iPhone Filmmaking: Fad, or the Future?

In Featured, Industry Insights, Joe Campbell by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Joe Campbell –

There’s no denying that the iPhone filmmaking movement is growing. With a quick Google search, you can find an abundance of short films shot on smartphones; within the past eight years there have been at least five full length features filmed this way. More companies are selling lenses and shoulder mounts designed to accommodate iPhone directors, and there’s even a film festival celebrating the technique. The movement has gained even more recognition in the past few years with Sean Baker’s 2015 movie Tangerine, and Steven Soderbergh’s newest release, this year’s Unsane. Suddenly, smartphone movies aren’t just for unknown directors with no budgets, they are being hailed as a legitimate form of filmmaking, something that could possibly break into the mainstream consciousness.

As smartphones become more advanced, more filmmakers have started using them as a replacement for their larger, more expensive cameras. But why? What is so appealing about shooting a feature length movie on an iPhone? Should we be excited or trepidatious of this rising trend?

One of the most obvious advantages of this technique is also the most practical: smartphones are small. Josh Davidson, director of the upcoming Terror on Dead iSland, said that one advantage of shooting the entire movie on an iPhone was that he could fit it anywhere. “There’s one scene I shot looking under a closet door,” he remembers. “I shot it with the phone on the floor looking under the closet door.” On any other film, he would have had to rig some effects with props to get the same effect, whereas here Davidson was simply able to put the camera exactly where he wanted to. This is also evident in Soderbergh’s Unsane, where the camera is often placed anywhere from behind objects on desks to right in front of the actors’ faces.

The small size is also an advantage to directors working with first-time and non-professional actors, as director Sean Baker discovered. Baker gained attention when he shot the 2015 film Tangerine with iPhone 5s smartphones and first time actors. At Independent Film Week 2017 he remarked, “To shove a camera in [non pros’] faces is quite intimidating. You do that with an iPhone, though…everyone has a smartphone. Suddenly you realize they’re very comfortable, because they’re not intimidating.”

Camera moves don’t require major adjustments on set, either. The director can knock out more shots than usual in a single shooting day when he can instantly move the camera wherever he wants to. Smart Movie Making reports that Donovan Cook shot his $34K road trip comedy Rideshare (2013) in seven days on a coast-to-coast drive. Cook describes how they “…shot three to four scenes along the way,” because they didn’t need to spend as much time setting up the camera.

But despite these upsides, there are some areas where a phone’s limited camera can’t quite measure up. Davidson mentions lighting being a major issue when shooting Terror on Dead iSland. “We were trying to light it at times like a movie set, but the phone didn’t handle that well. The absolute best shots in the film are when the camera person was just holding a flashlight.” Davidson shot Dead iSland back in 2010 on the iPhone 4, but eight years later Soderbergh faced similar issues when shooting Unsane. In lighting a night scene in the woods, Soderbergh was forced to shoot day-for-night so that the camera would see anything. He told Dazed Digital, “A traditional movie would have lined up a bank of 18K’s to light that forest up like crazy in order to shoot that sequence, but low budget movies can’t do that; they have to figure out another way.”

Soderbergh decided to capitalize on the limitation, giving that night scene a blue tint and harsh shadows. Whether or not it paid off is subject to debate, but it stands that Soderbergh had to find a workaround that wouldn’t have been necessary if he was shooting on traditional cameras. Would it have made any difference if Soderbergh had been working with a bigger budget that allowed for more lights? Maybe a little, but I’m not convinced it would have solved all his problems. In Unsane, it’s apparent that more detail than usual is frequently lost in shadow, even during scenes filmed indoors with decent lighting.

But iPhone movies have an even bigger hurdle to leap in being accepted as a mainstream form of filmmaking: image quality. As Indiewire reports, Soderbergh has been highly praising the accomplishments of the iPhone’s camera, even going so far as to say it’s the only way he’ll shoot moving forward. “People forget this is a 4K capture,” he acclaims. “I’ve seen it 40 feet tall. It looks like velvet.”

Having also seen it on the big screen, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Soderbergh. The film has a gritty, raw quality to it that’s appropriate to the genre story he’s telling, but it’s hardly comparable to the beautifully smooth quality of multi-million dollar blockbusters. What Soderbergh may see as “velvety”, I think most mainstream audiences will see as looking cheap. If so, that is going to be the format’s biggest detriment to widespread acceptance.

Whenever technology changes the way we see movies, the audience is going to be skeptical. Peter Jackson claimed he was ahead of the curve when he filmed The Hobbit trilogy at 60 frames per second. But he was battling an audience that was used to a lifetime of watching movies at 24 frames per second. People pushed back against it, saying it looked like it was shot for TV, or that it made the high quality effects looks cheap.

Soderbergh can tout the 4K accomplishments of the iPhone all he wants, any Joe Schmoe used to his movies looking glossy and crisp is still going to think Unsane looks cheap. This is why I don’t see major studios shelling out millions of dollars towards iPhone movies any time soon, if ever.

But just because Disney won’t be shooting Avengers 12 on smartphones in twenty years doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. Director Ricky Fosheim shot his 2014 psychological thriller Uneasy Lies the Mind on an iPhone partially to take advantage of the “textured” look it allowed him to achieve. In a YouTube video meant to convey why he shot the film that way, he explains that it, “added to the aesthetic and the dark, gritty quality,” he was going for. He isn’t wrong. Both Uneasy Lies the Mind and Unsane go for uncomfortable camera angles and feature a heavily stylized look that is meant to put the audience on edge. In certain genres, this technology is absolutely more desirable to achieve something other than the clean look we are used to.

Most importantly, I think we should be excited about iPhone films because of the potential they hold for first-time filmmakers. Many would-be directors feel daunted by the budgets and gear needed to pull their vision off, and this technology is not only incredibly affordable by comparison, but it’s becoming incredibly sophisticated. Because pioneers like Davidson and Cook saw the potential in this easily accessible technology, there are now apps that give filmmakers greater control over their phones’ focus, light, and color settings. On top of this, anyone can buy an inexpensive lens that attaches to their phone’s camera to give their images a more professional look.

Any potential filmmaker no longer has a reason to put off realizing their vision on screen; all they need is the camera they already carry in their pocket every day. That is reason enough to get excited about this rising trend in indie filmmaking.


About the Author

Joe Campbell  graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.