I’ve written iOS filmmaking articles at Macedonia Films for long enough to realize that there are a common set of features I look for right off the bat. A lot of people would go straight for stability, aesthetics, and ease of use, but I think there are some app qualities that are nearer and dearer to filmmaking than the usual fare.

Filmmaking, by nature, is collaborative. The lone-gunman is either completely insane, or making his first film whereupon he will discover the error of his ways. The ability of an app to accommodate collaboration, then, is absolutely critical. Even though Macedonia Films is a small outfit, there’s at least 4-5 project leads that all need to share and modify schedules, shot-lists, and other documents.

Here are three criteria I’m going to be looking for in upcoming iOS app reviews. They’re not make or break when it comes to the usefulness of an app, but if the app doesn’t fit into a healthy workflow, why would I want to use it?

Dropbox Compatibility

Apple, for better or worse, decided not to include a traditional file system in iOS. It makes perfect sense for the average consumer, but for those of us trying to get serious work done, it’s problematic. There has to be a better way than email to share files back and forth between devices. Enter Dropbox. We started using it in 2009 and it quickly became the backbone of our online collaborations. Everyone involved in a production is invited to a shared Dropbox folder with a pre-built folder template.

Everything is totally automated. With Dropbox I can start a document on my iPad, switch it over to my desktop, save it, have the assistant director tweak it on her laptop, then review the changes on my iPhone; all without having to push any extra buttons, email anything, or send special notifications. It just works.

Without Dropbox integration, an app is pulled out of our production workflow. It becomes a bottleneck in the process. Collaborating suddenly becomes a tedium of confusing email attachments. Why would I want to do that to myself? And yes, I know there are other file sharing services out there, including Apples iCloud, but all lack the features, reputation and reliability that make Dropbox the perfect collaboration tool.

Universal File Formats

Even if my nifty new app is a Dropbox wizard, it does me no good if my team can’t open the files it generates. I can see why a developer would favor proprietary file formats; if I create a file using their app and share that file with a colleague, my colleague now has to buy the app as well to open and edit the file. But, proprietary file formats are a false economy; if an app doesn’t accommodate our team, nobody is going to buy and use it.

I’m currently reviewing a fantastic new iPad app that elegantly carries all the legal and scheduling paperwork involved in shooting into the paperless realm. It does such a good job at it that I’m absolutely heartbroken I won’t be able to use it in upcoming projects. While it does export PDF copies of documents into Dropbox, you cannot edit that PDF in any way. If I used the app to type up a call sheet on my iPad, the ONLY way to make changes would be to open that particular app on my iPad. I don’t always have my iPad on hand, and I’m typically not the one that makes those sorts of changes. Why on earth would I tie my hands like that? It makes no sense.

Please, developers, understand that filmmakers collaborate in teams. Not everybody has the same apps and devices.

Universal Apps

Separate iPad and iPhone apps are a pet peeve of mine. Do I really need to buy an app twice to use it on both my iPhone and iPad? It’s a small hassle, but a hassle none the less.

I recently dinged an app in a review for not being universal. The developer was quick to email me and explain that he didn’t want to burden users with “app bloat” and an increased cost to users with only one device. Again, I see where developers are coming from, I really do, but as a user I disagree.

I’m always willing to pay a little extra for quality; I’ll gladly pay $10 for a plate of blow-your-mind-good tacos before I shell out $3 for Taco Bell. I don’t think users mind paying a little extra to make sure their favorite apps work on hardware they may be buying in the future anyway. And if we’re worried about the price tag, apps you have to buy twice tend to be more expensive in the end than their universal cousins.

As far as “app bloat” is concerned, it’s 2012, do we really need to worry about the tiny amount of bloat a universal app may cause? I know those retina display graphics can be pretty big, but honestly, is that more important than the inconvenience of two visits to the app store?

Professional filmmakers are far more concerned with convenience and head-ache free use than they are negligible price and size differences.

Does This Make My Life Easier?

That’s the question I have to ask myself at the end of the day. Not “is this super-cool?” or “are the graphics polished and attractive?” If the app isn’t a team player, it’s going to get benched.

I’ll be reviewing a number of the most amazing filmmaking apps in the coming months, and I’ll be using the above criteria to discuss the appropriateness of using an app on a film production. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

What do you look for? What features are important to you?

Dan Baker

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Dan works out his social anxieties by producing and directing films. He's a proud New Mexican, and prefers green over red.

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