Shot entirely on an iPhone, full-length feature 'Tangerine' fizzes with life

Setting the bar for what can be achieved with a smartphone, the movie uses the iPhone camera to capture the streets of LA in loving detail.

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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Richard Trenholm
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"Tangerine" is a slice-of-larger-than-life film shot entirely on the iPhone. LFF

It's amazing what you can do with a smartphone these days...You could shoot one of the year's best movies, for example.

Written and directed by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, the full-length feature "Tangerine" was shot with three iPhone 5S smartphones. After a limited release in the US this summer, the movie can be seen this week at the London Film Festival 2015, and will be released in the UK on 13 November.

The smartphones were fitted with a Moondog anamorphic adapter to capture widescreen images and mounted on Tiffen's Steadicam Smoothee to allow for smooth camera movements, with the focus and aperture controlled by the FiLMIC Pro video app. The results are nothing short of stunning.

The most immediately obvious way in which the look of the film is dictated by the use of a smartphone is the fixed depth-of-field of the iPhone's camera. Rather than artfully blurring the background, the camera records everything. Not just the characters in the foreground, but the passers-by in the background too. The passing cars. The signs, the billboards, the stickers on the window. They're all in focus and in detail.

That might sound distracting, but in fact it fits well with the tone of the film. It's the perfect backdrop for the slice-of-street-life drama -- the characters walking, driving and arguing their way through the lurid colours of LA, from sun-soaked day to neon-sparkling twilight. It feels as transparent and up-front as the characters and their story. It feels real. It feels alive.

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The fact that you can so clearly see every 24-hour pawn shop, every Walgreens drugstore, every Launderland Coin Laundry, every bail bonds office perfectly places the story, making it a true piece of latter-day Americana.

Against this backdrop of the teeming streets of LA, the larger-than-life characters more than hold their own. Often shot in tight close-up, the film is literally in your face in both the way it's shot and the subject matter. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez explodes off the screen as the motor-mouthed Sin-Dee Rella, an acerbic and fearless transsexual sex worker combing the city for her cheating boyfriend and armed with an instant put-down for anybody who crosses her path. Mya Taylor is excellent as Sin-Dee's stoic best friend, who just wants her friend to watch her sing.

Along the way they encounter drugs, pimps and occasional violence as the film delves into some pretty sordid corners of LA life, yet it's shot through with tenderness and effervescent comedy. And it crackles with hugely cinematic energy, thanks to a combination of quickfire editing and the mobility afforded by a smartphone camera.

The camera is incredibly mobile, bobbing on the shoulders of the characters as they pound the pavement or swooping over their heads, even soaring over the street in one dizzying crane shot. Like the film's characters, the camera is in near-constant motion and fizzing with kinetic energy.

Beautifully shot, strongly acted and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, "Tangerine" recalls films such as "Trainspotting" and "Spun" in the way it exuberantly scrambles through the darker corners of human experience, yet always finds the humanity and the life. It's a great film even if you didn't know how it was shot; and once you do, it sets the bar for what can be achieved with a phone's camera.