A growing number of filmmakers say, ‘Lights, iPhone, action!’

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The set of Time to Pay Off Debts, a film short made with the iPhone 6s.
The set of Time to Pay Off Debts, a film short made with the iPhone 6s.
Photo: Conrad Mess

Cult of Mac 2.0 bugApple guaranteed the iPhone would reinvent the phone. But filmmaking?

Writer and director Conrad Mess said the iPhone’s red record button turned him into a filmmaker. It helped another cash-strapped director win praise and wide distribution for a feature film he shot on the iPhone 5s that was the buzz of last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The iPhone also is reshaping video journalism, especially across Europe, where news organizations are using the iPhone video camera for an increasing number of stories — and live stand-ups, selfie stick in hand — because the mobile journalist can shoot, edit and share on one device.


“I think smartphone filmmaking is going to bring more people to moving making,” says Mess, who has made five films, all on iPhone, and has won several awards at mobile film festivals. “The change has already happened. Everyone is shooting video on the streets, on vacation and at events. I go to masterclasses and conferences to show people what can be done with a smartphone if you are obsessive enough.”

A serious tool

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the obsession is growing. Mobile film festivals have sprung up across the globe with growing attendance each year. An accessories market specifically for iPhone filmmaking has also emerged. Moondog Labs, which makes an anamorphic lens attachment for the iPhone saw a quick uptick in demand after a swirl of publicity around the movie Tangerine, which was shot using the iPhone 5s.

On the video-sharing site, Vimeo, there is an iPhone channel with more than 800 films. Go to YouTube and search “iPhone film” and kiss an afternoon goodbye on watching films made on a device designed to fit a pocket.

Video artists were experimenting with the lo-fi quality of cellphone cameras three years before there was even an iPhone. But as Apple approaches the iPhone’s 10th birthday, the interest and quality of mobile filmmaking is easily gauged by growing sophistication with each iPhone generation as well as the rise in apps in the App Store that provide filters and editing tools to bring a pro quality to video.

A frame from the iPhone film, "Time to Pay off Debts."
A frame from the iPhone film, “Time to Pay Off Debts.”
Photo: Conrad Mess

Low equipment costs, apps for simple edits and hardware accessories are a fuel source for an obsession like Mess’. Cinematic cameras and lenses cost a small fortune. So would the schooling to learning how to use equipment and edit film.

But now the equipment budget is mostly covered with the cost of your iPhone. For as little as a few hundred bucks more, you could add a quality microphone to improve audio and lens attachments, like those produced by Moondog Labs, to give the video a wide cinematic view. A popular app, FiLMiC Pro, which offers a number of features, like exposure lock, white balance control and varying frame rates to up the quality of iPhone video.

It’s not the camera . . .

Even if you believe the more expensive equipment wins the quality argument, good writing, acting — or in the case of documentary film, a good story — quality audio and lighting are the elements that carry and engage the viewer.

Such was the surprise for the first audiences at Sundance in 2015 to see Sean Baker’s movie, Tangerine, a visually stunning and richly written tale about two transgender sex workers in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter said the film was “crisp and vigorously cinematic.”

The applause was loud. But so were the gasps during the roll of credits when it was noted the film was Shot on the iPhone 5s.

For Baker, it was not a case of inadvertently burying the lead. He wanted the film judged on its storyline, the dialogue of the characters and the cinematography. Baker did not set out to change filmmaking. He used the iPhone because it saved him money. Like most filmmakers, he would like a big budget with A-list actors and the best equipment at his disposal for future projects.

“There’s a danger in doing something like this” Baker told Cult of Mac last year. “You’ve proved to the industry that it can be done and, suddenly, they want you to do it again. That’s the danger.”

The rise of mobile storytelling

For journalist Glen Mulcahy, he saw the danger of sidestepping a potentially powerful tool in journalism. He remembers having arguments with engineers who berated the quality of mobile video and tried blocking footage from airing.

Then the Arab Spring happened, where some of the most poignant moments were shot by participants on their smartphones.

Mulcahy runs RTE Mojocon, considered one of the largest media conferences to focus on mobile content creation. He has seen attendance for the Dublin-based conference double over the last year. Mulcahy travels throughout Europe training journalists with the BBC, NRK Norway, SVT Sweden, France TV and others.

Here is a Mojocon YouTube channel to view a variety of video pieces created with the iPhone.

“The business case is simple,” says Mulcahy, who says the device of choice in the field seems to be the iPhone. “Lots of newsrooms have camera crews, but no matter how good a camera person is, he or she can only shoot so many stories per day. Train all your staff on how to be effective mobile journalists and now your camera-journalist ratio is 1:1 with everyone having an opportunity to shoot and create content.

“If Mojocon taught me anything it’s that the mobile content creator community is growing exponentially and on a global scale. Sure not everyone is using their iPhone to create epic feature films — though you could, as proven by Conrad — but the diversity and variety of content being created is actually very impressive.”

Pioneer filmmaker

It’s difficult to put a number on how many iPhone filmmakers are toiling away on projects, but Conrad Mess may be one of the best known.

In 2011, he made a short film called The Fixer on an iPhone 4s and it remains one of the most heavily awarded mobile films to date, not only winning at mobile film festivals, from Los Angeles to Singapore, it also won awards in competitions where it beat out films made with conventional film-making equipment.

Mess said the iPhone is not designed for filmmaking and so he and other directors have to take in to account the device’s limitations and work around them. Baker initially started making Tangerine with three iPhone 5s’s but quickly abandoned one because it produced slightly grainier footage than the other too.

Mess said the iPhone quickly fills up and gets hot. So there are production stops for downloading and switching to a fresh iPhone.

Mess’s most recent film, an 11-minute short called Time to Pay Off Debts, was shot on the iPhone 6s in New York. Except trails of red as blood flies, it is classic Film Noir in black and white complete with doomed heroes and a chilling femme fatale.

You quickly forget about the use of iPhones as you lose yourself in the characters, contrasty light and chilling dialogue. Mess is not subtle in his depiction of violence so a viewer should be prepared.

Mess has traveled the world for his craft but is not able to make a living with filmmaking on the iPhone – yet. He runs a sports food supplement store.

“I would love to turn this hobby into a day job,” Mess said. “My goal is to be able to make money making movies and if it has to be on an iPhone or on a bigger camera, I don’t care. I just want to create stories.

“I’m on my way, I hope.”

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