Film Production Software: Which ones are worth it?

Unless you're working alone, you're probably going to want to be in contact with the rest of your crew. (If you don't want to be in contact with your crew, you should find another crew.) Today, production management software makes communication and organization fast, easy, and efficient for everyone. Here, I'll go over four production apps I've used, and which ones are worth your money.

Home screen in Adobe Story.

1. Adobe Story CC

Comes with Adobe Creative Cloud, otherwise $9.99/month

Adobe Story is honestly one of those hidden apps that Adobe doesn't really advertise all that much. It's clunky and difficult to use, not to mention slow, but it certainly has a lot of great tools for your production. The first and most obvious use of Story is screenwriting. You can write screenplays. Pretty simple. With Story, though, you can go in and edit very explicit details about your screenplay such as specific scenes and sets, add cast and crew lists, add an actor to a character, and export pretty much any sort of breakdown you need from camera cards to wardrobes to locations. You can also create Character Biographies and other reports. 

Shooting Schedule in Adobe Story.

Shooting Schedule in Adobe Story.

The major benefit of Story, though, is the scheduling part. If you have everything in your scripts labeled with everything from security to non-speaking extras, you can automatically generate a schedule from that will show you specific production days and an incredible amount of details, including every prop per scene and even greenery requirements. This can be beneficial, mostly to the amateur filmmaker, especially if they're just getting used to how production scheduling works. The other benefit is how easy it is to move things around here: click and drag to move anything, including day breaks and scenes. And, if you update your script, all you have to do is refresh the schedule and it'll update based on the new settings or new scenes. Another huge upside to Story CC is that if you have a Creative Cloud subscription, your team members can sign up just for Adobe Story and not have to pay a cent; however, they can only create, edit, and evaluate what you share with them, not anything personal of their own.

The major downside to Story is that the desktop application, which will soon be faded out (apparently), is pretty buggy and doesn't always work as it should. I consistently had crew members asking me why Story wasn't working, both online and on the desktop app. It's simply slow, and if you don't have the right hardware, it's gonna glitch.

Adobe Story Pros

 Included with Creative Cloud
 Extremely versatile in possibilities
• Desktop and web applications
• Screenwriting and production management
• Offline working capabilities
• Team members can write and edit (mostly) without a paid Creative Cloud subscription
• Version history

Adobe Story Cons

 Infinite monthly payments
 No mobile application
• Web application lacks capabilities of desktop application, and syncing can delete progress (i.e. tags)
• Clunky and slow; doesn't always load

OVERALL: IS IT WORTH IT? Unless you have Creative Cloud, I'd opt for a different scheduler and screenwriting application. And even if you do have Creative Cloud, I'd go for something better and simpler to use if you can afford it. However, if you're doing a production and you're the only one who pays for CC, using it can be beneficial for your team members and/or co-writers. But let me say this: if your script supervisor spends four hours tagging props, actors, sets, and more in Story, they'll be pretty unhappy when those tags don't show up on the web application; yes, this was a lesson learned by doing. Overall, no.


2. Shot Lister

$13.99 for mobile applications, $39.99 for desktop application, $13.99/year for Pro subscription

Shot Lister on MacOS.

Shot Lister on MacOS.

Shot Lister is by far one of my favorite production applications. Using it is simple and effective, not to mention that, with practice, it will save you time on set when you're actually running the show (or at least timing it). Shot Lister provides excellent benefits such as Crew Sync, multi-device support, and timed shots with shot and wrap countdowns.

There are tons of great features in Shot Lister, but my favorite feature would have to be Crew Sync. Crew Sync (only available with the Pro subscription) is how your entire crew gets your updated shot list. Tap or click the little person and you can publish to your crew server, which is available to your crew only by email invitation. All crew members are on the same page, leaving you worry-free. You can also set it so that your crew can see, but not edit. The other amazing feature in Shot Lister is the countdown feature. If you time your shots (see lower right hand corner numbers on image below), and you set your start and end times, Shot Lister will let you know exactly how much longer you have for that shot, and the day as well. You can schedule in dinner and set sunrise/sunset. Just remember to tell Shot Lister when your final shot is completed! (I forgot to tell Shot Lister I was done with the last shot, so apparently our shoot day was 92:37 hours).

Shot Lister for iPhone.

Shot Lister for iPhone.

Shot Lister for mobile devices is great. It has mobile applications for iOS and Android, making it simple for your entire team to be using one shot list. The downside to this is that each individual team member must spend $13.99 on the app to use any of the features. And unless one person has a Pro subscription, which runs them another $13.99 a year, Crew Sync is unavailable. Now, $14 for a filmmaking app is decently worthwhile, especially if it's Shot Lister. It even has an Apple Watch face with countdowns. Unfortunately, just because someone purchases a Pro subscription does not mean they have desktop capabilities. Shot Lister doesn't have a web-based application, so all applications must be purchased and downloaded. The desktop version of Shot Lister, only for MacOS, runs another $39.99. All in all, you alone are spending at least a flat $54 for all the applications, and if you want Crew Sync, that Pro subscription will add $14 a year for life. However, compared to other applications, Shot Lister is a great deal.

The only major problem with Shot Lister as of this writing is that the desktop application is extremely buggy. For the shoot I had with the picture to the right, which we shot in May 2017, I scheduled all the shots on the desktop application. There are times when something in the app won't appear at first, or at all. Quitting and relaunching the app is a frequent occurrence that could be easily frustrating for someone just trying to input their shots. However, the app does work well a good amount of the time and it makes it fairly simple to input data. But until their bugs are fixed, the desktop application is not my favorite place to be. On the flip- and upside, the iPad app is extremely great to use and it's easy to input data there, so that's certainly a positive.

All in all, I love Shot Lister and I find it very worthwhile to amateurs and professionals. Your team will work better when it's in sync, and your production will thank you in the long run.

Shot Lister Cons

• Individual crew members must purchase app on each individual device (except same-account iOS devices)
• Desktop application buggy
• $14/year for life for Pro subscription
• Glitches on mobile applications

Shot Lister Pros

• Ability to sync effortlessly with Crew Sync
• Props, gear, VFX, lens, etc. listed within the app
• Accurate countdowns for production timing
• Mark important shots by color
• Easily drag and move shots around to automatically update countdowns
• Automatic scene/shot numbers
• Excellent separate project organization
• Good multi-device, multi-platform support

OVERALL: IS IT WORTH IT? If you're running a tight ship, I'd say yes to Shot Lister. If you're going to use it frequently, $14 a year for the Crew Sync benefit is highly worth it. Also, the more people use it, the more useful it is to already have it. Overall, yes.


3. Shot Designer

Free download for one scene at a time; $19.99 for Pro version: multiple scenes, file management, and more

Shot Designer set layout with actors, cameras, lighting, etc. for a May 2017 shoot

Shot Designer set layout with actors, cameras, lighting, etc. for a May 2017 shoot

Shot Designer is possibly one of the strangest and most oddly useful applications I've ever set my hands on. An app designed for literally designing your shots, it lets you map character movement, lighting placement, camera moves and multiple camera placement, multiple active or inactive cameras, set design, and vehicle placement and moves. The idea here is to have your entire scene blocked with everything how you want it. If you have a lot of extras, like I did, and you want them in your design, it can get messy, but you can time your shots and activate or deactivate characters that you're focused on.

In Shot Designer, four main characters, distinctly with colors, are in position 1, with arrow tracks that guide them to position 2. An extra is in white.

In Shot Designer, four main characters, distinctly with colors, are in position 1, with arrow tracks that guide them to position 2. An extra is in white.

Shot Designer is pretty simple to use once you get the hang of it. It's definitely a little confusing at first, but the videos on the Hollywood Camera Work website are extremely useful if you're confused. The app is basically a click-and-drag style app, so if you click to create a character, it'll appear, and you can move the little circle anywhere on your set. A circle with one line equals a male character, while two lines equal a female character. With each character, you can name them and assign a personal color to avoid any confusion. You can also determine the length and width of your set in its entirety to scale (with some finagling), including doors, windows, and even prison bars. Lighting additions include pretty much every light you need, and if it's not, you can choose the closest one in looks and rename it to fit your light. And you can even add "props" and accessories from a keyboard and a monitor to a crane, a boom mic, and camera village.

Shot Designer open at Camera Village as the cast goes over blocking at a shoot in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Thibaut Gontier. © 2017 Tiny Whale Productions.

Shot Designer open at Camera Village as the cast goes over blocking at a shoot in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Thibaut Gontier.
© 2017 Tiny Whale Productions.

After doing so, you time your scene, and you can make cameras move on a dolly, you can make characters move from one spot to another; I had seventeen different camera angles/character moves on that one shooting day in May. This makes it super convenient to see your character movement and active cameras. In addition to a slight amount of blocking, all I did to show my crew what I wanted was to record the on-screen movement and send it to them, and I showed it to them prior to blocking on the shooting day.

One really beneficial feature of Shot Designer is the included Director's Viewfinder. Just set whatever device you're using (or a unique FOV; they're a little behind the latest updates), select the camera you're going to be using, select your aspect ratio (1.85, 2.35, etc.) and zoom and take photos of your location for your DP ahead of time, at the exact lens you want to use (28mm, 50mm, etc.), and boom: you now have the exact shots you want.

Shot Designer on iPhone.

Shot Designer on iPhone.

One thing I don't mention about Shot Designer is its automatic shot list feature. If you update your cameras with the shot size, equipment, and give a description of your shot, you can name it and a shot list is automatically generated that can be moved around very easily. However, I don't like how the numbering works at all (it's not reflective to what we use when shooting), but it is useful for in-app organization. Otherwise, use something like Shot Lister.

The great thing about Shot Designer is the price and multi-device support. There are apps for iOS, Android, MacOS, and Windows, so unless you have a Chromebook, you should be fine. Important: make sure you buy the Pro Version on iOS/Android, which includes an activation code for the MacOS and Windows apps. Overall, all you'll personally pay is $19.99 once. For an app that does this, that is absolutely worth it. You can save and export scenes, send them from one device to another, work without fear of work being lost, and share with your crew. They'll have to spend $20 to have the app to edit (if not, then just send them a video), but again, I believe this app is worth it for all parties involved.

Shot Designer Pros

• Ability to share with your crew
• Desktop and mobile apps for all platforms
• Simulate your shot movement
• Excellent visual for your scenes
• Very inexpensive

Shot Designer Cons

• Can be hard to understand how to work it
• No updates seem to be coming soon; hasn't been updated in years

OVERALL: IS IT WORTH IT? Let me say this: it's great for what it does. Organization is key, and layout is very important. If you want a visual tool to help design your set and blocking, this is the app for you. If you just want to play around with camera moves and character blocking, but don't want to plan out your whole set, you should download the free version and play around with it. But blocking a scene has never been easier than with Shot Designer. Overall, yes.


4. StudioBinder

Free to prepare (not send) call sheets and prepare cast/crew information; multiple tiers of membership ranging from $19/month to $85/month.

I'll preface this last application by saying that I've only used StudioBinder for a short amount of time, and only for one project. However, I know that if used on a large enough production (and to make StudioBinder worth it, it should be a relatively large production), this is an app that will come in extremely useful for producers, ADs, and truthfully the entire production team, including the cast. There are a ton of features packed into StudioBinder, but I'll only cover a few I've used so this review doesn't go on for pages.

The hands down largest benefit of StudioBinder is the ease of making and sending call sheets. The largest problem on productions is making sure your cast and crew have seen the call sheet, and making it readable enough for them to understand it. On the right, you'll find a (redacted) call sheet from Synesthesia – and that's only the front side! The back side is below that.

The problem with this is that these call sheets are 1) a huge mess and 2) very difficult to really read and narrow down what information you actually need to know. Again, had this been a larger production, it may have worked better, but I still think the way StudioBinder works is absolutely fantastic. All you do is add your cast and crew's contact info in the beginning, and when you're ready to make a call sheet, you can plop in whoever is applicable for that shoot. Contact information is readily available, so no more frantically trying to open a Google Spreadsheet in the middle of the forest to try to contact your actors because you're running late. You'll have it prepared (and really, if you're a good producer or AD, you'll have it prepared beforehand anyway). 

Regardless, below that is what a call sheet looks like straight out of StudioBinder. You'll notice that it looks pretty awesome, and that's just the beginning. I didn't even add any cast or crew information, nor did I add any sort of graphics (or any sort of real information; feel free to take a look). The biggest benefit, though, is the ease of sending out that call sheet, not really the making of it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 10.23.55 PM.png

With StudioBinder, you have everyone's contact information right there. All you have to do is select the recipients. And here's the biggest, most worthwhile benefit: StudioBinder emails all come with a button that pretty much says, "Hey, cast and crew. You need to confirm this call sheet, and I'll be waiting for that to happen." Yes, good actors and crew members do confirm their call sheets (most of the time), but this takes the hassle out of it. You'll immediately see who has and has not seen it using their web application. In my opinion, that's is largely what makes StudioBinder worth it.

Of course, StudioBinder goes way, way further when it comes to production management. You can add your calendar, contacts, tasks, breakdowns, shooting schedules, shot lists and storyboards, call sheets, reports, shoot locations, script breakdown elements, screenplays, and cast members all in one place – one online, beautiful, excellent place. Production management has actually never been easier. And it's never been as convenient as this, either.

Obviously, StudioBinder has some flaws, mostly in the fact that it costs a damn lot of money. If you're in pre-pro and production for months like I was for Synesthesia, you're going to need to up your budget – StudioBinder is not cheap for the individual indie filmmaker. But for what it does, I think, on a lot of productions, it will be a worthwhile investment to keep your whole crew connected and on the same page. Don't forget that you can collaborate with your crew on StudioBinder and they can add or edit things with you. It's insanely convenient and efficient. Not to mention that the website isn't too shabby, either.

StudioBinder Pros

• Ability to make call sheets and send with a great confirmation system
• Cast/crew contact information readily available
• Can send call sheets for shoots, scouts, meetings, etc.
• Storage space is good enough for most productions

StudioBinder Cons

• Expensive in the long run
• The best features are seriously expensive
• Can suck novices in without them realizing what they're actually trying to do

OVERALL: IS IT WORTH IT? Novices should be wary of StudioBinder thinking that it will auto-manage their production. That's not what this is meant to do. It's meant to provide well-organized production with a great way to organize what they already have. Once you have what you need, then StudioBinder is a great investment for most productions with, in my opinion, at least 6 production members. Otherwise, it's not worth it, and you're better off just using Slack and Google Drive for your organization. But for those who are looking for a professional system that will make your production manager happy, StudioBinder is for you. Overall, yes.