On Building The Emmy-Winning FrameForge Studio

Published: April 25th, 2020
Ken Schafer
Innoventive Softw...
from San Diego, California, USA
started June 2002
Discover what tools Ken recommends to grow your business!
Discover what books Ken recommends to grow your business!
Want more updates on Innoventive Software, LLC? Check out these stories:

I’m Ken Schafer, the president and lead program architect of Innoventive Software, LLC. We make the Emmy and Lumiere-Award winning previsualization/storyboard software, FrameForge Studio. Now you probably know what storyboards are, those hand-drawn comic strip type images filmmakers use to prepare their shoots and communicate how they want it to look to the cast and crew. Previsualization (or previs for short, still with a Z sound) means a lot of different things to different people, as up until very recently it was exclusively the domain of effects-heavy, big-budget studio films, as commercial previs can run tens of thousands of dollars per minute.

Or you can get our software and do it yourself.

FrameForge is an optically accurate virtual film studio where the in-computer cameras exactly match what the real-world camera will see, down to specific lens choices. This allows directors, cinematographers, and visual effect supervisors to basically pre-shoot their film (or TV show, commercial or whatever) in the computer, trouble-shooting difficult shots, discover new and better ways of staging and ultimately producing a true blueprint for the shoot.

The best, fastest way to understand what it is and how people use it to watch this two-minute video we put together with Emmy and BAFTA-nominated director, David Evans, on how he used it on an episode of Downton Abbey.

The program’s been used on TV shows ranging from Downton Abbey to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and both big-budget films like Spiderman: Homecoming and The Hangover Part III and on independent films worldwide. Our users include Academy Award-winning director, Mike van Diem, who said that FrameForge always inspires him to find better shots, the former president of the American Society of Cinematographers, Richard Crudo, and Emmy nominated VFX Supervisors, like Mark Kolpack.

We’ve received television’s highest award, the Emmy, for the program’s “proven track record of saving productions time and money through virtual testing,” two Lumiere statuettes from the Advanced Imaging Society and numerous accolades from our users.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

My whole business owner journey pretty much started with the 1988 Writer’s Strike which shut down television and film production for almost six months. I’d recently moved to LA after graduating from NYU to make my career as a writer/director, and I had been working as a TV Script Coordinator on a variety of TV shows until I got that big break. At the time, there was no dedicated software for film production and I’ll even date myself by saying the first TV show I worked for had me formatting their script in WordStar with dot codes.

Image from WordStar

Ah, the good old days.

You have to make decisions about things that you’ll feel you aren’t qualified to decide about. But you’ll have to do it anyway.

The next show I worked on had me use one of the first dedicated software programs created for scriptwriting, Movie Master, which at the time was still in beta test. It was a great improvement in some ways, but was still rather buggy at that point, and had both severe limitations, and what I saw as fundamental design flaws, such as forcing us to break even a sitcom script into several files.

As my Script Coordinator job tended to have a lot of down-time in the mornings until afternoon run-through, I worked on my own projects in WordPerfect with a bunch of macros I’d put together, and several of the show’s writers asked why they couldn’t use what I was using instead of Movie Master.

And then I got my big break… in employment that is, as the 1988 Writer’s strike happened and shut all production down for what turned out to be nearly six months.

To avoid having to find non-entertainment related work, and following up on the enthusiasm of the show’s writers, I decided I’d put together a manual, give my macros some more polish, and sell it as a scriptwriting package to tide me over until the strike ended. By the time it did, I was making a modest income from the software.

When my girlfriend (now my wife) got a post-doc down in San Diego, we left LA and I had grown the software sales to the point where I didn’t need to find other work. And thus my software “empire” was born.

When WordPerfect came out with a Windows version, however, it was a bloated thing that did not play well with my complicated macros, leaving me with a simple choice: either program a complete word processor from scratch or actually find a job. So, of course, I did what any sane person with a degree in film production and no real programming training would do; I sat down and wrote a word processor from scratch.

Astonishingly, I somehow actually managed it, and ScriptThing™ was born. The company grew, we transitioned from DOS to Windows, I hired a Mac programmer (who is still with me today!), dedicated tech support and an office/sales manager.

The software had a very dedicated following, and we ultimately sold it to Screenplay Systems, Inc. who are still selling it, now entitled Movie Magic Screenwriter.

When we sold off the software, my company had already created several other award-winning products for writers, but nothing had really taken hold in the same way as the scriptwriting software had.

At that time I was still hoping to become a director--something the birth of my daughter ended as I realized I’d have to be away for months at a time, and I just didn’t want to miss that much of her life. But when I had been actively pursuing it, I’d tried out the only storyboarding software at the time, which was (and still is) clip-art with forced perspective and I found it utterly underwhelming.

You have to remember, Storyboards were created to solve the problem of “how can I best prepare for my shoot.” This clip-art software didn’t even attempt to improve on that, instead only solving the problem of “I can’t draw.”

And thus the idea of FrameForge, a virtual film studio, was born. I knew it was going to take some time to develop and we’d need some cash until we could ship so I raised a small amount of money through some business people who were well acquainted with my other software and who got excited about the project.

One of them became our advertising manager and became passionately involved in the program’s success.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

To be honest, the company has had better times. One of the investors had been our marketing manager and had helped to grow our business to the point where we had to hire an office assistant and had a remote 3D modeler on staff, full time.

He, unfortunately, passed away and no one we’ve worked with since has been able to generate the kind of sales we’d had when he was around, despite the fact that the software’s gotten better over the years, and we’ve gotten bigger, and more important endorsements and awards.

Of course, it quite possibly wasn’t him; perhaps it was the time, or that we were new and exciting, or simply that there were a lot more software resellers than there are today. The whole market has changed dramatically; there used to be several web sites catering specifically to filmmakers and writers, one of which had a very big brick and mortar building in LA that was a bit of an epicenter for filmmaking software, and which is sadly now gone.

We were in the process of exploring expanding to Crime Scene reconstruction and were working with the San Diego public defender’s office when life basically stopped.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The first thing I’ll say is that there are several myths about being your own boss. Yes, the great part is you don’t have to answer to anyone else, and you can do things the way you believe is the right way to do them, not just the way they’ve “always been done.” You can rent the office five minutes from your house so you have basically no commute. On the downside, I’ve never had a paid vacation in my life, unless you count me paying someone else to cover my work while I took a break.

But you also have to make decisions about things that you’ll feel you aren’t qualified to decide about. But you’ll have to do it anyway. Like what is the best price to charge for your product or service? We learned the hard way that it’s not always intuitive.

I had tried to make my scriptwriting software package more accessible by offering a standard and a pro version and charging less than my competitors even though we had more features and were demonstrably better in nearly all ways. My thought process was that as a struggling writer myself; I didn’t have $350 to pay for a software program back in the early nineties… I wanted to sell it at a price I felt I could afford to buy.

But apparently that’s not how the buying customers were thinking, as when we finally increased our price we also apparently increased our credibility and caché, because not only did we make more money but we sold more copies.

And you’ll be faced with these kinds of questions all the time: Is this a reasonable lease? Should we pay for some print ads or use the money to get a booth at a convention? Do we invest in a new market or double-down on the one we’re in? You can get advice, of course, but ultimately you’ll have to make the decision.

The second thing that I don’t think people talk about enough is that you are likely to become the most demanding boss you’ve ever had. There is always something--or realistically many somethings--that need to be dealt with, and the success or failure of your company is riding on you. So, you can’t leave your work at the office the way you can when you’re working for someone else. At least for me, It’s always there, and it’s always demanding my attention.

When things are going well, you get the cream; although I gave out bonuses and reinvested some of the income we got when we sold off script writing software, I personally got the bulk of it and it paid for my house among other things.

But when things are tighter, you are the one who has to stress about making payroll, and you’ll be the one not to be paid, if the money’s not there.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use Shopify, HelpScout, MailChimp, SendOwl and Wave Accounting ave in addition to a lot of in-house built php to tie them all together. I guess my favorite of them is Wave Accounting because it is very similar to Quickbooks but is both FREE and, even more importantly, doesn’t think it’s smarter than you are.

I really hated dealing with Quickbooks because if something went wrong, like two different feeds were duplicating information, it was a nightmare correcting it. With WaveApps, you can just edit and delete records without it refusing to do so.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I am a terrible person to ask about this as, to be honest, I am far more interested in creating great software than I am in dealing with business in and of itself.

Where can we go to learn more?

Our website, and our youtube channel, are the best sources as they have lots of information on them. You can also find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/FrameForge, and the same on Twitter and Instagram.