Tools help make smartphone videos smarter

Smartphones have put advanced movie-making technology into millions of pockets and purses. But all that video wizardry packed inside iPhones and Android­ devices isn’t enough to transform everyday videographers into Scorseses and Spielbergs.

Even turning a 30-second clip of a graduation or photos of a bar mitzvah into an actual movie with a storyline takes editing know-how, costly software, and time.

Two Cambridge start-ups have set out to change that.


One company, Directr Inc., is doing it with a free mobile app that provides preset storyboards for dozens of common video scenarios.

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The other, Storytelling Machines, launched a Web service recently that businesses can use to make simple, compelling movies by following a questionnaire that will guide how the scenes are arranged.

It’s free for anyone who signs up before Dec. 25.

Coincidentally, both are residents of the Kendall Square start-up incubator Dogpatch Labs, which is funded by the Waltham Venture capital firm Polaris Venture Partners. And both essentially have the same goal in mind: helping anyone make good movies.

“We call it point-and-shoot moviemaking,” said Eli Schleifer, cofounder of Directr, an eight-month-old company he started with a former high school classmate, Max Goldman.


Directr’s beginnings can be traced to bath time for Schleifer’s daughter when she was 3 months old. He wanted to take a great movie of the moment but realized he didn’t have the right editing or directing skills. With the right tools, he said, “you could make something priceless.”

That got him thinking.

At the time, Schleifer, a former software engineer for Microsoft Corp.’s office in Cambridge, was noodling ideas for a start-up. And since he was struggling with how to make good movies, he ­figured others must have the same problem, too.

He convinced Goldman, who was working as a business consultant for start-ups in New York City, to help start the company in April. Directr released its first app in late fall on the iTunes store. An updated version is expected this week. So far, the start-up has raised $1.1 million in seed funding from investors such as NextView Ventures in Boston.

Directr’s app lets users pick from more than 60 topics, such as “Chanukah candles” or “my dog is awesome,” that have storyboards for making videos. In the Chanukah template, users are instructed to shoot the lighting of the shamash, record guests, the other candles, and so on. Directr compiles the clips, adds music, and lets users e-mail their newly created video or post it on Facebook.


Like the photo-sharing app Instagram or the massive video platform YouTube, Directr has a Web platform for users to post their mini-movies or browse those made by others.

An entire cottage industry has grown up around smartphone movie-making. In addition to dozens of other iPhone editing and video apps, such as Apple’s iMovie and movie-sharing platforms like Viddy, companies sell lenses, microphones, and tripods designed to aid the budding smartphone photographers and videographers.

“The accessibility of the tools is revolutionary,” said Charles Merzbacher, an associate professor at Boston University’s Department of Film and Television. “There’s no longer some elite class with the right resources who can make movies.”

But, he said, “actually becoming a good filmmaker is no easier than it ever was.”

And though half the US adult population totes around smartphones equipped with video capability, that has not resulted in a renaissance of American film and photography.

Blade Kotelly acknowledges that users of his site, Storytelling Machines, aren’t suddenly going to learn how to make stunning movies. Nor should they. The whole point is to take the work out of putting together a movie for business owners to promote their products or themselves.

Like Directr, Storytelling Machines gives its users templates. They can choose to make a movie about a product, create a biography, or produce a video for posting on a blog. It guides them through a series of instructions, and asks questions about the purpose of the movie — “What do you want viewers to do after the movie?” — that help determine how the scenes will be arranged.

“Everyone needs to tell good stories, and small businesses definitely need to tell good stories,” said Kotelly, Storytelling Machine’s chief executive and former chief designer of Endeca Technologies Inc., a software company Oracle bought last year for $1.1 billion.

So far, Storytelling Machines has raised $500,000 from angel investors such as Bill Warner, founder of the pioneering video editing company Avid Technologies Inc., which is based in Burlington.

Kotelly also worked for Warner at Wildfire Communications Inc., a speech-recognition company he founded in 1991. That company went out of business in 2005.

Warner said Kotelly is on to a big idea. “Storytelling Machines is really about everyday people using video to truly be understood,” he said.

And for businesses, said Warner, communicating with customers through a one-minute video beats a brochure any day.

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at