October 13, 2021
Shot on an iPhone: Does it really help you cut costs?
Can you really make your next blockbuster movie with just an iPhone?
Apple just launched the latest iPhone 13. And as usual, the world is buzzing about its camera capabilities.
For years now, they’ve been marketing themselves as offering the regular person the capabilities to shoot photos and videos like a pro. In fact, Apple has been getting actual photographers and filmmakers to shoot their work on the iPhone (we cover some examples below).
While the iPhone costs a fraction of a professional camera, does using it in place of a professional camera really mean that your production costs go down? Most people are inclined to say yes — but let’s take a closer look before we deliver the verdict.
What’s in the iPhone camera?
With the continuation of the Max series, Apple prides itself on having a camera feature that can rival the professionals, like Nikon or Canon.
Their offering, the iPhone 11, 12, and 13, all released a year apart, has three camera lenses; wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto. Wide is ideal for regular use, and the ultra-wide lens offers you more space and components to fit into one picture.
In contrast, a telephoto lens is ideal when you want to focus on a close-up of an object. To give you an idea, take a look at this photo below, taken at an Apple Keynote event:
Ultimately, with three lenses available in one device, there is no longer a need to lug around heavy lenses and swap them back and forth like you would with a traditional camera — Apple has all your needs covered with a single device that fits your hand.
The new iPhone 13 also boasts a nifty feature that can help turn regular Joes into the next Tarantino: the cinematic mode. Filmmakers use a technique that involves shifting focus from one subject to another to guide the audience’s attention in their movies, and now this feature is available with just the iPhone. Moreover, it also utilises Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range (HDR) to get the optimum light exposure of your image. Compare a non-HDR image to a HDR image below:
Other features include sensor-shift optical image stabilisation to offset shakiness and camera blur, time-lapse, and night modes to support shooting in low-light conditions.
All in all, Apple is trying to convince regular folks that we all can be professional photographers and cinematographers with just one single device, the iPhone. And truth be told, we’re convinced of its power based on its list of technical capabilities alone.
To further their cause, Apple has put the iPhone to test in the hands of actual filmmakers.
To commemorate this year’s Chinese New Year, Apple collaborated with Lulu Wang, an acclaimed film director, best known for her work in the 2019 film,”The Farewell,” to shoot a short movie titled “Nian,” using only the iPhone Max 12 Pro.
The movie tells the story of a brave young girl’s determination to find — and confront — the widely feared Nian beast, who turns out not quite terrifying once they meet. In the end, they form an unlikely friendship based on acceptance.
All the iPhone camera features come in handy, especially the night mode, as the movie required many challenging night scenes and scenes set inside a cave where space and lighting were limited.
“With such a small device, the iPhone makes it possible for you to be (almost) a one-man band, explains the cinematographer, Anna Franquesa Solano.
With the iPhone, they were also able to get shots that otherwise would be challenging to achieve on a traditional camera. For example, due to the iPhone’s smaller size, they were able to position it at various angles or hard-to-reach spots to offer different perspectives.
“We thought, ‘Oh, why don’t we just put the phone inside of the Nian’s mouth?’ I think the size of it allows us to get all kinds of cool, specialty shots that would be much harder to get with the traditional camera,” Wang said.
This sentiment was also echoed by Sean Barker, a director of “The Land”, a film about teen skateboarders. “It’s helped me become more mobile, no pun intended—running around, finding tight areas and different ways of moving the camera.” He added that shooting with an iPhone lower inhibition of first-time actors and nonprofessionals
Another example is an Apple video with the iPhone 12 to welcome the Spring season of 2021. The video highlights the features of stop motion, where a series of photos are taken in different positions and subsequently strung together to make an animation.
The slo-mo feature will slow down your film and give moving objects a ‘dreamlike’ quality. Meanwhile, the time-lapse feature will capture a collection of still frames over a given period. In this case, it is the growth of a flower over eight hours.
Long before the Max Series was released, the iPhone 6 and iPads shot an entire episode of the hugely successful series “Modern Family” back in 2015. Appropriately titled “Connection Lost”, this episode was about how one of the protagonists, Claire Dunphy, uses technology to keep in touch with her family while away on a business trip.
After the shoot was done, post production took longer than usual, as editors and motion graphics producers merged video with visual effects to create the look of a computer screen, along with its applications, such as FaceTime or Facebook. The video below shows how it’s done:
The examples above show that iPhones are the new go-to gear for filmmakers and photographers, even by Hollywood standards.
But one might wonder, is having an iPhone alone truly sufficient to shoot a professional, cinematic film? And is it really a solution to tight production budgets? We say that’s not necessarily true.
Just an iPhone is not enough
Using an iPhone to shoot a video can indeed reduce your production budget since you no longer need to rent or buy a professional camera and hire a specialised person who has the technical knowledge to operate it. However, you will still need many components in place behind the scenes and in front of the camera to get a professional-looking video instead of an amateur one.
The filmmakers of the “Full Bloom” video, for instance, conceptualised how to capture the flowers blooming over eight hours by putting them in water and light; to allow them to grow overnight.
When it came to slo-mo, they shot the flowers in different directions and positions, even under fluorescent light and water, to see what they came up with.
Afterwards, they had to edit the footage and add music to make a cohesive video.
Remember that even though you are shooting on an iPhone, the basics of filmmaking still apply, meaning you have to make a storyboard consisting of each frame to guide you on the shoot. This still requires a professional who has the expertise to do so. Afterwards, you have to think about props, wardrobe and styling, set design, lighting and sound.
With all of those components necessary, you would still need to hire other technicians in that particular field to ensure your movie looks good. Not to mention the editors and artists that package your movie once it is done filming. Therefore, while you save money on the camera, you might end up having it allocated elsewhere, as we have explained previously about deciding the proper production budget.
Harking back to the “Nian” example, they still used a gimbal to prevent the camera from shaking even though the iPhone comes with a stabiliser feature. The same goes with sound; they rely on the audio and speakers of the iPhone and have an external audio source to ensure every dialogue and sound is clear.
When you look at the Modern Family example, they still needed the same components and a camera operator to maneuver the iPhone. In turn, the actors hold the operator’s arm to look as if they shot it themselves. Steven Levitan, the creator of the show, explained how the process works in the video below:
Indeed, the iPhone comes with several useful features that can ultimately replace a professional camera to create a good cinematic video.
In some cases the processing power of the phone can outdo many mid-range pro gear. And certainly the small size factor enables a different approach to filming a subject. News photographers found this years ago, it changes the relationship between photographer and subject when they no longer have a palm-sized piece of glass pointing at them.
But, just like the pen does not make the writer, an iPhone is a mere tool in the arsenal of the artist. That being said, it produces such a great image in so many scenarios it is a wonderful tool, a visual Swiss army knife, and only getting better.