High Flying Bird has been on my mind of late. If you have read my previous posts you’ll know I pay attention to feature films being made with devices like the iPhone. I also write about cheaper “prosumer” cameras that are used for similar purposes. The conclusions I have come to in the past all fit well into the statement “I’m not exactly sure /this is good not great/hopefully something will emerge in the future that is better.”
Which I admit begs the question, ‘why keep writing this stuff’. I don’t have a good answer other than I’m trying to figure things out. For me writing about something is the best way to understand something. You are, without question, under no obligation to go through this nonsense with me.
That being said I find I continue on this hamster wheel of hope regarding technological breakthroughs that simplify the filmmaking process. I continue to pay attention in the hope that I will discover a new path that allows me to make the movies I want to make. The technical aspects are such a small piece of this work and I think Shane Carruth put it best when he called the gear talk and fixation “A spectator sport.” In fact I am going to insert what he said because it is so well put –
AVC: At Sundance, someone always asks what your budget was and what you shot on, but you don’t want to talk about what your camera setup was. Why is that?
SC: It’s because I don’t want the film to be characterized by these things. It’s weird that it becomes a topic of conversation—the camera, of all things. Nobody talks about what kind of audio gear we used. It’s like a spectator sport of some kind. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the landscape of cameras, [especially] the new digital ones. With A Topiary, we were going to shoot on 65 mm, and I was really consumed with that and comparing resolutions and all these things. I just jettisoned all that. Now I only care about the narrative and an aesthetic that services it. As far as the tech of it, that’s like what accountant do I want to use, or who do I bank with. It’s just not part of the story.
So in spite of these things (which I wholeheartedly agree with) I am going to write about High Flying Bird, why I like it, and why focusing on what Steven Soderbergh used to make the film is a bit silly (while focusing on what he used to make the film).
If you pay attention to what goes on in the film world you may have seen the numerous articles and interviews about High Flying Bird. Most have chosen to highlight the films’ capture device (IMDB.com lists it as – iPhone 8, Moondog Labs Anamorphic Adapter, Moment 2Xtele) and Mr. Soderbergh’s affinity for changing up his approach to filmmaking. To be clear – I think this is a good film. As someone who grew up loving basketball and as a person who loves movies I enjoyed the experience. The story is well told and unlike other “experiments” by Mr. Soderbergh I feel he is invested in both the subject matter and the way it is presented to the audience (thinking of Bubble, Haywire, The Informant!, The Good German and Side Effects here – personally I thought he cared with Full Frontal but he also wanted to make you think about movie-making and how even though you are aware of the artifice you can still care).
That being said this isn’t really a basketball movie. It is about basketball, more specifically the power structure between players and management, and the way the sport limits players options and exploits them.
IndieWire: “They built a game on top of a game.” It seems, on two levels, that idea at the core of “High Flying Bird” is pure Soderbergh-ian. There is always economic stress as it relates to your protagonists’ labor in your films, but then also a lot of your career has been about decoding the game that Hollywood has put on top of the game of filmmaking. I know this is a project that Tarell [Alvin McCraney] and André [Holland] were working on, but I imagine the concept really spoke to you personally, and on multiple levels?
Soderbergh: Well, you know, the good news for somebody like myself is that I have options. Like, I can create, essentially, the version of the business that I want to work in, for the most part, up to and including, you know, self-financing a movie and just not talking to anybody.
Athletes really don’t have those options. They’re kind of obligated to occupy a certain lane, and it’s not like if they’re unhappy with the lane, in this case, that the NBA is providing for them, it’s not like there’s another league that they can go play for. And they have such short lifespans. You know, I was 35 before I was really, I felt, figuring out what I was doing or how I should be doing it. You’re an outlier if you’re playing a professional sport at age 35.
I wish people had not made an issue out of the camera used to make the film. For the first twenty minutes I was distracted by aspects of the image simply because I knew this was shot on an iPhone. Once the plot took hold I was able to forget about the technical aspects and just enjoy. And enjoy I did. The wonderful performances, the fast-paced and complicated story and the craftsmanship of the film worked their magic on me. I may not have become invested in the characters but the conceit of the film, the game being imposed on top of the game, made me think afterwards. That being said this film does take the audience into account and delivers an ending with resolution.
In many interviews Mr. Soderbergh has commented about the size of the camera and the ease of designing shots due to shooting with a phone. The behind the scenes images and videos show him using very little equipment to make the movie. The images from the film speak for themselves. In a recent exchange on Twitter I noticed a filmmaker sharing his thoughts concerning the sound of the film.
I have no idea what was used to record and mix the sound for this film. I’ve looked but the Internet is vast so, as of posting this, I have no idea if this person is correct. It is an interesting point he makes (and given that Shane Carruth made a similar point in 2013 clearly a relevant one). Given how much attention is given to capture devices for images you would think someone would want to talk about sound, especially regarding independent filmmaking.
That being said there is a surprising amount of technical information in this interview from IndieWire.
I mean, I could point out, I won’t, because it’s boring, but I could point out many shots in “High Flying Bird” that using a more traditional approach with normal size cameras would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do, to get the lens where I want, or to be moving in a way that I want to move and, you know, have the camera reach multiple destinations without either somebody getting hurt, or the shot being compromised because of the size of the equipment. So, it seemed like a natural fit to me.
Could you give one example from “Flying Bird” of what you just described?
Soderbergh: Oh, just that shot early on, pulling Zazie [Beetz] and André [Holland] down the corridor of the office interior after he’s gotten off the elevator, he meets her, and then we go to this shot where they’re walking really fast toward his office. We’re in a very narrow path, we’re moving very quickly, and then as they sort of peel off from us, we sort of move away from them, and he goes into his office, and the camera sort of retreats. With a normal size dolly, which weighs 350 pounds, that becomes dangerous, potentially. Like, somebody could get hurt. And being able to take the corner to start to separate from them the way that we did, where I’m in a wheelchair with a DJI Osmo stabilizer, the ability to quickly take this corner and back up, like, that. We could have been there for hours, maybe still wouldn’t have gotten the lens where I wanted.
Because you have to remember, unlike when I’m on a normal dolly, when I’m holding the Osmo, I also have the ability to move the lens left, right, up, down.
As for making films on an iPhone, personally, I am still unable to commit. Earlier this year the company Moment announced an interesting-looking film competition. I debated whether I should make a film to submit. As I debated I, once again, assessed whether I would consider investing any money toward shooting with my phone. Do I buy Moment lenses (or the Moondog Labs anamorphic lens which was used on High Flying Bird)? Do I buy a gimbal? On their own the cost is not outrageous but, and on this point I always get stuck, why would I invest in these accessories for my phone when I have a camera I bought for filmmaking? This makes the assumption that I would need to buy further accessories to make a film on my phone. Which I clearly do not need to do.
I firmly believe that whatever works for a person, whether it is where you write or which paints you use or the camera you shoot with, should be embraced. If you can’t write at a desk, don’t. If you have to shoot with an iPhone to feel free and able to improvise, more power to you. That being said, choosing to shoot with my phone while my camera sits in its bag feels weird. I like the idea of being able to shoot in a car and just stick my phone to the ceiling, but I still need a way to attach it and if I am going to buy an attachment wouldn’t I just get something for my camera? I suppose I have Rodney Charters in the back of my mind when I think this. His interview regarding shooting the television show Dallas has the following gem –
I recently used the BMPC while filming my Episode 305, which aired on Monday, March 24. I was shooting a scene in a limo, so I just stuck the camera to the window of the rear door with a small sucker kit: the Panavise 809. The camera just stayed on the inside of the window getting beautiful overs while we were shooting the straight-on angle down the middle of the limo with the Alexa.
To put this another way: when I am considering purchasing gear I am always using my own money in the hope of making a film and eventually getting paid for that. So my starting place is always spending the least amount of money to get the best piece of equipment I can. This is why I have a hard time wrapping my head around having a two million dollar budget for a film and choosing a capture device that has the following known issue –
Soderbergh: No, the thing that became time and resource consuming, which I spoke to Apple about, and explained to them they have to address if they’re really serious about people using these things to make movies going forward, even when you have, through an app like Filmic Pro, the shutter and the ISO locked, the sensor reacts to changes in light. If somebody walks past a window, or you pan through a light, it, even though it’s supposed to be frozen, it responds. What makes it even worse is it’s not the entire frame that responds, it’s pieces of the frame.
To have to go back in frame by frame, in the DI suite, and even that stuff out, create power windows to deal with the sections of the frame that have changed density, that was fucking annoying and expensive. I didn’t test any other cameras, I don’t know if the Samsung does that. I know that more traditional non-phone cameras don’t do that. And I talked to the Filmic Pro people, and they were like yeah, I know, they will not engage with us to figure out if this can be fixed. It’s a problem. So, you know, that was – I have to say, that was the only time that I felt frustrated by that technology.
All technology has limitations and shortcomings. The computer I am writing this on has the most annoying and poorly designed mouse I have ever used. Mr. Soderbergh is clearly operating at a level, and budget, where he is able to pick and choose what works best for him. Where I am coming from (and I feel like this is not addressed enough online) is a radically different place than Mr. Soderbergh. Obviously his concerns are different than mine. What I think many of us, who are starting out or are less successful, are hoping for is a newly opened door that provides a less expensive but equally competitive means to creating our films and sharing them with the world.