Can an iPhone Shoot Better Slow Motion Than Kubrick?
The short answer is kinda, but the long answer is open the pod bay doors, HAL.
Take a look for yourself. The FPS game on smartphones is better than ever. With a few add-ons, your footage can rival Hollywood auteur status. As good as the pristine 70mm Super Panavision in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Honestly, you can come close.
Stanley Kubrick's 2001 is quite likely my favorite film of all time. The film gets at that most central question, eloquently asked, about humankind’s relationship to the universe. It’s cinematic genius. So...can I re-create a single shot from Kubrick’s cinematic genius on my smartphone? In slow motion?
Why not? What smartphones can do these days is crazy. Kubrick painstakingly pioneered much of the techniques used in 2001 with his collaborators, including shooting higher FPS than was normally possible on pin-registered 70mm. Today, you can do that with a camera that fits in your back pocket. My goal here was to try it out and then share a few pointers on how to properly shoot slow motion on a smartphone.
How did we get here? It’s the story of 2001 itself.
The Dawn of Man
I decided to recreate a shot from the opening sequence of the film because 1.) I already had access to roadkill, and 2.) I couldn’t afford to make any sets or costumes from the rest of 2001. For this shot, all I had to do was get an ape suit from amazon, some friends, and an iPhone (with a few accessories). Here’s how it came out.
TIPS & TRICKS
What you need to re-create Kubrick-era slow motion:
CONTROL FPS IN FILMICPRO
The first step to shooting slow motion on any smartphone is, of course, to download FiLMic Pro to your phone. Its manual settings are great for turning your phone into nearly all the familiar settings of a regular video camera. Under manual settings, you can actually choose from a ton of frame rates. I ended up going with 120 FPS, although in retrospect it looks slower than Kubrick’s version. (I found 2001 conjecture that the fastest pin-registered 70mm camera shot at 125fps, so I decided to go with close to that. See what you think.)
Don’t forget to change playback to 24 FPS if you want to be able to see how slow it is in playback. If you don’t there’s no way to do that until you bring it into your editing software. By the way, when you edit this footage, you process as you would any footage in a project with a different frame rate. You would modify/interpret the footage as the rate you’d like to play back (23.976 FPS here).
THERE'S A LEARNING CURVE TO SMARTPHONE EXPOSURE, AND YOU'LL NEED LOTS OF LIGHT
Coming from typical video exposure, smartphone exposure requires an adjustment period. Namely, you can’t control aperture on smartphones; as far as I know, all smartphones are fixed aperture. On a smartphone, you'll need to stick to ISO and Shutter Speed. And with slow motion, you will need lots of light to make sure the higher FPS won’t translate to a noisier image.
We actually had tons of great sunlight, in fact too much where the sky was concerned. We threw on an ND filter to help, but a graduated ND would have been better so that the foreground would have been less underexposed.
(The resulting footage had some noise and artifacting where it was underexposed. I could have thrown Red Giant's Denoiser in the edit, but I opted to let it show as is. We did use an Ikan Onyx 15w light to try to throw some extra light on the skeleton, but we probably could have used a 1960s-era monster to combat the elements.) And then a thunderstorm suddenly materialized and exploded right on top of us. In fact, we were only able to get two takes before serious lightning struck and sent us running in the rain to our cars a mile away.
CHEAT WITH ANAMORPHIC
Like many dedicated video cameras, you can shoot at 4K in 24fps and 30fps, but once you get to higher fps, you are limited to 1080. Throwing on an anamorphic lens is a way to find the looks of a larger aspect you might want. For the Dawn of Man shot, I used the Moondog Labs anamorphic lens. I like it a lot and was not as interested in the more stylized looks of anamorphic that other good mobile anamorphics offer. (More on that in a later post.) Kubrick shot 2001 on spherical lenses, not anamorphic, so the idea was to use anamorphic to get us the frame without it looking noticeably anamorphic. It’s mounted using Beast Grip’s Beastcage and a small Joby tripod.
By the way, when you edit this, you process the same way you would other anamorphic footage – you desqueeze the footage.
CHOOSE YOUR FPS FOR A REASON
Like I said above, 120fps was probably too high. But I couldn’t resist! It looks a little more like 300 than 2001. But I can live with that. However, it’s a good reason to be cautious of the effect you want. And to remember that the higher you go, the harder it will be to attempt to stick to the 180-degree shutter rule. I didn’t. I see it as unimportant, but feel free to argue otherwise.)
YOU CAN’T SHOOT IN LOG, SO YOU’LL HAVE TO TONE DOWN THE 'VIDEO LOOK' LATER
FiLMiC Pro doesn’t support log over 60fps. So you will need to try to process this afterward from your FiLMiC Extreme footage. Your slow motion is not going to look as dope if it’s screaming video with popping high contrast and saturated colors! Keep this in mind as you plan. I attempted to match our footage to the original by throwing on Magic Bullet’s Kodak 5229 500T The original was shot on Eastman Color Negative 50T 5251 Neg. Film according to Shotonwhat, and that’s as close as I could get.
THROW ON AN ND FILTER
Again, because of the fixed aperture, you can’t get traditional shallow depth of field the way. You can use ND filters to mess with motion blur. Here, we also needed it to stop the sky from totally blowing out. This all changed rapidly when the weather changed, but it is what it is.
What Worked, What Didn't?
2001: A Space Odyssey cost around $10.5M to make. (Which probably sounds like not a whole lot by today’s standards, but do account for inflation since production 1966-1968.) It was shot on Super Panavision 70mm film with spherical lenses by Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott. So, me getting a $50 ape suit and using my phone is obviously not going to come close to that mastery.
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the footage is noisy. (I made no attempt to de-noise it, see above.) The framing is a little skewed as our lens isn’t spherical nor is the aspect ratio 2.20:1. The colors are a little different. Our tiny tripod got us the low angle we needed but it was easy to get bumped anytime 'Moonwatcher' strikes the skeleton hard. And because we shot in the open, we only got two takes before a thunderstorm sent us running for our lives! (It didn’t matter, we only had two skeleton heads anyway.)
It’s obviously not as good as my boys Kubrick and Alcott, but it ain’t bad either.
Interesting Points About Kubrick’s Dawn of Man Scene:
The Moonwatcher scene was shot outside a studio in England and was matched to plates of a location shot in Africa by the second unit. The Dawn of Man was all shot by John Alcott because Unsworth had to leave before the two-year production was completed. It is considered his big break! From Wikipedia:
“The only scene not filmed in a studio—and the last live-action scene shot for the film—was the skull-smashing sequence, in which Moonwatcher (Richter) wields his newfound bone "weapon-tool" against a pile of nearby animal bones. A small elevated platform was built in a field near the studio so that the camera could shoot upward with the sky as background, avoiding cars and trucks passing by in the distance. The Dawn of Man sequence that opens the film was photographed at Borehamwood by John Alcott after Geoffrey Unsworth left to work on other projects."
We shot ours on a hill by a wetland restoration area. We used a hill instead of a raised platform. The drawback? Massive lightning and thunderstorms. Here's the original.
According to Arthur C. Clarke, the idea for the famous bone/nuclear missile cut came by chance:
“Stanley was walking back to the studio and he had a broomstick and he was throwing this broomstick up in the air and I was quite worried that it might come down on him. And I think that was when he got the idea of this transition, which is of course what happened. The bone goes up and turns into what is supposed to be an orbiting space bomb—a weapon in space. Although that isn’t made clear. You just assume it’s some kind of space vehicle and there’s a three million year jump cut.”
The Bottom Line
I’m sorry, Dave. iPhone is not as good as Kubrick/Alcott on 70mm. But it is as good as, if not better, than many dedicated video cameras at the moment. And if your phone can do it, yes you can go ahead and shoot like Kubrick.