January 28, 2015
Sundance 2015

The Feature Film That Blew Everyone Away at Sundance Was Shot on an iPhone 5s

Director Sean Baker's feature film Tangerine, which got picked up by Magnolia Pictures, is one of the most talked-about films at the Festival this year even though it doesn't exactly fit the profile of a buzzworthy entry. Firstly, it features unknown actors; no Kristen Wiigs, no Ethan Hawkes. Secondly, it's a story about two transgender women on a Christmas Eve odyssey through the many subcultures of L.A. to "get to the bottom of the scandalous rumor." So, mass appeal? No. (V appeal? Hell yes.) Lastly, it wasn't shot using an expensive, top of the line cinema camera. In fact, it was shot using the device I use every day to take notes, check emails, and dodge calls from bill collectors.

That device, of course, is the iPhone 5s. Tangerine was shot completely on the Apple device, but this smartphone camera setup also included the 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter from Moondog Labs, the FiLMiC Pro app, and external recording devices. Sound mixer Irin Strauss shared on Twitter how they went about recording the audio on a dual system with an SD 664, lavs, and boom mics.

As you might recall, we talked about Moondog's anamorphic iPhone adapter back when it was raising funds on Kickstarter. And FiLMiC Pro, which was used on that gorgeous Bentley ad, (also shot on an iPhone 5s), turns your "iOS camera into a broadcast worthy 2K HD video camera" by giving you manual control over focus, exposure, ISO, shutter speed, tint, and color temperature.

The overall cost of this setup -- a setup that shot a feature film that is just killing it at Sundance? Well, Moondog's adapter costs $160, FiLMiC Pro is $8 in the App Store, and iPhones range from -- what? $200 to $600 depending on service and features? So, you're looking at $168 to $768 to get high quality images for a feature film. 

Smartphone filmmaking is still a long way away from not only being fully on par with traditional feature filmmaking, but also being accepted as a legitimate form of feature filmmaking. Personally, I love it. I've always loved it. When the Moment lenses hit Kickstarter, I bought a set. When Moondog's Anamorphic Adapter hit Kickstarter, I bought it. Any app that can turn my iPhone into a little filmmaking tank of fury, I'm all over it.

When you shoot with an iPhone, are you loosng some control over your instrument? Yes. Are you losing image quality? Of course. Does it matter? Maybe not as much as you think, considering the fact that The Hollywood Reporter described the look of Tangerine as “crisp and vigorously cinematic”, with “an aesthetic purity that stands out in a field where so much indie filmmaking has gotten glossier and less technically adventurous.”

I think part of the hang up with filmmakers about smartphone filmmaking is that they're not sold on the idea that people should start making movies with them. But that's just it -- it's not that we should, it's that we canTangerine has proved that once again.      

Your Comment

38 Comments

this is an excellent example to show the people out there who are dying in buying the most recent expensive cinema equipments to go back to the zero point and start out with the story.
especially for the technical guys out there who are thinking obtaining a red-scarlet can make them a filmmakers.
Cinema is about STORY. Not Equipments at all.
Smart Filmmakers are Not Necessarily Technical At All. I know some name hollywood directors who taught me and they do not give any damn to know anything at all about technical camera tools for example.
Yes they have Hollywood budget. But before thinking of any budget (they dont think of it anyway) they got the Story in their mind and heart.
Cinema is Telling a Stories. Telling stories is about the way you tell it (Visually+sound) and not by which damn camera u used anyway.
Congrats for the film. And I hope we get more questions from the ambitious filmmakers around this website about the pure process of filmmaking.
Story. Analysing..Directing Actors..Interpreting and transforming the story Visually (Shot List)...Shooting for Editing...EDITING (Walter Murch and "The Rule of Six" )
There are Lot subjects to know And Need for better Visual Film than the pure technical subject.

January 28, 2015 at 9:44PM

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Ammar Quteineh
Director|Cinematographer |||France|||
704

Hell YES +2

January 30, 2015 at 2:52AM

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Tery Wilson
Filmmaker
101

I couldn't agree with you more! Thank you for putting this back into perspective. Congrats to these filmmakers too...especially for those who are just starting out, like me. I almost felt like not having equipment yet did not legitimize my work in the field...but I have a pen, paper, laptop, experiences, education, creativity, an imagination, resources and more. Put all these things together and I guess that means I have stories to tell. Back to the "writing" board! Thank you!

January 30, 2015 at 6:43PM

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Ghia Ransome
Creative Director | Producer | Writer
131

Wasak!

January 31, 2015 at 9:05PM

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Arby Larano
Filmmaker
79

THIS. I don't even have anything else to say because this says it all.

February 3, 2015 at 1:17PM

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John P Sundholm
Writer/Director/Producer/Actor
84

Awesome inspiration. Thanks for posting this story.

January 28, 2015 at 9:49PM

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Jorge L. Molinari
Mechanical Engineer / Family Man / Video Producer
127

Why use a $4,800 sound recorder + an iPhone?? Why choose this setup?

January 28, 2015 at 10:33PM

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Gboyega Dada
Director of Photography, Editor
103

Because the quality of your audio is more important than the quality of your video. I think they’re on to something.

January 28, 2015 at 10:57PM

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Ryan Toyota
Graphic Designer / Typographer / Video Editor
1182

This. This. This.

Bad, sub-par, grainy, or compressed video could pass as a stylistic choice. Bad audio is just bad audio.

January 29, 2015 at 1:05PM

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E. David Nazario
Filmmaker
184

I'm pretty sure you can take $1500 off that amount for a BMPCC + lens and still have more than $3000 left for your audio. Unless it was rented or gotten as a favor (which would make sense).

January 29, 2015 at 9:55PM

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Gboyega Dada
Director of Photography, Editor
103

they wanted to stand out from the crowd and make some buzz.

January 28, 2015 at 11:28PM

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Einar Gabbassoff
D&CD at Frame One Studio
960

It is, at the end of the day, a gimmick. Which I don't mean as an insult. It's just that, it didn't HAVE to be done this way. And the kind of thing it's supposedly touting, the ability to make a movie with a small smartphone, is somewhat misleading. Note that they neaded special apps and lens adapters, not to mention the full field audio kit they used, to make it happen. They could have made the same movie on most DSLR's. And it wasn't a money thing, they clearly had the cash to spend.

So, for now, it's a gimmick. A cool gimmick, and the piece probably didn't suffer for it. But it's hardly a gamechanger by any stretch of the imagination. The trouble they went through to do it this way made any possible benefits disappear completely.

January 29, 2015 at 12:03AM

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Joshua Bowen
Editor
292

I saw the movie at Sundance and I know Sean--it wasn't a gimmick. First, he had very little money. When he was looking for a colorist, he had next to nothing. Second, you couldn't have shot that film the way he did with a bigger camera. I'm pretty sure he shot without permits, and they were all over the busy streets of Hollywood. And there were "jib" shots in the film, which I'm sure were just the phone taped to a pole.

There is a difference between shooting with a DSLR and shooting with an iPhone. They shot the film with three iPhones. Three DSLR's will cost you something to buy or rent--hundreds if not thousands of dollars per camera. You can pick any three people you know and have three free iPhones. The Filmic app costs next to nothing. And I'm sure their sound mixer already owned the SD 664. They needed a multichannel mixer because they probably weren't using a boom and had to wire several actors up simultaneously.

Sure, it can sound like a gimmick, but everyone here is talking about how you can get better image quality from this camera, or easier results from that camera. When you see the film, you'll see it couldn't have been made with a different camera. Sean designed the entire feel of the film--the grading, the energetic camera moves, the moving story and raw performances--to compliment and enhance the look he was going to get with the iPhone's camera. THIS IS THE KEY, Folks. It's really the key with any camera you choose, but certainly, it's a necessity with a lower-end camera that gives you a very specific, more limited-range look.

February 7, 2015 at 6:20PM

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Mark Stolaroff
Producer, Instructor
77

"When you see the film, you'll see it couldn't have been made with a different camera." With all the new technology we have out there, I have yet to see something which has not been done before on film. It is not about the camera, it is about the creativity of the filmmaker in coming up with an image. This movie could have been made with dozens of different cameras, but they have created a buzz, which is a good marketing ploy.

July 14, 2015 at 11:52PM

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Christopher Ball
Director of Photography
88

I can think of at least 10 other cameras that has waaaayy better image quality for USD 768. Sounds gimmicky to me.

January 28, 2015 at 10:57PM

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Lesly Leon Lee
Director of Photography
102

BMPCC for one.

January 29, 2015 at 3:15AM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1075

Very smart of them to generate buzz this way. "I wanna see the film they shot on an i-phone!" - I think it's great as well. It's a good lesson in what matters when it comes to films and a solid reminder to use what you have and stop the gear frenzy. Besides, grainy has a certain charm to it, a lot of cameras today look too good.

January 29, 2015 at 1:17AM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1276

A $2k dslr, $2k lenses, $2k anamorphic adapter, $2k laptop, cheap portable led lights and some 'free' software and you can start to shoot 4k cinemascope under $10k. $10k is less then some people spend on their hobbies every few years so yes it is very affordable. But here is when it becomes complicated. Buying the rights to a good script or IP is expensive and writing a script yourself is hard. Hiring talented actors is expensive. Hiring a crew, shooting on location and traveling to promote your movie is expensive. So what I am saying is this. Making a movie for theaters is a million dollar business at least. Making movies for vimeo you can do with an iphone yes!

January 29, 2015 at 1:34AM

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luc bees
140

I can't understand why you's use an iPhone with an external recorder, a DSLR with external would be better for same price? Not being bitter, I wanna see the film, just don't understand that

January 29, 2015 at 4:50AM

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It's the Story that moves an audience........period!

January 29, 2015 at 6:22AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
737

Really can't wait to see this one, looks great. The Duplass Brothers are Executive Producers on it though, so it's not really a "No-Stars" type of movie. Having those guys in your corner definitely doesn't hurt distribution and Sundance acceptance rates. Nevertheless, congrats to the filmmakers!

January 29, 2015 at 8:49AM, Edited January 29, 8:49AM

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Kevin
76

I think it's been official for a while now. All cameras including phone cameras are looked at as the "film stock" of the 21st century. It's not so much about what you need as it is what you do with what you choose to do it with.

January 29, 2015 at 4:04PM

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Dantly Wyatt
Musical Comedy & Content Creator.
597

The film WINDOW LICKER that came out in 2014 was shot on an android smart phone and it looks fucking crazy good!
www.window-licker.com

January 29, 2015 at 4:50PM

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brian mcguire
director
84

The decision to shoot on an iPhone was a smart one. First, obviously, whoever shot this already had one, so that meant not needing to rent / buy a camera. More importantly, it is the promotional value of it.

There are thousands upon thousands of independent filmmakers who are jockeying for a share of the audience's attention. Technology has allowed anyone and everyone to become a filmmaker and make films. And the result is that we have all this white noise, with zillions of indie films clogging Vimeo, and there is practically no way for a filmmaker to really be heard above this white noise. So, if you are a passionate filmmaker with proper skill, solid talent, good story and a promising cast, what do you do to stand out and above? You find a great gimmick and use it to your advantage.

Cameras are very cheap these days, and in the hands of skilled people, they produce great results. Cheap cameras will always have significant limitations, compared to pro gear. Skilled people will know these limitations and work around them. In the end, your film shot on an iPhone will likely look good enough. The bottom line, and the moral of this story is, a gimmick may be an excellent means for quickly publicising your film. A full feature film shot on a cell phone -- that is an excellent and intriguing gimmick that will compel quite many people to go and see the film. And if the film is good, its quality will do the rest.

So, rather than squirreling patiently away $20 by $20 until you have enough for RED-Scarlet (and a bunch of primes, and a bunch of shotgun mics, and lights, and C-stands, and the rest), shift your focus on writing. Write scripts, re-write them, then re-write them again, then shoot them with your iPhone, then do it again and again. Learn to write an engaging dialogue, learn to create an intriguing story, with plastic characters and appealing plot lines. The end result (a film you wrote after previously writing many other scripts, and shot on an iPhone) will definitely be better than if you had patiently waited to shoot your first feature until all the gear is in place.

January 29, 2015 at 5:24PM

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That's assuming you want to write at all. The other option is to team up with a writer.

February 4, 2015 at 3:38PM

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David Gurney
DP
1545

Fantastic!

January 29, 2015 at 9:01PM

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Jake Keenum
Filmmaker
2120

Link to a trailer?

January 30, 2015 at 6:00AM

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Willard
Director of Photography
126

I agree that it's about story.

It's unfortunate that SOO much of the buzz about this film is that it was shot on an iPhone. I think the actual point is that some filmmakers found an interesting topic, and some interesting characters, and shot a verité style social realist drama with whatever tools they had available. And they obviously did a good enough job to get into Sundance. The story isn't about the iPhone. It's about the filmmakers. But that seems to have gotten lost.

This story is about the spirit of independent filmmaking, not a free ad for iPhones.

And I agree with other posters that the net effect of focusing so much on the iPhone gives the false impression that making a feature is easy if your tools are cheap.

It's not a replacement for cinematography, lighting, acting, directing, writing, editing, sound design or music.

January 30, 2015 at 10:02AM, Edited January 30, 10:02AM

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David Fernandes
Director
109

Got that right Dave!

February 1, 2015 at 5:03PM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
737

It's a total "made you look!" thing, using the iPhone. Good for them, they got a lot of buzz they otherwise would not have gotten. It's a total gimmick. I did the same exact thing for a major university client 3 years ago, and it worked for them, too.

But the days of a filmmaker not understanding the technical side of things is completely GONE, Ammar. The old masters and "name" directors are dying out, and the business is leaner now. Technology is one of the tools we use to tell stories. A smart filmmaker understands tech as well as the other "pure" aspects of being a filmmaker. But I fully agree with you that cinema is telling stories. Cheers!

January 30, 2015 at 12:10PM

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Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.
361

Hi P. Dawg..
The name film directors that I talked about are not old and they are not dying out at all. In contrast they are actually the young leading directors of Hollywood...
and of course with my review I do not mean at all ignoring the importance of the technical side (I died learning and mastering the technical side and I achieved what I want)..However, I am addressing the critic to the ambitious (who want to be filmmakers) outhere who are giving 99% of their time comparing cameras, sliders, 5K vs maybe 10k resolution..and at the end they don't give enough time to the story.
So The directing become dead at the end. No Matter What God Knows Technical Side could Achieve to any film...
Want wisdom? Robert Rodriguez put it in one line:
"Part of what makes a person creative is his lack of emphasis on things technical".
Cheers!

January 30, 2015 at 7:12PM

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Ammar Quteineh
Director|Cinematographer |||France|||
704

Apple is so proud.

January 31, 2015 at 12:05AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1286

I love the idea of shooting a feature on an iphone and relying on the strength of the creativity and limited options. Its like Dogma in a way. I tried shooting a music video using the 240 fps slow motion on iphone 6 and the time-lapse settings. I though it turned out pretty well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5Cm2liIFmw

February 1, 2015 at 2:23PM

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dan moxon
Film Composer / Musician
69

It does seem it did have a couple of celebrity and legacy Sundance darling brothers enlisted to help push it to programmer attention. That's a POST production technique that has gotten crucial these days.

February 2, 2015 at 1:35PM, Edited February 2, 1:35PM

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Sharad Patel
Writer/ Director / Producer / Music Producer
87

Proof you don't need expensive equipment to make an awesome movie! We strongly believe in this at Activid.co, where folks create videos using iPhone & GoPro footage everyday.

February 2, 2015 at 3:39PM

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"When you shoot with an iPhone, are you loosing some control over your instrument."

Seriously? The word is LOSING not LOOSING. Is it that hard to proofread before publishing?

February 4, 2015 at 11:57PM

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I think is a true testament to the progress of smartphone camera sensors and their manufacturer, Sony in this case. Sony has been on the ball with sensor quality and advancements these past few years.

March 6, 2015 at 3:26PM

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Nathna
74

This is a response to the often expressed opinion out there that “the IMAGE” does not matter as long as the story is good. Although I wholeheartedly agree that a great story is probably the most important aspect of any film, the reality of an image-based marketplace means that story isn’t going to carry everything. There is approximately one film per year, (out of THOUSANDS that never see the light of a projector), that breaks through that “no budget, scrape the barrel” barrier and finds a big audience based on story alone. Because of the incredibly small chance of making the “one film” that breaks that barrier, I refer to it as the “lottery” approach to filmmaking. It is great if you are the one that wins it, but you cannot rely on it (as you cannot rely on a lottery ticket) to make the big win. No investor, distributor or studio is going to bank on a lottery ticket; therefore, many other factors need to be considered to make a film that is COMPETITIVE in the MARKETPLACE. Too many people say that “Blair Witch did it, so can I”, which is no different than saying, “my neighbor won a million on the lottery, so can I”.
By its very nature, film is an IMAGE based medium. I find it very frustrating that so many “filmmakers” seem to have very little concern for the quality of the image and are quite happy to settle with the lowest common denominator. Many fall back on the “if I have a great story it doesn’t matter” philosophy, but we are in a competitive marketplace that is based on story AND image. And the hard reality is that VERY few of us have really great scripts that can carry a film to the marketplace on that alone.
I have been to several major film markets, and I can tell you that initial purchasing decisions are frequently made by looking at a couple of minutes of a film. If they buyer doesn’t see something of interest in that two minutes, they move on. There are HUNDREDS of films competing, and you need to catch the eye. There is not enough time for them to see if you have a great story. And that is for films that are finished and looking for a buyer, which is where most of the super-low budget films end up since they cannot raise the financing and distribution up front.
If image is really not that important in cinema, then we might as well just shoot everything as poorly as we can, as cheap as we can and as fast as we can. Discouragingly, that is what is often happening, but it is a race to the bottom.
If audiences really do not care what they hear or see in a cinema, we would not have had most of the major technological developments of the past 100 years. No cinemascope, no Dolby, no IMAX, heck we wouldn’t even have colour film…we’d all be happy with black and white academy, hand cranked at 18 frames per second. What’s ironic is that every technical development in cinema before the arrival of the digital age was an advancement or improvement; the first real steps backwards were in the digital age, the DSLR being a prime example. If IMAGE is really not important in CINEMA, and it’s only about the story, then why don’t we just make radio plays?
I am not very excited by the prospect of sitting in cinemas (or at home) watching blurry, banding, jello-like images, even if the story is OK, and that is why I am quite vocal in these posts. If the next generation is really going to be happy watching fuzzy, crappy images, then I guess I’ve lost the battle and I really am “old fashioned”, uncool and out of date. Personally, I would like to strive for better on all fronts: Sound, story and image.

This all came back to me last winter, when I took my boys to see Cinderella...not a particularly brilliant film on it's own, but...after two or three years of seeing digital capture presented on the big screen (and getting used to it), it really brought it all home watching 35mm anamorphic cinemascope again. The images were STUNNING, they were exciting to watch, there was a significant thrill, and excitement and and energy in watching that full, bright, colourful, ALIVE image. It brought me back to why I became so excited by cinema in the first place, because it is a magic and exciting world. The digital era has brought a dullness, stasis and flatness to the image which "story" can supercede, but never wholly replace. It is one of those things you can't put your finger on, or point to, but it is a feeling. It is the magic of the silver screen. Digital cinema has blunted that aspect of the silver screen, and I am not sure we'll ever get it back since everything seems to come down to the false perception that "economy" is king; cheap is better (and this in not just in cinema...look at architecture and design). There is a place for all types of films, and we can embrace a film like Tangerine I am sure, but to suggest iphones can replace the 100 year legacy of the silver screen is hard for me to believe, or a sad thing to accept. I do not want to lose that magic

July 13, 2015 at 10:14PM

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Christopher Ball
Director of Photography
88