A Post about the D.I.Y Approach to Filmmaking

I make an effort to write positive things on this site. If I have something negative to say I try and find a reason for saying it, one that I hope will be beneficial in some ways to others. For some time I have wanted to address the “iPhone Movie” or the no budget approach to making films.

When I watch a film I am not interested in how it is captured. The content, the story and how it is told are my primary interests. If I like the story and enjoy the film I then might start asking, “What did they film this on?” or “How did they do that?” These two questions are of particular importance to me because I am also a filmmaker of limited means – which is to say I am always on the lookout for inexpensive ways to make my movies. (Case in point – my previous post See it Again – A Message From the King was focused on the look of the film and how they achieved it. Discovering that it was shot on film was both affirming [this is what I am looking for and there is a simple way to do it] and saddening [since I do not have the money to shoot on film at present]).

Which is why when people use tools I already own, like an iPhone, to make films, I pay attention. Free is certainly within my budget.  Starting with that my hope is I can make something good.

A few years ago Sean Baker made the film Tangerine using iPhones. The film received quite a bit of attention including being nominated for four spirit awards (and winning one).

As you can imagine it caught my attention. Numerous articles and interviews appeared in which Mr. Baker shared the equipment he used (this article in particular pulls from many of them http://nofilmschool.com/2015/07/tangerine-sundance-iphone-5s-sean-baker-radium-cheung-interview).

Allow me to paste some quotes from this article below to make my point. Regarding his camera gear:

  • Moondog Labs 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter for iPhone 5s (this gave them around a 2.40:1 aspect ratio from the original 16:9)
  • FiLMiC Pro App (this helped lock exposure, focus, white balance, but also gave them better compression)
  • Steadicam Smoothee for iPhone 5/5s

Lighting:

For the 22-day shoot, Cheung brought only three battery-operated Rosco LitePads — 1’x1’, 6”x12” and 3”x12” — “just to be able to fill in and add some eyelight every now and then,” he says. Bounce material picked up at a 99-Cents Only Store was used occasionally. “We had no C-stands, no conventional movie lights,” says Cheung. “We staged our actors with existing light on locations, to some degree, and I turned those existing lights on and off selectively.

And what was used to capture the sound (all of which I am unfamiliar with but a quick search reveals this is not low budget gear):

Veteran sound mixer Irin Strauss used the Sound Devices 664 mixer/recorder along with some other high-end stuff to capture the best audio possible.

In addition to his 664, Strauss used a Lectrosonics SMV wireless system for his transmitters, along with Sanken COS-11D lavaliers. He employed a Schoeps CMIT5U shotgun microphone and, occasionally, a T-powered Schoeps CMC 4U for locations with low ceilings and little head room. 

So what’s interesting to me here is that although the camera and lighting gear used on this film is well within my budget, the audio equipment (let alone expertise to use it well) is not.

This story, this information I find incredibly useful. There have been other filmmakers who have used the iPhone but put on expensive lenses, monitors, rigs and accessories that make me question why they chose to capture their film with a phone in the first place. Below are two examples of this:

For Mr. Gondry’s film he employed a large crew and a number of larger-budget items that are not available to me. Not that he should have restricted himself to what John Sullivan can afford but, again, it makes me question his choice of camera. In his case, the behind the scenes videos distributed by Apple (which are no longer available online) make it apparent that the iPhone was used because he was working with Apple.

There have been similar posts regarding Mr. Snyder’s short film – https://beastgrip.com/blogs/news/zack-snyder-releases-short-film-snow-steam-iron-shot-on-iphone-and-beastgrip-pro

In his case this seems to have been a personal side project he made with friends. Again, I do not mean to disparage the film or his efforts but when they partially list what was used to make this short film –

Using an iPhone, along with the Beastgrip Pro, FiLMiC Pro, DJI Osmo Mobile, ExoLens by Zeiss, and Kessler gear…

It makes me wonder what, if anything, I can take from this that benefits me.

In 2012 there was The Revenge of The Great Camera Shootout (http://www.zacuto.com/revenge-of-the-great-camera-shootout-2012) which was the last time they had this test. Bruce Logan ASC, CSC was in charge of conducting the test between the following cameras (I am including their operators/experts as well):

Sony F65—Sony Representatives
ARRI Alexa—Rodney Charters, ASC CSC
RED Epic—Ryan Walters
Sony FS100—Den Lennie & Mick Jones
Sony F3 w/slog—Nancy Schreiber, ASC
Canon C300—Polly Morgan
Canon 7D with Technicolor settings—Michael Negrin, ASC
Panasonic GH2 (Quantum v9b Hack)—Jonny Zeller & Colt Seman
Apple iPhone 4s—Michael Koerbel

Essentially what they set out to test was if all other things were equal, lights, lenses, setting, how would these cameras compare to one another? They shot a scene in which certain factors (like the lighting) could be altered and others could not. Afterwards they did a blind screening for audiences to see which images they preferred. Ultimately there was no clear winner, with some audience members (Francis Ford Coppola for one) preferring the iPhone footage.

I share this only because of the date – 2012. Where it was established that if you put a $20,000 lens in front of an iPhone and have great sets and lighting you can get great results. What is of interest, to people like me, is how do you get good results without these things? Or put differently, what should I spend my limited means on in order to get good images for my film?

A recent blog post at PremiumBeat (https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/indie-filmmaking-kit-under-5k/) does a pretty good job at this. The author, Bud Simpson, sets a budget ($5,000) and shows you how to meet it with specific gear. In addition he explains the choices he made and what you can expect from these pieces of gear. It is a starting point designed for people of limited means and experience. It also attempts to address the “hidden costs” of working with video. There are things you need and things you very much want to have that are not obvious if you are new to this world.

Case in point – neutral density filters. When I bought my first camera I had no idea what an ND filter was or why I would need it. After several months of shooting at noon on bright, sunny days I started to become clued in to the fact that my footage was not great. A post like the one on PremiumBeat takes this into consideration and at least alerts the reader that you might want to set some money aside for these things.

My frustration since starting down this D.I.Y. path five years ago is that so often the advice being offered doesn’t make sense to my situation. Numerous companies and individuals offer their take on what is “best” and will produce “cinematic” imagery. So often their idea of inexpensive is not the same as mine. That or they do things which strike me as ridiculous – spending well over a thousand dollars to outfit an iPhone with accessories and peripherals, when you could buy a camera that would need none of these things for the same price.

As an owner of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera I can attest to the wonderful image that can be had. That being said, it is a cinema camera – something that when I was researching what to buy was not made abundantly clear (meaning I did not understand how a cinema camera differs from a DSLR). If a reviewer had pointed out that if you want to change settings like ISO when shooting, you have to dig into the menus to do so it might have helped me to understand that this is a problem for me. The same with white balance. Knowing this and thinking of shooting documentary style footage would have made me stop and wonder if this was actually the camera for me. Instead I spent days reading the write-up at http://wolfcrow.com/blog/the-blackmagic-pocket-camera-guide-part-one-ergonomics-and-specifications/ and still came away wondering if the camera was right for me.

Although I have wandered off-topic my hope with this post was to try and briefly address the not obvious costs of using something like an iPhone to make a film. The short lived but much loved, Weapons of Mass Production (http://www.crisislab.com/wp/blog/2012/12/05/weapons-of-mass-production-iphone-cinema/ did a review of the iPhone 5 when it was released. They made a great looking trailer and showed how they did so. In their conclusion they stated the pros and cons of using the camera and made a comment “but trying to shoot your movie on a phone is a miserable experience”. Which is think is one of the few honest pieces of advice I’ve heard about the process.

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