Do you think smartphones are cinematic?
It’s a bit of a trick question, because what makes something "cinematic" is entirely subjective. The truth is, something is cinematic when a filmmaker can capture gorgeous images that enhance a solid story.
Technology has evolved vastly over the years, and smartphones have become some filmmakers’ go-to cameras for making shorts or features. Smartphones have even become so cinematic that some of our favorite directors have started using them in a lot of their work.
Let’s break down our favorite uses of smartphone filmmaking from five of our favorite well-known filmmakers.
1. Sean Baker
The filmmaker’s most well-known film, Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. DP Radium Cheung and Sean Baker managed to capture incredible images using a smartphone, a 1.33x anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs, and the FilMiC Pro app.
Baker is a filmmaker that is pushing the boundaries of what you need to make a film. He has proven time and time again that you don’t need expensive equipment to make a good movie. All you need is your smartphone, a good story, and an eye for a great composition.
2. David Cronenberg
“The last few short films I’ve made were just with very available consumer cameras and even phones. And, in fact, there are some moments in Crimes of the Future that were shot with an iPhone,” he said at the festival.
Cronenberg didn’t reveal which scenes were shot on the iPhone, leaving it to us to figure it out. Honestly, it is hard to know which scenes were shot with the iPhone because every shot blends perfectly into the next, creating a strong visual language that never breaks.
3. Park Chan-wook
The co-director's approach to filming Night Fishing with the smartphone was to create an eerie and unsettling atmosphere through visual experimentation. As the film’s narrative turns into something much more evocative, the camera adds a layer of mystery and an off-kilter-ness that feels like a close yet distant reality.
Park also shot a short, Life is But a Dream, on iPhone 13 Pro's Cinematic Mode, macro video, night mode, optical image stabilization, and the ultra-wide camera. In a video press conference, Park praised Apple not only for the phone but for the company for letting him do what he wanted with the short, saying, “It’s not easy to dive deeper into genre experiments in a full-length feature film because it costs a lot of money and there is a lot of pressure. When making short films, I have creative freedom.”
4. Zack Snyder
After stepping away from the Justice League movie, Zack Snyder directed a short film that he shot entirely on an iPhone. The four-minute long short, Snow Steam Iron, was made by Snyder and his friends and family and shot around the director’s office on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles.
“It was a cathartic experience for all of us in a weird way because when we all get together it’s easier for us to make a movie than talk,” Snyder said. “There was a heavy air around, as you can imagine, but this film gave us this way to be with each other that was nice.”
Snyder didn’t just use a phone. He also deployed a Zeiss ExoLens and mount, a couple of smartphone camera rigs, a Kessler Pocket Dolly for tracking shots, and the FiLMiC Pro app to control the camera’s settings. Those tools ensured that the filmmakers could still make his short look every bit like a Snyder film.
5. Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to smartphone filmmaking.
In 2017, the filmmaker shot Unsane with an iPhone and did the same in 2019 with High Flying Bird. He used the iPhone 8 Plus and Moondog Labs’ anamorphic lens to enhance the visual language of the story, creating a lively and zingy sports drama that is unlike anything we have ever seen before.
Smartphone filmmaking isn’t just for beginning filmmakers or productions with a low budget. It is a way of expression through a medium that has the potential to make great films. Apple knows this, which is why it is constantly improving the camera quality of its smartphone with each new release.
But don’t worry if you don’t have the latest iPhone. If you have an older model, play off that camera’s quality. There will be some limitations to that camera’s ability, but limitations push innovation. All you need are ambition and dedication to the craft of filmmaking.
Do you have a favorite film made with a smartphone? Let us know what that film is in the comments below!