WoMP: iPhone Cinema

In this episode of Weapons of Mass Production we try to shoot the best possible video on an iPhone.

I definitely started this episode off hoping to prove how great a simple camera is to shoot a movie.  After our iPhone stills episode, in which members of the general public couldn’t distinguish between and iPhone and a world-class medium format camera, I thought for sure I could make short work of a cinema episode.  And while strictly speaking, I did get some great shots, I feel that I was wrong about my prediction for two big reasons:

Versatility:  Movies are about shooting whatever the script calls for; not “studio” or “action”, or something specific.  The poor low-light and limited focal range made that very difficult.

Complexity:  Movies are much more complex than stills.  You have to worry about all the same things as you would will the still, lighting, composition, exposure, etc etc.  And you have to worry about everything else, sound, performance, continuity, tempo, etc.  If still photography is like driving, movies are like driving while texting, drinking, with sunglasses on at night.  Having a tool that is difficult, slow, and inconsistent, brings the challenge of filmmaking to a breaking point.  It’s too frustrating.  There’s a lot to worry about.  I don’t want my camera to be part of that.

John & a mobile greenscreen.Let’s break it down:

Lenses:  I only tried one brand of lens, and there are many others out there as well as adapters to put on DSLR lenses.  I didn’t want the episode to degenerate into just testing a bajillion iPhone lens adapters.  In the end I hardly used the attachment lenses, even though I had them.  I think I used the wide once and the telephoto once.  They were a huge pain.  If you’re shooting on a phone it’s because it’s cheap (since you already bought one) and convenient (because it’s already in your pocket).  Getting too deep into those lens adapters really undermines those conveniences.  On the positive side: being stuck at the wide-ish focal length of the native iPhone I think I stretched my cinematography a lot by not relying on the same ol’ tricks to get by.  Frequently I’ll see things in a different way because I’m forced to.  That’s why I like shooting on my prime-lensed Fuji x100.  Anyone can make a long lens shallow-depth-of-field portrait look cool.  It takes more artistry to make a wider-lens deeper-focus shot work well, but the payoff is also better.  All the shots have lines and context and environment and complexity.  Let’s lose the crutch and shoot wide!

Mounting It:  The mini tripod adapter I got was from Joby.  It worked great.  Nothing else to say about this.  If you’re shooting on a phone it’s $30 well spent.  One of those and a skateboard and you could get some amazing shots on the cheap.  One of those and a good video monopod and you could do just about everything I did in this movie.

John holding reflectorSoftware:  A better app is a no-brainer if you’re shooting a lot on the phone, it’s so cheap and it does make life way better than the default app.  But it still doesn’t make life good.  Why not just have a slider for exposure, and some false color or a waveform-style display?  It seems too easy to get this stuff right, but I have yet to see it.  Maybe I’m just missing it.  The codec still really fell apart (as you can see in the spinning low-light shots for the Bin Laden bit).  And no audio monitoring?  Honestly I don’t know if that’s a limitation of the software or  of the device, but either way it’s hell.  Which brings us to:

Audio:  You can’t hear the sound while you’re filming, you can only hear it on playback.  So you have to set up your audio via trial and error.  It’s idiotic, and particularly frustrating as the phone seems to have the ability to record super-clean sound!  In the test it sounds basically indistinguishable from the Zoom recorder.  That would be awesome if it wasn’t such a pain to work with.  The really good sound on the iPhone in this episode came from aSennheiser wireless transmitter with a Countryman lavalier microphonethenplugged into the phone.  That’s some expensive kit, but very very good kit to have no matter what sort of filmmaking you’re interested in.

Overall, it was a frustrating experience.  Perhaps more so because it is capable of stunning images under just the right circumstances.  But I need a camera that is capable of stunning images under a broad range of circumstances that I might encounter regularly.

Let me know your thoughts and experiences, and if I’ve missed any suggestions that might make phone-filming more agreeable.