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Director uses iPhone to be 'on set'

Mobile chat video service is allowing video producers to collaborate and film while they are miles apart.
Mobile chat video service is allowing video producers to collaborate and film while they are miles apart.
  • Dalton was able to direct and shoot the performances at his local studio
  • The solution was Facetime, Apple's mobile video chat service
  • Audio communication wouldn't have been capable of showing the actors' body language

Editor's note: Amy Gahran writes about mobile tech for She is a San Francisco-area writer and media consultant whose blog,, explores how people communicate in the online age.

(CNN) -- One challenge in showbiz is getting all of the professionals -- director, actors, camera operators -- together at the same time. Movie shoots are known to be delayed for days or weeks as everyone waits for schedules to line up.

But mobile phones may be a solution to these schedule woes.

Brian Keith Dalton, a video producer in the Los Angeles area, found a way to use his iPhone to put himself virtually "on set" to direct a shoot for the latest episode of his Web comedy series, "Mr. Deity."

The episode called "Mr. Deity and the Days" features Dalton in the title role as the creator of the universe. (Imagine God as George Lucas directing his first major motion picture.)

In the episode, "Mr. Deity" holds a video meeting with three assistants to work out how to implement the biblical six days of creation.

Dalton was able to personally direct and shoot (at his local studio) the performances of series regulars Tom Vilot and Jarrett Lennon Kaufman. However, another series regular, Jimbo Marshall, only had one hour available to shoot his part -- at a studio 130 miles away.

"We had a very narrow window," Dalton said. "If we missed that opportunity, it would be two weeks before we'd have a chance to shoot him again -- and that would have put the entire episode way behind schedule."

At their studio, Marshall and a camera operator set up for the shoot. As Dalton and Marshall spoke on the phone during setup, they realized a problem: How could Dalton properly direct that shoot?

The solution -- which they devised on the spot -- was Facetime, Apple's mobile video chat service. (Note: On Thursday, Skype unveiled video chat for Android, so this strategy need not be restricted to iPhones.)

Dalton explained: "The camera operator could hold the phone's camera right up to the video monitor for the shoot, so I could see the framing. On that monitor you can see where titles will appear, etc. So as a director I could get a real idea how the shot was going to look, what the product would be. We made little adjustments to the framing, then we started shooting Jimbo."

While Marshall was acting, the iPhone continued to display the video monitor to Dalton via Facetime.

"I'd watch Jimbo and talk to him," Dalton said. "When he was delivering a line, often I'd need that line to be read in a very specific way, since I knew what the other characters' reactions would be. For instance, I'd tell him: 'Wait a minute, here my character's reaction would be. ... So I need you to deliver that line a little more aggressively.' It's really weird shooting that way, since I wasn't also shooting my part at the same time. But that's what we had to do."

Audio communication alone would not have sufficed, Dalton said. "I really needed to see his face and body language in real time to get this just right," he said. This was especially true for the "b-roll" video they recorded, silent shots showing Marshall listening or visibly reacting.

"I'd tell him, 'Now just sit there and look uncomfortable for about 15 seconds.' But I'd need to see how uncomfortable he really looked," said Dalton.

A similar long-distance directing challenge arose during the production of a previous series Dalton and Marshall collaborated on, called "Words." At the time it was difficult for Dalton and Marshall to get to the same studio, so they collaborated in less-than-real time using a clunkier system. Jimbo would shoot his own footage, compress it and e-mail it to Dalton, who would then review it to check the framing.

"That was so much more time consuming. Plus I didn't have as much room to really direct," Dalton said. "This time it was great: Boom, there's the framing in the monitor! And I can give direction! As soon as we finished, Jimbo had to run to airport. Next morning, I downloaded all the footage from Dropbox, and I was ready to edit it all together."

Dalton plans to use this technique for future remote shoots. "It worked surprisingly well, and all things considered it saved everyone a lot of trouble. Without it, we really would've been screwed for this shoot."

Which is great. Because there are some things you really can't fix in post.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Gahran.


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