Outfitting Your Smartphone for Filmmaking

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With Oscar-winning filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh and Claude Lelouch lately making films using an iPhone, we now have an even better appreciation of the benefits of smartphone filmmaking. In an interview with HeyUGuys, Soderbergh—known for films like Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven—explained that only with a phone could he have made his film Unsane the way he wanted to, shown the film he wanted to show.

The French director, Lelouch, speaking with Forbes, added, “The importance is the emotion you capture, and that is easier to capture with an iPhone than anything else.” His Director of Photography, Maxime Heraud, said, “It delivers a picture that can transmit an emotion.... Because it’s so small and light, you can put the camera everywhere. It can move fast....” Interestingly, Heraud added, “Some DoPs will say they won’t shoot like this. I understand, but you need to open your mind and believe that this is going to be… a revolution.”

In the Forbes interview, Lelouch also said, “The difference from a traditional camera is so tiny that only professionals will know.” In late 2018, Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted that Lelouch told him, “In 50 years of filmmaking, he’s never been happier than when shooting on an iPhone.”

According to IMDb, Soderbergh shot Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus with a Moment anamorphic lens, and his second iPhone film, Netflix’s High Flying Bird, on an iPhone 8 with a Moondog Labs anamorphic adapter and Moment 2x telephoto lens. Lelouch filmed the dream sequences of The Best Years of a Life on an iPhone XS and has reportedly already completed another film, shot entirely on iPhone.

Especially with the iPhone 11 Pro on the market—with its advanced triple-camera system and optical image stabilization—for many filmmakers, a smartphone can be a good option for a next project, for anyone from a newcomer seeking a way in, to a veteran looking for a challenge.

Getting Started—FiLMiC Pro

The first thing you need for cinematic smartphone filmmaking is the popular FiLMiC Pro app, which is compatible with iOS and Android. FiLMiC Pro is used almost universally for such projects. It makes your phone camera highly “tunable,” giving you wide control over ISO, shutter speed, frame rate, focus, exposure, and white balance. It records 4K in up to 100 Mb/s, which, as FiLMiC says, “Holds up at Sundance, Cannes, or SXSW.” Frame rates are customizable, from 1 to 240 fps, from fast to very impressive slow motion. You also get audio meters and on-screen analytics, all in a pleasant, interactive interface that works by touchscreen.

In addition, FiLMiC Pro comes with a pack of flat and log LUTs (look profiles) that allow for color grading in a higher dynamic range of colors. As important as everything else, FiLMiC Pro provides a very user-friendly platform for an anamorphic workflow.

Anamorphic and Standard Lenses

The next thing to consider getting is an anamorphic lens, which provides a cinematic aspect ratio and other benefits. Innovative startups like Moondog Labs, Moment, and Beastgrip have released anamorphic smartphone lenses costing less than $200. And FiLMiC Pro is completely on board, accommodating these lenses and simplifying the process of working with them.

Most feature films are shot with anamorphic lenses. The result is a highly rectangular aspect ratio, such as 2.35:1, which is a big part of the magic of the theater-going experience. Anamorphic lenses aren’t just wide-angle. Their internal components are vertically egg-shaped, instead of round like in other lenses. In this way they “squeeze” more horizontal information into the image. The image then has to be “de-squeezed” (stretched) in post-production, like an accordion being opened up. This is how the rectangular look happens, without any loss in resolution. FiLMiC Pro does this de-squeezing for you, efficiently, in an almost automated way.

Virtually all of the cinematic smartphone projects that have made the news in recent years have used a lens from Moondog Labs or Moment.

For up to the iPhone 8 Plus, Moondog offers clamp-on 1.33x anamorphic lenses that attach directly to the phone. For newer phones, they have a few options designed to attach to cages or phone cases, all of which also feature a 1.33x squeeze.

Moondog Labs 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter Lens
Moondog Labs 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter Lens

The 37mm-threaded version is the one for the iPhone 11 and other newer phones. (You can view a detailed compatibility chart on the Moondog website). Then there are 12.5mm-threaded versions for the iPhone X/XS/XS Max and for the iPhone XR. All three are designed to attach to the Beastgrip Pro cage via a Moondog 37mm or 12.5mm mounting plate. The Beastgrip Pro cage already has its own threaded mounting plate, but these alternate plates ensure more proper alignment with the phone’s lens.

Moondog Labs 1.33x Anamorphic Lens (37mm Thread, Gen 2)
Moondog Labs 1.33x Anamorphic Lens (37mm Thread, Gen 2)

The 12.5mm-threaded versions can also be used with the appropriate RhinoShield case, such as the RhinoShield SolidSuit Case for iPhone XS. These lenses come with a small lens-mount adapter by which they attach directly to the case. The last option from Moondog has a bayonet mount. This one is also compatible with RhinoShield cases, but a RhinoShield bayonet mount adapter must be purchased separately. These adapters are also phone specific.

RhinoShield SolidSuit Case for iPhone XS
RhinoShield SolidSuit Case for iPhone XS

The anamorphic offering from the brand Moment currently includes one lens, also with a 1.33x squeeze. It’s designed to be used with Moment cases, such as the Moment Photo Case for the Samsung Galaxy S10e. (Moment has two different lens mounts. The anamorphic lens mentioned here and the few standard ones linked below all have the newer mount, which is compatible with these Moment cases.)

Moment Anamorphic Lens
Moment Anamorphic Lens

Moondog Labs and Moment also offer accessories such as ND filters, circular polarizers, gimbal counterweights, and more.

Moondog Labs 52mm ND 1.2 Filter
Moondog Labs 52mm ND 1.2 Filter

Another anamorphic option to consider is the Beastgrip M Series 1.33x Anamorphic Lens, designed to attach to the Beastgrip Beastcage, which is also phone specific.

Beastgrip M Series 1.33X Anamorphic Lens
Beastgrip M Series 1.33X Anamorphic Lens

Additionally, there are many non-anamorphic lenses you may want for different shooting scenarios. Moment offers wide, telephoto, macro, and fisheye lenses, all of which can be used with the same Moment cases mentioned above. Beastgrip has similar options.

Moment 15mm Fisheye Lens
Moment 15mm Fisheye Lens

Cages and Tripod Adapters

There’s a benefit to using a cage like the Beastgrip Pro instead of a phone case. Cages provide mounting threads for attaching accessories, such as lights and mics. Many, like the Beastgrip Pro cage, also provide a tripod mount thread that allows you to attach your phone efficiently to a tripod, gimbal, slider, or other camera support. Another cage you might like is the SmallRig Phone Cage.

SmallRig Standard Universal Mobile Phone Cage
SmallRig Standard Universal Mobile Phone Cage

While a cage does provide the convenience of a tripod mount thread, there are alternate options in the form of adapters, such as the Manfrotto TwistGrip or Xuma Smartphone Mount.

Xuma Smartphone Mount
Xuma Smartphone Mount

Gimbals and Handgrips

For traditional cameras, the support equipment one would generally consider first would be basics such as a tripod, gimbal, and slider. The same applies to phones, but there are many choices that are a lot more affordable. A gimbal may be the place to start, and it may be all you need, considering what a revolutionary concept a motorized gimbal is. While you could get a DJI Ronin-S or Ronin-M gimbal for your phone, you can also get something like a DJI Osmo Mobile for about a tenth of the cost. There would be a difference, but if you’re going guerilla, then the Osmo or something similar may do very well for you.

DJI Osmo Mobile 3 Smartphone Gimbal
DJI Osmo Mobile 3 Smartphone Gimbal

Sliders and Skate Dollies

With your phone being so compact, a compact slider may be your best option. Consider a standard slider like the Sunwayfoto M3 or a motorized option such as the edelkrone SliderONE v2. Alternatively, you can simply push the limits with a skate dolly, like the Revo Quad Skate.

edelkrone SliderONE v2
edelkrone SliderONE v2

Mics

Filmmaking could not take place without proper audio capture via external mics. There are options that record to the phone or that record separately, the latter option being the more desired one.

You can go with something high-end like the Sound Devices 664 Six-Channel Mixer/Recorder and monitor each audio track separately, or you can get something less advanced yet still powerful, like the Zoom H6 or Zoom F1-LP.

Sound Devices 664 Six-Channel Portable Production Mixer with Integrated Recorder
Sound Devices 664 Six-Channel Portable Production Mixer with Integrated Recorder

However, many have had great success with recording in-camera using ultra-compact mics like a Shure MOTIV MV88, Saramonic SmartMic+, or RØDE smartLav+, all of which attach right onto the phone.

Shure MOTIV MV88 Digital Stereo Condenser Microphone for iOS
Shure MOTIV MV88 Digital Stereo Condenser Microphone for iOS

Battery Power and Storage

Two other important items are battery power and storage. For extended shoots, an external battery source is the solution, along the lines of a Tether Tools Battery Pack or the smaller BYTECH Power Bank. To secure these to your cage or rig, you can use various straps, like the Pearstone 1 x 12" Cinch Strap.

Tether Tools Rock Solid 10,000mAh External Battery Pack
Tether Tools Rock Solid 10,000mAh External Battery Pack

If you don’t think you’ll have enough memory for the day, one storage solution is to bring your laptop and offload to it during production. Otherwise, consider an external drive such as a LaCie. Or, a recently released alternative is the HyperCube from HYPER. This tiny USB-connected tool will charge up your smartphone while automatically backing up the images and video from your phone to either a microSD card or an external hard drive. You can walk into your home, plug in your phone, and let the HyperCube take care of everything. There is also an app for iOS and Android that will let you navigate your images and play them back.

LaCie 1TB Rugged Mini USB 3.0 External Hard Drive
LaCie 1TB Rugged Mini USB 3.0 External Hard Drive

Aside from the equipment already discussed, you can incorporate pretty much any other type of support or accessory into your workflow as your needs require, using small adapters where necessary.

Successful cinematic smartphone projects have been making the news with increasing frequency. Please share below any special projects you know of so we can keep up with the latest examples.

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