We were deep into shooting season five of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when I heard the seven words that no camera assistant ever wants to hear.
“We’re recreating a shot from last week.”
I steadied myself. Recreating a camera setup is difficult on any production, and even more so on a show like Maisel, which thrives on long takes and complicated setups. You have to recall exact measurements—camera height, lens size, focus distance, filtration, tilt angle, camera settings… the list goes on—and the responsibility of recording all that information falls on the shoulders of the second camera assistant.
I could already see our camera operator Jim McConkey coming for me, asking, “What lens were we on last week? How tall was the camera? What was the tilt?”
Instinctively, I turned and ran. I wasn’t quitting my job or running off set to live out the rest of my life in the wilderness, I was heading out to the camera truck to retrieve the huge binder with my camera reports for the entire show.
Then I remembered that the binder wasn’t needed. I already had the information I needed in my pocket. More specifically, on my phone, because I was using ZoeLog.
What is ZoeLog?
I’ve used a lot of tools on set, but this is my favorite by far. Pronounced zo-ee-log, ZoeLog is an iPhone app that’s a camera reporting and log system that allows multiple users to quickly see detailed camera information for many different projects.
It works offline if you’re caught on location without a phone signal or internet access, and it will automatically upload your information to the cloud when your device comes back online. And it’s especially useful for VFX shoots or when you need to see what another crew is doing while your show is shooting in two locations at once. It was an essential tool on Maisel and it was viewed in one form or another by the whole production.
ZoeLog is named after its creator Zoe Van Brunt, a former camera assistant and operator. Once, I had to reach out for support through the app’s FAQ page and I was shocked when the actual Zoe Van Brunt replied! (Something that made the other camera assistants a little jealous.)
So who is this mysterious programmer? How did she create this app? When did she get the idea for ZoeLog and just how had she turned it into her primary business?
Let’s find out.
In the beginning
“Paper log books were never particularly efficient or reliable,” Zoe tells me over the phone. “You could lose them or they could get damaged. Or you have it in your back pocket and you take it home. Then you have to start a new one. So the idea was to have just one centralized database that everyone on the same job could access at any time.”
I nod, definitely not looking at the six-or-so abandoned log books I have sitting in a drawer next to my bed. I was surprised to find out she didn’t have an accent—I’d heard from another camera assistant that Zoe was British and that she lives in England. Neither is true. She lives in California.
“You know, camera assistants sometimes treat you like the Wizard of Oz,” I tell her. “I remember I had to reach out to you for a support issue and the other ACs were jealous. They said, ‘I want to talk to the Zoe too!’ That’s how they referred to you, as the Zoe.”
She laughs. “It’s funny. I started renting out my carts to other camera assistants, and I was over at Panavision dropping off with somebody and they suddenly said, ‘I just realized you’re the Zoe that made ZoeLog! Oh my god!’ I still think that’s hilarious.”
“So, how are you dealing with your newfound celebrity?” I joke.
“Yeah, right!” she cries.
The next step
“So you had this idea, what was your next step? Did you have to teach yourself how to code?” I ask.
She thinks about it before answering. “I’ve always been a big nerd. I was writing little games in BASIC on my old Apple 2GS back in the 80s. I’ve always had an interest in that, but it was never a professional interest.”
“When I was in college studying film, I had this feeling that there was absolutely no guarantee that this would pan out. I might not actually get any work, especially as a trans person. I definitely lost out on a lot of jobs. So I felt like it was important to develop some other marketable skill.”
“So while I was in school, I also took some computer science classes just to get a little bit of a foundation in that.”
I pause to take this in. My favorite app was partly created because this brilliant woman thought she might not be accepted in our industry. As I process, Zoe tells me about her first foray into app development.
“I was working on the show House, M.D. as the film loader, and the A camera assistant Dan Urbain wanted to know if I could work out a system where I could use a barcode scanner to scan the actual barcodes on all the equipment, and keep my own log of what’s going in and out. That way, we’d have a record that’s as detailed as the camera house’s record should be.”
“I could have done it in Excel, but I got the idea that it would be nice to make something that was a little bit more efficient. So I made a database program that would keep track of what each item was. I called my program Gear Tracker.”
This amazes me. “So you had a handheld barcode scanner and everything?”
Zoe laughs. “I had two! And at the end of the season, we had zero missing gear.”
Fast. Easy. Accessible.
“So, seeing what I was able to do with Gear Tracker,” she continues, “it wasn’t too far-fetched to ask myself ‘Can we just have a database of our camera log entries?”
But creating a camera database was not an easy task. Zoe had talked to a few friends who were experimenting with similar ideas, but their methods required a bulky on-set server, and their camera information had to be manually entered with a keyboard.
“The key takeaway was that it was harder to use than a simple log book,” she says, “and I felt like that was the biggest hurdle with ZoeLog. No one’s going to use it if it’s harder than writing in a log book.”
After careful consideration, Zoe decided to create her program as an iPhone app.
Breaking the code
“To require assistants to have their laptop on set would just be a barrier that would make it harder to use,” Zoe explains. “But if you had to type things in with a keyboard then people are not going to use it.”
She began writing ZoeLog in Objective-C, only for Apple to suddenly introduce the Swift programming language in 2014. Taking this in her stride, she ended up teaching herself an entirely new programming language while also juggling full-time work on shows such as Transparent and Grace and Frankie.
“It took a really long time,” she recalls. “Computers don’t know how to interpret. They’re very literal with instructions. There are all these different things that have to go right that are just counterintuitive from a human-thinking perspective.”
And then there was the added challenge of making an app that was faster than writing on paper.
“What became really important were the custom keypads for every field,” Zoe reveals, “and auto-filling the perfect suffixes and automating as much as possible. Just trying to make it so you can enter data into ZoeLog faster than you can write it.”
The next few years were spent coding whenever she could find the time. But television work is intense and filming schedules can be erratic and unpredictable. Eventually, Zoe’s wife sat her down to talk about the app.
“She saw I was working on this thing that predated our relationship,” Zoe shares, “and she told me ‘Hey, you work on this thing all the time but you never get anything done. You need to figure out a schedule so that you dedicate enough time working on it that you can actually complete it.’ So we did that, and later that year I was finally able to release the first version of Zoelog. That was in 2017.”
A new way of working
So is the current version the same as the one in use today? “Yes and no,” Zoe admits. “If you strip out all the camera report stuff then yes. There weren’t very many new features that came out for a long time, because it was still just a log book.”
“It didn’t export PDFs. It didn’t do camera reports. It was very barebones in that way. But largely the keypads that you see, the look of the actual log view, it was pretty much the same. Mostly, the appearance of ZoeLog remained the same until 2020.”
2020, as we all know, is when Covid-19 changed the way film and television are made around the world. Suddenly, there were new protocols meant to limit person-to-person contact.
“It wasn’t until then that the conversation started about how we’re passing back and forth these paper camera reports,” Zoe recalls, “and people wanted to reduce the amount of direct contact as much as possible on set.”
Once again, it was Dan Urbain who reached out to Zoe and urged her to work on a solution.
“Dan was great. He said to me ‘I know we’ve talked about camera reports in the past and I know it’s something that you’re not super psyched about doing, but we’re entering this situation where people are looking for an alternative to paper reports. I think that you should take that opportunity to implement that into ZoeLog.’ And that was convincing enough.”
Zoe went to her computer to tackle her new goal. While the rest of us were binge-watching Tiger King, Zoe was figuring out how to retrofit camera reports onto her app. That fall, she emerged from quarantine with a new version of ZoeLog, complete with camera reports.
Suddenly, Zoe’s end of the phone line goes silent. “Sorry. I just got a support email. Just one second…”
Getting this brief inside look into the day-to-day running of ZoeLog is revealing. Zoe is the only person who works on her app. She handles all of the programming, updates, and technical support. When you send an inquiry through ZoeLog’s FAQ page, the message lands directly in Zoe’s inbox, and you get a real response from Zoe, a living, experienced camera assistant.
In a world of chatbots and AI text generators, her personal touch is remarkable.
“It’s not an emergency,” Zoe shares, when she resurfaces. “That’s always the calculus. I try to respond as quickly as possible, but also I try not to let it interrupt what I’m doing unless it’s an emergency.”
“At the beginning, on the website, the support email interface was a typical ‘Tell us what’s going on and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible’ and the emails that I would get would be a lot more derisive and unfriendly and combative, because as far as they knew I was some big corporation.”
“I was faceless, and I wasn’t a person. That didn’t make me feel very good. So I changed the way it’s written on the website to be ‘I will get back to you as soon as possible. Ask Zoe a question.’ That’s how I changed it, and when I did that the emails became very different. People became a lot friendlier, a lot more understanding when they knew that they were emailing a person.”
“I still get some ‘Why do I pay for this?’ emails,” Zoe laughs. “It’s not very often. I think there’s this misconception that I’m getting rich off this app. I’m barely making enough money. I’m making less than when I was a camera assistant, for sure.”
But there are advantages to being the head of a solo operation. Recently, Zoe integrated her app into the Frame.io platform and found it very easy to execute all the programming changes herself.
“I think I had the advantage of being one person in this situation. Frame would ask ‘Can we change such-and-such for whatever reason’, and then a couple of hours later I’d say, ‘Okay here you go! Here’s the new beta version.’ And they’d say, ‘That was really fast!’ I guess it didn’t need to go through as many people as it might at a big corporation.”
Zoe loves the Frame.io philosophy. She thinks both companies share a common goal.
“Frame.io and ZoeLog are an extension of the same kind of thought process,” Zoe muses. “Why can’t we improve on some of these older systems that maybe aren’t serving us as well as they used to?”
The road ahead
As for the future, Zoe has big plans.
“My biggest priority now is getting an Android version out there,” she confides. “But the problem is that I also don’t want to maintain two completely different code bases for ZoeLog.”
Unfortunately, iPhone apps and Android apps are built differently. iOS apps are built on Swift, a coding language unique to Apple, while Android apps tend to be built on different languages.
“I can’t just transfer it all from the iOS version to the Android version,” Zoe clarifies, “and I don’t want to just duplicate what I’m doing for Android. I want to make both versions better. People ask, ‘When is the Android version going to be out?’ Not yet. But I promise I’m working on it.”
Users also tend to ask Zoe to add features to ZoeLog.
“Images,” Zoe says. “A lot of people think it would be great if ZoeLog had images. And I understand why they feel that way. However, there’s a lot of reasons why ZoeLog should not have images.”
Number one, she tells me, is security. Scene numbers and lens data aren’t that valuable outside of production, but behind-the-scenes images could be seen as a tempting commodity. Reason number two is bulk. ZoeLog is a lean and mean application meant to be used offline and on the go. She doesn’t want to add anything that would bog down the quick-use nature of her app.
Mobile apps should be mobile
“You can’t turn on Instagram when you have no signal, right?’ Zoe asked. “If ZoeLog had pictures, all those pictures would have to be on your device, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to look at them. And a production with multiple cameras is going to have thousands upon thousands of entries.”
“That’s thousands of pictures on your device. And I don’t want to add a feature that is only available online if I can avoid it. Because, if you can only access the photos online, you’re going to be in a situation where you can’t access that photo, and that feature is useless.”
Our jobs are really hard. The last thing I want to do is make them harder.
Also, there are already many apps and software on the market that integrate images into a production’s workflow. The Magic Viewfinder apps, for example, allow you to take and upload images to a project from your phone, and they are already conveniently integrated into Frame.io’s C2C workflow.
“The whole philosophy behind ZoeLog is, ‘If it’s not easier, why am I doing it?’ Because our jobs are really hard. The last thing I want to do is make them harder. Everything I do is to try to improve and make things easier.”
“Do you think we’re all going to become a hive mind on set?” I ask, half-seriously. “Will we all eventually be plugged into the same project at the same time, making a million decisions as one big entity?”
“I don’t know what the future is going to look like,” she replies. “Look, we’re still using the same technology to move a camera around as we did seventy years ago. It’s still a camera on a dolly. Sure, we could use motion control for every shot if we wanted to, but it doesn’t make sense. There are certain things that just good old dry erase is going to solve.”
“For example,” she adds, “there was a moment where people were seriously thinking of use iPads as slates!”
“No!” I groan. It’s too soon to even joke about. “So what advice would you give to people that have an idea and want to develop a tool or an app of their own?”
“Break it down into smaller parts,” she responds immediately, “because when you look at an idea on its face and you’re thinking ‘How do I even do that?’ it’s usually because you’re looking at it as a whole. You have to look at it and say, ‘What’s the absolute minimum I need to do to get this started? And that’s where you need to go from.”
“I think what’s great about camera assistants is that we’re professional problem solvers. All camera assistants do those things where your camera operator or your DP says, ‘I want to do it this way, how can we do that?’ And then you go away and you figure it out.”
As you solve each individual part, it makes all the other problems less big.
“I think it’s just a matter of reapplying that mentality to other things and breaking down problems into their constituent parts. Then, as you solve each individual part, it makes all the other problems less big and the solutions are a little more clear.”
“Make things that you want to use,” Zoe adds. “If you want to use it, someone else is going to want to use it too.”
The ties that bind
Having now “met” Zoe, I feel a mix of emotions. The first of which is gratitude. It’s comforting to hear that someone has done the same work you do, and is now working to make things better. Not just for her, or me, but for everyone.
But I also feel proud. Like I’m part of a legacy and there’s an invisible thread connecting me to others, that we were all working together towards a similar goal. And that’s to make things better on set. It feels good to be a small part of that group effort.
Before my call with Zoe, I would never have suspected that app development was anything like the multi-year journey that ZoeLog went through. It’s made me look at the apps on my phone and wonder what stories lie behind all those icons…
It’s also inspiring. I’m definitely going to keep Zoe’s advice close to my heart: break problems down into smaller parts, and try to make things that you want to use yourself.
It’s good advice.
Featured image: Zoe on the set of American Princess. Image credit: Sarah Terry