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  • Blake Calhoun

High Flying iPhone

If you follow filmmaking circles then you've likely heard about Steven Soderbergh's latest movie "High Flying Bird" - if you haven't then here's the trailer...

Did you notice anything different? Most people don't, but if you did it's probably because you're a filmmaker with a keen eye for detail - or SPOILER ALERT - you've already heard that he shot the movie on an iPhone 8 Plus.

This isn't the first time Soderbergh has used an iPhone for one of his projects. Last year he made "Unsane" on an iPhone 7 Plus.

Did you notice the iPhone look in this one? Here some people did notice there was something different going on. He went for more of a cinema verite (iPhone video) look versus with "High Flying Bird" where he went with a more traditional cinematic look.

And this is the interesting thing for me - and what we've been trying to do for several years on our YouTube channel and this website (and really what I've been doing for years before experimenting with various digital formats). That is using mobile filmmaking tools in traditional filmmaking scenarios. And importantly, like Soderbergh did with this new one, trying to make it invisible.

In other words, just using the phone as a camera. Not bringing attention to it or emphasizing you're using a "phone camera".

Some might make a "found footage" type of movie or use "web cam" or "FaceTime" shots throughout. Nothing wrong with those kind of films, it's just using a smartphone these days you don't have to say or show you're using a smartphone.

There is still a huge misconception Out There about what smartphone video can do now and it's largely based on the past, and probably the fact that pretty much EVERYONE has a smartphone and can shoot video - and the overwhelming majority of it sucks (not the fault of the camera, but that the average person doesn't know what they're doing, or really even care).

Side note (mild rant): The other thing is perception. If you watch much YouTube then you'll see filmmaking channel after channel say something to the effect of "you can even shoot on your phone!"... Then they might show some footage of them trying and it will often suck (not always though). Of course they've left it in auto exposure and not used ND filters or taken the same care they might with a different (more traditional) setup.

And then there's the angle about a phone not being "professional". While I do agree that showing up on a job with a phone as your main camera is not the norm today, it wasn't too long ago (and still exists actually) that showing up on a job with a DSLR was not the norm. Really it was not accepted and was on the embarrassing side (that's one reason camera cages and matte boxes and follow focus were so popular - very few actually needed those - but they made the tiny camera look bigger and more expensive), especially if your client (producer) was there or their client (agency) was on set. It'd be like, "We're paying you how much to shoot on that tiny toy camera?".

DSLR video cameras have been around since 2007 range with the Canon 5D MkII (that didn't even shoot 24p!) and it took them years to be accepted as "real" cameras. And again, they're often still not today depending on the gig (even if some YouTubers might have you believe otherwise).

It took guys like Vincent LaForet (made the first big 5D short film) and then Rodney Charters (DP on the FOX TV show "24" - one of the first to use 5Ds as B cameras) to really help bring those into the mainstream, and importantly be embraced by filmmakers as viable cameras.

I would say smartphone video has really just in the last few years been good enough to actually be considered professional quality. Probably since the iPhone 6S and its 4K abilities. So, it's all more or less just getting started and will one day very likely not only be accepted in mainstream productions (thanks to guys like Soderbergh), but the norm. And, I'd venture to say just as smartphones have virtually eliminated the point & shoot stills camera market, they could do the same to the prosumer video market, too (I think they've already done it to the consumer video camera market - does anyone shoot with a Handycam these days?).

End of mild rant. :)

Now, don't get me wrong about current smartphones though.

There are still lots of limitations using them as compared to traditional cameras (even mirrorless or DSLRs, not to mention RED or ARRI), but with a few accessories and some know how most can be worked around.

In my mind, the 3 biggest hurdles right now are:

1. Poor low light ability

2. Limited dynamic range (even with FiLMiC Pro LogV2)

3. And lack of shallow depth-of-field (without using adapters or tele lenses especially)

3a. Overheating can be an issue too on long shoots (heard Soderbergh rotated shooting with 3 phones on "Unsane")

So this all brings us back to "High Flying Bird".

First let me say that I thought the movie was just okay, not great by any means. It was borderline boring in parts and a bit too talky for my taste. Didn't get to know the characters very well either, so you don't really care about them. And for me the story was not completely clear. I was confused at times and actually didn't know who some of the characters were when they showed up in the story (mainly Kyle MacLachlan and Sonja Sohn). Part of this is likely due to the fact I had a somewhat difficult time understanding some of the long dialogue scenes. Not sure if the mix was too low or what. Also it was a bit odd that there was no basketball in a basketball movie. I get there was a lock out going on, but thought maybe there would be some playing.

So... from a subjective movie perspective, this is not one of my favorites from Soderbergh (my fave probably being "Out of Sight").

But this isn't a movie review site - we're talking about filmmaking tech. And from that perspective I thought Soderbergh did a great job.

I had my wife watch the movie with me and did not tell her anything about it or how it was shot. She doesn't follow filmmaking and so I consider her to be an "average" viewer. She felt about the same as I did regarding the movie, but when I told her it was shot on an iPhone she said, "It just looked like a normal movie to me. I would not have known unless you told me." And I think that will be the case for most people, which is great.

I personally thought the cinematography was really well done. Peter Andrews is a great DP (that's a pseudonym Soderbergh uses if you didn't know - he shoots most of his own films).

There were lots of interesting angles and camera movement, and shooting wide throughout on the Moondog Labs anamorphic gave it a distinctive look. I think there were only a handful of close-ups in the entire movie, and they were wide close-up using the same lens. And btw, not having shallow depth-of-field here doesn't bother me at all. I actually think that is WAY over done these days and not necessary. I do like the look for some things though, especially when you're trying to separate a subject from the background, but it's not a requirement to make something cinematic (see Stanley Kubrick films, etc.).

I was impressed with the Steadicam shots and wondered if they actually used a Steadicam or whether it was a gimbal. I'm pretty sure it was a gimbal (I've seen a few BTS shots from "Unsane") and so those shots were very smooth - none of the dreaded up/down vertical movement you often see. I did see some of that look on the train shot (that's in the trailer) and a shot going down the aisle in an airplane.

They used a lot of dolly shots too. And those looked great as well. I was curious as to whether they might have used the gimbal on the dolly to help stabilize it. Dolly shots are typically smooth, however, on the iPhone 8 Plus there is the OIS system and so if you hit the slightest bump you'll get that awful jello bounce effect in the footage. I saw none of that, so the camera was definitely stabilized in some good way.

There was one scene where they did a 360 degree dolly around a table in an interior. It was done in separate parts as the scene progressed (which I really liked), but all one shot and that was pretty cool. However, this was one of the only scenes in the film that I thought had a bit of a "smartphone" look because the highlights were a tad bit hot on a lamp and the player's forehead. They were almost over exposed and didn't have the highlight roll off you'd typically see with higher-end cameras (wonder if they shot in the natural color profile in FiLMiC Pro?). But it was minor and most people wouldn't notice it.

The color grading looked awesome, too. I'm actually not sure how they pulled it off in some scenes. It was teal and orange like most Hollywood movies, but it leaned more blue and orange. I can only assume there were lots of power windows and masks used in the grading - and the codec held up remarkably well (or maybe it was all done in camera - see above image in his Avid timeline). I saw little to no noise, or if it was there I didn't notice it. And that includes low light scenes. Soderbergh actually shot a lot of these, something I would likely not do (would love to see a BTS on how they did that on set and then the color grading).

Smartphones are not typically good in low light, but here they held up very well. The dynamic range was not great, but it wasn't noisy either. The shadows were very dark, almost crushed at times, so maybe they did that to hide noise. I'm not sure, but it worked.

My only critique would be the overall look was a bit on the sterile side - almost too clean - if that make sense. It would have been interesting to see them use something like FilmConvert (that simulates film stocks) and added a touch of film grain. Maybe they did this, but it doesn't look like it to me. Doing this just takes the digital edge off any camera and gives footage a more organic look and feel. Again, I thought the movie looked very good, but doing this might have made it look even better - and more filmic, more cinematic.

I'm really happy Soderbergh has embraced iPhone filmmaking. Whether or not he intended to or not, it will definitely help bring more mainstream acceptance to using smartphones in professional productions - and to me that's a great thing.

However, I do think there's still a ways to go for the technology to be on par with other camera options. Computational imaging is very exciting though and just getting started (see FiLMiC Pro LogV2), so in the near future I think we'll get there.

But to be honest for today - right now in 2019, I probably would not shoot an entire feature film on a smartphone (a short film, yes). Soderbergh has the luxury of not only his name, but being an established player in the industry with a Hollywood track record. So he comes at it with an automatic advantage (for selling his film and getting press, etc.).

For most indie filmmakers that's not the case and with very affordable cameras like the Blackmagic Pocket 4K, etc. I think it would be hard to not use one of those (to give yourself the best shot at distribution). So I'd use a smartphone as a B camera or for insert shots (or pickups later).

But if you can't afford a cinema camera, then by all means an iPhone - as Soderbergh has 100% shown here (and Sean Baker with "Tangerine" before him) - can be a very good option to shoot a movie on.

So what do you think? Have you seen "High Flying Bird" yet? And would you shoot a feature film on a phone? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on social media.

It's definitely an exciting time to be a filmmaker. :)

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