Lulu Wang – The Nian (iPhone Cinema)

A quick post about Lulu Wang’s new film, Nian.

Yep, you heard right. Another iPhone post. It feels silly. I know other companies are making phones that do incredible things. I’ve never used them though and honestly in my circle of knowledge (aww, how cute) they never appear. If anyone wants to send some short films (or features) made with smartphones my way I’d be interested in seeing what people are doing.

I’m not a person who is devoted to any particular brand or product line, so repeatedly coming back to these devices feels strange to me. You can’t deny the quality of what people are doing with iPhones and the ingenuity they implement in their productions. So, what am I talking about?

I’m talking about the new short film, Nian, made by none other than Lulu Wang. It was released less than a day ago so the information I am able to find about the film and its production is scarce. What I do know – this is a great film. I’ve seen it twice already, first by myself and then I dragged my wife into the room to watch it with me. I plan on doing the same when my kids get home from school today.

Here it is –

So ignoring all technical aspects, I think this is a great film. The feeling to it, the way it is told, the overall message – I really like it. There was several moments when I was watching where I thought, “Oh that’s funny,” only to then have the moment or shot immerse me back into the story. It was an interesting push and pull that I do not typically experience watching a film.

Examples of this? The first was the dishwashing sequence. I’ve seen a few people do similar shots to this and I don’t mean to say it feels gimmicky (to immerse the camera in the sink) but it never felt necessary. A good example of a video with these kinds of shots would be this –

Obviously Josh Yeo used an Osmo Action but the idea is the same

Josh Yeo’s video was made to show the possibilities of what you can do with such a small camera and I think, despite possibly implying otherwise, it’s great. He does shot after shot demonstrating the possibilities which is the purpose of his video, whereas Nian is short narrative film that incorporates some innovated camera moves/placements to tell its story (both are good, just trying to be clear here).

The second example would be when Ah Ting and The Nian are rolling down the hill together. At first the rotating camera pulled me completely out of the story but then her face pulled me back in and I felt her joy as she tumbled with her friend. It’s a pretty special moment and seeing the behind the scenes video of how they achieved this shot is fantastic and helpful.

The other impressive (amazing?) aspect of this film would be the low light performance of the phone. As someone who has shot in all kinds of conditions, usually without lights, starting with an iPhone 5 I can attest to the limitations of smartphones when it comes to low light situations. Several moments in this film, whether in the home or the cave or the fireworks scene are impressive for how well the camera handles the lack of light. I’m actually waiting until the sun sets today to watch the film again in my living room as the daylight coming in maybe the viewing experience less than it should have been.

My only complaint about this behind the scenes video is that it is far too short. Give me more! Give me everything! I wish they had covered more about how the production was handled (Ms. Wang being in the U.S. while filming took place in China), more specifics on how they set up and used the camera and their post production workflow.

All in all this is yet another great example of how far the technology has progressed and what is possible with these tiny devices. It’s inspiring and I feel one of the filmmakers interviewed said it best when she said that the iPhone allows a person to do more by themselves. That is certainly a benefit in these times where in order to make something you need to keep the number of people involved to a minimum.

Author: John Ryan Sullivan

I am a writer and filmmaker.

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