This post was written by Lydia Muir.
Dhwani Shah and I met at film school when we were both eager to start creating our own projects. We connected instantly and decided to collaborate on her short film Sapling, which she wrote and directed, and I produced.
The first thing she told me when we met was that she wanted to film it on an iPhone. I was surprised, to say the least, since most people were excited to have access to better equipment at our film school. It was a challenging but interesting process, and we learned a lot from the experience. Here is what we learned in this interview.
Lydia Muir: Let's start with the most obvious question. Why shoot on an iPhone?Dhwani Shah: As a film school student, I was really intrigued by the whole mobile filmmaking wave. It's been a buzz in the industry, and I couldn't resist giving it a shot. One of my big motivations was to challenge the idea that you need top-of-the-line equipment like an ARRI ALEXA and a huge crew to create something inspiring.
These days, tech is so darn accessible, and guess what, it's your creative juices that truly count. Ideas are the name of the game.
Now, speaking of the iPhone, or most of those nifty smartphones we have today, these little beasts can shoot some seriously crisp 4K video at 24 fps, and they come packing a pretty impressive dynamic range. They're right up there with many of those semi-pro cameras. Sure, they've got their quirks, but the fact that you've got that kind of filmmaking potential right there? It's mind-blowing.
Films like Tangerine and High Flying Bird were a huge inspiration. They were like a kick in the creative pants. They flat-out proved that you're carrying around a potent filmmaking tool in your pocket. So, if you've got a story to tell, there aren't many excuses not to give it a shot.
Behind-the-scenes look at 'Sapling'Photo provided
Muir: Did you prepare differently for this shoot than you would for a camera shoot?
Shah: Absolutely. Tackling this iPhone shoot was a whole different ballgame compared to a regular camera setup. Mobile filmmaking has its own unique quirks, so I had to be on my toes.
I focused on optimizing the settings and accessories for the iPhone, such as stabilizers and lens attachments. We shot using the FilmicPro app and the DJI Osmo Gimbal. This combo not only made our setup super portable but also gave us a lot more freedom in capturing shots. And FilmicPro has this awesome feature where I could use my iPad as a remote Wi-Fi monitor, which was a game-changer during the shoot.
Since we were shooting on an iPhone, we could easily get away with shooting exterior shots without worrying about all the legalities, if you know what I mean.
In terms of the visual style, I paid special attention to framing and composition, as our film aims to evoke the dramatic film sensibilities of the '80s. Lots of block shots and a strong focus on the performances. Time is like gold in the world of student filmmaking, and we had just two days to tackle a whopping 13-page script. Shooting with the iPhone significantly reduced our setup intervals, which in turn, gave our actors more room to improvise and perfect their scenes.
Between you [the producer] and I, we made sure that apart from the camera choice, we treated all other aspects of the production, including design, sound, and makeup, with the same level of professionalism as any other film project. No shortcuts taken!
Behind the camera of 'Sapling'Credit: Dhwani Shah
Muir: What challenges did you encounter while filming? How did you deal with them?
Shah: We bumped into three pretty big challenges during filming, and let me tell you, we had to think on our feet to deal with them.
First off, controlling exposure was a real head-scratcher. Our shooting location was flooded with natural light coming through these huge windows. Since it was a daytime shoot, the sun was pretty intense. We figured we'd use ND (Neutral Density) filters for the iPhone to get things under control. But here's the kicker–we couldn't get our hands on those filters in time due to some tight schedules and unavailability.
So, we had this wild idea to slap an actual lens ND filter onto the iPhone. It looked surprisingly good on the phone screen. But when we checked it out on a bigger screen, it was grainy and the quality took a nose-dive. We said, "Nope, no ND," and decided to reshoot the previous scenes the next day during the twilight hour when the sun wasn't throwing a tantrum.
Second, is the lack of storage. I was rocking the iPhone 14 Pro with 250GB, but trust me, 4K footage eats up space faster than you can say "Action!" Our brilliant plan was to back up the footage every 15 minutes of rolling time. Well, that plan hit a roadblock because it took an eternity to transfer the footage from the phone to the computer. We lost almost an hour on the first day because of that. So, we switched things up. Every shot got sent to the cloud right away, mainly because our storage was acting stingy. This actually forced us to be more disciplined, like a film crew from the old days. We did more rehearsals and kept our roll time in check.
Lastly, the iPhone's battery life was pretty manageable, thanks to our trusty portable charger. But it did get a little hot under the collar a few times. So, on day two, we played it cool, charging it during the breaks between shots. No iPhone meltdowns on our watch!
Behind-the-scenes of 'Sapling'Credit: Dhwani Shah
Muir: If you could go back and shoot it again, would you still choose to shoot on the iPhone? Why?
Shah: Man, that's a great question. Shooting on the iPhone had its ups and downs.
On the positive side, the iPhone's convenience was a game-changer. We could set up quickly, and the portability gave us more flexibility to capture some unique shots with relative ease. Plus, it was budget-friendly, and when you’re a student filmmaker, that's a big win.
But here’s the flip side. The limited storage means that even though you can shoot fast, you can’t shoot a lot. However, I just read that the new iPhone 15 Pro can now record ProRes 4k at 60 fps to external storage. So I suppose with every passing year, the smartphone tech will bridge these gaps and offer pro-range capabilities very soon.
Another thing worth mentioning is that shooting on an iPhone requires investing in a bunch of equipment like gimbals, stabilizers, lenses, and filters. That’s an additional cost. But still comparatively cheaper than a camera kit.
Overall, I'd say, if I could do it again, I'd still choose the iPhone because of the unique advantages it brings to the table. But I'd definitely be more prepared to handle those exposure and storage challenges.
Behind-the-scenes of 'Sapling' Credit: Dhwani Shah
Muir: Do you have any tips for other filmmakers who want to shoot on the iPhone?
Shah: My number one tip would be to gear up. Don’t make the same mistakes I did, get all the right lens attachments you need beforehand, especially an ND filter if you’re filming outdoors in the daytime.
Don’t discount sound, or rely on the phone mic. The one thing that separates a professional film from an amateur one is good sound. So that’s one department you don’t wanna compromise on.
Ensure that you have a monitor where you can view the feed so you’re not constantly peeping over your DoP’s shoulder. The last thing you want is to get in the way of the shot! I used the FilmicPro app which worked perfectly for this.
Lastly, just embrace your creativity. The iPhone lets you go wild with your filmmaking. Try funky angles, close-ups, and offbeat shots to make your film special! I stayed pretty traditional with Sapling, but it wasn’t the last time I shot with a smartphone!
For anyone who is interested, Sapling will be screened online during the SF3 Film Festival until December 3. For more information, please visit their website.
Written by Lydia Muir
Dhwani Shah is an award-winning filmmaker from Mumbai, currently based in New York City. She has independently produced two short films; ‘44’, horror, and ‘Sapling’ a drama short, under the banner of her production house, Ladybug Films. She is currently in development for two of her feature films. You can find her on Instagram @dhwanishah11
This post was written by Lydia Muir, a New York based filmmaker. She is currently developing a web-series ‘The Roommate Contract’ as well as multiple short films. If you have any questions or want to chat, feel free to reach out to her on Instagram @lydiamuir_film
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