July 14, 2023
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The State of Smartphone Cinema

Loring Weisenberger
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Smartphone cinema is the art and science of making movies with your mobile device. Less than fifteen years ago, the practice was considered a novelty that couldn’t possibly meet the standards of a real camera or a professional set. 

But what about today? After more than a decade of tech development and industry growth, can a handheld device finally hold its own in a professional production? 

Let’s find out.

In this post, we’re taking a good hard look at the current state of smartphone cinema. We’ll break down the dream of the smartphone camera and compare it to the reality of producing a professional movie. 

Let’s get started with a little history.

Smartphone Cinema 101

Mobile phones have been working their way into film production since at least the 2008 release of SMS Sugar Man, a little-seen South African feature shot entirely on a Sony Ericsson W900i.

The State of Smartphone Cinema - Wrapbook - Flip Phone
Behold, the seed of revolution. SOURCE

Slow but steady progress flowed from this humble beginning. Notable early use cases included a “mini-feature” from famed director Park Chan-wook. Smartphones were also used for additional cinematography on Searching for Sugar Man, a critically acclaimed documentary that bears no relation to its South African predecessor.

These initial works existed on the fringes of professional filmmaking. Their phone-captured images were seen as experiments or low-budget workarounds, not viable production methods. 

That perception changed dramatically with 2015’s Tangerine

Grounded in a moving story and engaging characters, director Sean Baker and his crew used the iPhone 5S to cut costs and craft a unique aesthetic. The result was a major indie hit and a watershed moment for smartphone cinema.

Tangerine’s success made the first serious argument for mobile phones as a viable alternative to traditional camera systems on a professional production. 

Today, high quality smartphone imagery is ubiquitous and growing more powerful all the time. Apple, Samsung, and other smartphone manufacturers are caught in an eternal war of one-upmanship. 

To compete, new devices must be armed with increasingly sharper lenses, stronger sensors, and smarter software - all qualities pushing the smartphone closer and closer to professional-grade cinema cameras.

As an illustration, check out Jackals & Fireflies.

Jackals & Fireflies is the latest short film from Charlie Kauffman of Being John Malkovich fame. It was sponsored by Samsung and shot entirely on their Galaxy S22 Ultra smartphone. 

Jackals & Fireflies takes the aesthetic promise of early smartphone cinema and drives it to the limit of current technology. Its crisp, contrasty visuals would have been an impossible achievement only a few years past. 

In terms of raw image quality, the result is practically indiscernible from an average commercial film and makes a strong argument for the smartphone as a professional recording device. 

… Or does it? If smartphones are so powerful, flexible, and budget-friendly, why isn’t smartphone cinema the professional filmmaking norm? 

Why would you shoot a movie on a phone?

Modern filmmakers can choose from dozens upon dozens of professional-grade cameras. Why do productions choose one option over another? The answer, of course, is that each camera has its own unique characteristics.

And smartphones are no different. 

Let’s examine the unique advantages of the smartphone. Why would a production choose to shoot with a mobile device over a traditional camera system?

Because smartphone cameras are relatively cheap

Compared to an ARRI ALEXA 35 ($64,880 USD) or a RED V-Raptor XL ($34,995 USD), the latest and greatest smartphone camera is an absolute bargain. If you’re creating a budget and need to shave a few bucks, smartphone cinema might be just the indie hack you’re looking for.

That was certainly the case for most early smartphone films. SMS Sugar Man, Searching for Sugar Man, and Tangerine all employed mobile device cameras out of budget necessity. Their low price tag made professional filmmaking more accessible. 

And for this lower cost, smartphones also provide a lower profile.

Because smartphone cameras are inconspicuous

Today, mobile phones are everywhere, and it’s not uncommon to see people recording video on a busy public street. For the professional filmmaker, smartphone cameras offer a way to avoid unwanted attention. 

Tangerine takes place on the public streets of Los Angeles, the most production-savvy city in the world. If you’re familiar with L.A. permits and filming regulations, that’s no easy feat, especially on a micro-budget. The production could achieve it largely thanks to their iPhone camera.

By shooting with an iPhone, the cast and crew of Tangerine could blend into their environment. 

Because smartphone cameras are flexible

Smartphones can shoot from places and at angles that traditional camera systems simply cannot. Smartphone cameras are small, lightweight, and easily maneuverable in even the tightest quarters. 

Steven Soderbergh proved the point with Unsane, his first foray into smartphone cinema. Production of the 2018 thriller became a testing ground for out-of-the-box cinematography enabled by the smartphone. 

At one point, Soderbergh and his team even placed the phone camera inside the trunk of a car. This shot would be impossible with a traditional cinema camera, unless you’re willing to cut large pieces out of a picture vehicle.

While the smartphone is a unique tool with unique advantages, it would be a mistake to think of it as perfect. Let’s look at some of the unique disadvantages of smartphone cinema.

Why wouldn’t you shoot a movie on a phone?

The success of smartphone cameras in professional filmmaking will likely come down to its cons even more than its pros. 

Let’s assume that image quality is not an issue. On a fundamental level, why wouldn’t a professional filmmaker want to shoot with a smartphone?

Because smartphone cameras are not just cameras

While their cameras are always a major selling point, smartphones are not designed to optimize image capture, especially not by a professional production. These devices must also equally accommodate calls, texts, social media, global positioning, etc, etc, etc.

The result from a camera perspective? Lenses are fixed in place. Exposure controls lack depth. Data management can be clunky and subject to unexpected bugs. 

Compare that to a typical digital cinema camera. They come with built-in monitors, graphs, ND filters, color profiles, and so much more – all because they’ve been crafted with professional use in mind.

Because smartphone cameras aren’t always easy to use

Smartphones make it easy to snap a quick picture or video, yes, but not always at the level of control that a professional shoot requires. Smartphones are built to be user-friendly, but they’re not built for professional users. 

This introduces a certain level of challenge to smartphone cinema. To get the image you want, you may have to do more work within the camera itself. Many smartphone cameras are so limited that they require additional software just to reliably control basic exposure.

For better or worse, that’s typical. The solutions to these issues - when there are solutions - tend to be third-party apps and accessories. 

Because smartphone cameras come with a lot of unknowns

We use the term “traditional” camera systems for a reason. The devices we see on set today are examples of evolution, not revolution. For that reason, crew members can usually adapt old practices to new cameras with relative ease. 

Smartphone cinema, by contrast, is a paradigm shift. Smartphone preparation, maintenance, troubleshooting, and basic camera operation follow their own set of rules.

Each new smartphone device brings its own set of quirks to the table, plus the intricacies of additional software and equipment. The result is that there are hundreds of factors influencing the basic functionality of a smartphone camera. 

Of course, professional filmmakers can handle at least some of this unpredictability with research and testing, but at what cost? On a professional production, when there’s real money on the line, any degree of unknowability presents serious risk. 

The reality of shooting with a smartphone

The promise of smartphone cinema is simple: get your phone out and make a movie. However, the reality is more complex. 

How do you integrate a mobile device into a professional set? How does it impact your budget? How will it alter your workflow? Which production elements change completely, and which remain more or less the same?

1. Camera accessories

Shooting with your phone doesn’t mean shooting with just your phone. As we’ve mentioned above, mobile devices usually require additional gear to operate at a professional standard. 

The production of Tangerine, for example, famously used anamorphic lens adapters and a handheld gimbal system to achieve its unique look. Modified tripods, gimbals, and lens adapters are common accessories in smartphone cinema. 

Nevermind third-party apps.

As minor as they may seem, it’s important to consider these extras when building your budget. Many of them are highly specialized, meaning that you’ll want to purchase or rent back-ups in advance. 

2. Post-production workflow

A common challenge when working with smartphones is data management. To get your footage, will you download it from the cloud? Or will you record it to an external device? What format will the phone record to? Will it create any extra work for your DIT?

These questions are not entirely unique to smartphone cinema, but their answers will mutate according to your specific situation.

The best course of action is to design and optimize your post-production workflow as early as possible. A little pre-production testing can save you considerable time and money through principal photography and post. 

3. Everything else

Whether it’s labeled iPhone or IMAX, the camera itself is only one small part of any professional shoot. A movie isn’t a movie without a capable cast, crew, and other production resources.

This behind-the-scenes video from Jackals & Fireflies provides the perfect example:

Notice that the video displays a heap of production infrastructure. The aesthetic of Jackals & Fireflies is remarkable, but it’s supported by a professional crew armed with professional grip and lighting equipment. The short film is an advertisement for cinematic craft as much as it is for the Galaxy S22 Ultra. 

During prep, it’s critical that producers not lose perspective on the big picture of their production. The phone itself is not the movie. The goal is to take advantage of the phone’s unique strengths without bending your entire production to its requirements. 

This is particularly important for your budget and schedule. It’s tempting to see a smartphone as a magic wand for shooting faster and cheaper, but that’s not necessarily the case. You have to integrate the smartphone camera into your production‌. 

Swiss Army Smartphone: thinking beyond the camera

We’ve been talking about the smartphone as a tool, but what if that’s the wrong way to look at the issue? What if we think of the smartphone as a toolbox?

For filmmakers, a smartphone can be an all-in-one tool; a Swiss Army Knife for creating new and more efficient production opportunities. 

This is already happening. The best filmmaking apps practically give your phone superpowers. Equipped with the right software, you can use your phone to scout locations, plan shots, manage production payroll, and much more.

The State of Smartphone Cinema - Wrapbook - Mobile Inline Img
The Wrapbook App makes project management faster, easier, and more efficient.

Smartphones can even facilitate the use of neural radiance fields and other virtual production tools. 

The point is that smartphone cinema might be more interesting if we think beyond the camera. The smartphone may always be an imperfect professional camera, but it already holds powerful tools for professional sets. 

Wrapping up

As mobile technology continues to evolve, smartphones will likely become an increasingly viable production tool. If filmmakers can integrate them into a healthy creative process, their potential is limitless. One way or another, that small device in your back pocket could very well unleash brand new ways to tell all kinds of stories.

Interested in the future of production technology? Check out our investigation into why commercial production companies love tech or our breakdown of the best filmmaking software and tools currently available.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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