How the Filmmakers Behind Sundance Hit 'Tangerine' Shot on an iPhone & Got Cinematic Results
Directed by Sean Baker, the much-buzzed-about Sundance film Tangerine is now in select theaters, and No Film School spoke with co-Director of Photography Radium Cheung, HKSC about how the film was shot only with the iPhone 5s, and why that worked for this film:
If you haven't seen it, here's the Red band trailer:
Shooting on the iPhone
By utilizing the iPhone 5s and anamorphic adapters, the Director/co-DP Sean Baker and co-DP Radium Cheung (who was shooting FX's The Americans when he got the call to shoot this film) were able to capture the film in a way that gave them maximum mobility, a unique look, and quite a bit more stealth than if they were using larger cameras. The anamorphic adapter is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle here, and it certainly helps take the footage to another place compared to regular old mobile video (especially with the lens flares).
By using the FiLMiC Pro app, they were also able to avoid the constantly changing exposure that normally comes with shooting on a phone (though there were times in the film that focus was not locked). If you can see the film on the big screen, it's absolutely worth it not only because it's both funny and heartbreaking (and just a good film), but because it shows just how far these tools have come. The footage reminded me of digital films from the early and mid-200s, but it completely worked for the subject matter. Due to the small physical size of the iPhone, they were able to do some camera movements that were amazingly electric and would have been much harder to do with larger cameras — and it gave their characters even more energy at times.
Here are the tools they utilized to capture the images:
- Moondog Labs 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter for iPhone 5s (this gave them around a 2.40:1 aspect ratio from the original 16:9)
- FiLMiC Pro App (this helped lock exposure, focus, white balance, but also gave them better compression)
- Steadicam Smoothee for iPhone 5/5s
The anamorphic footage had to be de-squeezed in post (though newer versions of the app can show you de-squeezed footage in-camera). Needing to look at the squeezed 16:9 footage proved a bit difficult for them at first, but they eventually got used to shooting with an incorrect image, and framing their actors in a way that made sense once the image was corrected in post.
From ASC magazine, here is a little bit more about the lighting used on the film, which was almost non-existent:
For the 22-day shoot, Cheung brought only three battery-operated Rosco LitePads — 1’x1’, 6”x12” and 3”x12” — “just to be able to fill in and add some eyelight every now and then,” he says. Bounce material picked up at a 99-Cents Only Store was used occasionally. “We had no C-stands, no conventional movie lights,” says Cheung. “We staged our actors with existing light on locations, to some degree, and I turned those existing lights on and off selectively.”
By being smart about the places they shot, they were able to avoid using traditional lighting for the most part, and not only did this help them shoot faster, but it also made sure that less attention was brought to them when they were shooting on busy public sidewalks that they didn't have the budget to close down. The only time a scene was traditionally lit was in the bar, but Cheung simply used the Par Cans that were already hanging overheard, focused them, and gelled them to his liking.
Here's more from that same ASC article about how they decided on the look for the film, which pops with energy the way its colorful characters do:
It was during prep that Baker discovered another key component of the movie's look: its amped-up color. Again, this was a 180-degree turn. “The sort of films I make have this urban social-realist thing,” Baker says. “What I normally do is drain the color because for some reason, that adds to the reality.” But after trying that with test footage in Final Cut Pro, he pondered other options. “Because these women are so colorful, I decided to try going the other way, and I tried pumping up the saturation instead. Almost immediately, I was sold. One movie critic called it ‘pop vérité,’ and that was exactly the combination I was looking for.”
Here are a few more clips to get a better sense of this look:
It's also mentioned in that same post that they added grain throughout the whole film, to try to get this camera and the footage looking as cinematic as possible.
While they utilized relatively inexpensive gear to shoot the film, they did not skimp on the sound gear. Veteran sound mixer Irin Strauss used the Sound Devices 664 mixer/recorder along with some other high-end stuff to capture the best audio possible. Here's a taste of what he used thanks to ProSound Web:
In addition to his 664, Strauss used a Lectrosonics SMV wireless system for his transmitters, along with Sanken COS-11D lavaliers. He employed a Schoeps CMIT5U shotgun microphone and, occasionally, a T-powered Schoeps CMC 4U for locations with low ceilings and little head room.
As has been said a million times, audiences are more willing to forgive image than they are sound, so if you're deciding to go with a lower-end camera, if you skip good sound the whole thing is going to suffer.
Interviews with Sean Baker
Sean recently spoke with the terrific Film Courage, and here are the first two videos in that series that go a little deeper into the conversation about shooting the film and what advantages the filmmakers had choosing the iPhone format:
If you're wondering, no, this was not a marketing ploy on the part of the filmmakers, especially since they kept it secret until after the film premiered:
This featurette also goes into some more detail:
Should You Shoot Your Next Film on the iPhone?
This film, like most movies, could have been shot on any number of cameras that could have fulfilled a similar purpose, but the filmmakers chose a format that allowed them to not only put the cameras anywhere they wanted, but also let them blend into busy city sidewalks and easily shoot inside vehicles. There are a number of cameras that can accomplish this task now, but plenty of you out there probably already have an iPhone or similar camera in your pocket. That's the biggest advantage in my opinion to what they did, is that not only could their camera actually fit into a pocket, but this also let them use super small support gear.
If you're thinking of shooting on a small camera to avoid permits, that's one strategy, but the filmmakers had the correct permits, and were allowed to shoot on these locations (though if you're trying not to draw attention to yourself, a small camera like a smartphone is a great way to do that). There are definitely more forgiving cities than Los Angeles to try to shoot a movie guerilla-style, so that's something else to keep in mind.
As Baker has said, the idea for this film came a long time before they decided to shoot on the iPhone. If you're choosing a smartphone as your main camera, you should be doing it because you actually want that look for your film and for your story. It will become less novel as we see more films shot on smartphones, so it not only has to fit the specific aesthetic quality that you're going for, but it also has to be a better choice than some of the small and cheap cameras out there — both in terms of controlling the image on set, but also making it easier on yourself in post. As Baker says in the interview above, he likely wouldn't shoot on a phone again. It seems like shooting on a phone would make your life easier, but there are plenty of complications that come from choosing this format, especially not being able to change focus during the shot (and if you don't lock focus, you're bound to get the camera hunting for focus in the middle of the shot).
How many of you have shot narrative films on a phone? What was your experience like?