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How smartphones are revolutionizing the filmmaking industry

Fade in. The bleeding purples and pinks of Sean Baker’s award-winning Tangerine coupled with the ultra-wide lens culminate in an aesthetic dream. But what’s more impressive is that the film is not the result of a cinematographer with an arsenal of expensive camera equipment at their disposal, but rather one utilizing everyday technology, as Tangerine marked one of the first feature-length films to be shot entirely on a smartphone. 

There was inevitable buzz surrounding Tangerine as the first major picture shot on an iPhone. Director Sean Baker assured media that he didn’t want the style of shooting to overshadow the powerful LGBTQ narrative, and said that his primary motivation for shooting with an iPhone was that their budget did not allow for more traditional techniques. A lack of funding is an obstacle all too common for filmmakers, but Baker remained undeterred; he was determined to get the project he had co-written off the ground.

Baker and Directory of Photography Radium Cheung conducted extensive research and found a solution in a prototype lens adapter from Moondog Labs. Pairing the $150 lens adapters with the iPhone 5S, the latest model at the time, they were able to shoot their 88-minute film at a fraction of the cost of most features. 

When it was met with international acclaim winning best feature at the Cork International Film Festival among other accolades, Tangerine demonstrated that in the digital age, filmmakers are not bound to traditional, and often expensive, filmmaking strategies.

The biggest draw to smartphone shooting is undoubtedly its low cost, but an unexpected perk is how intimate of a shot it allows the filmmaker to get. Baker and Cheung said the compact setup for filming Tangerine was so inconspicuous that it did not attract attention from onlookers and allowed the actors to embody their characters without the, at times, overwhelming reminder of being on set. 

Smartphone filming sometimes, in fact, proves to be advantageous because of the compact form. Canadian Film Centre representative Michelle Johnson said, “It’s able to go where camera crews are not.” For Baker’s other massive hit, The Flordia Project this proved essential for the final scene at Walt Disney World. 

Due to Walt Disney World’s park rules, Baker wasn’t allowed to bring in a camera crew, so he instead brought in a small smartphone setup. Shots that may otherwise be unattainable because of restrictions on film crews suddenly become fair game with smartphones. 

While the result of smartphone filmmaking might not be as polished as with traditional techniques, it is exactly that rawness that lends itself to many narratives. What Baker managed to do with Tangerine is to make a film that worked because of the unique shooting setup, not in spite of it.

There are, of course, drawbacks of shooting on a smartphone versus a traditional setup. For one, when using an app like Flimic Pro (which Tangerine used), locking in color temperature and exposure also locks in focus— which is ideal for consistency, but ultimately limits the filmmaker to one focal point per shot.

As for Tangerine, there was no real opportunity to change lenses, so the entire movie was shot using a wide-angle lens. The result is a film that is less technically dynamic, however, when funding is the deciding factor of whether or not a film gets made, these are minor obstacles to overlook.

The trend of smartphone filmmaking is just beginning to take off, with new and experienced directors alike expanding the boundaries of the humble smartphone. The art of smartphone filmmaking has gained recognition as a legitimate art form and has spawned a new genre of festivals around the world, including theToronto Smartphone Film Festival. 

Steven Soderbergh director of Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovich, is perhaps the most enthusiastic fan of the new technique, using an iPhone to shoot his latest Netflix film, High Flying Bird. 

Recent developments in smartphone camera technology are exciting for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly, their ability to make filmmaking accessible to the “everyday person.” 

Now, you don’t necessarily need expensive equipment to make a film – just your phone and a story to tell. 

As smartphones become a universally approved method of filmmaking, it is encouraging to know that more voices will be able to contribute their work to the overarching canon and finally debut their anomalous stories to the worlds