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iPhoneography: How to Make a Movie with Your Phone

By Robert Repass

In filmmaking, technological advances continue to break down barriers to creativity: large film cameras have given way to smaller, more portable equipment. Film became analog videotape, which became digital video. Professional features made their way into consumer units—and then onto phones. Don’t look now, but you’ve got a movie studio in your pocket.

Your iPhone is a filmmaking powerhouse: the iPhone 6s boats a 12-megapixel camera, the ability to shoot 4K (3840x2160) video, video stabilization, and frame rates of up to 120 fps—most DSLRs can’t come close. And an iPhone is, in fact, the perfect video camera for many situations—for instance, when you need something small, discreet, and/or inexpensive.

But how does the footage look? Sure, you can you capture your cats for a quick Facebook post or record your kid’s violin recital to share with the family. But can you make something beautiful, professional, or important? This is no longer a crazy question.

Take Magnolia Pictures’ Tangerine, a darling of 2015’s Sundance Film Festival. Like the citrus fruit, the camera used to shoot this film fits right into a pocket. Writer-director Sean Baker’s camera choice: the iPhone 5s. Budget drove Baker’s choice, but that was not the only benefit, and the resulting footage is intimate and powerful. (The Verge has a nice piece on the making of Tangerine, for people who’d like to learn more about it.)

Tangerine is currently available on Netflix for those among us who haven’t seen it yet or who want to see it again. (Note that this film is about adults using adult language in very adult situations.) Check out the official trailer.

Before you rush out to shoot a cinematic masterpiece with your iPhone, however, there are a few things you will need to know.

The iPhone lets you shoot video right out of the box, but it lacks some controls and finesse a filmmaker may need in order to compose a professional-looking shot. So here are some ideas on how to make your phone ready for filmmaking. (We’re focusing on the iPhone, but many of the same recommendations should also apply to Android and other platforms.)

TAP THE APP

At the bare minimum, you will want the ability to set white balance, control and lock your aperture setting, and adjust focus. We’ve all experienced the seasickness that the hunt-and-seek effect of a video shot on a phone can cause—the phone can’t hold focus, the light levels bloom and then fade, and everyone looks a little green. You may need the ability to pull focus, targeted zoom options, and multiple aspect ratios to choose from. And, of course, you’ll want the best and highest bit rates possible.

For the price of $9.99, you can have all these video capabilities and more. The makers of Tangerine chose FiLMiC Pro, and the proof is in the donut. (Watch the film; you will understand.) This app provides full control over white balance, shutter speed, focus, frame rates, aspect ratio, variable bitrate encoding, and so much more, for professional-looking footage. For bloggers and social devotees, this app offers an easy way to quickly upload your HD videos to Facebook and social networks. You get the idea—find the right app to unlock the full power of your iPhone video capabilities, and you are on your way.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS…

Now turn your phone over. See that little speck in the top left corner? That’s your lens. It does a great job, but it has its limits. Unlike with professional film or DSLR cameras, you can’t switch out your phone lens. The iPhone can natively shoot at an aspect ratio of 16:9. So what do you do if you want to go wider and have it look natural? The Tangerine team found an answer: Moondog Labs and their new 1.33x anamorphic lens delivered the widescreen aspect ratio they wanted. Anamorphic lenses capture a wider aspect ratio by optically squeezing the image that gets captured by the camera. (You will need to “un-squeeze” the footage to have it display correctly. Many nonlinear editing programs—such as Adobe Premiere Pro CC—can do this.)

Anamorphic lenses are only one type of lens diopter currently available. Your optic options are numerous and growing; there are a slew of telephoto, macro, and fish-eye lenses out there that can help you realize your creative vision.

…DARKLY

Now back to that speck of glass on your phone. It is small. A small lens means less light gets in. To help limit noise in your footage, you need light. It’s all about dynamic range—the camera’s ability to capture details as you get closer to true black and true white within a shot. The higher the range, the more detail you can capture at and between the extremes, and the more film-like your footage will appear.

Even though mobile cameras are getting better, most do not come close to the same dynamic range as film. One of the easiest ways to avoid problems is to add more light. Make sure your areas of interest are well lit, and brighten up the dark areas so they don’t get lost. Several sites offer great tricks and tips for lighting your shots, but you will need a decent lighting kit, especially for working indoors or at night. (Don’t forget portable reflectors for fills and catch lights.) An LED light kit is a compact, cost-effective way to throw a lot of light; kits are available at most popular video and photography stores and websites.

STEADY AS IT GOES

A small camera can help you get some great shots. But an iPhone is also hard to keep steady. You can slap the phone on some sticks and lock it down—but what if you want more-dynamic shots? Holding the phone is not an option if you want smooth, fluid motion. No need to re-invent the wheel here. Tangerine used the Steadicam Smoothee to produce controlled handheld movements. Beastgrip offers an integrated lens-adapter and camera-rigging system. Ikan offers a compact gimbal, and iOgrapher has stabilizer options for various iPhones and iPads. So explore. Try some out, and choose what works for you.

HUSH, NOT!

We’ve all seen films with shaky shots, bad light, and soft focus. We can forgive and forget…but nothing annoys, aggravates, or tests the fundamental core of our humanity more than bad audio. While the iPhone captures decent audio, you may want to opt for better fidelity and more control. It’s best to have an adept sound person on hand with an external sound recorder and a full complement of microphones and booms to capture the best possible audio for your film. This will save you having to repair the audio in post.

Adobe Premiere Clip offers a wealth of options for making and finishing beautiful videos on your phone. And if you’re looking for something more professional, Clip makes it easy to send your rough-cut and raw footage into Premiere Pro. See how simple it is.

GO WITH THE FLOW

Regardless what you use to shoot your movie, you’ll want an easy workflow to take your footage and audio into postproduction. You want your editor editing, not plotting your murder. High-end setups have complicated or proprietary workflows that can be difficult to navigate and/or costly to implement. If you’re using a phone to shoot your film, you probably want to avoid the complexity.  

And you can. Among the several available options, Adobe offers Adobe Premiere Clip, a free app for iPhone and Android. It lets you quickly assemble and edit your video clips and images right on your phone. According to Bronwyn Lewis, the product manager for mobile editing at Adobe, Premiere Clip is designed with several use cases in mind. When immediacy is crucial, Clip allows people to edit, produce, and post videos quickly to blogs or social networks. Clip also provides filmmakers the ability to effectively treat the phone as a key step in the production and postproduction process—from assembling location-scouting footage and dynamic storyboarding to creating a rough cut for export to Premiere Pro. Clip offers titling features and a Sync To Music feature that lets you automatically sync your cuts to the beat of your soundtrack. (You can even send your beat markers to Premiere Pro as part of the rough cut.) You can also apply custom lighting “looks” from Adobe Capture CC to your footage.

For Lewis, who formerly taught video production to teenage girls, this is an exciting time for filmmakers who are starting out or who don’t have a lot of money. “With the explosion of technologies, more people are able to gain access to cameras and editing software. That allows them to tell their stories. It is breaking down limits to creativity.”

PHONE PHILM PHEST

Although it’s not right for every type of movie, the phone has clearly become a legitimate tool of the filmmaking trade—it can actually be a better tool for many types of movies: guerrilla documentaries or cinéma vérité, for instance. Adobe’s Lewis believes that attitudes and access are already changing. “Tangerine really points to the possibilities,” she says.

And future iPhone filmmakers will be in excellent company. Here’s a very small sampling of films shot with mobile devices. Enjoy!

NIGHT FISHING  (PARANMANJANG)

Tangerine’s Sean Baker is not the first filmmaker to turn to a phone to shoot a film. Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) shot this film entirely with an iPhone 4. (Length: 33:19)

Watch movie

FRAMED

A photographer has a strange encounter during a walk in the woods with his camera. You would never guess this short film was shot entirely using an iPhone 4s. (Length: 3:18)

Watch movie

 

THE PAINTER OF JALOUZI

Small cameras offer documentarians endless possibilities without the intrusiveness that comes with a traditional production team. This short was shot with the Encinema SLR adaptor. (Length: 3:18)

Watch movie

 

O

Constraints often foster innovation. The iPhone’s lens is about the size of a water drop. Dan Tomimatsu interpreted that literally by turning a five-yen coin into a water lens for an iPhone. (Length: 0:45)

Watch trailer (full film not yet available)

 

CENTRIPHONE

Form follows function. And sometimes feats follow form—especially for athletes. I am not quite sure how this iPhone 6 video experiment was shot, but it’s really cool, if you get my drift. (Length: 2:41)

Watch movie

 

THIS MOMENT (SURF)

The surf is up in this meditative short about catching and being with waves—it was shot using an iPhone 6s using the FiLMic Pro app, aided by a Beatsgrip rig and a DOF lens adaptor. (Length: 2:57)

Watch movie

 

If you want more inspiration, there are oodles of films on YouTube and Vimeo to watch. There are also several mobile/phone film festivals to check out or submit your film to—for instance, Disposable Film Festival, the iPhone Film Festival, and the iPhone Popup Film Festival.

Now go out and make your iPhone movie masterpiece. Experiment and see how far you get using your phone’s stock features, and then the find the apps and add-ons that work for you. It’s the dawn of new era for moviemaking, and there has never been a better time to phone it in.