The Cinema Camera in Your Pocket
It’s capable of capturing sharp, extra high-resolution images that stand up well on a 40-foot screen. It can capture up to 12 stops of dynamic range and operate at frame rates from 1-240fps. It allows precise manual control of focus, exposure and shutter, and connects wirelessly to a high-capacity storage volume. It’s not the latest $20,000 cinema camera from Arri, Sony, Panasonic, or BlackMagic. It is the camera that you are, very likely, carrying in your pocket right now — when paired with the Filmic Pro app.
With the introduction of Apple’s advanced iPhone XS and XS Max, the mobile do-everything device is again drawing attention as a viable alternative to the traditional cinema camera. For feature films, iPhone aficionados can already look to Steven Soderbergh 2018’s Unsane, starring Claire Foy, which was shot entirely with an iPhone 7 Plus. Soderbergh was quoted by Indiewire: “I’ve seen my movie on a 40-foot screen and it looks like velvet. This is a game-changer to me. I look at the iPhone and its video capabilities as one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had as a filmmaker.”
These are big words.
There are other examples of iPhone use in feature films, like 2015’s Tangerine, shot on an iPhone 5S with a slip-on anamorphic lens. The iPhone is also beginning to make its mark in the more conservative broadcast arena, as producers slowly recognize the iPhone’s power, convenience and economy. The 2017 BBC series Secrets of the Super Elements with Mark Miodownik is said to have been shot entirely with mobile phones of various types.
No one is saying the use of an iPhone, or any other capture device, will ensure success. Audiences couldn’t care less if you shot your chef d’oeuvre with a Sony Venice, your mobile phone, or a pinhole camera. It is the premise, characters, and the memorable set pieces in your story that ultimately captivate audiences; to paraphrase the late, great American director Sidney Lumet, the iPhone, like any camera, is merely the conduit through which our creative visual decisions flow.
Nonetheless, one does have to wonder what role the getting-smarter-all-the-time smartphone will play in the future of cinema production. Do the ever-growing capabilities of the latest models portend the end of pricey cinema cameras as we know them?
Probably not. But there are some things to consider.
The Era of Computational Photography Is Upon Us
When it comes to performance, the iPhone’s simple lens may seem crude, but it is capable of producing remarkably sharp images, owing to a slew of onboard corrective algorithms. It is astonishingly efficient in its ability to correct the most egregious lens defects, like barrel distortion and chromatic aberrations. The latter anomalies, seen typically as a prismatic effect in very bright highlights, are the main reasons that cheap lenses look cheap.
Still, the laws of physics can’t be denied, even by Apple, and there are limitations inherent to utilizing the iPhone for advanced image capture. For one thing, its tiny 3mm sensor, with pixels only a few microns in diameter, are notably unresponsive in low light, which means iPhones typically exhibit relatively poor dynamic range. In the wake of iOS 12, however, and Apple’s new XS and XS Max models, serious shooters can see significantly improved log and flat gamma responses from their iPhones — as much as 2.5 stops of additional dynamic range when utilizing Filmic Pro’s optional Log v2 software.
Unsurprisingly, given its myriad of professional features, Filmic Pro for iOS (and Android) has emerged as a primary tool in the mobile DPs toolkit. The low-cost app ($14.99) still has to work with the iPhone’s tiny sensor, but the high degree of customization enabled by Filmic Pro and Apple’s AV Foundation core allows a surprisingly high degree of creative control.
The iPhone’s camera, for example (depending on the model), is capable of capturing scenes from 1-240fps. Filmic Pro adds the additional ability to set a precise frame rate, say 18fps to shoot with a simulated Super 8 film look, or 176fps to match an existing overcranked scene. Depending on the resolution, Filmic Pro also enables fixed frame rates to cover most cinema applications: 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, 60, and 120fps. Note that these are integral frame rates, so a dreaded slewing operation is required, with a concomitant loss of quality, to match a 23.98, 29.97, or 59.94fps NLE project timeline. In general, the NLE will accomplish the transcoding without a lot of fuss, but there is a price to be paid. Filmic Pro states that a new version of the app (v7?) will indeed support standard broadcast frame rates, so that is a very good thing. Currently, with the latest available update v6.8.1, Filmic Pro supports output files with bitrates up to 150 Mbps for editing inside LumaFusion, the most professional, full-featured mobile editor on the market.
Filmic Pro provides the familiar panoply of essential camera functions, like focus peaking, zebra stripes, false color, and clipping overlays. The app allows easy-to-master control over focus, white balance, and exposure. The last is particularly critical for DPs and lighting designers who wish to tweak the look of a scene around a desired ISO and shutter speed.
Finding and keeping critical focus can be challenging to any shooter, especially on a small iPhone screen at 4K resolution. The peaking function in Filmic Pro is certainly not unusual or unique in a mobile camera app, but it is uniquely implemented. FiLMiC Pro’s edge detection is especially effective. Note that the app’s analytics, including false color and clipping overlays, have been developed from scratch by FiLMiC Pro. They are not mere rehashes of the Apple core tech.
The new Log v2 feature (a $9.99 option in the cinematographer’s kit) expands the total dynamic range of the latest iPhones to an impressive 12 stops — not shabby at all for a measly 3mm sensor! Log v2 works on all iOS phones and devices and most Android Camera2 API-capable devices.
Sadly, due to iOS limitations, the iPhone can only capture video at 8 bits — a critical shortcoming for DPs thinking about taking the mobile-phone cinema plunge. Addressing this drawback, Filmic Pro Log v2 employs a proprietary imaging environment that processes the luma and chroma components of the iPhone video with 64-bit precision. The result is an improved dynamic range with a smooth tonal quality that bypasses, to some degree, the constraints of the iPhone’s original 8-bit video. DPs should note that Log v2 appears most effective and noticeable in the mid-tones, with less impact apparent in the luminance channel at or near the black or white points.
For professional applications, there are other limitations, of course. There are the ergonomic challenges of handling and supporting the diminutive device. There is also the lack of professional inputs and connectivity options. The Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro, with up to a 4 TB capacity, allows a Bluetooth connection with ample remote storage for large files. The Bluetooth function enables easy offloading from the iPhone to the drive, with subsequent seamless integration into a mobile editor like LumaFusion or Adobe Rush.
The iPhone’s lack of comprehensive metadata support will also pose an obstacle to some feature film shooters. Currently, only the exposure data is captured in the iPhone video file. Shooting telephoto, in selfie mode, or need to record white-balance details for a possible reshoot down the road? You’ll need to get out your old pencil and pad and take ample notes while shooting.
Beyond the app’s lack of non-integral frame rates, there is another shortcoming of note in the current version: the audio component seems to have gotten short shrift. There is no built-in noise reduction capability beyond the rudimentary voice EQ filter, so an additional app like Sound Soap is required to deal with audio defects. But professionals can take heart — Filmic Pro does support PCM (uncompressed) audio at 44.1 and 48 MHz, and the iPhone’s automatic gain control (AGC) and safety limiter can be easily disabled, if desired.