HOW TO SHOOT A MOVIE ON YOUR MOBILE PHONE: A rundown of the essential kit you’ll need to produce cinematic shots on your device

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Steven Soderbergh using a mobile camera setup during the filming of Unsane

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

What do Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, Park Chan-Wook’s Night Fishing and Matthew A. Cherry’s 9 Rides have in common?

All of these films were shot on mobile phone cameras.

Although, for many, the decision to make a movie using a mobile phone will be financially motivated – the ultimate example of ‘using what you have at your disposal’ – progressive advancements in mobile camera technology now mean that this does not necessarily have to compromise the quality of the film.

Reviewing Soderbergh’s Unsane, Richard Brody argued in The New York Times that, in fact, the use of the iPhone 7 as principal camera made the project a better film that it might otherwise have been: “Free of cumbersome equipment, Soderbergh wields his camera with the agility of a pencil flying along a sketch pad… he tries out a technique and finds that it gives rise to a new, spontaneous style that reinvigorates and revitalises his art, that marks a sharp contrast with his own prior work and with Hollywood’s conventional action dramas.”

With this in mind, here is a brief rundown of the key pieces of equipment you’ll need to shoot your next masterpiece on your mobile phone.

*Please note that prices are accurate at time of writing; where it is necessary to import equipment, prices given in $US.

  1. LENSES

Without a doubt, the biggest difference you can make to your mobile camera game is fitting your device with a lens attachment.

These fit over your cellphone’s existing camera lens, adapting its performance to recreate wide shots, telephoto zooms, fish-eyes and other effects. Note that lens attachments do not replace the lens of your mobile device, but rather adapt its performance – meaning, firstly, that different phones will perform differently even when fitted with the same lens attachment, and also that using a lens attachment will affect the amount of light reaching your camera sensor (as it now has ‘two lenses’ to pass through).

Lens attachments come in all shapes and sizes, and it might be worth buying a cheap ‘universal set’ to test out the different effects you can achieve. However, the most suited for filmmaking are lens attachments that allow you to recreate that anamorphic, ‘widescreen cinema’ look on your cellphone. Leading the pack at the moment are 1.33X anamorphic options from US companies Moment ($149) and Moondog ($150) – both of which can produce the amazing depth of field and evocative bokeh synonymous with top-performing cameras like the ARRI Alexa.

One last thing to bear in mind about lenses for your mobile phone: not only are they quite pricey, but they come with several additional expenses. Moment Lenses, for example, must be screwed into specially-designed Moment Cases (which provide blackout on the other, non-primary lenses of your phone) – and most lens attachments will require you to purchase (or build) an extra counterweight for your gimbal (see Section 5) in order to make it balance properly.

  1. SOFTWARE

If you want to get serious about your mobile camera set-up – and particularly if you are going to add an anamorphic lens attachment – you will require more sophisticated software to operate your phone’s camera than the native app.

Not only does the industry-leading Filmic Pro (R210) allow you to truly take control of your device by manually adjusting settings like frame rate, shutter speed, exposure levels and white balance, but it has a built-in function to allow you to ‘de-squeeze’ the frame from anamorphic footage and ‘stretch out’ the oval bokeh to represent what you traditionally see on screen.

With the Filmic Pro expansion pack – known as the Cinematographer’s Kit ($15) – the developers have managed to fit in some astounding features for such a compact and easy-to-use application, such as the ability to shoot in a true LOG gamma curve and a live analytics suite including zebra stripes, clipping, false colour and focus peaking.

  1. LIGHTS

With the incredible advancements in LED technology over the last 10 years – as lights continue to get brighter, smaller and cheaper – there is a huge range of options available to the budding mobile filmmaker.

If something like the DMG Lumiere MINI MIX is still too much of an outlay, the Manfrotto Lumimuse 8 LED (R1,750) is a high-performing, compact and versatile option, though the Lume Cube Bluetooth LED (R1,200) is not only more cost-effective, but produces 1,500 lumens, can be operated remotely and is also fully waterproof to a depth of 30 metres. Another interesting option is the Ulanzi Ultra Bright (starting at $20), which features three cold shoe mounts, meaning you can interlock fixtures for added flexibility.

If you intend on being a ‘one-man-band’ and are going to need to operate your camera with an attached lighting source, you might also want to consider a grip or shoulder rig of some kind. The Joby GorillaPod Mobile Rig (R1,500) and the ultra-compact Ztylus Smartphone Rig (R800) are decent options that won’t break the bank.

  1. SOUND

All cineastes know that the sound of a film is usually the aspect that most quickly distinguishes truly professional productions from ones that ‘wear their budgets on their sleeves’ – and, as such, this is the one area of production you should really never skimp on.

However, for informed and skilled DIYers, there are some great compact solutions out there on the market.

Go for a directional shotgun-style microphone, as these will provide the best clarity with reduced background noise. It’s hard to go wrong with the RØDE VideoMic Pro (R1,800), though others swear by the shotgun attachment on the Zoom H6 (R7,500 for both microphone and recording unit), which will also allow you to run your sound recording separately from your camera operation.

If you are filming a documentary, or perhaps a feature that is particularly dialogue-heavy, it might be a good idea to augment this capture with a lavaliere microphone set. The Sennheiser ME-2 (R2,400) is a fantastic omni-directional system that is renowned for its extremely clear vocal pick-up.

  1. STABILISATION

Set up on a tripod and fitted with a great lens attachment, most top-end mobile phones can produce beautiful, vivid images in 4K resolution with no discernible reduction in quality compared to cinema cameras – and particularly those of slightly older stock, as is often the case with independent filmmakers pulling together a project on a budget.

However, it is when you need to move the camera through space that cracks in production quality can quickly start to appear.

Without a proper SteadiCam rig, how can mobile filmmakers go from jerky, handheld footage to smooth, buttery action shots?

There are two main options here.

Both the GoPro Hero 7 (R4,000) and the brand-new DJI Osmo Action (R7,000) make use of inbuilt digital stabilisation technology to produce ultra-smooth 4K footage. However, these are designed more for true ‘action photography’ – such as extreme sports or rugged handheld applications – as the picture they produce has an ‘infinity focus’ quality, where everything in shot is, more or less, equally as vivid and clear as everything else.

Of course, this can be manipulated via settings both on the devices themselves and in post – but if you’re looking to capture truly cinematic mobile motion footage, then the better option is to find an appropriate gimbal for the make and model of your phone.

The Rolls Royce in this department is the Freefly Movi (R6,200/$299). This portable ‘cinema robot’ may be significantly more expensive than its competitors, but the quality – if not the range – of its features truly sets it apart. With time-lapse and ‘echo’ modes (where you train the camera to move between two predetermined points) – as well as the ultra-cool ‘orbit’ function, for 360-degree shots – this is the kind of product that gives credence to the phrase “the quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.”

For those looking for more cost-effective options, the good news is that there are two very dependable back-ups on the market: the DJI Osmo Mobile 2 (R2,200) and the Zhiyun Smooth-4 (R2,000).  Both of these motorised three-axis stabilisers have a very similar set of functions – object tracking, pan, follow, time-lapse – but differ in terms of how they are operated, with the Osmo 2 employing a joystick and the Smooth 4 a focus/zoom wheel (which is surprisingly handy, as you don’t need to touch the actual phone’s screen to adjust the focus field).

Be sure to research both of these options in terms of the phone you will be using for photography, as users report different functionality between brands and operating systems. Remember that if you are using a lens attachment, you will probably also need an extra counterweight to balance the gimbal and allow for smooth operation.

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