iPhone fan Steven Soderbergh: Shooting on film is like 'writing in pencil'

The director explains why he shot the new Netflix movie High Flying Bird with a smartphone -- no matter how much it annoys Christopher Nolan.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Steven Soderbergh's new movie is shot entirely on an iPhone. And when fellow director Christopher Nolan challenged him to go back to shooting on film, Soderbergh fired back that that would be like "writing scripts in pencil."

High Flying Bird is the latest film Soderbergh has created using a smartphone, following last year's psychological thriller Unsane

The new movie, premiering Feb. 8 on Netflix , is a much more ambitious proposition: Unsane was mainly shot in one location, while High Flying Bird roams various sites in New York and beyond. It follows a sports agent who resolves to shake up basketball by reminding team owners, TV networks and other money-grabbing parties that the real power -- and joy -- of the game lies with the players. 


André Holland and Zazie Beetz in Netflix's High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh.

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Soderbergh premiered the flick Sunday in snowy Park City, Utah. It was shown as part of the Slamdance film festival, which happens adjacent to the Sundance festival that takes over the town each winter. During a Q&A before the film, questions came from other directors who've been helped by Soderbergh over the years, including Nolan and the Russo Brothers.

Although they weren't actually at Slamdance, Avengers directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo sent in a question seeking specifics on how Soderbergh works with an iPhone. 

High Flying Bird was shot with an iPhone 8, clip-on Moondog anamorphic lenses and a DJI Osmo stabilizer. It was recorded in 4K using the Filmic app. Soderbergh didn't do much manipulation of the video after he shot it. By contrast, he used plug-ins for Unsane to recreate the look of old film stock. 

But Soderbergh doesn't romanticize film or traditional techniques.

"If we'd done High Flying Bird conventionally it would have taken longer and I can't tell you that it would be better," he told the Slamdance audience, "and I could make a couple of arguments that it would be worse." 

That brings us to the question submitted to the Q&A by Dark Knight and Dunkirk auteur Nolan, who Soderbergh helped introduce to Hollywood players earlier in his career. The famously traditional Nolan asked when Soderbergh would come back from the dark side and shoot on celluloid again, to which Soderbergh responded dryly, "Around the time Chris starts writing scripts in pencil."


From left, Steven Soderbergh films High Flying Bird star Bill Duke and André Holland with a smartphone.


"I wish the technology we used to make this movie was around when I was 15," Soderbergh said, reflecting his excitement about solving problems quickly with the new technology. "Back then you saved up some money, rented some equipment, got some film, shot the film. It took a couple of weeks to get back. Some of it looked OK, and some of it didn't. I prefer going home at night with the day's footage and seeing if it worked. If it didn't, I call my producers and say, 'OK, I need this person and this person on set tomorrow so I can re-do it.'" 

Soderbergh's favorite part about using the iPhone is how quickly he can make and execute creative decisions with a camera that's so small. 

"It's a luxury to be able to take a camera and velcro it to a wall," he said. "If you want the lens on the wall, you don't have to cut a hole in the wall and put the camera behind it. It's a great tool."

Indeed, High Flying Bird is a vital and immediate film, with bravura tracking moves and intimate close-ups giving a dynamism to a story that's largely people arguing in offices. An all-star cast and slick editing make this feel like a "proper" movie. Aside from the unrefined lighting, you might not even realize it was shot on a smartphone.

There are downsides to filming with an iPhone, such as the fact everything is in focus so there's no artful blurring of backgrounds. But Soderbergh embraces that, feeling it's a fair trade for the benefits of a much smaller camera -- like the ability to film more easily in the cramped confines of a car.

In some scenes, extras chatting in the background are a little distracting, but one of the strengths of keeping everything in focus is that it connects the characters to the setting. Another movie shot on an iPhone, Tangerine, felt grounded in the bustling LA streets as the city and its teeming extras felt like characters in the film. High Flying Bird conjures a similar effect as it wanders New York's streets and basketball courts and fancy offices.

Soderbergh is the latest big-name director to launch a new film on Netflix as the streaming service celebrates its best picture Oscar nomination for Alfonso Cuaron's Roma. Netflix has a couple of films debuting this week in Park City, including supernatural thriller Velvet Buzzsaw with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, the heartwarming, true story called The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind and the Cambridge Analytica documentary titled The Great Hack. 

New technology is just one aspect of the changing world of film. Soderbergh sees tech creating both new opportunities and new obstacles for young filmmakers. "It's easier to make something that look amazing," he said, "it's just harder to get eyeballs on it."

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