Sean Baker's Tangerine was one of the biggest indie film success story of 2015. Working with an ultra-low budget, the cast and crew crafted an unforgettable cinematic experience. The result? Arguably the most famous iPhone movie of all time.
But how does a project like this come together? Exactly how was Tangerine filmed on a low budget?
In this post, we’re digging into Tangerine from a producer’s unique point-of-view. We’ll break down Tangerine budget stats, talk Tangerine production logistics, and explore other Tangerine movie facts that take us into the heart of its production.
Let’s start with a bird’s eye view.
Tangerine is a 2015 comedy-drama that follows a transgender sex worker named Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) after she discovers that her boyfriend/pimp (James Ransone) has been cheating on her. Over the course of a single Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee and her best friend (Mya Taylor) search the streets of Los Angeles to punish the errant boyfriend along with his new lover.
To make the Tangerine movie, director Sean Baker drew inspiration from his immediate surroundings. Before he had a plot or characters, Baker knew he wanted to build the film around a donut shop that stood half a mile from his home, in an area frequented by transgender sex workers.
While he and co-writer (Chris Bergoch) immersed themselves in that neighborhood, Baker connected with Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, the Tangerine movie’s lead actresses. Their real-world experiences provided the spark that would eventually set the indie film community on fire.
After months of workshopping the script with his cast, Sean Baker and his crew began principal photography on an extremely small budget. As we’ll discover below, the film was completed through a potent blend of raw charisma in front of the camera and technical ingenuity behind it.
Tangerine debuted to critical acclaim at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures purchased distribution rights just a few days after the film's premiere. The Tangerine movie would go on to play film festivals around the world before its limited theatrical release in July of 2015.
Tales of the Tangerine budget and its status as an iPhone movie served as the basis for a natural promotional push online. A rush of critical acclaim quickly followed the initial press.
The film’s success led to the first ever Academy Awards campaigns for openly transgender actresses. While neither actress was ultimately nominated by the Academy, they received several nominations and wins from other awards organizations.
The Tangerine movie also enabled Sean Baker to break out of micro-budget filmmaking, paving the way for 2017’s The Florida Project.
Most Tangerine budget estimates hover around $100,000. This number places the Tangerine budget comfortably within the range of SAG-AFTRA’s Ultra Low Budget Agreement and at the very bottom of Tier 0 in IATSE’s Low Budget Agreement.
In other words, the Tangerine budget is about as low as low budgets usually get. Very few traditional narrative films shot on-location (around Los Angeles, no less) can function well within those financial constraints. The Tangerine movie is a rare exception.
A quick review of the movie’s full cast and crew list reveals a key clue to breaking the Tangerine budget code. During principal photography, the crew was shaved down to a bare minimum.
Notice that most typical crew positions are simply missing. There is no gaffer or key grip. There are several camera operators, but no listed assistant camerapersons. With its budget limitations, the Tangerine team could only afford to hire the most essential below-the-line personnel.
To further stretch those limitations, some crew members wore multiple hats. While Sean Baker is best known as the film’s director and co-writer, he’s also listed as a producer, cinematographer, camera operator, casting director, and editor.
If you think that just means Baker is a capable one-man-band, consider the efforts of his collaborator, Shih-Ching Tsou. She worked as a producer, costume designer, graphic designer, prop master, camera operator, script supervisor, and even as a performer in a small role.
That’s one way to save money on BTL payroll.
Savings from this skeleton crew freed the minimalistic Tangerine budget to flow where it needed. We’ll talk more about how this cash was put to creative use further below. For now, let’s consider whether Tangerine’s ultra-low budget gamble paid off.
According to The Numbers, Tangerine raked in $936,010 at the worldwide box office. DVD and blu-ray sales within the United States are projected at $266,633. Together, these figures suggest that Tangerine has generated at least $1.2 million on an estimated production budget of just $100,000.
Estimates for streaming revenue and digital sales are not currently available. We can safely bet that they contribute to the positive trend of the film’s financial performance. The critical buzz around Tangerine virtually guarantees a steady trickle of digital streams and rentals over time.
While these financials don’t technically place Tangerine among low-budget movies that made millions, they still demonstrate an impressive return on investment.
Given its fame as an iPhone movie, you might think Tangerine was sponsored by Apple, but that’s not the case. In fact, Tangerine’s film financing came directly from Duplass Brothers Productions, champions of the low-budget indie community.
Prior to Tangerine, Sean Baker had already made four micro-budget movies, including the critical favorite Take Out. In recognition of his work, Mark Duplass made Baker a standing offer to fund another low-budget feature.
While the offer would be tantalizing to many, Baker was initially reluctant. After making four feature films on a shoestring, he was understandably burnt out on the grind and hustle of no-budget production.
It was only after a higher budget film didn't get off the ground that Baker reconsidered out of necessity.
Accepting the Duplass brothers’ offer ultimately paved the way for Baker to make a bold, breakout film with enough financial prudence to turn a profit. The relative simplicity of Tangerine’s financing empowered Baker and his team to approach the work with freedom and flexibility.
Tangerine is proof positive that the size of your budget matters less than how you use it. Below, we’ll analyze three key decisions that turned Tangerine’s financial constraints into creative opportunities.
Professional-grade cinema cameras are expensive. The costs of renting a body, lenses, equipment insurance, and accessories add up fast. To trim the camera budget, Sean Baker and his team gambled on innovation. They decided to shoot the movie entirely on the iPhone 5S.
Tangerine was not the first iPhone movie ever, but it was the first iPhone movie to receive widespread critical acclaim. It demonstrated the smartphone’s potential as a disruptive technology within the film industry.
However, the choice to make Tangerine an iPhone movie was not simply technical or financial. The film’s creative team used the iPhone’s aesthetic qualities to craft a unique visual language.
The phone’s weight allowed it to move with more ease and freedom than a traditional camera. Its size enabled the production to shoot in busy, public locations. Its video quality imbued shots with a sense of immediacy and realism. T
he color of the iPhone’s images even inspired the saturated look that Baker further developed in post-production.
In truth, it wasn’t. The creative team deployed a few key accessories to elevate its iPhone movie imagery.
First, the phone itself was armed with FiLMIC Pro, an $8 app at the time. Filmic Pro released the iPhone from the automated constraints of its built-in camera app. It gave Baker and his team control over focus, color temperature, aperture, and other critical camera settings.
Second, the team utilized a Steadicam Smoothee - a simplified gimbal system for small cameras - throughout principal photography. This tool transformed the jittery, handheld quality of a typical iPhone movie into the smooth, fluid style that propels Tangerine.
Third, anamorphic lens adapters from Moondog Labs gave the film its signature look. An unusual toy for the time, these lenses connected directly to the iPhone and warped its images to match the anamorphic aesthetic we associate with big-screen productions. The lens adapters were a critical ingredient for making Tangerine feel worthy of a cinema.
Sean Baker literally found his lead actresses on the street. By casting non-professional performers, Sean Baker could dodge the heavy expense of A-list talent.
However, this is a rare case in which budget benefits are just a bonus. Baker hit the cinematic jackpot when he found Mya Talyor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Both actresses more than compensate for their lack of big screen credits with real-world experience and mass quantities of charisma.
The cast lends a degree of authenticity to Tangerine that would simply not be attainable in a typical Hollywood production.
Of course, if we’re going to talk about the cast, we also have to acknowledge the long shadow of James Ransone. Best known for his roles in The Wire and Generation Kill, Ransone joins Tangerine as Chester, Sin-Dee’s philandering boyfriend.
His presence adds the only recognizable face in Tangerine’s cast cocktail. It’s a strategically placed final ingredient that heightens the movie’s cinematic reality.
While we all love Hans Zimmer and his blaring bwomps, putting together a blockbuster score is an expensive affair – too expensive for Tangerine. To get more bass for his limited bucks, Sean Baker instead turned to a surprising source: SoundCloud.
SoundCloud blurs the line between social media and a typical music streaming service. It gives users the parallel abilities to share music and connect with artists. The site has long been an internet bastion for independent music communities.
For Baker, SoundCloud was a way to build an addictive score without the hefty price tag associated with high-profile artists. He would scour the site and reach out to musicians directly.
These aren’t tunes you’d hear on the radio, but that’s their main attraction. Tangerine’s soundtrack feels as raw and surprising as its story.
Tangerine (2015) is a cogent object lesson in the power of independent filmmaking. The film leverages its budget limitations to craft one of the most memorable indies of the twenty-teens. The making of Tangerine reveals an invaluable grab bag of tips and tricks for independent filmmakers.
Mix Tangerine’s insights with your own creativity to find innovative solutions for your next film. You might discover a unique method for crewing up or a new formula for creating a budget. Who knows? Your film might even be the next indie smash.
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