Four Free Alternatives to Expensive Creative Apps

Treat artistic family members to awesome software (without the awesome expense)

By Ryan Hilary

Back in the day, artists had it hard. Developing photographs, recording music and editing film required specialized equipment, and only a dedicated few could see a project to the end. If you were a kid, forget about it. The tools were priced for adults.

Computers changed all that. You can record a full album in your bedroom or  edit photographs without the need for a darkroom. And these days, cheap PCs can manage almost any task that a few years ago required a high end computer.

This is great news for your kids. From an early age they have access to creative technologies that were once out of the reach of even most adults. If you think your child might be the next Spielberg, he or she can sit down today learn how to piece together a video storyboard on something like Final Cut Pro.

Except the software required to turn your wunderkind into an accomplished artist may be out of your price range. The cheapest version of Photoshop, for example, is a subscription that costs $120 dollars a year. And that's among the cheapest creative tools you can buy.

What you might not know is that there are free alternatives to hard hitters like Final Cut Pro and Photoshop. Far from flimsy substitutes, these apps can do most of the things that their more expensive counterparts can. We rounded up four of them.

Screenwriters: Adobe Story instead of Final Draft

If you want to write a screenplay, it's just as important to write in the correct style and format as it is to write well. Screenplays contain information on location, time of day, action, character, description, dialogue and the style of shot to be used. Screenwriters also follow their own terminology. EXT means exterior, for example. V.O. means voice over.

Each of these elements must be written in a very specific way, otherwise ornery, overworked Hollywood readers will reject the work on the first page. This is why serious screenwriters rely on one of a number of programs designed solely to aid with the formatting process.

Final Draft (which lists for $250) is the industry standard used by many of today’s biggest screenwriters as well as a healthy chunk of aspiring writers to craft their masterpieces. In addition to helping writers follow the standard screenplay format, Final Draft contains submenus to flesh out character bios, write synopses and treatments, and basically outline and craft every aspect of the intended production.

But Adobe Story is a browser-based alternative to this powerful app. It doesn’t quite do everything Final Draft can, but all the most important elements are there. Adobe story’s automatic formatting function anticipates which segment of the screenplay--locations, action, dialogue, shots etc--you’re currently working on and creates an instant drop down menu to make sure you’re using the appropriate formatting convention.

Like Final Draft, Adobe Story also contains menus that let you take notes on character and plot and jot down necessary research. A sidebar automatically detects elements of your story and generates production notes, a list of locations, the number of characters, and the approximate running time. The whole package is easy enough to grasp, but contains the complexity to teach the aspiring writer more detailed aspects of the filmmaking process over time.

You can upgrade Adobe Story with more in-depth production tools and collaboration, but this upgrade isn’t necessary to get a first (or second or third) screenplay written. For kids who want to write novels instead, Adobe Story works effectively and in much the same way--you just won’t need special formatting.

Filmmakers: Use Davinci Resolve instead of Final Cut Pro

Final Cut Pro is a glorious piece of software, and it’s the first choice go-to for most pros. But at $299, it’s not cheap and it only works on Macs, which are generally much more expensive than their PC counterparts.

Instead, there's DaVinci Resolve, which uses FInal Cut Pro's familiar "timeline" metaphor to combine clips. You import the footage, split it into the sections you want to use, and arrange them on a simple, left-to-right interface until you have a complete video.

Everything appears as a series of thumbnail bars that can be dragged and dropped around with ease, making restructuring your movie easy. This process is known as non-linear editing (as opposed to the linear process of literally cutting and splicing actual physical reels of film).

Clicking on individual bars--a specific clip--opens menus to control playback speed and lets you edit other attributes. There are dozens of filters to jazz up your footage--enough to put Instagram’s offerings to shame--and you can purchase more, although they can be expensive. There are also options to add titles and track the movement of your clips (tracking is the process employed to move an image right to left or zoom in and out, all techniques used by sophisticated editors to liven up their pieces).

It won’t take too long for your child to master the basics of Resolve. The dedicated community that uses the software has posted dozens of Youtube tutorials to help newbies get started. But Resolve also has a tremendous amount of depth as well.

Musicians: Use Audacity Instead of Pro Tools

Pro Tools, "the" industry standard for music production, uses an interface not entirely unlike Final Cut Pro. Imported music files appear on a timeline as thumbnail bars, nestled among a series of windows, which enable the user to perform a variety of editing processes such as mixing tracks and compressing files for further editing. You can hook up your instruments and record directly into the program, or you can lay down tracks separately and import them.

Getting started with Pro Tools is easy enough, although the app has a steep learning curve for its more complex processes. The problem is that it starts at $25/month and goes up from there. So what is the alternative?

Audacity is a stripped down version of Pro Tools, and is a perfect introduction to the world of sound engineering. It uses a similar interface to Pro Tools and is capable of the same core features.

You can edit multiple tracks into a single cohesive song, add effects and filters, tinker to find the perfect mix and then export your masterpiece in a variety of formats--WAV, AIFF, MP3. If your child can learn Audacity then he or she will be well primed to make the leap to Pro Tools when old enough.

Photographers: Use GIMP instead of Photoshop

Even if you're not much of a photographer, you no doubt know that Photoshop is the gold standard for photo editing and photo manipulation. But you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to have access to most of Photoshop's tools.

Many photographers use GIMP (short for GNU Image Manipulation Program) instead. GIMP shares a very, very similar interface to Photoshop, which means you can easily translate techniques intended for Photoshop to GIMP.

Both programs use a system of layers to either enhance existing photographs, or generate new ones. The layers create a workflow as you stack various processes on top of each other to produce the final image. For example, you might start by using GIMP’s many tools to improve an image of a beachscape. You can adjust the color balance, contrast, highlights--just about anything--until the sea is the perfect, vibrant shade of blue. Then, you can create another layer in which you paste a cut-out image of yourself onto the backdrop.

A toolbar, similar to the one found in a program like Microsoft Paint, provides further editing options. You can soften the edge of your image so that you appear a natural part of the background, and of course you can crop, cut and rotate at will--adding text and drawing basic lines and circles. With the right know-how, GIMP becomes a powerful graphic design tool.

To be fair, GIMP';s interface is a bit rough around the edges, and sometimes its  not as intuitive as it could be. But by the time your kids are in middle school,  they should be able to master the software. There’s a dedicated online community that has numerous videos to guide you through the various processes.

Bottom Line

These free programs are by no means the only alternatives to the more expensive apps out there. But these are perhaps the best, and you can't go wrong trying any of these instead of their more pricey commercial cousins. With any of these, you and your kids are free to experiment without breaking the bank.

Main Image: Twenty20.com