Why make a feature film with iPhone?

After reading about the movie Tangerine in an article on The Verge the other day, I was pretty interested to download Filmic Pro and give it a go.

In the article, the filmmaker said that there were four things that he needed to make the film:

The first item on that list was pretty easy since I already had an iPhone. I was 25% of the way to becoming a filmmaker.

The second item was also easy. I could go to the app store and pay $7.99 for Filmic Pro.

The final two items were a bit more difficult. A Steadicam Smoothee is about $150, with other items from the company running all the way into thousands of dollars. I have no idea what sort of stabilizer they used. An anamorphic lens from Moondog isn’t that expensive but is still about $160.

So, I’ve spent my $7.99 and I’m now 50% of the way towards being a filmmaker. (Although I also need a way to record sound, lighting, a script, crew, editing, and catering. Don’t forget the catering.) It gets more expensive than just having an iPhone.

In the comments on The Verge article, there were a lot of cynics. That’s where cynics live on the internet. Many of them were claiming that the iPhone was just a bit of a marketing gimmick, it didn’t really reduce the cost of filming and if you’re going to use an iPhone, why not use something like a Sony RX-10 or an Android phone that would record 4k video. Or even just a DSLR.

The comments did make me wonder how much of a marketing gimmick using an iPhone is. Obviously everyone knows what an iPhone is, whereas a Sony RX-10 or Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is a little more obscure. That helps when trying to sell a movie.

I think that there are three reasons why the iPhone was used for the filming instead of any other type of point-and-shoot camera:

  1. software: the iPhone (and any other smartphone) is entirely run by software. If the built-in software isn’t good enough, the user can run their own apps. Out of the box, the iPhone doesn’t support 24p video but can with the addition of Filmic Pro. I expect that there is a similar solution for Android too.
  2. decent camera: Apple has put a lot of effort into ensuring that the iPhone contains a good camera. Other smartphone makers also treat the quality of the camera as a priority, with a number of 4k capable smartphones out there (but do you really want to record 4k video on a smartphone?)
  3. market size: Apple sold almost 200 million iPhone in 2014. Because Apple only has three or four different models for sales at any time, third party company can create accessories for the iPhone at a scale that isn’t economic for other companies. There are probably hundreds of millions of Android phones sold every year but this is split amongst dozens of different models and brands. Camera companies only sold about 60 million cameras last year. This is split over many brands and models and sales are dropping fast as smartphones overtake point-and-shoot cameras. The size of the market means that accessories like the Steadicam Smoothee and Moondog lenses are created at a reasonable price.

So why was it used instead of a proper camera or even a DSLR?

I think the cost angle really does hold up here. Mostly.

As is the case with many technical fields, paying more money will either improve the quality of the output or reduce the work required to get the same output (or both, obviously). My DSLR camera makes it much easier to get the same shot because the controls are right at my fingertips. It also takes better shots in low-light than my old camera.

To hire a decent cinema camera, you might be looking at $500 per day or more (all these figures are educated guesses but hopefully in the right ballpark). This will be operated by people who are being paid $500 per day as well. Plus there will be other support people and actors being paid hundreds of dollars per day (unless you’re on a really, really tight budget). This means that the equipment is a small fraction of the overall budget.

An iPhone with Filmic Pro isn’t that easy to get great results from and is a bit more fiddly than a trained operator using a proper camera. So, a film shoot using an iPhone might be more time-consuming. This adds up when a film crew are charging by the hour.

Overall, your budget isn’t going to be cut from $10,000 per day to $10 per day just by using iPhones. But it might be reduced by a few hundred dollars a day for a product that is only slightly worse.

Anyway, I'm pretty happy with Filmic Pro so far. The version I downloaded was a little buggy but with a new update today hopefully the issues that I had will be solved. It was also free thanks to an iTunes gift card I received for Christmas. I'll see how it goes in the next few weeks. You never know, I might even buy a Steadicam and anamorphic lens.