The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

John Pavlus

John Pavlus

Writer, film maker (Small Mammal)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm John Pavlus. I write and make films (through my creative studio Small Mammal) mostly about science, technology, design, with occasional worthwhile diversions.

The line on my blog is that I am "curious for a living," and those are the subjects I tend to be curious about: how people make things make sense. My greatest hit so far is a film about an ancient mechanical computer made of Legos. My favorite thing I've written is not published yet, but it's a narrative feature about a really hard math problem. I want to be a mutant combination of Charles Eames and Steven Johnson when I grow up.

What hardware do you use?

You've caught me at an somewhat embarrassing time, as almost everything I use is overdue for an upgrade. My 15-inch MacBook Pro is from 2007 (so old I won't bother outlining the specs), but it still has enough kick in it to handle my filmmaking jobs without too much profanity from me. Anything I can't handle on that laptop, I hire a specialist with better gear to take care of. I have a motley crew of external HDDs: a 1TB G-Drive for backing up and heavy Final Cut work, a 250GB LaCie Rugged that I take into the field (I shoot everything on solid-state media so I'm always copying cards over), and a 500GB bus-powered Seagate portable that I use as an all-purpose overflow drive. I loathe cord clutter so my external Apple keyboard and Mighty Mouse are Bluetooth. All the other cords I keep clamped to the sides of my standing desk with binder clips. I have a Logitech mic headset for Skyping (I tried Bluetooth headsets but the sound quality was never good enough). My phone is a Droid Incredible, which is a fine workhorse. I use my wife's iPad often while she's at work.

I like to work in several different postures depending on my mood or the kind of work I'm doing, so I have a standing desk, an easy chair/ottoman with a lapdesk, and an enormous whiteboard on the wall across opposite both of them. The easy chair and standing desk "zones" both have their own dedicated Apple AC adapters even though they're only a few feet away from each other -- this is just to make it as frictionless as possible to move myself from one posture to another (no cord wrangling to slow me down).

When my laptop is parked at the standing desk, the webcam has a great view of the whiteboard, which is useful for communicating with cinematographers or other collaborators via videochat during pre- or post-production. I can also easily snap photos of the whiteboard for documentation/reference if I need to erase it to make room for new stuff. When I'm parked in the easy chair, I can write or brainstorm in a more relaxed way while still being able reference everything on the whiteboard just by glancing up.

And what software?

I'm not in any hurry to install OS X Lion on my aging machine, so I'm still running Snow Leopard and I can't discern any penalty for it yet. Essential filmmaking tools: Final Cut Pro Studio (avoiding FCP X like the plague), Screenflow for screencasting (also a Swiss Army Knife for mocking up certain quickie visual effects), PluralEyes (for auto-syncing DSLR video and separately-recorded audio tracks), Google SketchUp (useful for pre-vis on certain complex projects), MPEG Streamclip (an amazing do-everything video encoder). I also use the iOS SDK because of its handy iPad/iPhone simulator, which (when paired with SimFinger) is great for "shooting" apps, and is the only part of that package I know how to use.

For writing, I rely on WriteRoom (a terminal-style fullscreen plaintext editor, very quiet for concentrating), TextEdit for random jottings, and Pages (only when I have to prepare formal documents, like video proposals). For research I love Evernote and its Chrome browser extension and Android app. Anytime I see anything, basically anywhere on the web or even in meatspace, I can effortlessly capture and tag it for reference. My "Yellow Legal Pad" tag is a fun one where I dump any random snippet of an idea I think I might want to play with or resurrect later.

For emailing I use Gmail, but via a desktop client called Mailplane. For some reason I like having my email live in an application I can quit or hide separately from my browser; it also has a really great "do not disturb" setting which turns off notifications of incoming mail. I use Skype for all of my business phone calls whenever I'm in the office, with an plugin called Call Recorder installed so I can easily record interviews. Dropbox is great for passing rough cuts back and forth, and if that doesn't work I use Cyberduck for FTPing stuff. I'm a notorious serial user of to-do apps, none of which I ever stick with, so these days I just use my whiteboard and Gmail for task/project management. And I have somehow gotten used to using Twitter exclusively via its own website, weirdly enough.

There are other peculiar little apps I find essential to maintaining "mental hygiene" while working on the computer. Like Divvy, a utility for resizing windows and snapping them to a grid system onscreen. Why did I pay money for something that I can do for free using my mouse? It's hard to explain, but I spend so much time staring at this 15-inch rectangle of a screen, I really need it to be orderly, and Divvy makes maintaining that orderliness feel completely effortless. I also love FuzzyClock, which replaces the system clock with a natural-language estimate (instead of "11:43," it will read "quarter to noon"). Timekeeping feels less neurotic to me that way -- what do I care about the "difference" between 11:43 and 11:46? And Soulver is a completely brilliant replacement for the Mac calculator: it's a non-skeuomorphic all-purpose arithmetic-doer, sort of an ultra-lightweight combination of TextEdit and Excel.

Finally, I rely on an extremely well-designed webapp called Harvest for my freelance backoffice tasks like time-tracking and invoicing. It has a Dashboard widget that I can invoke anytime with a keystroke to start and stop project timers, and a great Android app. I use it dozens of times a day. The app generates all kinds of useful reports and makes invoicing and payment tracking effortless. I used to do this annoying admin work manually using an Excel spreadsheet, but Harvest is a lifesaver, well worth the small monthly fee.

What would be your dream setup?

I would optimize the hardware for each of my work postures and have some way of effortlessly linking/mirroring any kind of media and data between them on the fly. For the standing desk, where I do most of my editing, I would have a large external monitor (or maybe two) and a mega-souped-up tower rig like a Mac Pro, a large stack of RAID drives, and a stack of portable external HDDs so I'd never have to think about how to store or move media around. For the easy chair, where I do most of my writing, I'd have a 13-inch MacBook Air that was powerful enough to edit on in a pinch but mostly just as fast and lightweight as possible for moving around with. The goal would be that any time I wanted to switch postures I could (for example) just close the laptop, move over to the standing desk rig, and have everything waiting for me there (or at least instantly accessible) in the same state I left it in... and vice versa.

I would also have some sort of virtualized media management system for collaborating remotely with editors and clients on filmmaking projects. Something like Aframe, but designed (and priced) to scale more towards the web-based short projects I tend to do, rather than large TV series and feature film productions.

My whole office is a kind of integrated "interface" for working, so like any kind of UI, I want it just "there" enough to always have exactly what I need ready, instantly, but not get in the way or make a big deal about itself.

Previously: / Next up: