A Brief History of Movies Shot With Phones

Unsane

Grab your phone and start shooting. The audience is waiting.

Steven Soderbergh found his tool of choice for shooting motion pictures. That device, the cellular phone, has revolutionized the way we live. Soderbergh shot his latest film, Unsane, on the format and it has changed how he envisions the future of filmmaking. He is one of the highest profile filmmakers to use the format, but there have been many others before him.

One of the first feature films to be tailored for mobile phone viewing was the 2009 picture, Rage. Rage was directed by Sally Potter and released in seven parts (for easier download) and was positioned as the future of filmmaking. Even Reuters referred to it as a new genre of affordable film-making, “Naked Cinema”, that would put the possibilities of film creation into the hands of millions. Though Rage included a stellar cast the likes of Jude Law, Judi Dench, and Steve Buscemi, the quality of the picture itself held it back from making a strong cultural impact.

There were other films that toyed with the format. With the launch of the Apple iPad in April 2010, an even greater array of opportunities launched for aspiring directors. The Silver Goat was the first film created for the iPad and released an app in the UK, Europe, and Latin America. The world’s first “Selfie” movie, #STARVECROW, mixed smartphone, and CCTV footage to create a personal story of love and horror. During this period there was another independent film released that stands out and that is Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

Tangerine wasn’t just noted for its terrific casting or engaging story, it was a marvel of filmmaking. Baker and co-DP Radium Cheung shot the feature using multiple iPhone 5s and anamorphic adapters to get a look for the indie film that was never seen before. Given the size of the camera, they could get into tighter areas and achieve shots that would’ve been impossible with traditional camera gear. It wasn’t just because Baker wanted to shoot with an iPhone, it was because the budget of the film called for a unique solution. That budget restraint signified a grand change for filmmakers everywhere.

From retirement to finding a new way to shoot his features, Steven Soderbergh is always ready to push the medium into exciting directions. With Unsane, Soderbergh was so impressed with the current technology available in an iPhone, he shot the entire feature on it. He might just shoot all his future movies on the portable device. “Anybody going to see this movie who has no idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone. That’s not part of the conceit,” he explained to Indiewire. The plot of Unsane seems tailor-made for this unique approach. The Crown’s Claire Foy stars as a young woman who is institutionalized against her will. She believes she is being followed by a stalker, but the surrounding professionals insist she is psychotic. Using the iPhone, Soderbergh got shots that would make audiences feel uncomfortable, in the same fashion that Foy was experiencing this nightmare.

Soderbergh and Baker might be the highest profile directors to turn to cellular devices for feature films, but there are plenty of independent filmmakers turning to the format. Festivals dedicated to shooting with the format are popping up nationwide and the co-director of the iPhone Film Festival believes it is as simple as owning a smartphone. In a discussion with Vodafone, co-director Ruben Kazantsev said, “… when they get an iPhone or another mobile device, it’s like having a portable studio in their back pocket. And they can do some amazing things with that. Our goal with the iPhone Film Festival was to provide an outlet for their creative energy and a vehicle to share their skills with a world audience.” The iPhone Film Festival had a little over 100 submissions in 2010. As of 2017. they are averaging over 2,000 submissions. The power is out there for anyone to become a director.

As more Hollywood directors adopt the format into feature films, more attention and accessories will be made to further the abilities of our phones. Tangerine and Unsane weren’t made with the default camera, but with tools that brought more flexibility to the platform. In Hollywood, the message has been about inclusion and hearing stories from those individuals who don’t get to tell their stories. As technology continues to flourish, it is becoming more accessible than ever to record and share those stories. Don’t hesitate any longer. Pick up your phone and share your story, there are people who want to see it.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.