The launch of Vine last month really brought iPhone video and sharing apps such as Directr and Pincam to the fore. While Vine lets you shoot six second mini-movies, it offers little to nothing in the way of editing and enhancing video. Pincam adds Instagram like filters and lets you specify "highlights" to which your movie gets trimmed, but Directr brings even more game to the genre, with the goal of creating a real mini-movie with multiple scenes. The app can produce more captivating mini-digital movies than most of its peers, though it still suffers some limitations characteristic of this newly minted class of app.
On first run, Directr asks you to allow it to send push notifications, and it requires you to sign up for an account, either creating one with an email address or by connecting your Facebook account. I chose the latter method, which is quicker as you simply tap a Log In button on a Facebook page. After that, I was switched back to the Directr app, which showed me a big "WELCOME!" message. But I wasn't done with setup yet: I had to then choose a username for the app/service.
After you've set up your account, Directr takes you through a simple six page tutorial. As soon as you exit this, you'll see that the app isn't just about your own movies – it's about discovering those from other users, too, à la Flickr. But not only viewing them: You can actually "direct" other users' movies. The well designed, clean interface makes this and most of what you can do in this app perfectly clear.
So what does this "directing" involve? The concept will be familiar to users of recent releases of Apple's iMovie, whose Trailers feature has you insert your own video clips into a template of shot types, such as close up, group shot, action shot, and so on. In the biz, this is called a storyboard. When you choose "Direct It" from someone else's movie, it actually means that you'll use your own clips in the template used by their movie. It's definitely a great way to build more compelling video stories, rather than just sending a single clip, even one that's been somehow enhanced.
A Directr representative told me that the preset storyboard templates are designed by professional filmmakers, who also pick appropriate background music. He also noted that most users go the preset template route rather than starting from a blank slate.
Whenever you start shooting video inside Directr, the app does something I've long craved a video app to do: It shows a graphic telling you to hold the phone sideways! How often have we shot mobile video holding the phone in a way more conducive to phone calls than to shooting video. When you upload one of these tall clips to YouTube, it looks awful, with big black bars on each side of the worst kind of pillarbox.
Once you turn the phone on its side, you'll see another example of Directr's ingenuity: A circular control that you can move around to set the focus point. Tapping this starts recording. My first clip only needed 1.7 seconds, and had the helpful text, "Wave to the camera" which I used to instruct my co-worker model/victim, Jill Duffy.
When you've shot all the project's required clips, you tap Finish, and the app will go through a "printing" phase, which took a couple minutes for my four clip test movie. This uploads your movie to Directr's server for processing, which also puts it on your profile page. This, of course, means that you can complete a movie project if you're somewhere without data service, for example, abroad on vacation. After printing is finished, you can watch your creation either on the iPhone or on the Directr site. The movie starts and ends with discreet Directr promotions.
If you're not starting from someone else's video, you tap the Plus button at bottom centre, which prompts you to choose one of the preset storyboards or a blank template. As mentioned, most users start with a preset, but when you start blank, you have three choices as to length: one, three, or five shots. You get more choices when you start off on your own like this, as you can type in scene captions and overlay captions.
A musical background track is automatically added to your movie, but this soundtrack is currently a weak point in the app. You can't choose your music, either by mood or by using an MP3 of your own, and the music the app chooses for you obliterates any audio from the clips you've included in a project.
Don't want to go it alone? Directr doesn’t limit your phone to being the only source of video; you can Add Directors. I must note that I ran into a bug in the app at this point, a forever spinning timer wheel. But with another attempt, the feature worked trouble-free.
In addition to the lack of music customisation, there are a couple of other holes in Directr's video editing prowess. You can't use clips already shot on the phone, there's no clip trimming, and there are no fun Instagram-like filters which some other video apps such as Pincam provide. Nor can you start and stop recording for a stop-motion result as you can with Vine. Of course, some of these are choices on the part of the developer, rather than actual shortcomings. However, a definite area which needs improvement is stability – a bugbear for just about all video editing software even up to the pro level. The app quit or stopped responding a few times during my testing, but I was always able to get back on track.
On the movie's page, there are very clear buttons for Facebook, Twitter, save to camera roll, copy link, email, and SMS. But Directr, unlike Vine, has a hearty web presence, where users can view and comment on your creations.
No matter what type of sharing you do, your movie appears on the Directr site, but thankfully, you can make it private if you're not comfortable having it exposed to the world. The web presentation lets viewers comment and "heart" your movies. The site appears to use HTML5 video rather than Flash, but one drawback was that I couldn't view videos full screen.
iPhone video editing and sharing apps are a nascent category, and like the rest, Directr, while extremely promising and already a blast to use, lacks maturity. Happily, its makers tell me that a new version is coming in the next few weeks, which we can expect to address some of the shortcomings mentioned here.
Directr, even in its current form, is a force for good in the world of mobile video, encouraging better practices for creating more compelling digital mini-movies. And it’s free, too – a price you can’t argue with.