Entries in Writing (24)
Final Draft Inc. announced yesterday that they’ll be releasing Final Draft Reader for iPad next week. The company had already warned us that they were scaling back their iPad efforts from a full screenplay editing app to just a reader. It will be interesting to see what they’ve come up with.
There’s nothing new about reading FDX files, the native format of Final Draft, on an iPad. Screenwriter and Fountain co-creator John August has an excellent app for just that. FDX Reader is a must-have for any screenwriter, and a model of iPad beauty and simplicity. But it lacks annotation features, so there is room for Final Draft Reader—if FDX files and their embedded “scriptnotes” are exclusively the world you tread in.
But of course, that’s not the case for most filmmakers. Most screenplays are shared in PDF format, and that’s a very good thing.
A Thousand Screenplays in Your Pocket
Before the iPad was even announced, I dreamed of a better way of reading screenplays. The only real option I considered was the (now discontinued) Kindle DX, which could correctly display PDFs and cost $489.
So for this reason alone, the price of the iPad felt “pre spent” to me on the day of the announcement. I knew that there would be some way that the iPad would become the powerhouse document reader I’d dreamed of. And it did—but not right away.
It’s painfully obvious that the iPad is good for reading. Maybe not as good as a Kindle, but darn good. Reading screenplays, however, is more than just “reading”—it’s work. You’ve promised to give a friend your honest opinion on her latest effort. You’re “breaking down” a script for production. You’re proofreading your own draft, checking for plot holes, misspellings, or colossal suckiness. Even if you’re reading a screenplay purely for fun, you’re reading something that isn’t a final product. You’re reading a recipe book while your stomach is growling.
All of these tasks require attentive reading and some form of note-taking. The very least I do when reading a screenplay is mark character introductions and major plot beats. When you’re watching Ocean’s Eleven, it’s never a problem to keep track of the characters. Brad Pitt is rather memorable, and quite distinct from George Clooney and Matt Damon. But when reading a screenplay, they’re not movie stars yet—they’re just “Danny,” “Rusty,” and “Linus.” You’re going to need some way to keep track of them amongst Frank, Reuben, Livingston, Virgil, Turk, Saul, Yen, and Basher. You’ll be forgiven for flipping back to that dog-eared page to remind yourself who is who.
No one reads a printed screenplay without a pen in hand. So a tablet that allows “reading” a PDF isn’t enough to replace a hardcopy for the work of reading a screenplay. We need digital dog-ears.
Of course, one could simply use a computer for this. But there’s something both awful and impossible about reading off a laptop screen. My computer feels like a thing to do work with. I lean forward to use it. It bleeps at my with distractions and beckons me to be productive, or to research how felines behave when video cameras are nearby.
The iPad, on the other hand, invites you to lean back. To not switch apps. To read attentively.
On my sixth day of owning an iPad, I wrote about my experience reading screenplays on it. I’d found an app I liked called ReaddleDocs. I’d bought, but was not happy with, the most popular iPad reading app at the time, GoodReader from Good.iWare. I found it ugly, clunky, and un-iPad-like—but I relied on it for its bevy of features that Apple couldn’t or wouldn’t include in the initial iPad release, such as Dropbox file access and handling compressed files.
Pretty vs. Practical
Rather than build true PDF annotation into ReaddleDocs, Readdle instead chose to launch an entirely new app. PDF Expert does a lot of what GoodReader does, and it is much prettier. But I’m a little grumpy with Readdle for making me buy a new document-reading-and-management app rather than simply improving their existing one (like Good.iWare did with the orginally 99¢ GoodReader). I shared this feeling with them, and it obviously fell on deff ears—they recently released yet another PDF annotation app.
Compared to PDF Expert, GoodReader still feels clunky and cluttered. It’s un-Apple-like in that it excludes no features for lack of polish. But it has been getting steadily better. And those plentiful features are pretty handy.
PDF Expert, on the other hand, is gorgeous. It’s also quite feature-rich, so it can be a bit daunting, but the taste level will be refreshing to aesthetically-sensitive filmmaker types. While this prioritization of prettiness is mostly welcome, it potentially fails the user in one very important case: the text selection widget—the tool you’ll be using more than anything else while annotating—feels a tiny bit laggy and tap-resistant compared to GoodReader’s unadorned iOS-native version. It’s pure speculation on my part that PDF Expert’s extra UI chrome is to blame for this of course. I’ve mentioned it to Readdle and they say they’re looking into it.
My favorite feature of both apps is, of course, Dropbox sync. Every time I get a new screenplay, I save it into a specific folder on my Dropbox, and then press “Sync” in GoodReader or PDF Expert. Not only do the apps load any new documents, they also save back to Dropbox my annotated copies. The annotations that GoodReader and PDF Expert add to PDF files are standardized and compatible, so I can open a marked-up scripts in Preview on my Mac and see—even edit—my notes.
GoodReader and PDF Expert have nearly identical popover windows for browsing your bookmarks and annotations. This makes going over your notes a breeze. If I’m sharing my thoughts on a script with the writer, I’ll sit with this window open and tap each note, which takes me to the correct page. It’s a live list of things to talk about.
The best notes-givers follow up an in-person or over-the-phone conversation with a emailed write-up of all notes discussed. Both apps make this wonderfully easy. You can email the annotated PDF, or a summary of your annotations, or both. The annotations summary is probably the “killer feature” of these two apps for me. The only bummer is that your page numbers will be off by one, since PDF screenplays tend to have a title page before page one. I have contacted both Good.iWare and Readdle to request a solution to this problem, which is not unique to screenplays. To their credit, Readdle replied, where Good.iWare did not.
Surprise: I Choose The Hot Russian Model
Very much due to their responsiveness to my feedback (not that they’ve implemented any of my suggestions—just that they replied), I now use Readdle’s PDF Expert almost exclusively over GoodReader. Software is about relationships. So PDF Expert gets my recommendation as the screenplay reading app of choice. Its polish, design, and the communicativeness of the developer is well worth the negligible extra cost.
I know there are many out there who accuse the iPad of being a “manufactured need,” a device that fills a gap that, for many, is a hairline crack, if it even exists at all. But for me, reading screenplays is something I honestly wonder how I ever accomplished before the iPad. With PDF Expert and FDX Reader already so well suited for the task, I somehow doubt I’ll be doing it any differently next week.
John August has a great post today discussing the pricing of FDX Reader.
Screenplay Markdown has a new home, a new name, and some very cool new friends.
Screenwriting Nerds Unite
As the SPMD spec was making the rounds late last year, I was contacted by John August, a well-known screenwriter and the creator of Scrippets, an elegant tool for embedding short sections of a screenplay in a blog or web site, using formatting hinted from plain text. It turns out John was actively working on expanding Scrippets into something that could support an entire screenplay—in other words, exactly SPMD’s charter.
When we compared notes, the similarities between his format, called Fountain, and SPMD were overwhelming. We decided that we would merge our efforts into one. And his name was way better.
Check out the beautiful new Fountain site, created by John, Ryan Nelson, Nima Yousefi, and me. You’ll recognize much of the content as originating from the SPMD spec.
I’ll pause here to gush a bit: I am delighted to be working with John. That he is a respected, working writer/director, a huge nerd who both blogs and podcasts eloquently, a software designer, a father, and a genuinely nice guy, makes it feel a little less crazy that I’ve attempted do be all those things at once as well.
Your New Screenwriting Software: Anything You Like
Fountain is everything SPMD was, now with the support of a respected industry pro with a track record of creating best-in-class apps for screenwriters. There are some minor changes to the syntax, but the mission is still the same:
- Allow screenwriters to write anywhere, using any tools they choose
- Support all the formatting conventions of a modern screenplay
- Archive screenplays in an obsolescence-proof format
- Welcome developers to support the format
Apps Out the Gate
There is open-source code available now on Fountain’s Developer Resources page.
For a complete list, check out the Fountain Apps page. But remember: the best Fountain app is one you already have—your favorite text editor, on any platform.
Fountain: Act I
Neither John nor I are done with Fountain. There are wonderfully cool things to come. So stay tuned. Or just get busy! Script Frenzy is coming up—maybe you could be the first person to write an entire feature-length screenplay in Fountain.
Read John’s announcement post here (if for no other reason than to learn the origin of the name Fountain), and if you haven’t seen his screenwriting-related apps, check out FDX Reader for iPad and Bronson Watermarker for Mac.
The iPad is a wonderful focused writing tool. Both Harry McCracken and James Kendrick have perfectly described how its simplicity and one-app-at-a-time model encourage attentive productivity. McCracken writes:
With the iPad… You can devote nearly every second of your time to the task at hand, rather than babysitting a balky computer. I don’t feel like I’m “using an iPad to write.” I’m just writing. It’s a far more tranquil, focused experience than using a PC or Mac.
McCracken and Kendrick agree that using an iPad to write tranquilly and focussedly requires a physical keyboard (both like the Logitech Keyboard Case). I love using my iPad with my Apple Bluetooth keyboard. I really wish someone at Apple did too, because unfortunately, the device’s keyboard support feels like a bit of an afterthought. I can’t help but feel that if anyone on the iPad team was passionate about the physical keyboard experience, a few glaringly obvious shortcomings would be corrected.
- Command + Tab, optionally in concert with the left and right arrow keys, is the keyboard shortcut for switching apps on Mac. I want this functionality so bad on my iPad that I actually mocked up what it might look like. I hope this video makes it as clear to you as it is to me how incredibly useful this would be.
I know, first I extol the virtues of the iPad’s focus and single-app view, and then I beg for an easy way to bounce among my apps. What can I say—the only thing a writer likes more than a distraction-free environment is distractions. Now on with the gripes.
When a search or other text entry, such as an email field, presents a list of suggestions based on what I’ve begun to type, I should be able to use the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate that list, and Return to select—just like we do on OS X. iOS 5 added this functionality in a few places (address fields in Mail, for example), but there are still many text fields where it is frustratingly absent (most notably Search in Safari).
If you purchased your Apple keyboard after July 2011, your F4 key is devoted to Launchpad, the iPad-esque app browsing screen in OS X Lion. This key, with its grid-of-apps icon, is just dying to function as an iPad home button.
It’s not just Apple that thinks of iPad keyboarders last, if at all. Most of my writing apps exhibit an understandable, but nevertheless frustrating behavior when used with an external keyboard. Writing often means adding text to the end of a document, so frequently the part of the screen that I’m focussed on is the very bottom, as far from my eyeballs as possible (especially when I’m using my Incase Origami case/stand). You can work around this by padding the end of the document with a bunch of empty lines (or, better still, raising the iPad closer to eye-level if possible—not easy, but if you can pull it off you’ve created something much better for your posture than any laptop), but I do wish that some of these apps would recognize that without the on-screen keyboard naturally pushing my words up to the center of the screen, there’s utility in padding out the bottom of the screen and keeping your typing area near the vertical center—the way, say, Scrivener does on the Mac in its excellent full-screen mode. Of all my iPad writing apps, the only one that nails this is iA Writer—but only in its full-focustard mode.
McCracken wrote about using his iPad as a laptop replacement. That’s not how I see it. There are many occasions when the power to do anything that my MacBook Pro offers is exactly what I want. But there times where that potential creates such a distraction that I long for something simpler. The amazing thing about using the iPad for creative work is that the device goes away, and the task at hand becomes the entire experience. With a just little more of Apple’s characteristic attention to detail, the physical keyboard experience could be just as transparent, and the iPad would truly be the best writing tool I’ve ever known.
If you agree with all or any of this, consider letting Apple know via their iPad Feedback form.