It’s been a little more than four years since Tangerine, the indie feature director Sean Baker made with three iPhone 5s smartphones and an anamorphic lens adapter from Moondog Labs, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. A critical and financial success, Tangerine proved that the iPhone could hold its own on the big screen, at least as long as it was used in support of a compelling story. In fact, one of the iPhones used on the film has joined the inaugural collection of the Academy Museum, opening soon in Los Angeles. But is there a future in filmmaking with your phone? We asked Neill Barham, founder and CEO of Filmic, maker the Filmic Pro app for iOS and Android (see our review here), for some insight.
Barham remembers that, when Filmic first decided it was time to take high-end mobile cinematography seriously, its early user base consisted mostly of broadcast professionals and trained journalists, not feature filmmakers. But those early pro users provided critical feedback that helped the company continuously and consistently improve its app over time. And then, when the Filmic Pro-shot Tangerine premiered, a lot of filmmakers sat up and took notice. Among them was Steven Soderbergh, who shot last year’s Unsane, starring Joshua Leonard and Claire Foy, with the iPhone 7 Plus and Moment lenses. And it wasn’t a one-off experiment; Soderbergh updated to the iPhone 8 and shot High Flying Bird with the Moment 2x telephoto lens and Moondog anamorphic adapter, recording 4K using Filmic’s log picture profile for extended dynamic range and using a DJI Osmo stabilizer to keep the camera moves smooth.
Obviously a filmmaker of Soderbergh’s caliber could shoot with just about any camera he took a fancy to; the cost of the camera package itself is a vanishingly slim portion of the budget for a large-scale cinema production. So something else drew him to the technology. Speaking after the film’s Slamdance Film Festival premiere earlier this year, Soderbergh told the audience that shooting it with a conventional camera package “would have taken longer and I can’t tell you that it would be better,” according to Cnet. Another feature filmmaker using Filmic Pro is French director Claude Lelouch, whose 1966 classic A Man and a Woman won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and earned him an Oscar for screenwriting. According to Barham, Lelouch shot about 30% of his 2019 film The Best Years of a Life, which debuted out of competition at Cannes this year, with an iPhone. Apple CEO Tim Cook cheerfully tweeted late last year that Lelouch said he’d “never been happier.”
Bonjour Paris! ?? Honored to meet legendary director Claude Lelouch and hear about his upcoming film, which will be #shotoniphone. In 50 years of filmmaking, he says he’s “never been happier“ than when shooting with iPhone! pic.twitter.com/t5q8J8jOW6
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) October 22, 2018
“There is something to the experience of shooting on mobile that is more rewarding, more inspiring, more invigorating than working within the traditional format for the people who try it,” Barham insists. “We could be at a tipping point where more traditional production migrates to mobile. One of the real friction points that’s worth watching is the Netflix submission requirements. Right now they don’t allow smartphone — or Filmic Pro — 4K footage for submissions. But Netflix did buy and distribute High Flying Bird. So right now they’re evaluating it on a case-by-case basis. If they change those parameters, I think that would signal the gold rush.”
What is it, exactly, about shooting with a smartphone that has such appeal? Barham says part of it comes down to intimacy with subjects who may behave differently when confronted with a large camera rig. “In the case of Tangerine,” he says, “some of the actors were amateurs, with no training whatsoever. Sean found that they were decidedly more comfortable in front of an iPhone [than a traditional camera set-up]. I call it selfie culture. Everybody is accustomed to smartphones and they open up and become animated in front of them because they’re already used to showing the best sides of themselves on Instagram, Facebook, and the like.”
And another advantage is size and speed. Not only does the phone physically fit where larger cameras can’t — in a small room or glove compartment — but it’s also a quick and easy process to move it from one side of the set to another to catch a different angle. That’s what Lelouch discovered while shooting his film. Originally, he had intended to use the iPhone only to shoot scenes that took place in cars or other cramped spaces. As the shoot progressed, the director decided that any scene requiring the camera to be moved around should also be shot with the smartphone. “Can we tell the difference? We know our app pretty well, and it was exceedingly hard,” Barham says. “There was only one shot in the entire film that really looked like smartphone footage, showing the same limitations of the device that would have been evident two or three generations ago. And we had suspicions about the car rig, just because of the camera placement. But most of the intercutting between shots [captured with phones versus cinema cameras] was indiscernible.”
Along the same lines, documentary filmmakers working on risky projects have learned that it’s easier to shoot on a smartphone without drawing unwanted attention. That used to be one of the advantages of stripped-down DSLR rigs, but now that it’s common for filmmakers to shoot video on DSLRs, smartphones allow shooters to keep an even lower profile. As an example, Barham suggests the example of a filmmaker following poachers in the African wilderness. “Out in the bush, if you bring a DSLR rig you’ll still call more attention to yourself than if you pull a smartphone out of your back pocket,” Barham points out. “Filmmakers can feel safe documenting stuff that would otherwise have put them in a high-risk situation.”
It can heighten the verisimilitude of drama, as well. Barham cites a scene from Tangerine that was shot, vérité-style, on a city bus. The production captured reactions from unwitting non-actors on the bus, who were unaware they had become part of a film shoot until the scene was complete. Nobody thought twice when the camera operator, sitting on the bus, used an iPhone to document a verbal altercation between two women. If anything gave away the pro nature of the shoot, Barham thinks it would have been the audio gear. “Their audio footprint was exponentially larger than that of their camera crew,” he says.
Even if your primary reason for shooting with a smartphone is budgetary, Barham says that cost savings has great implications on a shoestring production. “If you have a crew of a half-dozen people, you have a half-dozen smartphones immediately available. You can have an A/B/C primary set-up, a second-unit camera, and one or two doing behind the scenes documentation.”
Asked whether Filmic Pro could be an interesting option for low-budget horror filmmakers looking for a fast-moving camera system, Barham agrees, but only with the caveat that anyone looking to shoot in low-light situations owes it to themselves to run some camera tests to make sure that the tiny sensor inside their phone is capable of capturing the detail they’re looking for. “Some OEMs are starting to put larger sensors in some of their devices,” Barham notes. “If and when Apple decides to scale up and use a larger sensor in future generations of the iPhone, you’ll see even further erosion in the difference between mobile phones and traditional camera gear.”
What’s next for the software itself? Filmic is looking to branch out past video acquisition with its first audio recording app, scheduled for release later this summer. And then, around the release of iOS 13, look for a possible release of one or more applications for still photographers. And, at some point, Filmic may be available in a more consumer-friendly middle-tier version designed to help users take better smartphone video without making them navigate pro-level features. Barham also said he’d like to make more inroads in the education market, where classes in theater and dance could use the software as readily as those in communication and journalism.
But he’s also happy as long as narrative filmmakers and documentarians can use Filmic Pro software, now in its sixth major version, to work more cost-effectively. “If you can save $5,000 on your camera package and spend it somewhere else, for me on a business or a philosophical level, that’s incredible. If we can enable people to tell rich, authentic, underserved stories and get them into the global marketplace of ideas, that’s a beautiful thing.”