When Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” premiered to rave reviews earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, audiences were impressed by the film’s original screenplay about transgender prostitutes in L.A., strong performances and vibrant, cinematic look. But most of all, they seemed amazed that the stunning feature they had just watched was shot on an iPhone 5S.
Of course, mere mortals can’t produce such indelible images with an every day iPhone. Only in the hands of a talented cinematographer (or two, as was the case with “Tangerine”) and with the right anamorphic adapter would that be possible.
Lucky for director and co-cinematographer Sean Baker and his co-DP Radium Cheung, HKSC, in late November 2013, right around the time they were searching for the right look for the film and wondering if an iPhone could do the job, they discovered a crowdfunding campaign from Moondog Labs for a new anamorphic adapter for the iPhone.
“That product wasn’t shipped yet. It was just in its crowd-funding phase,” Radium recently told Indiewire. He explained that “Sean reached out to [Moondog Labs] and they were very helpful. They sent us some prototypes. We got lucky during that time that these things were available to us. We did some tests and it looked pretty amazing.”
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At the film’s post-screening Q&A at Sundance, Baker referred to Moondog Labs’ “amazing anamorphic adapter” and said, “I wouldn’t have made the film without that. I think it really elevated the look.”
Indiewire recently spoke with Scott Cahall and Julie Gerstenberger, co-founders of Moondog Labs, about their anamorphic adapter for iPhone and how it helped to bring “Tangerine” to the screen.
As part of their Kickstarter campaign, Gerstenberger said, they had “put together some video demonstrating the capabilities of our lens….Sean [Baker] came across that in the middle of our Kickstarter campaign and
said ‘I’m filming over Christmas, can you get me some product?'” After googling Baker to make sure that he was the real deal (he was), they sent him more than 50% of their inventory (which were just prototypes at that point).
“He gave us some feedback initially, particularly how he
wanted to shoot ‘Tangerine,'” said Gerstenberger. “He was really specific and it was a very
run-and-gun kind of shoot. We got some feedback on compatibility with
stabilizers and that sort of thing, but I think he was under such a time
pressure that he just went off and shot and spent a lot of time developing the
Cahall, who is a lens designer and optical engineer, explained how the anamorphic adaptor (which eventually raised nearly $60,000 on Kickstarter) works. “It expands your camera’s field-of-view
in the horizontal direction only, by about 33%. Then
you use software to squeeze, to restore normal proportion” (Moondog has worked with iPhone app FiLMiC Pro to create a workflow specifically geared toward “desqueezing” footage). “But at the end of the
day, you get a format that is 33% wider than you would otherwise get,” he explained. “Cinemascope style, aspect ratio in a video that is shot on your iPhone is a
unique thing that I think many filmmakers appreciate.”
There are other benefits to anamorphic lenses: “You get some subtle distortions that are a little different than you
get in most spherical lenses. You also get some horizontal flares that are
characteristic finds that something was shot artistically and is used
artistically by a lot of filmmakers,” said Cahall. “At the [Sundance] premiere, we kind of elbowed each other when we saw the first flares in the film.”
Cahall said the company is currently developing another version of the anamorphic adaptor that will be coming out shortly. Meanwhile, Magnolia Pictures picked up the rights to “Tangerine” at Sundance and it will hit theaters Friday, July 10.
Watch the trailer for “Tangerine” below: