Mobile Devices in Filmmaking - Edmonton Short Film Festival

You might think mobile devices are for little league filmmaking, but you will be surprised. In recent years there has been a flurry of significant films made on a phone. From indie gems to big budget dramas, this little rectangular device has been the camera behind some seriously impressive films. Whether these films are a gimmick or a genuine experiment in new technology is the real question.

 The film that brought phone-shot features to the mainstream was probably 2015’s Tangerine (Dir: Sean Baker). The plot of Tangerine takes place over a single day with the protagonist Sin-Dee — a trans sex worker in Los Angeles — attempting to get revenge on her unfaithful boyfriend. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S. The mobility of the phone camera allows an immense proximity between the viewer and the characters, with the film often following rapidly after characters as they run through the Los Angeles streets. The grainy and hyper-saturated colours of the phone-image also reflects the optimistic but challenging circumstances of these characters as they swagger and saunter through the blazing sun attempting to scrape by and live lavishly at the same time.

 Following the success of Tangerine, a number of more prominent and commercially successful American directors tried their hand with handheld filming. Zack Snyder (who made Watchmen and Batman vs Superman) and Steven Soderbergh (of Ocean’s Eleven and Magic Mike fame) would both go on to make phone films of their own. After suffering a personal loss while making Justice League in 2017, Snyder left the project to spend more time with his family. In the trouble and grief of the period, Snyder would make a short film of graphic and visceral intensity, all with his iPhone. Snow Steam Iron, the 4-minute short, is a testament to just how visually opulent a phone camera can be, with its surprising use of slow motion and wide angle lenses.

 Soderbergh on the other hand, would go on to make not one, but two full feature films on a phone: 2018’s horror/psychological thriller Unsane and 2019’s slick NBA-sports drama High Flying Bird both go to show that big budget feature film making and cellphones are not mutually exclusive (provided, I suppose, that you have about 10 years’ worth of studio success under your belt).

The last phone film worth mentioning is an experimental one. One big concern with shooting on a phone camera is lighting. It is common knowledge that shooting in low light conditions are very difficult, and to do so on a phone is even more difficult. There are a handful of films that show just how astonishing low-light phone films can be. A personal favourite filmmaker who has single-handedly mastered low-light filmmaking on an iPhone is the Scottish experimental director Scott Barley. Barley’s feature length film Sleep Has Her House is as cryptically confusing as it is mesmerizingly beautiful. Shot simply in the Scottish hills, this film truly stretches the power of phone cameras to their absolute limit, proving that the only restriction to phone-filmmaking is your imagination.

So, there you have it!  A phone can be used rather than expensive cameras provided you’ve got the knack and ingenuity to make it so. Don’t let equipment woes stop you from hitting the big time. As a cricket coach of mine once said to me: some people have all the gear, but no idea!

 The Edmonton Short Film Festival’s annual 48Hr Mobile Device Filmmaking Challenge is this month! All you need to take part is a phone or tablet and a good idea. In 48 hours, you can write, shoot, and edit a short film about anything of your choosing. If you’re interested in signing up for the 48hr challenge you can do so here