August 11, 2006

Manage your movie with Celtx

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Add Celtx to your software toolbox, then get ready to sign the standard "rich and famous" contract. Celtx is media pre-production software for writing screenplays and keeping track of all the details that make up the production of a movie, theatrical production, or animation project.

Celtx is based on Firefox 1.5, and is available under a modified Mozilla Public License (MPL) called the Celtx Public License (CePL). It's interesting how the Celtx team has transformed the Firefox codebase into something almost completely different.

To install Celtx, grab the appropriate package from the project's download page. The most recent version as of this writing is 0.9.7.1. For Linux, uncompress the tarball in the directory where you'd like Celtx to live, cd to that directory, and run ./celtx. Celtx will run on x86 and AMD64 platforms, but users of PowerPC and other CPU hardware are pretty much out of luck. Celtx also runs on Windows and Mac OS X PPC and x86.

After Celtx is up and running, you'll see a splash screen with options to open a project, start a new project, download a project from the Celtx servers, or create an account. You probably won't need an account unless you plan to upload projects to the Celtx servers and collaborate with others who are using Celtx. Projects can be shared publicly with all users, shared with specific users, or you can store a project as "private" to have access to it from several locations.

Using Celtx

Once you've fired up Celtx with a new project, you can start writing a script. Screenplay formatting is quite different from that of most text files, and it's a royal pain to work with that formatting in a normal text editor or word processing application. Celtx, on the other hand, makes it easy to move between scene headings, action, characters, and other common screenplay objects.

For instance, when you first start a script, Celtx starts you off with the scene heading format. After you enter a scene heading, pressing Tab or Enter will move you to "action" formatting; from there, you can press Tab to add a character or Enter to add more action. After adding a character name, pressing Tab will resume the action formatting, or pressing Enter will move to dialog formatting. If you've entered a character's name once, when you enter the character formatting again, type the first letter or two of the character's name, and Celtx will provide a list of character names that match what you've typed.

In short, Celtx does a pretty good job of predicting what type of formatting you might want next, so you can concentrate on writing the script rather than on formatting it. It takes a few minutes to get used to the Tab/Enter toggles for switching to new formatting, but after a few pages it becomes second nature.

Celtx also includes a plain text editor for non-script writing, separate from the script editor. It also includes a scratchpad at the bottom of the script editor for random snippets, and you can insert a virtual sticky note at any point in the script. I wish I'd had Celtx back in the days when I was working in radio; it would have made a nice editor for writing news and other copy.

Tracking props, music, and more

Initially, I thought of Celtx as just a screenwriting application -- but it's actually much more. Using Celtx, you can track actors, wardrobe, props, schedules, and locations. When you add a character, prop, actor, and so forth, you can add detail on each that might be of use later on in the production. Celtx also helps keep track of details that might be of use for continuity in writing the story or during the production.

For example, the character interface lets you track the character name, physical description, character traits, motivation, family background, and personality. You can even add images to the profile. This is a nice feature for a single writer, and a must-have for any project that has several writers working in collaboration.

Celtx also provides a way to track things like camera angles, CGI, and additional labor -- basically, if you might need to track it for the production of a movie, it's in the sidebar. You can add a note in the script as a parenthetical and then "tag" it with the proper category.

Celtx can generate a script report that includes the cast/characters, props, sound, set dressing, and other items. This makes Celtx a handy tool for tracking productions.

On the other hand

While Celtx bundles a ton of functionality, I do wish the interface was a little more intuitive. For example, if you add a character using the left-hand sidebar, Celtx doesn't add the character to the drop-down list you'll see after adding a character in the script the first time. But Celtx does provide a list of characters that have been referenced in the script when you're adding a character as an item to track.

However, the Celtx team has done a pretty good job of providing documentation and tutorials for new users. The Celtx splash page has links to forums, a wiki guide, and even a few videos to help guide users with Celtx. Unfortunately, many of the videos listed in the Celtx feature tour are still listed as "Coming Soon," but the feature walkthrough is worth watching.

I found Celtx very stable, but the program does have a few glitches. For example, I wasn't able to download or upload scripts to the Celtx servers using the Linux version. The upload/download dialog would just hang with no activity. I tried uploading and downloading on the Mac version, and had no problems there.

Some of the links and menu items in Celtx call an external browser. For example, the "Online Support" option under help sends a request to the default browser to bring up the Celtx discussion board. Unfortunately, none of the external links work properly when running Celtx on Linux on AMD64.

The Schedule component of Celtx is convenient, but you can't add attendees to scheduled events through the Edit Event dialog. The Attendees text box is there, as well as a "Edit Attendees" button, but it's grayed out and the text box won't accept any input.

But, Celtx is still on the road to 1.0, so minor glitches are to be expected -- and it's a set of very minor annoyances compared to a hefty number of features that work just fine. With any luck, existing bugs will be fixed by the time the 1.0 version of Celtx is released.

Despite a few small glitches, and the fact that Celtx isn't as fancy as some of the commercial screenwriting software that's available, it's a promising program that's worth a look for budding filmmakers, screenwriters, directors, and production managers.

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