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Mobile filmmaking and how the new ‘creator-makers’ stole the show

rideshare, iphone, filmmaking, mobile filmmaking, smartphones, Tom Cruise

Ryan Fox as Dr Abe, shooting a scene from Rideshare, the first full-length feature film to be made on an iPhone 4

Ever since the arrival of the iPhone 4, mobile devices have been at the forefront of a new style of filmmaking – made on, and for, tablets and smartphones

It didn’t take long. A little over a week after the iPhone 5 launch last year and the first film to be shot and edited entirely on the latest Apple device was released.

All Up To You! is a ‘musical’ that runs for 95 seconds and was made by Majek Pictures, who also created the first film (Apple of My Eye) to be shot and edited on an iPhone 4 soon after its release in 2010.

Many filmmakers are now turning to top-end cameraphones such as the iPhone, Nokia and Samsung Galaxy to produce not only short films and videos, but in some cases 90-minute feature films, as part of a wider cultural and technological shift in how we make, watch and consume video content.

They are the new ‘creator-makers’, who are producing work not for the big screen but to be viewed on tablets and mobile phones via platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube.

Angus Finney, a former European film financier and production executive, gave a talk at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival predicting that people will be watching movies first on tablets and mobile devices “within months.”

Finney, who now runs Europe’s only production finance market as part of Film London, says the shift will have profound implications for the film industry.”You only have to notice the number of people who watch movies and TV shows on handheld devices,” he said. That’s going to require a lot of thought as to the kind of content people make.”

One example of the kind of content this new breed of filmmakers are making is currently in production, and has received the backing of Hollywood star Tom Cruise. Departure claims to be the world’s first multi-film project shot on an iPhone and will receive its premiere at the end of the month at Macworld|iWorld conference in San Francisco.

“Hollywood is seriously taking notice of the creativity and those creating new content in this innovative way,” says the star. Cruise has been one of the few to appreciate this new genre of filmmaking, and on his website you can find handy blogs such as Learn How to Make Professional Quality Films With A Smartphone or Tablet Computer as a guide for young filmmakers.

Departure is billed ‘as a venture in cost-effective, expeditious and epic filmmaking’ by its creator and producer Ruben Kazanstev, who is also co-founder of the iPhone Film Festival.

departure, iphone, mult-film, ruben katsnev, iphone film festival

Departure: ‘expeditious and epic filmmaking’ on an iPhone

The 20-minute short is a crime thriller, set in the United States, France and Belarus. Three locations, three separate countries with three filmmakers shooting independently to form one complete project, one complete intertwining story … all on a smartphone.

“When Team Tom Cruise wrote about our project, and they have been very supportive, it gave the entire team that extra push, it shows we are making history – so the pressure is on,” says Kazanstev.

Michael Koerbel graduated with an MFA in Film from the University of Southern California and was an early adopter of the iPhone as a filmmaking tool.

Creator-makers: Anna Elizabeth James and Michael Koerbel

Creator-makers: Anna Elizabeth James and Michael Koerbel

Along with his partner and co-director, Anna Elizabeth James, he founded Majek Pictures, whose output so far include not only the two iPhone films mentioned previously but also spy thriller series called Goldilocks, which has been described as the ‘Bourne Ultimatum of the iPhone’.

“Shooting with an iPhone is more fun than a traditional camera,” says Koerbel. “It’s a super-small device, you can put it anywhere, and many of the filmmaking accessories for it are fun to play with.

“I’ve been on large productions with hundreds of people in the past, but there is something about making a short on an iPhone that just changes your whole perspective on this visual medium of storytelling.

“I’ve been on large productions with hundreds of people in the past, but there is something about making a short on an iPhone that just changes your whole perspective on this visual medium of storytelling. It’s only a matter of time before the resolution capabilities with an iPhone match that of the higher-end cameras. It could be a decade or it could be a year – time will tell.”

All Up To You! had a cast and crew of only 15 people, was shot in 10 hours in the desert near Pamdale, California with a budget of $700.

James edited the film on the iPhone 5, as she famously did with Apple of My Eye on the iPhone 4 – when she vowed ‘never again’ after working 24 hours straight to produce a 93-second clip.

This time, the task was made easier because the technology has evolved, says James. “It’s not as powerful as editing on a desktop or laptop, but the option to begin an edit, or to upload directly from an iOS device is incredible. iMovie (on iPhone and iPad) has come a long way with four tracks of audio and new themes, trailer projects etc. Pinnacle on the iPad also is impressive, while Vimeo offers a powerful editing option through its own app,” she says.

“Yes [editing] can be cumbersome to edit on the iPhone,” she explains, “but what I love about it is how the process takes it down to the rudimentary fundamentals. I truly feel like I have a better idea of what it would be like to cut actual film because bringing in a shot to just ‘try’ it out on the timeline isn’t as easy. So one must think through it very clearly. Sort of like a writer committing his/her thoughts to paper, the work happens in your mind first then exhibits itself on the screen.”

Many professional filmmakers, up to now, have remained dismissive of cameraphones and see mobile filmmaking as some kind of amateur hobby. Not any more. When South Korean director Park Chan-wook made a 20-minute short called Night Fishing on an iPhone 4 in 2011 which won the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at Berlin Film Festival in 2011, the film industry began to take note.

Of course digital cameras have been around for years, but the cameraphone shrinks the industry down further, making it even more accessible to anyone who wants to make a film, from beginners to professionals. You no longer need to go out and hire (or buy) an expensive digital camera, when you have one sitting in your pocket or bag.

James compares it to a kind of downscaling, not only in filmmaking, but with society in general: “It reminds me of Americanism – how sometimes we have too many things, buy too much stuff, then have to manage all the stuff, etc that we become overwhelmed with all of it. In a weird way this type of filmmaking is going back to the basics and remembering what’s most important, your story, your performances and how to cover it. That’s it. Focus on that and it will be good. We like to think ‘pocket filmmaking’ is ‘green’ filmmaking, green on the planet and more green remaining in your pocket.”

Koerbel, while agreeing with James, sees the wider implications of the whole creator-maker movement. “This filmmaking era is truly the mobile movie making revolution. In this day and age of YouTube shows and viral videos, no longer are the studios just in Hollywood. Everyone (or mostly everyone) now has a cameraphone in their pocket and here are hundreds of millions of studios in pockets around the world – and that’s inspiring to us,” he says.

Of course, it is not just the iPhone that is leading this mobile filmmaking revolution. In the camera stakes the Nokia N8 with its awesome 12 mega-pixel camera (the iPhone 4 carried a 5mp camera, and the 4S and iPhone 5 still only feature 8mp cameras) is by far the top dog, a fact that has been overlooked by many during the Finnish manufacturer’s recent troubles.

And as the lenses on even the most basic smartphone models continue to improve so will the popularity of mobile filmmaking.

OmniVision has developed two new camera chips that will boost the quality of images and video in smartphones and tablets, from the basic models to more advanced devices.

The first is a low cost (OV5645) 5MP BSI Sensor, which includes backside illumination, support for 1080p30 (or 720p60) video and its own internal autofocus system. The OV5645 has retained only a MIPI port, eliminating both the bandwidth-limited DVP interface and the costly embedded JPEG compressor. With an embedded AF VCM driver, the OV5645 offers further cost savings for mobile device manufacturers.

OmniVision’s digital imaging budget software even extends to front cameras, as a forward-facing sensor can share resources with the back camera to scale back on redundant hardware. The 5-megapixel sensor will bring a similar low-light performance to cheaper devices that you get on high-end smartphones.

The 720p HD video is captured in full FOV with 2 x 2 binning. Additionally, a unique post-binning, re-sampling filter function removes zigzag artifacts around slant edges and minimizes spatial artifacts to deliver even sharper, crisper colour images.

“Industry analysts predict 5-megapixel image sensors will remain highly popular for mobile devices for the next few years. Consequently, there is an increased need for cost-effective 5-megapixel cameras that meet the requirements of mainstream mobile markets,” says Per Rosdahl, senior product marketing manager at OmniVision.

There is also a huge demand for 8-megapixel cameras, of course, and OminiVision has also announced the development of a new, powerful 8-megapixel CameraChip solution for smartphones and tablets.

The OV8835 is built on a new and improved OmniBSI-2 pixel architecture that offers best-in-class pixel performance and enables full resolution 8-megapixel high-speed photography at 30 frames per second (FPS) and 1080p/30 or 720p/60 high-definition (HD) video.

The race is also on to develop the first 16-megapixel sensors small enough to be packed into smartphones. Earlier this year OmniVision also announced its two new 16MP sensors that will be capable of producing smooth 4K video technology to tablets and sophisticated smartphones. The sensors, which are the tiny 1/2.3-inch format, can record 4K (3840 x 2160) video at 60fps, or even higher resolution (4608 x 3456) at 30fps.

Not to be outdone, Sony has been developing its CMOS camera sensors tiny enough to slot into mobile devices. Out in front is the 16.41-megapixel Exmor R-based sensor, which uses the same image-sensing technology found in mid-range  digital cameras. Sony’s chip should be available for smartphone manufacturers early next year.

nokia n8, olive, smartphone, gina rowlands, dolly parton

Gina Rowlands on the set of Olive, which was shot on a Nokia N8

The first full-length feature film to be shot on a smartphone, the Nokia N8, was Olive, starring Oscar-nominated actor Gena Rowlands. Made at the beginning of 2011, by co-directors Hooman Khalili  and Patrick Giles, and with a budget of $500,000 it had its theatrical premiere in Los Angeles on 16 December of that year.

“The greatest advantage to using a cellphone or mobile device is that they are small, inexpensive and ubiquitous, ” says Giles. “Granted, we set out to do something extraordinary, so the costs grew exponentially with our cast, crew and support team. However, at the end of the day, we could have made this film without experienced actors, without make-up artists. Without catering, locations, permits, hotels, or any of the other experts in their respective fields. We could have cast our friends and shot it on weekends for burritos and beer. The quality would have suffered, but the story would have still gotten told.”

To achieve the production values for a cinema screen Khalili and Giles fitted the Nokia N8 with traditional 35mm lenses, as did Chan-wook on his iPhone film.

Chan-wook also asked the cast and crew of Night Fishing to film on their iPhones and some of the footage was incorporated into the final cut. This is a fantastic example of how a cameraphone can be utilised on a shoot to give the director extra options and angles, without having to hire more cameras.

But cameraphones have obvious limitations; although Koerbel reckons they will soon match the resolution of digital cameras, but in the meantime mobile filmmakers have to improvise.

Khalili has described how he had to hack the Nokia N8 to turn off its auto-zoom and auto-focus features in order to get the technology to behave as he wanted. “The camera thinks it knows what you want to focus on,” he said, “but it doesn’t know.”

Giles says: “Paradoxically, the limitations were surprising and inspiring at the same time. Since nobody makes feature films on cellphones, there was no ‘work-flow’ in place. Editing, data wrangling, not having a reference monitor or video village. The camera itself was very ‘cranky’ at times. We were able to shut off the auto colour temperature, which required us to replicate every single shot as if it were full sun daylight. Camera operators like turning auto buttons off, not on …”

On the upside, Giles says he would not hesitate to use a smartphone again, now they have ‘ironed out all the bugs.”

“The technology placed into the Nokia N8 definitely helped us make the film look as good as it does. The story is pretty widespread by now, but every so often we’ll get the chance to show the film to someone who has no idea that we shot it on a cellphone. When they find out, most are shocked in disbelief and we have to put the movie back in so they can have a second look. It’s a bonus,” he says.

Donovan Cook is another professional filmmaker working with smartphones. His first full-length feature, Rideshare was made for $34,000 and shot exclusively on the iPhone 4.

Using a cameraphone is a creative choice; a choice that should be driven by the material you’re shooting and your vision for the film.”

“Honestly there are many inexpensive HD cameras available that are better than a cameraphone if you want beautiful,” controlled cinematography, he says. “If you have even a small budget for your film, you can afford a better camera package than a phone. Therefore, using a cameraphone is a creative choice; a choice that should be driven by the material you’re shooting and your vision for the film.”

Rideshare is an experimental road movie made on a micro-budget about three, down and out, complete strangers who answer a Craigslist-like add to drive a car from Los Angeles to Washington, DC.

“The entire film is performed improv,” says Cook. “We started with a story outline written by me then each scene was written as we shot, through collaboration between the cast members and myself. There were a lot of great surprises.

“We drove from Los Angeles to Washington DC in seven days mostly along the old Route 66 and shot an average of three to four scenes a day along the way. We had two PAs with us who were supposed to do all the driving, but in the end, everyone including the cast chipped in to do some driving to keep us on schedule, says Cook.

“As we shot, we would download the days dailies onto my Apple MacBook Pro laptop. Once we finished shooting, I edited the film using Apple’s Final Cut Pro on a 24” iMac. Most if not all of the post sound recording and editing was done on Apple computers.”

So why did he choose to shoot the whole thing on an iPhone 4 instead of any other inexpensive HD camera?

“I get this question a lot and the answer is simple – because the story required it. It is built into the concept that the film is shot by the characters using iPhones that they have been given specifically for this purpose. My intention is that the audience quickly forget that they are watching the first full-length feature film shot with an iPhone because they get so wrapped up in the characters and their story.”

So for Rideshare the iPhone was integral to the story and for Cook it made sense to shoot the movie on the device. “If you’re shooting Lawrence of Arabia, you’re going to be very frustrated.  With a cameraphone it is difficult to control depth of field and exposure with any real degree of perfection. It is virtually impossible to follow focus,” says Cook.

“You are also severely limited in your lens choices. Most of the available aftermarket lens attachments are fun to use but not sufficient if you are trying to create grand cinema. I know of one feature film that built a special rig that allowed them to use professional cinema lenses with an iPhone, but that is like asking Wolfgang Puck to pour you a bowl of Captain Crunch breakfast cereal. What is the point?”

If you have no budget to speak of, then of course you are stuck with any equipment you can get your hands on and in that scenario, a cameraphone is a powerful little tool, says Cook.
“Shooting with the iPhone and figuring out how to pull off everything on a micro-budget was an amazing creative challenge. I wanted to push the film to be as entertaining and compelling as possible within all these extreme limitations.”

But how, now that filmmakers have got their hands on one, does the iPhone 5 compare with its predecessor?

“We didn’t notice a huge difference during daytime shooting between the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5. Both are 1080p and when paired with Filmic Pro 2 are capable of 50 mb/sec,” says Koerbel.

“The greatest difference between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 is the ability to shoot in low light. While shooting monuments in DC late last night, we found we could shoot later into the evening with the 5 rather than the 4s … It does get a little grainy as it gets dark, but at least the sensor is willing to force exposure and shutter, so shooting is still possible.”

The technical limitations of working with a smartphone still persist, notes Koerbel. “I think the biggest image quality difference between iPhone and DSLR is in the control over depth of field and the ability to use zoom lens. Although when paired with the iPro lens system, that gap is slowly drawing smaller.”

For Cook, it all depends on the material you’re trying to shoot. “If you are shooting what I call, ‘Cinema Plastique’ and embracing the many limitations of a camera phone in an imaginative way, you’re going to create something very interesting. The uncontrollable imperfections must be part of your vision and style. There is a freedom that comes with knowing you are not trying to make traditionally beautiful cinematography,” he says.

And creativity is pushing technology, rather than the other way around in some cases.

“We’ve watched the iPhone lenses improve dramatically since we shot Apple of My Eye – the offering of camera, video, and editing apps now is unparalleled. We all literally have a mobile studio in our pockets,” says Koerbel.

The pioneering spirit, the sense of being true innovators working in a new genre can also be infectious.

“There was a sense of magic on set, more so than other sets we’re usually on. Everyone wanted to be there and knew what it meant to be there – that they were creating something that could inspire millions. This sort of thinking and attitude is powerful. Everyone gave their all. Even in the hottest point of the day, around 3pm, no one complained or flattened out. The intensity and dedication remained consistent until we wrapped around 6:30pm, ” says James, the editor on All Up To You!

“Once we got home, we immediately began watching the footage. We noted every single moment we loved on index cards so we knew exactly where the best takes were and where to find them. Once you know where your gold is, it’s simple to put together.”

The fact that those golden moments are now not only being filmed on handheld devices but also viewed on mobile phones and tablets means we will all have to start shifting our perspective, “within months” according to some people in the film industry.

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About the author

Tony Myers has written 866 articles for Smart Movie Making

Fooling around with the iPhone since 2010. Taking it to the next web by writing about new media, new technology, new wave cinema and the digital revolution.

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