12 min read

Celtx: Open Source Screenwriting Beginner’s Guide

Celtx: Open Source Screenwriting Beginner's Guide

Write and market Hollywood-perfect movie scripts the free way!     

If you just write scripts, you won’t need the features in this article. However, Indie (independent) producers, folks actually making movies, putting together audio visual shows, or creating documentaries will find these tools of immense value and here we look at visualizing all this good stuff (pun, as ever, intended).


Celtx’s Sketch Tool allows us to easily visualize ideas and shot setups by adding our drawings of them to projects. Sketches can be separate items in the Project Library (or in folders within the library) or added to a project’s Storyboard (more on that in the next section of this article).

The Sketch Tool comes with pre-loaded icons for people, cameras, and lights, which we can drag and drop into our sketches, making them look more polished. The icons are SVG images (Scalable Vector Graphics), which allow us to make them as large as we like without losing any quality in the image. The http://celtx.com site makes additional icons available (Art Packs) at low costs (example: $2.99 for 23 icons).

Also provided in the Sketch tool are tools for drawing lines, arrows, shapes, and for adding text labels. Just to avoid confusion, let me tell you that there is nothing like pens or erasers or other free drawing features. We’ll use various drag-and-drop icons and any of us, artistic talent or not, can turn out very professional-looking storyboards in no time at all.

Celtx Projects are containers which hold items such as scripts, index cards, reports, schedules, storyboards, prop lists, and more including sketches.

Time for action – starting a new sketch

We have two ways of creating a new Sketch, which are as follows:

  1. First, open a project (new or already in progress) and look in the Project Library in the upper-left quadrant of the Celtx screen. Sketch is included by default, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

  2. The following steps show the second method for creating a new sketch:
    • Click on File at the very upper-left of the Celtx main window
    • On the drop-down menu, choose Add Item…
    • Click on Sketch and then click on OK, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

What just happened?

The new Sketch is added to the Project Library window. If one was already there (likely since it is by default), you now have two with the same name. No problem; simply right-click on one of them, choose Rename, and change its name. We can also delete or duplicate a Sketch this way.

To open the main Sketch Tool window from anywhere in a Celtx project, double-click on the name of the Sketch in the Project Library.

In the case of a new Sketch created through the Add Item dialog box, as shown in the preceding section, it will already be open and ready for use. That is, the main window covering most of the center of the Celtx screen is where we sketch. Double-clicking on Screenplay or any other item in the Project Library window navigates us to that item and away from our Sketch. It is saved automatically.

The following screenshot shows how the Sketch Tool looks when opened:

Sketch Tool toolbar

Along the top of the middle window (the Sketch Tool window), we have a toolbar. In the preceding screenshot, most of these tools are grayed out. They become fully visible when conditions are met for their use.

Let’s take a tour. The following screenshot shows the sketch toolbar in its entirety:

Celtx tutorials

Now, let’s explore these tools individually and see what they do. In addition to the tool bar (shown in the preceding screenshot), I’ll include an image of each individual tool as well:

  • Select tool: The first tool from the left is for selecting items in the sketch. There’s nothing to select yet, so let’s click on the second tool from the left. The select tool is shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

  • The diagonal line: It is the second tool from the left and it draws a line. Move the cursor (now a cross) to the point where the line begins, hold down the left mouse button, and drag out the line, releasing the mouse button at its ending point. The diagonal line is shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

  • Line tool: Click on the first tool above. The mouse cursor becomes a hollow arrow on a PC but remains a black arrow on the Mac. Select the line we drew by clicking on it (a little hard for a line) or holding down the left mouse button and drawing a box all the way around the line (easier). When the mouse button is released, we know the line is selected because it has a dotted blue line around it and two small gray circles or “handles” at either end. Once the item is selected, just hold down the left mouse button and it can be moved anywhere in the Sketch Tool window.Select either of the handles by moving the cursor arrow over it and pressing the left mouse button. We can now move that end of the line all over the place and it stays wherever the button is released; it’s the same for the other end of the line.

    While the line is selected, just hit the Delete key to erase it. This also works in the same way for all the other elements.

  • Arrow Tool: The third tool from the left (the diagonal arrow) works exactly like the line tool, except there’s an arrowhead on one end. It’s a useful drawing tool for pointing to something in our diagrams or using as a spear if it’s that kind of movie, eh? The arrow tool is shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

  • Box and Circle Tools: The fourth tool (the box) draws a box or rectangle and the fifth (the circle) a circle or oval. Clicking on the select tool (the first tool on the left) and using its cursor to click inside of a square or circle selects it. There are two little gray circles which allow us to manipulate the figure just as we did with the line above. The box tool is shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    And the circle tool is shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

  • Text Tool: Suppose we want to label a line, arrow, box, or circle, we can use the sixth tool, that is, the little letter “A”, which is shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    Draw a box and click on the A. The mouse cursor is now an “I-beam”. Click in the box. A mini-dialog box appears, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    This Edit Text box allows the selection of the font, size, bold, italic, and provides a place to type in the label, such as the stirring This is a box. Click on OK and the label is in the box, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    If we need to edit an existing label, click on the select tool, double-click on the text, the Edit Text mini-dialog box comes up, and you can edit the text.

    Keeping the labeled box as an example, we’re ready to visit the next two tools, namely, the empty circle and his brother the solid circle, both of which are grayed out at the moment. Let’s wake them up.

  • Stroke and Fill Tools: Click on the select tool and then click inside the box. These two tools turn blue and allow us access to them. These are shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    The empty circle controls the color of the stroke (that’s the outline of the item, such as our box) and the solid circle, the fill (the inside color of the item). Note that there is a small arrow on the right side of each circle. Click on the one next to the solid (fill) circle. A color selection box drops down; choose a color by clicking on it. The box now has that color inside it as a fill, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    If you want to change the stroke and/or fill colors, just click on the stroke or fill tool to drop-down the selection box again.

    Moving on, add another box (or circle, whatever) and move it. Use the select tool, hold down the Shift key, click on the new box, and move it over the original box.

  • Layer Tools: Okay, we now have one item on top of another. Sometimes that’s inconvenient in a scene diagram and we need to reverse the order (move one or more items up a layer or more). With the top box selected, look at the toolbar. The next four icons to the right of the stroke and fill circles are now “lit up” (no longer grayed out). The layer tools are shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    These are, in the order, lower to bottom, lower, raise, and raise to top. In other words, the selected box would be lowered to the bottom-most layer, lowered one layer, raised one layer, or jumped all the way to the top-most layer.

    Celtx tutorials

  • Group and Ungroup: Now, to save a few million electrons, let’s use the same two boxes again. Select the one on top, hold down the Shift key, and both boxes are now selected. We can move them together, for example. However, note that the next icon to the right is now no longer gray (it’s now two blue boxes, one over the other and four smaller black ones). This is the group tool, which is shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    Clicking on it groups or bonds the selected items together. This, of course, lights up the next icon on the toolbar, the (wait for it) ungroup tool, which restores independence to grouped items.

  • Undo and Redo Tools: The next two toolbar icons, the curved arrows, are undo and redo tools. They reverse an action to the previous state or restore an item to its next state (if there is one, that is, “undo” and “redo”). These tools are shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

  • Cut, Copy, and Paste Tools: The last three tools on the Sketch Tool window toolbar are the cut, copy, and paste tools, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Celtx tutorials

    Cutting removes an item but retains it on the clipboard, copying leaves the item and also puts a copy of it on the clipboard, while paste puts the item from the clipboard back into the sketch.

Now, we come to the fun part, icons! As in “yes, icon do a professional-looking sketch.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Icons for a professional look

Celtx provides icons, giving our sketches a polished professional look (neat, artistic, follows industry entertainment conventions) while requiring little or no artistic ability. The Palettes windows, found on the right side of the main Sketch Tool window, list available icons.

The default installation of Celtx includes a very limited number of icons, one camera, two kinds of lights, and a top-down view of a man and a woman. Celtx, of course, is open source software and thus free (a price I can afford). However, one of the ways in which its sponsoring developer, a Canadian company, Greyfirst Corp. in St. John’s, Newfoundland, makes money is by selling add-ons to the program, one type being additional icons in the form of Art Packs. In the following screenshot, if we click on the + Get Art Packs link, a webpage opens where one can order Art Packs and other add-ons at quite reasonable prices:

Celtx tutorials

Now, to use an icon in a sketch, let’s start with the camera. Open a new sketch by doubleclicking on Sketch in the Project Library window or Add Item from the main File menu. In the Palettes window, move the mouse cursor over Camera and hold down the left mouse button while dragging the camera icon into the main Sketch Tool window. It looks like the following screenshot:

Celtx tutorials

Manipulating icons: When any icon is dragged into the main window of the Sketch Tool (and anytime that icon is selected by clicking on it with the select tool cursor described earlier) it has a dotted circle around it (as shown in the preceding screenshot) and two small solid circles (violet on top, olive below). Clicking on the violet circle and holding down the left mouse button while dragging allows rotation of the icon. Releasing the button stops rotation and leaves the icon in that orientation.

Clicking on the olive circle (the lower one) and holding down the left mouse button and dragging allow resizing the icon, either larger or smaller. As these icons, like the lines, arrows, boxes, and circles we discussed earlier in this article are also SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), we can have them as large as desired with no pixilation or other distortion.

Using the Sketch Tool toolbar and the supplied icons, we can rapidly and easily draw professional looking diagrams like the scene shown in the following screenshot, which shows two lights, the camera, the talent, arrows showing their movement in the scene, and the props:

Celtx tutorials

Again, additional icons may be purchased from the http://celtx.com website. For example, the following screenshot shows the twenty-three icons available in Art Pack 1:

Celtx tutorials

Saving a finished Sketch

Now is a good time for us to take a moment and discuss the limitations of the Sketch Tool. This feature provides a fast way of whipping up a scene diagram from inside a Celtx project. It does not replace an outside drawing program nor give us the functionality of something like Adobe Illustrator, but it is quite powerful and very handy. By the way, we can use external media files in Celtx and we’ll do just that in both of the remaining sections of this article.

Another limitation concerns saving sketches. There’s no way of exporting the sketch as an external image such as .jpg or .bmp. In fact, even saving within the Celtx project is automated. Do the following to see what I mean:

  1. In a Celtx project, double-click on Sketch in the Project Library to start a sketch.
  2. Draw something.
  3. Double-click on Screenplay. Then double-click on Sketch. The drawing is still there.
  4. Save the Celtx project, exit, and open it again. Double-click on Sketch. Drawing’s still there!

We can even use Add Item from the File menu (a shortcut is the little plus symbol beneath the Project Library title) and add another Sketch (same name) to the Project Library and even draw a new sketch in it. Of course, having different drawings with the same name is hardly utilitarian, so here’s how we really save a sketch.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here