Movie Magic Goes Mobile

We’re all filmmakers now.

Well, some of us more than others. While filmmaking still requires the savvy necessary to compose great shots and edit footage to perfection, the tools that were previously only limited to a wealthy few are now available to the general public. Smartphone cameras, used primarily for selfies and the occasional drunken video, are high enough quality to shoot professional video.

Granted, they’re not so sophisticated that they can compete with the cameras widely used by the film industry, but with a few attachments, a smartphone can be used as a workable replacement. Take, for example, 2011’s Night Fishing, the first film shot entirely on an iPhone. Using a traditional 35mm film lens attached to a phone, directors Chan-kyong Park and Chan-wook Park were able to attain a typical cinematic look without the use of standard film equipment. Night Fishing went on to win the Golden Bear for best short film at Berlin’s International Film Festival.

And this isn’t just a gimmick. Multiple film festivals, such as France’s Festival Pocket Films and the American iPhone Film Festival are dedicated to showing off cinema filmed on smartphones. Susan Botello, who created the Mobil Film Festival, argues that crafting a compelling story is far more important than any technical specifications, demonstrated by the success of Night Fishing, among others. Botello praised Tangerine, a smartphone-shot film about transsexual sex workers, for the way that its compelling story has driven more filmmakers to consider the burgeoning field of mobile films.

Plus, there are concrete advantages to filming with a smartphone. Not only is it far more inexpensive than traditional camera equipment, it reduces the barrier to entry for the film industry. Now, anyone with a proper phone and directorial knowhow can make their debut and produce some surprisingly solid results. And the flexibility and size of smartphones allow for some interesting camerawork that wouldn’t otherwise be feasible — opportunistically capturing B-roll footage or similar is as easy as reaching into your pocket.

Distribution also becomes easier; the level of quality expected from a Youtube channel is significantly lower than that of a feature-length film, and filmmakers have taken advantage of this in order to easily distribute their content to the public. If the smartphone is the new tool for creating cinema, then websites such as Youtube and Vimeo are the next best places for featuring new work.

Even beyond filming techniques, mobile devices offer a new medium to display film as well. 2009’s Rage takes smartphones into consideration; throughout the movie, the protagonists address an unseen camera operator filming them on a phone. The movie, though shot with a typical camera, was prepared specifically for distribution on mobile. 2013’s APP takes a different approach, encouraging audience members to interact with the film’s titular app, which takes over the phones of characters and audience alike in a manner reminiscent of science fiction anthology series Black Mirror.

In addition to Black Mirror and APP, smartphones and the culture that surrounds them have been explored through the medium of film. #STARVECROW, a UK film billing itself as the first “selfie movie” is comprised of amateur footage of the actors filming each other to paint a thought-provoking and sometimes disturbing look into narcissism that comes with the digital age. Intending to blend the real with the unreal, the movie is supposedly created by the film’s antagonist, a controlling individual with an obsession with documenting his entire life through film. The blurry, poorly-composed shots of #STARVECROW come across as disturbingly real through their grit, and are all the better for their lack of quality.

That’s the brilliance of smartphone filmmaking; there’s no one way to approach it. While the device lends itself well to guerrilla features such as #STARVECROW, a few hundred pounds’ worth of equipment can equip a budding filmmaker with the tools he or she needs to captivate an audience.

Originally published at on March 6, 2017.