There's a company in Newfoundland, Canada where software engineers have re-imagined the potential for the pre-production process. They are the masterminds behind Celtx, the world's first free and open source pre-production program. A cutting-edge program that includes an ever improving screenwriting feature which is quickly becoming as easy to use as their propriety counterparts and definitely more international. Filmmaker.com got a chance to interview Mark Kennedy, the President and CEO of Celtx and Greyfirst Corporation, and discuss this little program that could and now does.
FM.C: Can you tell me how Celtx came about?
MARK: I co-founded Greyfirst, the company behind Celtx, with my friend and brilliant programmer, Chad House.
From the start, our raison d'etre was to be a software development company specializing in Internet technologies. The specific industry didn't matter to us, as long as it was interesting, had natural sympathies with the net, and involved lots of people (and money hopefully).
We looked at a number of industries before quickly settling on the film biz. It had all the right attributes for us, like size and global footprint, and people, and cache. Hey, who doesn't want to be in the movies?
It also helps to understand that Newfoundland, the Canadian province where we come from, is an isolated rocky island stuck off in the northern part of the North Atlantic ocean. We have a very strong and unique artistic culture, with deep roots in storytelling and art making. In our innocence, making software that focused on the artistic process of creating media was a natural fit.
Like a lot of start-ups, we spent some of our early days building software for other companies while we figured out what our own play would be. We took about nine months to study the film industry, looking at each stage in the process, and the tools that were available to media creators. And it didn't take long for us to spot a gap.
While there was lots of innovation taking place in the distribution segment of the media business (with the explosion of VOD sites and new distribution models catering to indie filmmakers); and tons of technology chasing the post-production segment; and even some new fangled tech being used during production; the pre-production segment of the process, where every story starts and every movie or media project is made or broken was still largely stuck in the horse-and-buggy era.
So, we rolled up our sleeves...
FM.C: Who or what are the driving force(s) and impetus behind it?
MARK: Chad and I had both worked at another (pre-2000 bust) start-up that was focused on the music business, and I guess we figured that everything that was happening with music would happen all over again with film and video - new digital distribution models, the rise of file sharing services, the democratization of the creation process. All of this would be experienced again with film once the technical limitations of bandwidth and desktop players had been overcome.
So in that sense, we follow the Adobe model of development more than the path taken by a Web 2.0 outfit. Meaning, we tried to look as far down the road as we could in an attempt to see where the market was headed, and then rushed up ahead to where we thought people would end up. And [we] have been beavering away on the problem ever since, adjusting our course when and where needed to intersect the market.
FM.C: How is Celtx different from other screenwriting software out there?
MARK: For one thing, Celtx is based on open standards. All the data in a Celtx project is readily accessible and re-usable, stored in standard formats like HTML, XML, RDF and TXT files. We shun all proprietary formats.
This is in keeping with our philosophy that it's not our data - it's the person using Celtx who is the owner. Personally, I find proprietary formats repugnant to the whole concept of creating media. How, for instance, does using proprietary formats help the user? It doesn't. It's an abusive strategy designed to keep users hostage. You only need to extend the concept to visual artists to see the perverseness of it all. How, for instance, would a proprietary format work for painters? What, people can only see the painting if they use a special set of glasses?
The other important difference is that Celtx is a modern tool designed to work with the Internet and takes a holistic, decidedly non-linear approach to creating media. We purposively avoided using pre-determined work flows in the software, recognizing that some people start and finish telling a story very differently than others.
FM.C: What do you mean when you say the "world's first fully integrated solution for media pre-production and collaboration"?
MARK: The existing offerings in this space are all silos. You write your script in one application. Do your storyboarding in another. And schedule in a third. Ditto for any budgeting needs. Inter-app-operability (ie. the ability to get your data from one application in to another) is either non-existent, b0rked altogether, or only partially supported.
Plus, whole swaths of the media creation process were being ignored completely. Leaving many working in the business, like Prop Managers and Art Directors, to either shoe horn their data into Excel; or more frequently, leaving them to their conventional, three-ring, sticky-noted, Polaroid-pic-augmented, highlighter-marked-up binders.
It was the heavy use of three-ring binders that originally caught our attention when we looked at the space. I mean, really, people were using three-ring binders? With colored highlighters to mark up a script, that although was once in digital form, was now permanently relegated to a paper world? The 2nd AD was really responsible for gathering up everyone's information on paper and then entering it in to another application?
As technology people, we were aghast!
So, we designed Celtx, so it supported all the aspects of the pre-production process in a way that allowed each person to work on their own stuff; and at the same time, collaborate with team members.
That's what we mean by "integrated."
FM.C: How is Project Central different from all the other script forums or virtual workshops?
MARK: For one thing, Project Central supports more than just a script. Any and all data in a Celtx project: the script, the storyboard, index cards, character and prop details - all of it - can be published to Project Central. We look at is as an online version of the bonus DVD disc.
The other thing about PC (Project Central) is that only Celtx users can comment on a project. This is definitely not very Web 2.0'ish, but we wanted PC to be for and about media creators.
Additionally, Project Central can be used as a private work space, allowing collaborators to view a Celtx project in their browser. In fact, the vast majority of Celtx projects posted to PC are kept private.
We're hoping to add some features to PC in the near future that will allow users to make edits to a project from their browser. Just the ability to leave notes on a project from within PC would help facilitate the collaborative process and open up the project to participation by people who have yet to use the Celtx software (read Producers).
FM.C: If everything's free and open-source, how do you gather the funds to run your day to day operations? Do you plan to charge a fee for anything?
MARK: We've been pretty transparent on how we plan on making money. The idea is to offer premium web services that are subscription based. In fact, this is the year when we'll introduce the first commercial service - a dramatically enhanced way to collaborate based on a new technology that we invented which leverages the semantic nature of the Celtx technologies.
We also have our eye on some other offerings, the common touch point of them being how they bring additional value to media creators.
Meanwhile, we're a very frugal bunch, and operating from where we do makes everything way less expensive than if we were in major city or, heaven forbid, one of the tech centers.
FM.C: I think it's very cool that Celtx is available in so many languages. How do you even go about doing that -- translating into all those languages? It must be daunting. You're obviously catering to a very international audience as well, not just North America.
MARK: I have to admit that we were really obtuse here. We had no idea how international Celtx would become. And yet as I write this, Celtx is available in 20 languages and used in over 175 countries. We count about 1,500 universities and film schools located throughout the Globe, with Celtx being used in the national film schools of dozens of countries. Over 10,000 High Schools use the software everyday.
There's no way we could have done this ourselves. So the community did it for us. Every translation has been done by volunteers.
We kick started the process by offering a French version (one of our devs is bilingual) only to subsequently get rapped on our knuckles by a Parisian over our bastardization of the French language. So they made a entirely new translation for us. Then people stared coming forward to translate Celtx in to their own language, and the next thing we knew, we were international.
Eventually, we created a translation page on our Wiki manual so people could more easily do a translation. This lets the Italians easily update the text as they argue endlessly about what the proper translation is for certain terms.
FM.C: How do you go about dealing with the demands of an international community? They obviously like to put in their two-cents as well.
MARK: We've been known to use Babelfish on occasion to help decipher an email, but for the most part, our foreign language users are much better at writing English than we are at communicating in their mother tongue.
More importantly though, just like the translations, our international community have spontaneously created their own support networks. Every now and then an international user, who presumably writes the best English in the group, will come to us with a specific question and then take our reply back to their own community. So that's pretty neat.
Meanwhile, it's been quite interesting to see the similarities and differences between countries and regions in how they create media and how they use Celtx. What may be of deep concern to a North American user may be of little interest to European user. For instance, while the Hollywood standard is very important to a lot of US based writers and filmmakers, it is of little consequence to a European whether each page has 57 or 58 lines of text. Germans, for instance, have each scene start on a new page.
FM.C: I've never been to Newfoundland, though I hear it's great, but have you faced any challenges being located there . . . I guess what I'm trying to say is . . . why Newfoundland?
MARK: Ha. You wouldn't say that if you were here this week. Winter in Newfoundland can be a bit of a slog. I have about 8 feet of concrete snow in my backyard after the combination of back to back to back blizzards (25 to 35 cm of snow with 100+km/hr winds, per storm, is not unusual at all) followed by heavy rain and then plunging temperatures immediately afterwards -- a typical week in January. Winter usually ends by June though.
We recently came back from a trip to Los Angeles, where we started exploring some opportunities that popped up on the radar. A couple of potential partners had separately expressed concern about our willingness to travel to LA to facilitate the work. They're so funny in LA.
This is where we are all from though, and so it just made sense to do what we wanted to do from here.
I guess the greatest challenge in being so remote from everything is when you're trying to gain some press coverage, or accessing capital, as there's not a lot of that around here in Newfoundland. But at other times, I think it, our remoteness, lets us stay very focused on what were doing.
It's also why we decided to focus on developing software for the Internet - where geography doesn't matter much. Someone in Asia cares less where we're located, just as long as the software works.
FM.C: Can you tell me a little about Greyfirst Corp? What other software is available?
MARK: Celtx is our face to the world, but we are also developing a separate offering that we call Tadpole.
Tadpole is a SDK (Software Development Kit) for the rapid deployment of Semantic Web compliant software. Celtx is being built using Tadpole, which of course, means that Celtx is a fully compliant Sem Web app.
We don't talk much about the Sem Web side of Celtx, figuring that most of our users could give a hoot. Again, they just want the software to work. But looking ahead, the fact that Celtx is a Sem Web application is, or will be, one of the most important aspects of the technology. Chad calls it, " pension plan for your data."
We'll eventually commercialize Tadpole, probably under a dual license model similar to what Trolltech uses for their Qt product.
MARK: What are your day-to-day responsibilities (other than answering my incessant questions)?
FM.C: I joke that I'm the least busy person in the office.
I'm a very hands-off manager, allowing people to largely determine their own work plan. I leave it to the devs to make any technical decisions. I understand technology pretty well, but the last time I coded it was on punch cards; so I figure any technical matters should be made by those who know what they're talking about.
We do some outreach work of course, but for the most part Celtx seems to be self-propagating, which is one of the Holy Grails of software development. The classic, "and they told two friends" at work.
Mostly, I take care of all strategy stuff.
I also take care of the myriad of business stuff that always crops up when running any company. I figure better for me to keep some slack in the rope for when a set of financials need to be done; or to work with our auditor; or report to our investor; or update the model; or do a deposit; or take to take care of the A/P, etc., etc., as opposed to the rest of the team dropping what they're doing to address tasks that are largely ancillary to the primary objective. Far better for them to stay focused on building software.
FM.C: Do you have any favorite movies?
MARK: I'm a sucker for sci-fi (“Aliens” and “Alien” in that order, “Bladerunner”) and the quirky (“Raising Arizona,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Little Miss Sunshine”).
One time I was staying at a fancy hotel and “Women in the Window” came on early one morning. A black and white starring Edward G. Robinson. I thought it was one of the best movies I had ever watched. But it could have been the room service.
FM.C: What can we be expecting from Celtx in the coming months and years?
MARK: Our next milestone is the big 1.0! which we hope to hit this April.
As I mentioned, we'll also be unveiling our new collaboration platform later this year.
We're going to develop a mobile interface for Project Central, so people can update their projects from the field (so, for example, a props person or a location manager can populate a project with pics that they've just taken).
We're going to add new features to PC (Project Central) like the ability to edit from a browser and the ability to create groups.
The scheduling module in Celtx is getting a major kick in the pants.
We're introducing a new category view in the client that will automatically organize all the resources in a project.
The storyboard feature is being revamped.
We're adding a new sidebar to the application to let people add unassociated notes and media to a project.
Meanwhile, we've also been looking at where and how we can add new functionality to Celtx by leveraging existing software and services. One of the areas that holds a lot of promise is integrating Celtx with one of the video editing suites.
FM.C: What kind of effect or lasting impression would you like Celtx to leave?
MARK: This may seem strange, but one of our design goals is to make Celtx disappear.
Celtx is a productivity application. It's not a game; it doesn't entertain. It's something you use to do your work - to create your media.
And like all good productivity applications, Celtx should just get out of your way.
The other thing to know is that we spent the better part of four years building in functionality that we have yet to leverage. In other words, a lot of the rough plumbing for a lot of new features is already done, we just haven't turned some of it on yet.
So, we figure we're pretty set-up for the future. We've made some good decisions about technology and product development that bodes well for Celtx and our users.
FM.C: Thank you. I appreciate all of your time.