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Will 2014 Be the Year That Smartphone Filmmaking Goes Mainstream?

Indiewire By David Rosen | Indiewire January 29, 2014 at 10:9AM

The smartphone, particularly Apple's iPhone, is revolutionizing moving-image making.
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"Night Fishing"

Over the last century, each generation of technology revolutionized filmmaking. But with the smartphone filmmaking, the barrier to entry drops to something close to zero. 

It's an ultra low-cost medium. It's easy to use. It also offers a sense of immediacy -- you can do away with crew or shoot surreptitiously. It turns anyone into an amateur filmmaker -- but as the smartphone is being adopted by professional filmmakers, it's fostering a new aesthetic.

Filmmakers first started using the smartphone to film in 2005; the following year Italian directors, Marcello Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi released a feature-length doc, "New Love Meetings (Comizi d'Amore)," shot in MPEG-4 with a mobile phone. In 2007, South African director Aryan Kaganof released "SMS Sugar Man," a feature-length narrative shot using the Sony Ericsson W900i. In 2011, directors Hooman Khalili and Pat Gilles released the feature, "Olive," shot on a Nokia N8, and Korean director Chan-Wook Park released the award-winning short, "Paranmanjang (Night Fishing)." Last year's Oscar-winning documentary, Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching for Sugar Man," integrated 8mm film and iPhone video.

Then last year, director Brian Kowalchuk announced that he plans to shoot "Ode," a feature-length movie, on an iPhone and under a SAG-AFTRA Ultra Low Budget production contract. "I have directed five plays, largely under the auspices of Equity's Seat Theater Plan in New York and Los Angeles," he says. He also produced and directed "The Billy Armstrong Situation," a narrative feature shot with Super 16mm and some supplemental digital video footage; it's currently in post.

Read More: 5 Affordable or Free iPhone Apps for Filmmakers


"At day's end, I'm just a guy trying to get a film made," Kowalchuk said. "I like Super 16mm film and have been considering using it for 'Ode.' Simply put, I thought it might be cool to make a film for worldwide theatrical distribution with a device I could pull out of my pocket."  He adds, "there are smart phones other than an iPhone that could probably get the job done."

Kowalchuk acknowledges that being an early adopter has its benefits. "The pro of using a mobile device is that people think it's cool and cutting-edge," he says. "In a way, I agree. I am gaining access to a few major talent agencies and managers and other companies I might not otherwise have access to. People want to read the script, too. This is not a minor consideration."  

However, he warns, "the cons might outweigh the pros.  More than anything else, it's an unproven technology."

Asked whether he's receiving support from Apple, Kowalchuk is vague. "We are currently in discussions with select hardware and software providers and manufacturers," he said.

Filmmaker Sascha Ciezata brings a very different sensibility to iPhone filmmaking. His film, When Lynch Met Lucas, was the first animated film ever shot with an iPhone and drew extensive media coverage, going viral. The video used audio from a speech by David Lynch recalling a meeting he had with George Lucas regarding his possible role directing the "Star Wars" sequel, "Return of the Jedi." 

"I've worked in live action and animation, but in 2010, I didn't have money to shoot the Lynch story on film," Ciezata said. "So, I decided to try using my iPhone as the camera and, working through a trial-and-error process, I simply made things up as I went along." For example, he used an Ikea bookstand in place of a tripod to mount the camera. "At that time there were no iPhone tripods and other ancillary equipment like you have now."  

Sony Pictures Classics "Searching for Sugar Man"
"Art pushes technology and tech pushes art."

In addition to the affordability of iPhone filmmaking, Ciezata said the iPhone gave him "more control over the production process - when shooting film, you never really knew what you were getting until the film came back from the lab. With the iPhone, I got instant playback so if something isn't working you can adjust accordingly. Additionally, I used the speakers as a microphone to record pickup sound effects and temporary dialogue as well as to upload clips to DropBox for his editor. It's like having a mobile studio in your pocket," Ciezata said. 

However, Ciezata said he is not sure if he would shoot an animated feature film with a handheld mobile device due to quality standards. "This rudimentary animation style is great for short comedy, but anything feature length I think you'll lose the audience pretty quickly." 

He's produced a 15-minute animation (for an education app being developed by Stanford University and Apple) using the iPad and can see the feature-length possibilities. "With the iPad, I have a digital canvas in glorious HD. I'm working on some longer form content in that style. The quality is so much better," said Ciezata.

Read More: Here's The Cameras Used by The Sundance 2014 Filmmakers

Ciezata feels that wide-scale smartphone adoption has begun to create a new aesthetic, but adds, "it will be a long-time before Hollywood accepts it as a new standard." He also cautions that "the indie market is getting flooded with individual content, posing a daunting task for those starting out: How do I stand out? And more importantly: How do I create something meaningful in a culture where films have become a disposable art form?"

Performance artist Fritz Donnelly ends his provocative 2009 short, "Final Request," shot on an airplane in flight, with a simple wish: "Only tax corporations." Over the last five years, Donnelly turned to the mobile phone to make movies he broadly categorizes as "editable performance art." 

"The camera gives us an excuse to be spontaneous, or different, or ourselves, so it's important that it be handy." In 2008, he shot Dress Me Up, Tell Me What You Do, a series of videos where the viewer directs or joins the action; it debuted as the HiChristina performance at a Swoon magazine release party. He plans to premier his first feature-length work, "I Like You," next month.

Donelly finds that the mobile device allows him to adapt to each situation's unique conditions. "In 'Dress Me Up,' it worked well for public locations like parks, nightclub stairwells, and city streets; in 'Final Request,' it suited the confined setting at 30,000 feet," said Donelly, noting that in both cases, "the one-take videos were later edited so that I could keep control over the production."

Moving from shooting a short to a feature-length work on a mobile device poses significant challenges. "My earlier works are forms of performance art," Donnelly said, "whereas 'I Like You' is a fictional romantic comedy with a narrative storyline. Shifting to a longer format, especially using a compilation of discreet video - and using mixed cameras, including mobile phones and a Canon 5D still camera - requires acknowledging traditional filmmaking conventions, 'Is it a story?'"

Four years ago, when they were students at USC film school, a professor advised Anna Elizabeth James and Michael Koerbel that shooting movies on an iPhone wasn't the best way to get a job in Hollywood. They now run Majek Pictures and turned to the iPhone out of creative necessity. "We didn't have the money to make the movie we wanted so we turned to the iPhone to exercise our creative imagination," said Koerbel. 

James explained that she developed the concept for "All Up to You" with the composer Gareth Coker.  However, when she didn't get gig, they revised the pitch into a YouTube video that generated a lot of attention. James notes that the music video was "perfect for the iPhone" and Koerbel stresses it was perfect for "works that are more experimental projects... it allowed us to continue to work with some of our favorite actors and even hire a choreographer for the dance moves. We dressed everyone in homemade 'app' boxes that we made the night before."  

This success let them to produce additional iPhone shorts including "Apple of My Eye" and "Goldilocks," a mobile series starring Carlo Rota and Jolene Kay.

"Art pushes technology and tech pushes art," said James. "Actors who work on big sets find it a more comfortable environment in which the camera doesn't get in the way of their acting. It's the integrity of the story that carries a movie's experience and what device one uses is up to the maker."

Watch "Apple of My Eye" below:


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

Writer and business-development consultant David Rosen regularly contributes to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, CounterPunch, Filmmaker and the Huffington Post.  The author of the indie classic, Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films, commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project, Rosen recently wrote for Indiewire about how mobile devices are changing not only the way we watch films, but also potentially the way filmmakers make them. You can read more of his work at: DavidRosenWrites.com.

This article is related to: Tech, Filmmaker Toolkit: Technology, Digital Future, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production