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If You Have a Smartphone, You’re a Filmmaker

Inside the unexpected rise of the iPhone cinematographer

Sean Baker never intended to use an iPhone to shoot his critically acclaimed filmTangerine. In fact, if it wasn’t for Baker’s exceptionally low budget, the filmmaker would have shot his comedic drama using traditional film. “I wish I can say this was part of the whole master plan, but it wasn’t,” he says. “This came from a place of desperation, but I’m really happy we shot on the iPhone. In the end it really helped out the film in so many ways.” 

The most obvious way—a practically deafening buzz—was apparent at the film’s well-attended premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The crowd in Park City wasn’t just talking about the film because of Baker’s decision to cast two inexperienced actors in his lead roles of a hooker and her best friend, but also his unusual filming method. Even before the indie drama’s premiere at Sundance, Variety dubbed Baker as one of the “10 Directors to Watch.” Following the premiere, The Hollywood Reporter included Tangerine in its top 12 favorite films, noting the movie’s “flavorful dialogue” and the “absence of condescension towards its marginalized characters.” The unequivocal sense of realism to the film may have ceased to exist if it wasn’t for the iPhone’s capture of a natural aesthetic. Of course, characters in a film shouldn’t be aware they’re being filmed, but with the lack of a massive shooting apparatus, it somehow felt more believable. That’s kind of the point.

“Nobody thinks anything of a couple people on the sidewalk or on the bus filming with an iPhone,” says Neill Barham, founder of Filmic Pro—the $8 app Baker used to shoot Tangerine. “It works with theatrical films, and it also causes incredible opportunities for documentary film and investigative journalism where you can’t prohibit people from bringing their phone into places.”

Indeed, the iPhone is opening doors for amateur and professional filmmakers alike. Although Baker has no immediate plans to shoot another movie on the device, there’s a growing number of filmmakers who praise the iPhone’s accessibility and innovative features. Matt Dessner and Corey Rogers predicted this phenomenon back in 2011 when they created theOriginal iPhone Film Festival—a virtual community of IOS filmmakers able to submit their original movies to be reviewed by a panel of judges. “It started out as a passion project, but once the traction began to happen it hit a nerve that we really need to throw a ton of energy into this,” explains Dessner. “The iPhones are so ubiquitous now on the global scale it falls in the hands of filmmakers of all ages.”

Averaging a few hundred submissions per year, the bi-annual festival allows participants to submit their films into categories labeled such as “Student Filmmaker” and “Nonfiction.” Contestants’ films are then assessed on content by a range of tastemakers including HBO VP/Executive Producer Jason Kliot and A&E IndieFilms Senior VP Molly Thompson. “You have to remember iPhones are not trying to replicate what a Hollywood film looks like,” says Dessner. “It’s really about the content and the quality of the message and the story alongside the production value.”

Though not many iPhone films have made quite the same waves as Tangerine, Director Ricky Fosheim’s movie And Uneasy Lies the Mind currently holds the 2014 title of first narrative feature length film shot on an iPhone. Of course, it all leads back to whether iPhone is truly for everyone—even if one man’s act of desperation becomes an award-winning phenomenon. “The iPhone is a revolution for filmmakers, but if I was given the choice of course I would always shoot on film,” says Baker. “It’s good in a way for first-timers or people who just want to try something brand new and discover a different aesthetic.” 

Yet the goal remains the same for filmmakers no matter what level of skillset: to share their very own masterpiece with the world. With the expansion and increased technology of its products, Apple has even launched a “Shot on iPhone 6” campaign to feature cinematic talents across the world, all showcased within the 5.4’’ x 2.6’’ device. “There’s room for everybody,” says Emmy-winning producer Janet Grillo. “It’s a democratic art form and I think it’s exciting.”