Phoning it in: how the smartphone is disrupting Hollywood
30th Nov 2013 | 13:00
There's a James Cameron in all of us
Directors and smartphones
Think of the best smartphone movies and, at best, you'll be imagining that video you once took of your drunken friends trying to push over a cow before falling into a ditch. At least it was in HD.
But you should realise that your smartphone is silently weeping, hating you for not realising the untapped potential in its high power video camera, as quality and affordability have now aligned in such a way that almost anyone can become a filmmaker.
Don't believe us? Just look at the number of smartphone film festivals that have popped up, from Festival Pocket Films in France, to the iPhone Film Festival and Mobil Film Festival in America and the Olleh International Smartphone Film Festival in South Korea. All of these and more are dedicated to films shot largely or entirely on smartphones.
And filmmakers have already found some success in the field. The first feature length smartphone film, 'SMS Sugar Man', was shot back in 2007 on a Sony Ericsson W900i and since then there have been several other full length movies and numerous shorts and music videos.
These include 'Olive', which was shot on a Nokia N8 with a 35mm zoom lens and was the first ever smartphone film to get a cinema release.
Also of note is Park Chan-wook's 'Night Fishing' short, which was shot on an iPhone 4 and won the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival and 'Departure', a film shot on iPhones by three different directors in three different countries.
There's clearly an appetite for using the medium of a smartphone to create a feature length piece of cinematic glory, but surely a 'proper' camera makes more sense?
It might seem weird to think that a filmmaker would choose a mobile for their movie, particularly someone established like Park Chan-wook, who's better known for his award winning revenge thriller 'Oldboy', but with the phones we have today it's not that much of a surprise.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for example can shoot 1080p video at 60fps or 2160p video at 30fps and soon more phones are likely to have 4K cameras, allowing for higher quality videos across a range of handsets.
Indeed Ruben Kazantsev, the co-founder of the iPhone Film Festival, thinks that this isn't a fad created just because the technology is there.
"Smartphone film making is here to stay," he told us emphatically. "We have been running IFF for over three years now and each year the films get better and better. So as the technology changes so will the quality of the films."
There are real advantages to shooting on a phone too. For one thing, it's a lot cheaper than conventional camera equipment, and it also opens up the medium to a gigantic number of wannabe directors as manufacturers have smuggled this high-power tech into your pocket, removing the barrier for entry.
Not only does that empower almost anyone to be a film maker, but it also makes it easier to counter equipment problems on set. Kazantsev, also a producer on the smartphone film 'Departure', highlighted an issue that only a smartphone could have solved:
"During our filming of departure we had a warehouse space for a limited time and we were down to the last scene with 20 minutes left.
"As we were getting ready to start filming I noticed my hard drive was full and had no time to download the footage to make room, since we had 20 minutes left.
"So I asked our crew 'who has an iPhone?' and almost everyone popped one out of their back pockets. If we did not have the backup cameras/smartphones we would have never gotten the last shot."
Filming on a phone also allows more risks to be taken as there's less money at stake. And because of their size and portability, smartphones can film almost anywhere, which potentially allows for shots that a traditional camera couldn't get.
A smartphone film called 'Goldilocks' included a scene where a phone was put in a ziplock bag, then placed in a glass and had wine poured on it while filming. If you're feeling a little more flush with cash, solid state microSD cards can be fitted to phones and flung around to get some truly amazing shots – you might smash the phone, but the footage will survive.
Smartphones also allow for more opportunistic filming, allowing you to capture moments that would otherwise be lost because you didn't have your video camera with you, used more often than you'd imagine in professionally produced films.
Of course there are downsides too. Susan Botello, the person behind the Mobil Film Festival, laments the lack of storage space on phones, telling us that "a phone with a great camera for video [but] low space makes it worthless."
She also argues that most phones have a horrible microphone and that the handling of low light situations needs to improve – elements which are being focused on quickly by the likes of HTC, Nokia and Apple with multiple microphones with dual membranes to improve sound quality, and massively upgraded low light sensors in cameras.
Other issues include the fact that the battery will be drained quickly when filming and ideally you'll probably still want to invest in some other equipment, such as lights, microphones and a tripod.
These issues and more mean that smartphone films haven't yet hit the mainstream. They're still fairly few and far between and the need for smartphone-specific film festivals demonstrates that they're not always comparable to more conventional films.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing. These festivals give mobile film "a platform which is a parallel to the traditional industry and open a door to film makers who use smartphones to shoot" according to Botello.
And in their very nature smartphones are going to attract independent and guerrilla film makers. Those who are unable or unwilling to work within the system and who can't afford the major expenses of a standard film.
This leads to unique projects that perhaps wouldn't be seen in mainstream cinema, such as Luke Geissbuhler's 'Space Balloon' short, which involves an iPhone being shot into space and then falling back down to earth, all while filming.
Editing a film on your phone
Shooting something is only half the battle, as you then need to edit it, but that's another thing that smartphones (and tablets) have become surprisingly adept at. For this stage of the process a tablet is preferable as it gives you a larger window to work from, but a phone can still be used.
Whichever you opt for there are a plethora of apps available for your video editing needs. These vary by platform of course, but for example there's Pinnacle Studio for iOS devices, which for just £6.99 lets you arrange clips, make precision edits and trims, add effects and add a soundtrack.
Then there's VidTrim Pro for Android, which costs £2.53 and has a similar selection of features. There are even a few options which cost absolutely nothing. There's a free version of VidTrim for example and a free version of Splice, which is an iOS video editor.
You can even get apps to add effects to your footage or filters to your video camera. For example '8mm Vintage Camera' lets you create a retro look for only £1.49 and it was even used for some of the shots in the Oscar-winning documentary 'Searching for Sugar Man'.
Then there's the 'Cinefy - Special FX Studio' app, which includes over one hundred special effects and animations which can be added to your videos.
If you need a soundtrack for your film there are also numerous audio creation and editing tools available for smartphones and tablets, such as the free 'Music Maker Jam' for Android.
Then, once you've pieced it all together you can use something like the £1.99 'Intro Designer' to add titles and credits to your movie.
Though while editing on a smartphone is certainly an option, it's not ideal. Botello said: "It isn't viable to expect an editor app on a phone to behave like one on your laptop or desktop.
"You can't compare iMovie to AVID. But just like there are apps to shoot with there are apps to edit on your phone. If you have a news story it's very viable. I can't wait for more apps to come out for editing on smartphones.
"If you are looking to make a cinematic film I urge people to, if they can, use the editor on their computer and treat the film just as any other film they were going to work with."
Kazantsev stated: "Yes but I would not recommend [editing on a smartphone]. If you are in a location where all you have is your smartphone then yes, do whatever is necessary to get the job done.
"So that is an advantage over a traditional camera, the smartphone is the only camera where you can shoot, edit and share with the world from one device."
Speaking of sharing, once you've finished editing you even have access to instant global distribution at no cost, thanks to YouTube and other video sharing sites. In fact some editing apps, such as Pinnacle Studio, even let you share your film straight to YouTube. And of course, at the end of the chain smartphones can even be used to watch your film on.
Swiss army film making
So from filming, through to editing, sharing and consuming, smartphones can handle every part of the film making process and all for little to no more money than the cost of the phone itself- which is something that many people already have. They may not be ideally suited to all parts of the process, but they manage.
In the future they may even excel, as technological advances will make them more viable for conventional film making. So while it might be a niche thing for now, as the cameras get better and more people embrace the potential there could be a not too distant future where smartphone films are regularly playing in a cinema near you.
When asked about whether smartphone films could compete with conventional films Botello argued that "film making began with big reels of film over a hundred years ago. Mobile film making began a few years ago. I think the advances in mobile film making are a clue that if you were going to call it a race and the phone manufacturers wanted to turn it into one, yes...why not?
"I would almost say that conventions are innovating in just about every industry around the world. Mobile technology is opening the doors to everything."
- The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is one of the best phones for shooting video on. Check out our guide to getting the most out of it.