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Are Smartphones Helping Us To Shoot Smarter Films?

Just a few days ago, as the Sundance Film Festival was about to end, a film started making the headlines. Sean Baker’s Tangerine, shot with an iPhone 5s, was enthusiastically saluted as the frontrunner of a new breed of movies that, by spending between $168 and $768 for set up, can achieve quality images for a feature film, get noticed by one of the most respected international film festivals, and get a distribution deal with an established company like Magnolia Pictures.

Without going into too much technical detail, Baker enhanced his iPhone by adding a set of anamorphic adapter lenses, an app that allows control of the cinematography, as well as a Steadicam rig to stabilize the device. That said, it’s not only a matter of tools. You can’t escape the fact that you have to know what filmmaking is about: “You still need to know how editing works. You still need to know how sound works. You still need to know how a camera works.” says actor James Ransone to The Verge. “You can’t just go out and shoot. […] You have to know 100 years worth of filmmaking.”

Sean Baker's feature film "Tangerine" was shot with an iPhone 5s.
Sean Baker’s feature film “Tangerine” was shot with an iPhone 5s.

Tangerine is of course not the only film of this kind. And Uneasy Lies The Mind, directed by Ricky Fosheim and officially selected for the 2014 South By Southwest Excellence in the Title Design Awards category, claims to be “the first feature length narrative movie to be shot entirely on the iPhone”. (An iPhone 5 with a Turtleback SLR Jacket lens adapter, to be precise. You can read more technical details in this interview for American Cinematographer).

Horror directors are going mobile too. See for instance Juan Ortiz’ feature Jennifer Help Us, shot on an iPhone 4s, which recently got noticed. The list goes on, as there are plenty of mobile film festivals showcasing the most creative projects shot with smartphones. And it’s not just about filmmaking: I’m sure you’ve heard of iPhoneography.

Juan Ortiz' horror "Jennifer Help Us" was shot with an iPhone 4s.
Juan Ortiz’ horror “Jennifer Help Us” was shot with an iPhone 4s.

Technology is great, but what about the stories? Storytelling will benefit from this in the long run, although so far the enthusiastic reviews I read concentrate predominantly on the technical aspects, the quality of shooting, the apps and the gear. Not to mention the fact that very often directors adopt smartphones simply because they have a low budget.

Moreover, it seems to be true that there is a little bit of resistance among professionals, maybe because we’re getting to the peak of the clash between amateurs and pros. As Ransone recalled in The Verge, he hesitated before abandoning himself to the flexibility of the iPhone: “More out of pride. I’m like, Jesus Christ, man, I was on The Wire. I’ve ended up in iPhone movies.” As they say, embrace the change.