget to a whole new, much lower level.

I cast myself as The Doctor, and a dear friend, Tosca Minotto, as The Companion. (A running gag is The Companion’s name changes every episode, but the actress stays the same). As an experiment, I wanted to see if I could shoot the series on my iPad, and edit with the iMovie app (even less stuff than on Superseven).

Tosca Minotto and Jerry Kokich

I had to buy a bracket to attach the iPad to my tripod (which was also new and cheap), but the costume came out of my closet.  We shot the first and third episodes at a theatre where I’ve done several shows. Then we shot the second episode entirely in my apartment, with me playing three characters.

Tosca and I were the entire cast and crew for the first episode, I did everything for the second, and I brought in Michael Paletta, our DP on Superseven for the third. I took Tosca and Michael out to dinner after shooting 16 pages in six hours, so if you add everything up that I spent, it comes to about $100. Think about it. $100 for three episodes. The third episode runs 16 minutes.

Now, I did shoot one scene with my Sony A57, and I’ve had to edit on my iMac, but I’m still using iMovie. If you don’t count dinner, the 16 minute episode cost $0.

iPad Filmmaking On A Budget

I use the Filmic Pro app, but you could get away with just using the iPad’s own camera. I’ve gotten one criticism about color balance, but out of over 2,000 views, that’s not bad. Michael mentioned digital noise, but the Doctor Who fans love the series and don’t complain about technical stuff. Hell, have you seen the early Who’s? They were about story, not technology.

The iPad camera is about the size of a grain of rice. There’s no video zoom, or if there is, I haven’t found it. It would be digital, anyway, which might make the footage too grainy, even for me. The microphone is even smaller. the quality of both is amazing.

In decent light (we shot the long episode, Theatre At The End Of Time, using all practical lighting, and one flashlight. The iPad gave us stunning results. It is full HD, the footage is easy to upload, and I really did a lot of editing with the iMovie app. The sound is very, very good, although since there is no boom, you have to do all dialogue pretty close to the unit.

I found a type of dead cat sound filter called The Windcutter which you can find on Amazon. It’s a stick-on windscreen created for camcorders, but I’ve adapted it to the iPad.

Using an iPad is easier than using a DSLR or camcorder for many reasons. One big reason is the size of the screen. Your iPad is your monitor, and it is attached! It provides a full 100% preview of what you’re shooting. Compare the iPad to the Canon HF 200 we utilize sometimes. While the Canon gives us fantastic results (I saw an episode on a fifty foot screen and it looked perfect!) – The viewfinder shows just a tiny bit less than what the sensor records, so sometimes you get stuff you don’t want.

This is not a problem with the iPad and the Filmic app. Having an iPad monitor serves to underscore how great it is to be able to check your takes. You can see, right away if you need to do another one. Often you only need to do two, total, the second one being for safety. If your actors are well rehearsed, there’s no need to do dozens of takes. Of course, this means you have to know what you want.

Shoot Movies Fast or Waste Time

I did a commercial once where the end of the day came, and the other actor (there were only two of us) had one last line: “Wow, that’s something.” Because the client didn’t know what they wanted, this poor guy had to do take after take of those three words. It took 45 minutes. He must have done 100 takes. They probably used the first one. They had no idea what they wanted, so they were never going to know when, or if, they ever got it. Now that is all very well and good to say I’ll know it when I see it.

All filmmakers are guilty of this. I did that the other day when looking for an image of a pocket watch online to use as part of a logo for “What, Doctor?”. That was okay, ’cause it didn’t cost any money or anyone else’s time. But when you’re on set doing a low-to-no-buget work, you do not have the luxury of time. You have to know what you want, so you can get it as few takes as possible. Be efficient. Especially with limited resources, which leads us to… iPad Filmmaking on a budget!

The iPad I am using has only 16 gig of memory, which can be a problem. Once, it stopped recording because it ran out of storage space. To avoid my fate, get an iPad that has a 4G connection. With the connection, you could just keep uploading footage via Dropbox or emailing yourself. This would provide you with unlimited memory. Since my iPad doesn’t have 4G, I spent a lot of time going over my script, thinking of angles, making a shot list.

Know Your Locations

I had a great advantage in knowing the location like the back of my hand.

I have done several shows at the Glendale Centre Theatre. Unlike many small theatres in Los Angeles, the GCT’s shows run 5-6 weeks, five shows a week, so you can really get to know whatever role you’re doing. You also get to really know the theatre, and there’s a goodly amount of that to know. It is a 400 seat theatre in the round, with several dressing rooms, a large backstage area, rehearsal rooms on the second floor and a suite of offices.

Spending a lot of time there prior to shooting helped me set up my shot list.

Wherever you are going to shoot, you should reconnoiter first. Few things make a director look more stupid than standing there, not knowing where to put the actors or the camera. Now, this doesn’t mean you should have everything planned down to the tiniest detail and refuse to deviate from that. Someone may come up with an idea you didn’t think of that’s brilliant. You must be flexible. Everything within reason, but you must know what you want. There’s no GPS for directors.

When we shot in the theatre, we did almost everything in sequence (the story from beginning to end). Only twice did we shoot out of sequence. This is the opposite of most film/TV projects. In order to save time, you group all the scenes in one location together, even if they aren’t anywhere near each other in the script. This is one of the things that makes film and TV difficult. In sequence, like a play, an actor can move his character along, progressing through the story.

If you have to shoot with the ending first, you have to know what your character has gone through (or, for the director, what EVERYONE has gone through) so that the emotional state you are in makes sense. If your character is supposed to be exhausted at the end of the story, but you look fresh as morning coffee, then the finished film or show might look a little odd.

If you can shoot in sequence, it’s artistically (did I use that word?) easier and, for your actors, preferable. There is one instance when you should do your best to shoot out of sequence. These are the fight scenes. Those should be shot first, when everybody is awake, and no one is tired.

The old Republic serials did that. They really took care of their stuntmen. In fact, those serials were cast so that the leads resembled the stuntmen, not the other way ’round. The same thing also goes for dance sequences. Keep in mind that anything requiring action and precision should be done first.

I am an editor

During editing, I ran into some technical issues that required some creative solutions. I edit with iMovie. It’s a great program, not without limitations, but few that can’t be overcome by thinking. I know many people who consider themselves editors because they know what all the icons mean in Final Cut. They know what each and every slider does. An editor isn’t someone who knows how to use a specific program. An editor is someone who knows how to cut clips together to effectively (and hopefully artistically) to tell a story.

I remember sitting with an editor who knew everything about the program he was using, and nothing about storytelling. He knew all the tricks, but none of the substance.

Back to the issues. There was some white balance stuff that I just couldn’t fix. Cutting from one angle to another just didn’t look good. I tried everything, but nothing worked. In the episode, the main characters are being stalked by the unseen villain. There were some POV shots that had the villain going down a hallway with the camera wildly tilting.

I inserted some of those shots between the color problem ones, but it still didn’t look right. Then I hit upon overexposing the POV shots, so that your eyes have to adjust from one shot to the next, but by the time you go back to the “wrong” color, you can’t tell the difference. In the end, it even made the villain seem more menacing, due to the surreal nature of his POV.

If I had been able to fix the color balance, I wouldn’t have been forced to think creatively. The result was some really cool stuff.

I think Orson Welles said, “The absence of limitation is the enemy of creativity.”  With that said, iPad Filmmaking On A Budget may not get you a trailer with a bowling alley inside, but it will make you creative.

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Jerry Kokich is producer and star of a multi-award winning web series. To date, Jerry has produced 26 episodes of “The Adventures of Superseven.” and has released “What, Doctor The Series”

Comments

  1. Lucky Goldberg says

    Love the wisdom – you’re on point throughout and it’s a pleasure to go through the trials and tribulations with you – thanks for laying out such detail in the war of production we engage in. It’s great to bring out the comparisons with other cameras – would like to know how the iPad would hold up on the 50 foot screen against that Canon 200 or how well / not well it holds up. Great job!!!! Lucky

  2. John Currie says

    Great article, I love the “get up and go”, carpe diem, approach, very inspirational!

  3. Kev Ford says

    Thanks for taking the time to write this piece. I’m going to be shooting a short film with zero experience and budget and, until tripping over your article, had never considered simply using my ipad3.

    Sorted.

    Best regards!

    Kev

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