What to Buy to Turn Your Smartphone Into a Movie Camera

Two filmmakers share the add-ons and apps they recommend you buy to turn your smartphone into a movie camera.
Sean Baker (L) and Christopher Cohen (R) talk about Filmic during the Apple Special Event in the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park in Cupertino, California, USA, 10 September 2019.Apple Special event at Apple Park, Cupertino, USA - 10 Sep 2019
Sean Baker, left, famously shot "Tangerine" on an iPhone. He talked about the Filmic app with the company's CTO Christopher Cohen at the Apple Campus in Cupertino on September 10, 2019.

These days, as you’ll hear from everyone from Steven Soderbergh to Jim Cummings, shooting a movie on your smartphone is a viable — and practical — option for filmmakers. It’s no wonder why: the equipment is readily available, highly mobile, and straightforward to use.

Recently, filmmakers Dani Girdwood and Charlotte Fassler (who direct under the moniker Similar but Different with production company division7) took the step of directing a commercial shoot entirely on smartphones. Because of current social distancing regulations, the duo was forced to innovate. “With the new constraints of remote shooting, we needed a strategy that would mimic our usual onset experience and equipment that would create a cinematic feel,” said Girdwood.

IndieWire talked to the directing pair about some of the gear they — along with their DP Todd Martin — recommend most highly.

Filmic Pro app

First and foremost, this $20 app will be the key to unleashing your smartphone’s full filmmaking potential. As Girdwood and Fassler explained, the app is a hack of sorts — it allows you to assume control of everything that the smartphone camera normally locks: aperture, shutter speed, aspect ratio, frame rate, color.

“If the light were to change in the room suddenly, the phone’s exposure would automatically correct itself to optimize the picture,” said Girdwood. “You need manual control over all those elements to maintain consistency.”

Phone Case and Cleaning Brush

The company Moment is at the forefront of high quality smartphone camera equipment, starting with the simple, attractive cases that allow you to screw in their lenses without an adapter. They’re lightweight and affordable — $40 for the regular case and $90 for the battery pack option, for those of us who tend to run low on juice. Moment also makes a small felt-tip lens brush, which is a useful tool to have on hand for cleaning your lens of fingerprints and dust before shooting.

Wide Lens and Tele Lens

When it came to lenses, Girdwood and Fassler wanted a few options at their disposal. While they stress that lens choice will depend heavily on the intended aesthetic and will differ from shoot to shoot, the pair ultimately landed on two different selections: the wide 18mm — which provides a wider look without fisheye — and the Tele 58mm, which is a longer lens for a more traditional movie shot.

“For some of our shots, we wanted to embrace the fact that we were filming on a smartphone,” explained Fassler. “And we knew that the wider lens would actually amplify the webcam look.”

Smartphone Tripods

The pair also invested in two smartphone tripods: the first at a standard height with a phone mount that can tilt and rotate, and the second in a mini-size with flexible legs. The second, which is made by Joby, can be used for static low shots or, in more difficult-to-access spaces, as a selfie stick or wraparound wand.

5-in-1 Reflector

One thing Girdwood and Fassler noticed while shooting on the smartphone was the range of digital information that was available but being lost in shadow or highlights. In order to give these areas “a pop,” said Fassler, they relied heavily on this 5-in-1 reflector from Westcott, which can be used as a gold, white, or silver bounce depending on need.

Atmospheric Haze

Though not isolated to smartphone filmmaking, Girdwood and Fassler also found atmospheric haze to be a particular asset for creating a textured frame when shooting on the smartphone. “It adds body to the light,” said Girdwood. “Especially when there’s light filtering through a window, the haze will highlight the sunbeams and help shape it in the room.”

This article is a part of IndieWire Recommends, an editorial series reviewing products in film and TV. Items are independently selected; Penske Media may earn a commission from purchases made from our links.

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