Shooting Films & Documentaries With an iPhone

We were asked recently by a potential student in our online filmmaking program if they could use their iPhone or iPad as their primary filmmaking camera. Our response on this matter is that we are not a hardware or software specific learning environment. Our goal is to teach our students how to create strong films and documentaries using whatever technology they have at their disposal.

However, shooting a film on an iPhone seemed a little far fetched for us. Sure it’s possible to do we thought, but would an audience be happy with the resulting film? And wouldn’t you, as a filmmaker, feel limited without the more traditional manual control that even consumer grade camcorders offer?

Is it really possible that the technology to shoot a short film, feature film, music video or documentary exists in most people’s pockets? When you say it out loud it sounds crazy.

But the truth of the matter is that some filmmakers are using iPhones for their projects. To better understand why filmmakers are using iPhone’s let’s take a closer look at some of the more popular recent films to use iPhones on their sets.

First, let’s look at the controversial Iranian film by director Jafar Panahi entitled “This Is Not a Film” which, at the time of this writing, has an almost unheard of 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  The documentary film is about the filmmaker himself who is currently under house arrest as he appeals a court’s decision for a 6 year prison sentence and a 20 year ban on making films since his government claimed his previous film was “propaganda against the State”.

He disobeyed the court’s orders and he shot the film “This Is Not a Film” discretely and partially on an iPhone from his home.  Once the film was completed, it was put on a flash drive and smuggled out of the country inside of a cake. The film later premiered at Cannes Film Festival. You can see the trailer for the film below:

Another high profile example includes a 30 minute film by director Park Chan-wook (the director of OldBoy) entitled “Night Fishing” which was also entirely shot on a series of iPhones. You can watch the entire film below.

More recently the Oscar winning documentary “Searching for Sugarman” (see trailer below) was completed on an iPhone because director Malik Bendjelloul ran out of money near the end of production.

The same was true for Ice T’s debut documentary entitled “Something from Nothing“. He used whatever recording devices where available to him during the shoot. That meant that sometimes he needed to rely on an iPhone to capture his story.

The reason we’re seeing the iPhone slowly start peeking it’s thin, shiny head into productions is because in many cases it gives budget minded filmmakers exactly what they are looking for in a video camera.

WHAT THE IPHONE OFFERS OUT OF THE BOX

  • it’s affordable, small and discrete allowing filmmakers to keep their productions moving forward.
  • You have the ability to shoot 30fps at 1080p HD video
  • The camera offers video stabilization technology
  • Comes equip with a small light on the front helping you get a better exposure in low light
  • You can change your exposure or focus point by simply tapping on the area of the screen you want to prioritize.
  • Portable (Great for bloggers and journalists that need to travel lightly)
  • HD retina display
  • iPhone5 has enhanced audio with three microphones (front, back and bottom) which allows you to focus on sound. New noise cancelling technology helps reduce background noise.
  • Lots of storage space (16GB, 32GB or 64GB models)
  • Great battery life

These built in features are a great starting point for many filmmakers. That being said, even with the features listed above, most filmmakers would still view their iPhone as nothing more than a phone with a convenient camera for some behind the scenes stills or video.

However, a few recent ad-ons have inspired other filmmakers to find ways to overcome some of the camera’s limitations and push the iPhone towards being a credible movie making device.

SHOOTING 24P & 60P

Being able to shoot 30fps is great, but a common desire amongst filmmakers is to  have the ability to shoot at varying frame rates (24p, 30p, and 60p for slow motion work). The good news is that Filmic Pro has an app for $4.99 that ads 24p and 25p as shooting options to the iPhone camera. You can also use SloPro (free on iTunes) to shoot 60fps and alter your footage to slow motion in your editing suite during post production.

INTERCHANGEABLE LENSES

The other major obstacle with the camera is it doesn’t allow for interchangeable lenses. This isn’t necessarily surprising since we’re talking about a telephone here. Again, the good news is that third party manufactures have stepped up to create some really great ad-ons that allow you to attach lenses to your iPhone.

Some of these lenses are magnetic and stick to your camera. They are often incredibly affordable (see pricing here) and they allow you to attach wide angle, telephoto and macro lenses to your iPhone. An interesting option in this category of lenses is the ECO-FUSED 4 in 1 iPhone camera lens kit.

The other option available to you is the OWLE Bubo which is a more robust housing solution for your iPhone. This option is a little more expensive (see current pricing here) but it makes it easier for you to hold your camera and you can still use interchangeable lenses by screwing lenses into the housing unit. It also offers a cold-shoe mounting point which allows you to attach various other ad-ons (such as lights, microphones etc).

STANDS, TRIPODS AND IMAGE STABILIZATION

The iPhone itself is light and not very ergonomically friendly for shooting. Although the camera does have image stabilization software built into it, the aesthetic of iPhone camera movement is often associated with unprofessional productions. However, you can work around this by learning how to properly stabilize your camera.

You can start by purchasing a good tripod adapter for your iPhone. These are fairly inexpensive to buy (see current pricing on Amazon here) and allow you to attach your iPhone to your existing tripod. This will help you stabilize your footage whenever you’re composing static shots or shooting time-lapse footage. However, if you’re looking for more flexibility you might want to consider something like the JOBY GorillaPod which allows you to wrap the flexible tripod arms around things like branches, bike handles and so on.

If you need to move with your camera, Steadicam has actually created a device called the Steadicam Smoothee which gives a Steadicam like aesthetic to your iPhone camera work.

MICROPHONES

One of the biggest limitations of the iPhone is its built in microphone. Many filmmakers find this microphone to be substandard for any type of audio work. While it’s not likely that we’ll see XLR inputs for an iPhone anytime soon, there are some ad-ons that allow you to enhance the audio capturing capabilities of the iPhone.

However, before you purchase a microphone you need to know what the intended use of the microphone is going to be. Will you be using the microphone to capture the sound for a documentary, fiction film or interview? There are countless options available to you. You can get iPhone shotgun mics, lapel mics, hand-held mics and many other types of external microphones to ad onto your iPhone.

SHOOTING UNDERWATER

Another interesting ad-on that you might be interested in is the underwater housing case which allows you to transform your iPhone into an underwater video camera.These underwater housing cases such as the Seashell Waterproof Housing allow filmmakers to go as low as 130 feet. You can see the pricing on these units here.

APPS

Lastly, a really interesting feature for the iPhone is the ability to use apps to enhance your video footage. We mentioned in the beginning of this post that director Malik Bendjelloul shot part part of Searching for Sugarman on an iPhone. The reason he did so was because much of the film was shot using an 8mm film camera. After the director found an app for his iPhone called 8mm Vintage Camera he integrated the iPhone shots with the real 8mm shots and he felt the transition was seamless.

There are many apps available to help transform your video. Some of the more popular video apps include:

Super 8
iMotion HD
Filmic Pro
Cinemafx for Video

CONCLUSION

The debate will continue regarding weather shooting on an iPhone is a good idea. Many filmmakers believe that an iPhone simply lacks in the technical department. Park Chan-wook’s film was funded by Korean mobile carrier KT and it cost $130,000 to produce. Although it’s a good film, it also doubles as an advertisement for the phone itself.

The other high profile film we featured by Jafar Panahi entitled “This is not a Film” was completed under house arrest where I’m assuming it would be important to be as discrete as possible. A larger, more traditional camera may have brought him unwanted attention. The iPhone therefore seems like it might have acted as a sort of last resort. A technical necessity that allowed him to remain discrete.

Similarly, in the film “Waiting for Sugarman” the director states that the only reason he used an iPhone was because he ran out of money in the end, not because it was his first choice. In these cases the camera in the iPhone is used more as a necessity rather than a preference.

In the end, it’s about servicing the stories we’re trying to tell. Cameras play a big role in helping us tell our stories. While an iPhone lacks the specs of more professional cameras, it’s been interesting to watch it make it’s way into the hands of the filmmakers who have had their iPhone assisted films make their way into some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals and awards ceremonies.

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