News Jessica Henwick filmed a movie on her phone.it’s not easy
“There’s definitely a stigma in the industry. I wouldn’t really say from an audience perspective—a good movie is a good movie. But within the industry, I think there’s a stigma.” She works with Nick Cooke, who, she said, shares her view of using a cell phone as a challenge rather than an obstacle.
Stettner believes this reluctance to take phone cameras seriously stems from the film industry’s fetishization of high-end devices. Using a professional cinema camera can make your work feel “professional,” even if that’s not always the case. Students also come to film school to use and learn about high-end cameras and lenses, so having to use a smartphone doesn’t seem appealing.
However, using something as familiar and common as your phone can make it harder to think critically about the details of your shoot. “When you’re dealing with something you can’t immediately capture, thinking about the image—composition, occlusion, all of that—becomes a much bigger element,” says Stettner. You basically have more chances to stop and think. This makes sense. We use our phones every day to read news, play games, reply to messages and capture content. A cinema camera is a focused tool that allows you to focus on your creativity. A cell phone probably won’t put you in the same state of mind.
Every year, phone makers highlight improvements to their respective image processing algorithms that affect the appearance of video clips. This might include automatically brightening footage, boosting color saturation, or smoothing out details to remove noise. Henwick said her team reversed all this proprietary processing and instead used an app called Filmic Pro to access the raw hardware in Xiaomi phones. “We’ll actually have two phones. We’ll focus on one phone, and we’ll use Wi-Fi to control the main phone. It works a lot like a normal crew, except the gear fits in the palm of your hand.”
By removing all of Xiaomi’s processing, Henwick and Cook have more control over the look of the film. However, cameras still have some things that are out of their control. Smartphone cameras are designed to take good photos no matter how bad our photography skills are, so they often “help” improve photos by automatically adjusting camera settings to improve bad photos, but break rule-breaking ones artistic attempt. Cook explained a scene where he intentionally wanted to keep the actors’ faces in shadow, but the phone automatically compensated, making them look better in a “glowing, beautiful, shiny way.” While the team tried to make sure every frame was consistent, the phone was also constantly trying to automatically correct the scene—even changing the exposure mid-shot.
The team found several ways to trick the camera into stopping to light the scene in a certain way or to “reset” the camera’s exposure settings by pointing the sensor at a bright or dark surface. Often, they just addressed these issues in post-production, a process Henwick says is comparable to what is done with other shorts that use cinema cameras.