Interviews Smartmoviemakers, , , , , , , , , , , , — July 8, 2011 0:07 — 2 Comments

From Super 8 to the iPhone 4: Majek Pictures and the new wave

Michael Koerbel filming Apple of My Eye on the iPhone 4. Photo: Majek Pictures

Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams’s latest sci-fi movie Super 8 is about a group of teenage filmmakers in the 1970s shooting a zombie flick on, of course, Super 8 cameras.

While the Hollywood blockbuster is heavily laden with nostalgia for Super 8mm film with its grainy, slightly out of focus images, Spielberg and Abrams both would have used the handheld camera as fledgling filmmakers.

Super 8

Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney in Super 8

Fast forward a couple of generations to two twenty-somethings who also have the future, quite literally, in the palm of their hands — in the shape of a smartphone.

Michael Koerbel and Anna Elizabeth James are founders of Majek Pictures and are also instrumental in starting a new genre of moviemaking using Apple’s iPhone 4, in the same way their predecessors used the Super 8.

There is one big difference: the quality is far superior these days thanks to digital cinematography – and the film doesn’t run out mid-shoot.

Koerbel, speaking via Skype from his Los Angeles home, is quick to point out the link to the Super 8 film and with what’s going on with his generation.

“The film has just come out and everyone back then was using Super 8, everyone now has an iPhone … it’s the next wave. There is a new breed of filmmaker that understands coverage, how social media works and all the tech stuff. Their film school is to go out with their device on a weekend or whatever and start shooting, and the cameras can only get better …”

Through Majek Pictures, Koerbel and James are at the cutting-edge of mobile filming.

Apple of My Eye — IPHONE 4 FILM from Michael Koerbel on Vimeo.

The company’s first film, Apple of My Eye, is widely credited as the first film shot on an iPhone 4 – it was even edited on the device, and there is a fascinating ‘making of film’ that shows James editing footage on her cameraphone while the couple are driving in their car.

Koerbel was one of the first people to get his hands on an iPhone 4 in June 2010 — and he has never looked back since, only forwards.

The couple already had the story idea for Apple of My Eye, but no money. While playing around with his new iPhone 4 he noticed it had a HD camera, “so I said to Anna ‘you know we could shoot a movie – let’s try it out’,”.

Apple of My Eye is a warm, sentimental story of a man’s relationship with his granddaughter that evokes images of his own childhood.

To make the film, Koerbel and James simply used what resources they had — Koerbel”s dad’s train set was a main feature, for example — and they were lucky enough to work with talented actors and crew who worked for little or no fee at all.

If the results of its first film were impressive (and they were) Majek’s next project took the genre to a whole new level with the Goldilocks mobile film series.

‘Bourne Ultimatum on an iPhone’

Goldilocks has been described as a gripping ‘Bourne Ultimatum on an iPhone’, and centers on a female ex-agent played by Jolene Kay who is forced back into service to recover top-secret information stolen by the bad guys. But she faces a dilemma – choosing between protecting the world, or saving her son.

Goldilocks by Majek Pictures

Jolene Kay in Goldilocks

So far nine episodes have been produced (the 10th is due out this month), running for roughly three minutes with each episode costing the miniscule amount of approximately $250 per episode.

Not only is the story a thrilling ride and has thousands of viewers hooked, it is distributed via Majek’s own app, and the quality is as good as anything out there.

Working on a tight budget, as every producer/director knows, is not easy but 250 bucks would just about cover the daily coffee run on any other big production set.

“After the success of Apple of my Eye, companies started shipping us stuff,” says Koerbel, “equipment like dollies, gear, sliders and lenses for example.”

He says a series like Goldilocks (which was first written as a TV series) is traditionally expensive – but it was only right to make it on iPhone (and iPad).

“We took the Goldilocks script and thought where could you put an iPhone? So we rewrote it with a whole wish-list of what we wanted or thought could do with an iPhone … strapping it to a side of a helicopter, getting underwater shots, for example.”

The trick with Majek is it is incredibly inventive, flexible and spontaneous. For example in one episode Koerbel bagged a shot of wine being poured into a glass by placing the iPhone 4 in a ziplock bag in the bottom of the glass.

The scene cost a couple of dollars max (for the bag) – in a Hollywood production it would have cost at least a couple of grand, if not more.

Old Boy director Pak Chan-Wook is producing similar work on the iPhone 4 with his short film Paranmanjang, but he had a $133,000 budget.

Koerbel and James are the real pioneers by continually proving what can be achieved with creative use of time and technology, and calling in a few favours with cast and crew when needs arise.

Early adopters: Anna Elizabeth James and Michael Koerbel

“Episode 10 of Goldilocks is out very soon and will be the last episode of season one,” says Koerbel — and he promises a “cliffhanger ending, that sets it up for season two.”

Koerbel says that while Majek proved it is also possible to edit on the iPhone 4 (Apple of My Eye), he says it was strictly a “one off” and wouldn’t recommend it for bigger projects.

As well as taking first prize in the iPhone Film Festival, Goldilocks is also on an Emmy longlist in the Interactive Media category. Majek will find out if it is shortlisted later this month.

Koerbel, who is in the process of graduating from the University of Southern California, says his background was in staging events for concerts and tours, but he “got bored” and made the transition into films, “where each day is different” – and at present very busy.

He says Majek is looking at other projects, not necessarily on mobile devices. James is a writer with a journalist background and she is exploring transmedia, which has already been used in Goldilocks with part of its story told via a blog.

“Everything we do to tell a story is across multiple platforms so its like puzzles,” says Koerbel. “It’s not a replication, each medium adds something and moves the story along … we love stories that promise something more.”

Koerbel says that as the next generation of smartphones is developed with larger HD camera sensor chips, filming on a mobile is going to become even more popular.

“The key to success is to exercise your imagination … and the most important thing is to get your ideas down either by writing or shooting a video. Shoot with the camera you have with you, it has been a springboard for us,” is his advice to young filmmakers.

And, if your camera is also a phone: even better. The time is now, and as Majek Pictures has proved, anything is now possible.

Tagged: more articles on Majek Pictures

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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.


  1. Lyndee says:

    Good job making it apepar easy.

  2. [...] have come along way since Majek Pictures’ Michael Koerbel placed his iPhone in a $2 ziplock bag to shoot the wine-in-the-glass scene in one of the earlier episodes of mobile web series [...]

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