It's fair to say that the masterpiece an artist creates will out live the tools he or she used to make it. I certainly don't know the brush Michelangelo used to paint the Sistine Chapel, or the model of typewriter Harper Lee used to write To Kill A Mockingbird. I just know the works each created and how they impacted me. The same goes for filmmaking. When I watch a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey I don't know the camera or lenses Stanley Kubrick used. I could search to find Ava DuVernay's preferred camera, but owning it won't magically help me make When They See Us.
When it comes to films, we are now more aware than ever of the gear that filmmakers use to create a movie. We might choose to see a film at an Imax theater knowing that part of it or all of it was "shot on Imax." And while gear lust has gone more mainstream, another trend pushes directors and cinematographers to simplify and be more flexible. Filmmakers, especially accomplished ones who could choose any cinema camera they want, are opting to shoot on an iPhone.
Steven Soderbergh shot his film Unsane with an iPhone 7 Plus and the Netflix film High Flying Bird on an iPhone 8. And Sean Baker was only able to get his film Tangerine made because he chose to shoot it on an inexpensive iPhone 5S instead of a more costly cinema camera and lenses.
The advantage the iPhone offers over a dedicated cinema camera is that it's compact, capable and affordable compared to cameras like the Arriflex Alexa, which at a basic setup can cost just under $100K. With the new iPhone 11 Pro, Apple improved the versatility and convenience of its phone (yes, it still makes calls) by adding a new ultrawide-angle lens, increasing the battery life and adding its special sauce "extended dynamic range" to 4K 60-fps video. These new features allow a filmmaker even more creative choices for their work.
To test that notion, Apple gave the iPhone 11 Pro to Rian Johnson, who made Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the upcoming Knives Out, and George Nolfi, who made The Adjustment Bureau and the upcoming Apple TV Plus film The Banker. Each used the 11 Pro to create a mini short film. Johnson created Paris 9/19, a fun and gorgeous travel short made up of mesmerizing shots of Paris set to lively piano music. You can watch it below.
When asked on Twitter if he'd ever make a full-length film on an iPhone like Soderbergh, Johnson replied, "It makes sense for the way he shoots -- for me, the size of the camera is not a huge factor and the imaging tech in a full sensor Alexa is obviously superior. But look, someday, maybe…"
Nolfi went a different direction than Johnson and made the comic short film Tough Crowd. It focuses on a kid doing tricks with a soccer ball trying to impress some onlookers.
"It was a lot of fun shooting a project on a phone knowing I had three lenses to choose from," said Nolfi. "It felt like a hybrid production, possessing the advantages of a phone yet with some of the key creative tools of traditional studio filmmaking."
Nolfi told me he wrote a script for Tough Crowd and that it was written intentionally without dialogue. But he did adapt to the funny things his kid and the toddler actors did in the moment.
But Nolfi and Johnson aren't the only filmmakers opting for the flexibility an iPhone gives them. A new generation of writers, directors and cinematographers are learning to shoot a film with an iPhone. Filmmaker Patrick Read Johnson who made Dragonheart and 5-25-77 is a directing professor at the School of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He requires his first-year students at UNCSA to shoot all of their class assignments on the iPhone.
"I do this to combat the insidious creep of what I call 'pixel porn,'" said Johnson. "My mantra: If I ask Steven Spielberg to shoot this assignment on his iPhone, and I hand you an Arriflex Alexa, guess who comes back the following week with the better work?"
In fact, below is a short film one of his students, Mark Jabourian, made entirely on an iPhone. Jabourian had a week to make a short about conflict. Check out the phone-shot beauty with the perfect title below.
The iPhone has become the MiniDV or Super 8 camera for the next generation. And like those cameras from another time, the video it shoots is as good as the person holding the camera. If I hadn't told you that these films were shot on an iPhone, would you really be able to tell?
But I give the final word to Rian Johnson who wrote in a tweet about the feeling he got making his Paris short on a phone, "It made me want to do it more often, not get too precious and just occasionally make something."