iPad Filmmaking On A Budget

Many filmmakers waste years saving up to have the “right” equipment before attempting to make a movie. However, filmmaker Jerry Kokich says you only need 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 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 significant. We now have better sound, lenses, and 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, these advances have sometimes stopped filmmakers in their tracks, especially now, when the state-of-the-art changes daily. Many filmmakers get stuck because they insist on having the latest and greatest 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 also never get anything done because they are always waiting for the next best thing. And the next best thing is SO much better than what they have. Remember 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 technology and simplicity at a 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 Super Seven, which I star in and am one of the producers of. We’ve won awards without spending much money and using minimal tech. I think we’ve paid for a location twice, 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 it with the iMovie app (even less stuff than on Superseven).

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 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 I spent, it comes to about $100. Think about it—$ 100 for three episodes. The third episode runs 16 minutes.

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 costs $0.

iPad Filmmaking On A Budget

I use the Filmic Pro app, but you could get away with using the iPad’s camera. I’ve got one criticism about color balance, but that’s not bad out of over 2,000 views. 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 the story, not technology.

The iPad camera is about the size of a grain of rice. There’s no video zoom; 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 more miniature. The quality of both is impressive.

In decent light (we shot the extended 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 did a lot of editing with the iMovie app. The sound is excellent, although there is no boom; you must do all dialogue 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.

For many reasons, an iPad is more accessible than a DSLR or camcorder. 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 little less than 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, the second one 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 (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 would never know when or if they 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 because it didn’t cost money or anyone else’s time. But when you’re on set doing low-to-no-buget work, you do not have the luxury of time. You must know what you want to get it in as few takes as possible. Be efficient. Especially with limited resources, which leads us to… iPad Filmmaking on a budget!

My iPad has only 16 gigs of memory, which can be problematic. Once, it stopped recording because it ran out of storage space. To avoid my fate, get an iPad with a 4G connection. With the connection, you could keep uploading footage via Dropbox or emailing yourself. This would provide you with unlimited memory. Since my iPad doesn’t have 4G, I spent much time reviewing my script, thinking of angles, and making a shot list.

Know Your Locations

I had a significant 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 get to know whatever role you’re doing. You also get to see the theatre, and there’s a good 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 much time there before shooting helped me set up my shot list.

Wherever you are going to shoot, you should inspect first. Few things make a director look more stupid than standing there, not knowing where to put the actors or the camera. 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 a brilliant idea you didn’t think of. You must be flexible. Everything is 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. 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. Like a play, an actor can move his character along in sequence, progressing through the story.

If you have to shoot with the ending first, you must know what your character has gone through (or, for the director, what EVERYONE has gone through) so that your emotional state makes sense. If your character is supposed to be exhausted at the end of the story, but you look fresh as morning coffee, the finished film or show might look 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 took care of their stunt performers. Those serials were cast so that the leads resembled the stunt performers, not the other way around. 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.

I ran into some technical issues that required creative solutions during editing. 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 every slider does. An editor isn’t someone who knows how to use a specific program. An editor knows how to cut clips together to tell a story effectively (and hopefully artistically).

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 couldn’t fix. Cutting from one angle to another didn’t look good. I tried everything, but nothing worked. In the episode, the unseen villain has stalked the main characters. Some POV shots had the villain going down a hallway with the camera wildly tilting.

I inserted some 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 cool stuff.

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 the producer and star of a multi-award-winning web series. Jerry has produced 26 episodes of “The Adventures of Super Seven” and has released “What, Doctor The Series.”

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