Phone Film Image

Image courtesy of Video Entrepreneur Magazine

These days it’s possible for anyone to be the next big thing in filmmaking, and guess what? It’s all because of the humble smartphone.

When I was 12 years old, I used to make short parodies of films in my backyard (I remember one of them being a John Cena movie called 12 Rounds where I obviously played John Cena). I didn’t own a proper film camera so my mobile phone had to do — It was a Samsung slide phone, with terrible camera quality. I never thought it would be possible to accomplish filming a whole movie on a phone, but I did my best. I couldn’t pause to make edits, so if we messed up a take, we’d have to film the whole video again (which happened a lot!)

It’s 2018 and it’s perfectly normal to annually upgrade our phones. Plus, there’s been some serious advancements made when it comes towards the features on these devices. You can pretty much film a whole movie on them now. However, this was made possible back in 2015, with the release of a film called Tangerine. The entire film was filmed on an iPhone 5 and subsequently, was entered into the Sundance Film Festival.

Tangerine Film Poster Image

Unsane Film Poster Image

Movie posters for Tangerine and Unsane. Images Supplied from IMDB

Whilst you may not have heard of the film, it was a game changer for filmmaking. At the time, the iPhone 5 was at the peak of tech. For example, the camera was a whopping 8-megapixels, could handle low light conditions and included a stabilisation feature to avoid shakiness.

The film was such a success that the director, Sean Baker, the following year made a short film with an iPhone again called Snowbird. Then, this year, another movie maker, Steven Soderberghreleased Unsane which was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus. In an article by Fast Company, Baker said “everybody owns an iPhone or at least a smartphone, so there’s nothing elitist about it. Nothing intimidating about it. That, for me, is why I did this.”

Why you should use smartphones

So, the point of this blog is to highlight that if you’re an avid filmmaker, then you don’t need to go to film school and spend thousands of dollars on equipment. Here are some of the benefits of using the device in your pocket to create some serious visual magic: 

1. Film on a low budget

Smartphones are especially helpful if you’re on a low budget or looking to film an independent movie. No big crews, no fancy lighting and you can even do most of the filming yourself. The movie Tangerine, which I mentioned earlier, was made on a budget of just $100,000 which is common for independent movies while Unsane, was made on a budget of 1.5 million, small considering it was a major Hollywood production. The point is, you shouldn’t have to invest in expensive equipment and cameras. You can produce high-quality content, as your camera is in your hands.

2. Squeeze into tight spaces to get the shot

Another positive about smartphones? They fit in your pocket and with their size, they are much more ‘mobile’ (pardon the pun). There is also the added benefit of being able to fit them in most spaces to get that money shot compared to the film cameras which are bigger and heavier.  

3. Shoot in high definition

It’s pretty mind-blowing to think that smartphones have the capacity to be shot on 4K, which gives you top-notch picture quality to truly make it look like a big budget film. In an article by Apple Insider, Director Steven Soderberg described the iPhone’s 4k footage as, ‘velvet’ and called it a ‘game changer’.

Unsane Movie Image

A scene from Unsane, a movie about a young woman who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear: what is real or a product of her delusion?
Image supplied from The MacGuffin

4. Edit on the fly

Smartphones mean you can actually edit the film on the phone itself. Plus, there’s a large range of apps that you can download to make editing easier. Alternatively, you can just use the already given iMovie editor on an iPhone. With this, you can do a rough edit of a scene literally seconds after stopping recording. Talk about time-saving!

The Downsides

With the positives, there are always negatives and yes, there are some downsides to using a smartphone to make movies compared to using professional equipment:

1. Stabilisation is tricky

Funnily enough, the size of the phone can be a negative when it comes to filming. It’s a lot harder to stabilise than a film camera. If you want to get those smooth, steady shots, I recommend using a tripod or a gimbal. However, some smartphones do have built-in stabilisers in the camera like the iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy.

iPhone Gimbal Image

Smartphone Gimbal: Perfect for smooth shots while on the move. Image Supplied from Fstoppers

Smart Phone Tripod Image

Smartphone Tripod: Best used for stationary shots. Image supplied from MacWorld

2. Audio limitations

Quality film, means you need quality audio. As a rule of thumb, in filmmaking, I recommend that you don’t use the built-in microphone on a film camera. It’s decent quality, but to really get your audio to pop, professional filmmakers use a boom microphone, which can be attached directly into the camera. This can’t be done on smartphones, as unfortunately there’s nowhere to attach sound equipment and monitor it. If you want to achieve high-quality sounds, you’ll have to record the audio separately which in the editing process, can be a lot more time consuming, as you have to make sure that the visuals and the sound are in sync.

3. The lens

Another limitation when it comes to using a smartphone for filming is that you can’t swap lenses on the camera. However, there are some slightly more advanced models that do have more than one lens – like the iPhone 7 Plus which has an inbuilt twin-lense. To get a little bit creative,  it’s possible to attach an adapter lens to the phone for wide, macro and telephoto shots. If you choose to do this, there is a chance that the quality of the footage can be compromised. Smartphone camera lenses are significantly smaller compared to a professional film camera. When it comes to professional film techniques like depth of field, focus and push-pull zooms, you might find this difficult to achieve on your smartphone.

Smartphone Camera Lens Image

An adaptor lens next to the regular phone lens. Image Supplied from HiConsmuption

Are you ready to shout ‘action’? 

So, there you have it! Even though there are a few downsides when using your smartphone to film, there’s still a fair share of positive ones too. They’re the perfect stepping stone for a filmmaker to get started and whilst it might take a while to understand all the technical stuff, it will all come in time with practice. If I could do it on my old Samsung slide phone back when I was 12, then you can too.

At LEP, being digital is at the heart of what we do, so if you have any smartphone filming questions or need some technical advice, then feel free to drop us a line.

Author Gabe Parker

Gabe is currently interning at LEP Digital. He is in his final semester at the University of Newcastle and is currently studying a Bachelor of Communication majoring in media production and media studies. With a wicked sense of humour, Gabe is well on the way to being the next comedic superstar in Hollywood. He's also rather talented behind the scenes and can edit footage like a pro.

More posts by Gabe Parker

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