How to Make a Movie on Your Smartphone

Photo: Gravitas Ventures

At the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2015, famed indie director and current multi-multi-hyphenate Mark Duplass said in his keynote address that if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, “there’s no excuse not to make films on weekends with friends.” Part of his reasoning was the prevalence of the smartphone, which gives pretty much everyone the ability to shoot, edit, and distribute a movie, all with a device that they have on them most of the day: “We’re in a place now where technology is so cheap that there’s no excuse for you not to be making films on the weekends with your friends, shot on your iPhone. We had a feature film at Sundance this year that was shot entirely on iPhones and it did really well.”

That film, of course, was Tangerine, Sean Baker’s remarkable achievement, and it looms over much of smartphone filmmaking. But other directors have taken the same path as Baker, and Vulture talked to two — Matthew Cherry, director of 9 Rides, and Ricky Fosheim, director of Uneasy Lies the Mind — about their experience of making feature-length movies on a smartphone.

On when they made the decision to shoot with a smartphone:
MC: I think indie filmmaking is all about having the hook: What’s your narrative going to be once your movie is made and you do your festival premiere. I was always interested in smartphone filmmaking, and I was also interested in that mumblecore genre. Being a black filmmaker, I’ve never really seen us having a big opportunity, aside from Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy, where we had a film that was very much improv-feeling, and wasn’t necessarily always scripted, and felt like it was a thing that evolved over the course of the shoot.

RF: We decided pretty early on to shoot on the iPhone. At the time, I actually owned one of the early RED One camera packages. I actually did a full-on test with the iPhone and the lens adapter that I used and the RED One. Of course, the RED One is way better, but it was just a test as to Can we shoot on the iPhone? — because it wasn’t a budgetary thing at all for us; it was 100 percent creative because both cameras were free. There are other issues, of course, like the ease of use. Even if you own a camera, it can still be difficult to use, but for us it was more, the entire movie — it’s an abstract, art-house, very cerebral movie, and 90 percent of the movie is a flashback, and it’s told from the perspective of somebody who is dying, that’s been hit over the head, who was involved in an armed robbery and is bleeding out. It’s kind of his life flashing before him. That gave us free rein to really just run with the visuals, and the editing and the narrative and the acting and the camera was included, so I wanted something that was rough around the edges, that was really deteriorating.

It wasn’t just the iPhone for us: We actually filmed with a lens adapter, with lenses, and the lens adapter itself has this opaque glass in front of it that has texture to it, and weird artifacting and dust and hair would get in that piece of glass, which would make it even more dirty. There was even a happy accident halfway through filming where we realized that if I was charging the phone while we were filming, it would get these little electric pulses to it, so you’d actually see these voltage shifts in the image, which would adjust the contrast slightly. So as dirty as we could get it is what we were going for, and it just so happened to be that the iPhone with the lens adapter was where we ended up.

MC: It was crazy, around the time I was writing the script, the iPhone 6s had just dropped, and that was technically the first iPhone that shot in 4K. I just remember — I started as a PA and I remember when the RED camera just came out, and it was 4K and everybody was losing their minds. I was just like, Wow, if you can get 4K quality from a smartphone, if you can shoot it in a way that is a part of the narrative and makes sense, why wouldn’t you try to shoot some stuff on a smartphone?

The biggest issue with smartphone filmmaking is, you have to rig the phone properly so it’s not extra shaky, but outside of that and obviously depth of field, for the most part, if you’re going to use them to tell a narrative that makes sense, why wouldn’t you? I think filmmaking, in a lot of ways, evolves from access, and the thing that was most important for me was — I could’ve shot this movie with a Canon 300 or some kind of low-level prosumer camera, but I specifically wanted to shoot it with an iPhone because I wanted other filmmakers of color to know that it was possible to shoot a feature film with something that you have in your pocket, and also for it to be able to play at bigger film festivals and get distribution and the whole nine.

I think sometimes, especially when we don’t see people who look like us doing it — huge shout to my man who did Tangerine, Sean Baker, but the people that I know and the people that I rock with never saw that movie. Sometimes you have to see somebody who looks like you doing it to know that it’s possible, and my hope was that an aspiring black filmmaker would see somebody else black, or another person of color would see another person of color do this, on top of what Sean Baker did with Tangerine, and you’re like, Oh, wow, I should try this, too, with the hope that just a lot more people would have the opportunity to make projects.

On the differences between shooting with a smartphone and a conventional camera:
MC: Depth of field was definitely a thing. When I first learned about filmmaking, depth of field was always something that I tried to seek out, even when we were shooting Panasonic 100A’s or whatever, we would even try to jury-rig little lens packages for that. So the biggest thing that concerned me was, Oh man, shooting on an iPhone you can’t really do depth of field, but we just didn’t really concern ourselves with depth of field so much — we were just like, Whatever, everything’s going to be in focus and that’s part of our narrative.

RF: I know cameras, even the nicer cameras, have gotten smaller and lighter, but even those ones are still big and heavy, and we were shooting in freezing-cold weather, in powder and a foot or two of snow. There were a couple of scenes where if I had to be lugging around a 20-pound camera all day in two feet of snow at 8,000 feet elevation, which is where we shot the whole movie, it would’ve been really hard. I don’t know if I necessarily thought of that while I was filming, but looking back on it, like, oh my gosh, yeah, that definitely was a huge — if I would’ve been exhausted, there would’ve been shots out of focus, I would’ve had to make the actors redo the take, and it would’ve turned into much more of an issue.

MC: There was also the freedom that the iPhones gave us in terms of being able to get really cool shots that we normally wouldn’t have been able to get, but it also, because the budget was so low, about $15,000, we couldn’t have afforded to permit streets and get police officers to control traffic. [Laughs.] We put iPhones on suction cups outside the car, we made sure we secured them, and we just hit the road for six nights in November 2015.

On the gear they used with the smartphone:
MC: Obviously, iPhones have gotten better each year the new ones come out — I can only imagine what it’s like to shoot with the X right now — but back when the 6s came out, low-light conditions were a huge concern, especially because we weren’t going to have a process trailer and lights that we were going to be pointing at the actors. A lot of our prep was trying to map out locations that did have great natural light on the street, and a big part of prep, too, was making sure the gear was right. Obviously, we researched what Sean Baker did with Tangerine, some of the gear they used; Filmic Pro was a really crucial element for us because that app allows you to control frame rate, color temperature, focus, are you shooting in 4K, are you shooting in 2K, etcetera, etcetera.

Also, on top of that, the rigging — How are we actually going to secure the iPhones to the car? — was a big [question], and then also what type of lights are we going to use inside the car? As crazy as it is, we ended up having two iPhone 6s’s that we used: One was Pro size, the bigger one, and one was smaller, and then we had two Moondog Labs anamorphic lenses, which were $150 a pop. We ended up deciding on the Beastgrip Pro rig, which is this really cool rig that allows you to secure your phone but also allows you to attach it to a suction-cup-type rig or put it on a tripod or whatever, and that was like all of our equipment.

For lighting, my DP was able to research and find these LED panels. I think there were two of them that we had; they ended up being $1,000, and we would put them either on the front console where the car’s onboard system would be, or we put them over the top, where the dome was. That was really all our lighting — that, plus a lot of our actors in the movie were darker-skinned or brown-skinned, so just kind of trying to find those levels where the LED lights would actually look good with brown skin, and also making sure the streets that we shot in were well-lit, was probably our biggest part of preproduction.

RF: I had the iPhone 5 in a little case and then that was attached to a lens adapter and a very small, compact 35 mm lens, and then the camera itself, that case, was attached to a monopod. I wouldn’t extend the legs of the monopod — every now and then I would, but I would mostly just use the monopod as a handheld device — so I would just be holding it. I didn’t have any sort of shoulder rig; I would just kind of use both my arms and push them up against my chest and my belly and use that with the monopod to make that stable. Again, our goal was to dirty up the image, so handheld was the obvious choice, and allowing shots to go out of focus at times. It’s not always perfectly in focus, but I didn’t want to go so extreme that the handheld look was nauseating or uncomfortable for the viewer.

I know that iPhone cameras tend to, if you really do move them fast, you get this kind of Jell-O effect, this rolling shutter is what it’s called, and it kind of looks like the top of the image is moving just slightly, a millisecond slower than the bottom of the image, so it looks like it has this wave to it. I didn’t want it to be like that, so it was the perfect balance between having a dirty handheld look that also had some sort of quality control, that didn’t look amateur. We shot on the iPhone 5 with Filmic Pro in HD, 1080p, so we didn’t have 4K or some of the nicer tools that are on the newer cameras.

On how shooting with a smartphone affected the actors:
MC: Our movie was shot in that mumblecore style of “we had a scriptment,” I’ll call it, like a 10- to 15-page document that had all the major beats. There were a couple lines of dialogue, and the overall arc of the story, but it was very much improv. And having the iPhones — they’re so small and we were able to rig them up with suction cups on the side of the car, or I’m in the front seat and my DP’s in the back seat. Because the crew was so small, I think we had a crew of five people maybe, but only two or three of us would be in the car with the actors at the same time, and then the camera was on the outside of the car shooting in, and we’d be lying down in the back seat. So it was really like no crew at all was around, and we rarely had operators unless we were in the back seat with the phone or in the passenger seat.

It just really gave the actors — and Dorian Missick talked about this on the festival circuit a few times — he just talked about how it really created a sense of intimacy between him and the other actors who would be in the car with him, and it got to a point where they’d actually forget that the cameras were there. Normally, on film shoots, you have like a hundred crew people holding mics and doing everything else behind the camera, but we wirelessly mic’d them, and there were a lot of setups where there were no other crew around; it was just them in the car doing a ten-minute take while driving.

RF: The answer is kind of twofold because I think initially, on the surface, you would say that yes, the actors feel more comfortable, you can move quicker, the actors can stay in character, you can do many takes back-to-back-to-back, you can move on to a new take fairly quickly, and that helps everybody. Making a movie is very time-consuming, so saving time is a huge asset. On the other hand, movies that are shot on film nowadays, which is super rare, but the times that you do hear about people shooting on film, it’s almost the same thing. You’d think it would be different: It’s this giant camera that’s kind of noisy, there are all these motors in it, that’s shooting on this really expensive medium, that’s really slow and cumbersome, but it almost has the same effect because people know to bring their A game. When you’re shooting on the iPhone, it’s like, we’re going to get 10 takes or 12 takes, I don’t need to be on point. It can be lazy if you don’t do it right. You still have to put in all the time and energy and effort as if you were shooting on a film camera — but you’re not.

On how smartphones will impact filmmaking going forward:
MC: I’ll say this: My experience with 9 Rides was the most freeing and least stressful film shoot I’ve ever been a part of. Seriously, it was so smooth. The time I would have with the actors before we would do the takes, I’ve just never been able to duplicate that experience on any of my other shoots. I would say that the depth-of-field thing is something that — if they can ever figure out a way for iPhones to do Portrait mode but for video, that would be the thing that I think would change the game because that’s really the only thing that’s missing. It shoots in the proper format. It can do slow-motion. It can do regular speed. It can shoot 4K. When we were at South by Southwest, it looked great on the big screen. The only thing that’s really holding it up is that ability to control focus and depth of field. So I feel like, whenever they figure that out, why would you even need to use a regular camera, to be honest. And definitely, I would shoot another feature project with them.

RF: I’ve made a couple movies as a producer and a cinematographer since Uneasy Lies the Mind, and what I’ve become comfortable with — and this is maybe a little less iPhone-y and a little more the times we live in — is that you should be able to pre-shoot your entire movie, essentially, and edit it together, doing digital cinematic storyboards. Go with your actors and actually shoot the scene, and then go in the editing room and edit that scene, and do that all before you film your final version of the movie. You’re basically pre-shooting your entire movie. It might sound time-consuming, but you’re going to learn so much about the shots that work or the performances that might not work. I think anybody can do that nowadays. You don’t have to be some editor or cinematographer or director. You could be the writer or producer or the actor, and you can sit there and edit together your own pre-visualization version of the scene or the movie. And that’s pretty cool, I like that idea, and I’ve realized that the last couple crews I’ve worked with, we’ll go out and spend two weeks pre-shooting the entire movie, and then we’ll just go back and redo it all again, just better, having learned from our mistakes. Everybody has some sort of smartphone nowadays, and you don’t have to have any idea how to operate a camera, at all.

How to Make a Movie on Your Smartphone