When Sean Baker’s breakout indie “Tangerine” arrived in 2015, its ambitious production caught a lot of attention from the film community due to the originality of its production — it was shot exclusively on a trio of iPhone 5s. The movie was not the first to use the smart phone as its primary camera, but it was the most recognized in a burgeoning field of filmmakers using phones as their primary means of production. The trend hasn’t slowed down.
This week sees the release of Steven Soderbergh’s first foray into iPhone filmmaking, with the psychological thriller “Unsane.” The movie joins a growing list of films — shorts, features, projects actually financed by Apple, and those made specifically because of the frugality of the equipment — shot on the smart phone. (And that’s to say nothing of projects only partially shot on iPhones from Andrew Neel’s “King Kelly” to Marcelo Tobar’s short “Oso Polar”; soon enough, Netflix viewers will get to check out Daryl Hannah’s debut feature, “PARADOX,” which used the smart phone for some of its shots.)
Beyond well-known projects like “Unsane” and “Tangerine,” the iPhone has played a key role in a number of productions, including work by Michel Gondry and Park Chan-wook. Update: And while this list is not meant to be exhaustive, we’d also like to note a number of solid recommendations from readers not mentioned below, including Matthew A. Cherry’s “9 Rides” and Jenna Bass’ “High Fantasy.” Check out some of other recommendations below.
Steven Soderbergh’s latest — enough about his “retirement,” already — is a trippy psychological thriller shot entirely on an iPhone, and it’s less a gimmick than the product of the prolific filmmaker utilizing a tool that could keep up with his fast pace. The movie, out this week, did more than that: it turned Soderbergh into a full convert. At Sundance, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn reported that “Soderbergh said he was so impressed with the quality of iPhone cinematography that he would likely continue to use phones to shoot his movies going forward.” The filmmaker said, “I think this is the future. Anybody going to see this movie who has no idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone. That’s not part of the conceit.”
Although Sean Baker’s crowdpleaser “Tangerine” wasn’t the first film to be lensed entirely on an iPhone, it was inarguably the most successful and high profile release of its kind. When the movie debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, it made a huge slash — both for its unique production and its high quality — before landing two Gotham Award wins and an Indie Spirit Award for supporting actress Mya Taylor. Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made its play as a game changer official: It acquired one of the three iPhones Baker and cinematographer Radium Cheung used to film the groundbreaking hit for permanent placement in the brand new Academy Museum.
“Romance in NYC”
The year before “Tangerine” hit the scene, filmmaker Tristan Pope turned his iPhone on a sweet little rom-com short film that follows a couple as they gallivant around the eponymous city. As Pope explained to IndieWire, the intimacy of filming on an iPhone 6 was a perfect fit for the film. “The natural field of view of the iPhone mimicked our real life romantic point-of-view,” he said. “We didn’t want it to feel like a video game, but a moment you could look at and go, ‘Oh, I have been there!’ or ‘I want that day!’…Shooting on the iPhone created a ‘bubble’ for me and the actress to work within, focusing more on the story than the technical aspects of it all.” Plus, it took away a ton of typical production headaches and amped up the ease of filming. “We were able to shoot in many heavily populated locations such as the subway, clothing stores and restaurants,” Pope said. “We took up such a small footprint that we could get away with doing this because we weren’t bothering anyone. Having no heavy equipment or lens changes was freeing.”
“I Play With the Phrase Each Other”
Filmmaker Jay Alvarez combined the technical aspects of iPhone filmmaking with the narrative demands of a so-called “screen” movie with his 2014 short, “I Play With the Phrase Each Other,” which was shot on iPhones and made quite a splash when it hit the festival circuit. The film’s story is structured entirely around phone calls, a creative marriage of form and function, and a prescient slice of forward-thinking entertainment.
“And Uneasy Lies the Mind”
Often billed as the first narrative feature to be entirely shot on the iPhone, Ricky Fosheim’s 2014 thriller used the smart phone to tell a twisted and disjointed tale about a character with a head injury (now that’s one way to make out of focus shots work for you). Despite the ease of using such a small rig, Fosheim and his team did run into one unique problem while shooting in a wintry locale: a battery that could be very quickly drained by low temperatures. As Fosheim told New Atlas after he completed production, “In between takes we would have to place the camera underneath our armpit in order to keep it warm.” That’s not the kind of problem — or lo-fi fix — you’re going to get with just any equipment.
Even beloved South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook got in on the iPhone craze (and early) when he and his brother Park Chan-kyong teamed up to direct a 33-minute short film entirely on an iPhone 4. The fantasy-horror film notably stars K-pop star Lee Jung-hyun as a man who finds a presumably dead woman, only for the story and perspective to soon shift to something, well, very different. Like many shorts made on iPhones, the film was partially crafted to be an ad for the capabilities of the device, as it was financially supported by the telecommunications giant KT (South Korea’s exclusive distributor of the iPhone at the time), which funded the project 150 million Korean Won (US$133,447).
Six years later, another beloved auteur attempted something similar, when Michel Gondry directed his own short film on an iPhone 7 as part of a creative ad campaign launched by Apple itself. Still, “Detour” manages to feel like a thoroughly Gondry-ian tale of whimsy and imagination. The story is told from the perspective of a small tricycle that falls off the back of a car. In order to reunite with its owners, the tricycle embarks on an adventure across the countryside, where it meets various amusing characters that help guide its return home. As part of the release June 2017 release of the film, Apple also released six tutorials that go behind the scenes of Gondry’s production and offer up tips on how to use the iPhone to achieve effects like time-lapse, slow motion, stop motion, and night scenes.
“Dancers of New York”
Another joint by “Romance in NY” filmmaker Tristan Pope, “Dancers of New York” was shot entirely on an iPhone 6 and shows off the filmmaker’s dedication to iPhone-based photography and his love for New York City. This one comes with an added twist: it plays with motion speed in clever ways, including a number of slow-motion shots that highlight the physical feats his eponymous dancers are showing off. Pope wrote about the experience of filming on his website, noting “Overall this thing shot like a beast, capturing what would otherwise be impossible via small corners, angles, and discrete shots in popular locations. As a photographer, when you carry around a DSLR with a 200-400 lens on your camera and put down a tripod, you can guarantee the cops will want to ‘chat,’ with a phone, they are more or less confused why you have it on a tripod, and usually just walk off mumbling something about hipsters.”
“Made in Paris”
The high resolution of the camera on the iPhone X gives this short its “cinematic” edge, delightfully capturing some of the tastiest details of the food at its center. The short is ostensibly a portrait of Elise Lepinteur, a culinary student and the protégée of world famous pastry chef Christophe Adam, but its her edible creations that really shine, and the nearly four-minute short lovingly — and quite vividly — shows off her skill in the kitchen. Maybe it’s time for a cooking show entirely shot on a cell phone?
“The Painter of Jalouzi”
Immersive media company RYOT has turned its attention to the VR space, but in the autumn of 2015, co-founders David Darg and Bryn Mooser visited Haiti, armed with a brand-new iPhone 6 and the intention of making a documentary that played on the idea of immersion via the intimacy of a small, handheld camera. The short doc is focused on Duval, who lives in one of the biggest slums in Haiti, yet finds creative expression and positivity through his painting. When the new iPhone 6 first hit the market, its ability to support 4k hinted at the further possibilities of using it for filmmaking, and Darg and Mooser spin off those capabilities into eye-popping scenes of color.
“Snow Steam Iron”
After leaving the big budget superhero spectacular “Justice League,” Zack Snyder veered entirely in a different direction with his next project: a microbudget short film that he shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus for distribution only via the Vero app. The short, titled “Snow Steam Iron,” was kept under wraps until last September, when Snyder released a short teaser and poster on his Twitter account (it’s an iPhone movie and a social media movie). By way of introduction, he wrote: “What can you do with your talented friends & family, no money and a weekend?” While you can only see the short on the app, you can catch a glimpse of this “seedy out-of-time New York City” centered on a badass woman fighting the system in its trailer above.