Oscar-Winning, Partly iPhone-Shot 'Searching for Sugar Man' Proves Content is King

It's far too easy to get caught up in the technological aspects of filmmaking, whether it be with new cameras, lenses, NLEs, or anything else. Focusing on gear is easy when something new comes out practically every day, but all of this technology is in place for the purpose of helping us tell better stories. What better way to remind ourselves of this than to see a great story made with what is widely considered to be "less than adequate" equipment? Such is the case with Searching for Sugar Man, the Academy Award winner for Best Feature Documentary at this year's Oscars, part of which was shot on, as you might have already guessed, an iPhone. Check out the trailer for this fascinating film below:

And here is a piece from CNN which describes how an iPhone was used to shoot portions of the film (thanks to cinema5D for the heads-up):

While only a few pickups from 'Searching For Sugar Man' were actually shot on an iPhone with the 8mm Vintage Camera app (most of the film was shot on Super 8mm film), the fact that these scenes blended right in and didn't detract from the story in the slightest is telling. Newer technologies are great, and they help push the industry forward (and they're fun to argue about), but in the end, it always comes down to telling engaging stories, and utilizing whatever you have at your disposal.

Even though it was used to fake the real thing, plenty of people are taking advantage of the 8mm app to produce all sorts of interesting looks. Here are a couple of music videos shot using the app:

Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/27620762

What do you guys think? Have you seen Searching for Sugar Man? What do you think about mixing cameras within your films, assuming the situation calls for it?


[via cinema5D]

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Your Comment


Well we already know content is king, however all these articles and discussions always veer to the tech side if not right way, soon after. Usually it's about some torture test - mind you I appreciate the time people put into these tests but why not go out and shoot something non-test related.

See you guys later, I'm running out to shoot crumpled up tin foil in mid day sun @ 1.4 to see how a new lens I got reacts to purple fringing. :-)

March 4, 2013 at 1:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Right, and I think the two music videos above are a great example of using the tools at your disposal -- an iPhone and an app -- to create something interesting and effective.

March 4, 2013 at 1:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

I saw the movie and didin´t even notice the use of this technique. When the story is catching, the technical side is disappearing.

I have another interesting story about the use of vintage filters:
I was asked recently to shoot a music video with a "super8 look" and used a real super8 camera (Chinon) and got plenty of nice super8 pictures. When they saw the results, the producers weren´t really happy, found the picture not sharp enough and too shaky. Some other shots of the video were shot with a Sony F55 with an After Effects super8 filter on it ... these ones were much more appreciated.

I was really shoked that "film people" could think that fake is better than authentic ...
And shooting on super8 is still cheaper, easier and funnier than using a F-55 + AfterEffects ....

March 4, 2013 at 1:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Maybe they were thinking of Super 16 ;)

March 4, 2013 at 10:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thanks for bringing this movie up. I'm looking forward to watch it ;-)

Regarding the Super 8 thing. The trailer shows that the film is actually made of various media, including modern HD footage. Super 8 style seems to be used for some (maybe most) of the 'historic' footage. I don't want to bash iPhone image quality, but I would like to point out, that Super 8 film has pretty crappy IQ and therefore it shouldn't be a problem for iPhone footage to be filtered to resemble Super 8 film.

That said, I agree that content is more important than technical aspects. There are far more well shot films than there actually are films with "good content". It never ceases to amaze me how the technical side of films is advancing (cheap quality cameras, VFX, 3D etc.), while the screenplay and acting often suck really really bad. I mean if technicians/artists can make film look good, why can't "the other people" make the rest to be good..

March 4, 2013 at 2:46AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I've been using the app for a couple of years and have found it to be excellent. It has actually stifled any desire I've had to shoot on actual 8mm. I've got a new music video coming out which is DSLR with a bit of the 8mm app thrown in. But here is something entirely shot on the 8mm iphone app. 8mm Chronicles: https://vimeo.com/41398456
Also really looking forward to seeing Sugar Man.

March 4, 2013 at 3:59AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Another critical example of content over tech: Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film - shot on phones and DV, smuggled out of his house in Tehran in a USB stick baked in a cake while he was living under house arrest. A masterpiece - http://www.thisisnotafilm.net/

March 4, 2013 at 6:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


'This Is Not A Film' looks absolutely incredible, and I can't wait to see it. Something tells me that film is worth a post or two of its own, and for reasons other than how it was shot.

March 4, 2013 at 4:10PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom

This is/was a great doc - 60 Minutes did a piece on it in October of last year. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7424704n

March 4, 2013 at 9:23AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Speaking of shooting with the iPhone, how does one deal with battery power issues? Especially when your shooting long hours and attaching accessories. And I assume the accessories don't fit over my mophie battery case. I'd love to hear more tips and tricks on this challenge from the NFS community.

Also are there any blogs that cover iphone cinematography primarily? I know Handheld Hollywood does.

March 4, 2013 at 10:37AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Earnest reply

Not only did I love Searching for Sugar Man, but it and many other recent films (especially docs) drive home the point that content is indeed king. Too many aspiring filmmakers get caught up in esoteric obsessions with technology without any real focus on or talent for fundamental storytelling. "A great story well told" is far more dependent on narrative skills that technical skills. And if you have the storytelling chops, then all the easy-to-master new technilogy makes it easy to create a film that will find an audience. That's the magic in the equation.

March 5, 2013 at 6:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

John B.

Well i guess it was the right tool for the particular scenes.

I'm guessing you can probably shoot a whole movie with an iphone if you were distributing on the web.
For cinema you'll get away with it for those 8mm fake shots but probably not much else.

It was a great movie with a great feel good story. The resourcefulness of the filmaker does give it some additional points.

March 5, 2013 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I saw this film last night after reading about it here. Its amazing!! You guys should really see it. Yes, the filming is very well done and the mix of a high end camera (don't know what he used) and the iphone app was done very well. Really the shooting is well done. But what REALLY sings is the story! The story is just absolute gem material. To think that this could've happened - and to such a humble gentle spirit who really has kept nothing at all for himself in life. Very touching and good production quality film. A must see!

March 12, 2013 at 11:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM