Modern technology has made filmmaking more accessible than ever. Film, an artform not yet two centuries old, looks nothing like it did in its beginnings. In the past, it would take thousands of dollars worth of equipment to even hope to make a film. Cameras, lights, and sound stages were reserved only for studios, and any filmmaker outside of the mainstream circuit was forced to use secondhand or second-rate equipment. Up until even twenty or thirty years ago, independent filmmakers struggled to find or afford cameras that were even capable of making feature length films. But now, with the rapidly evolving nature of modern technology and filmmakers unprecedented access to cameras via the cellphones in their pockets, the barrier to entry is lower than ever before.
The first feature film to make the claim that it was shot entirely on a cellphone was the South African film SMS Sugar Man. Filmed on Sony’s Ericsson W900i, this raunchy, sexual film was released before the iPhone was even manufactured. The film looks like a low-budget mess and is borderline pornographic in certain parts, but it still has a place in film history as the first movie shot entirely on a mobile phone.
Mike Everleth, writing for the Underground Film Journal, said about the film’s visual style: “Given the smallness of the camera being used, Kaganof [the director] frequently brings it in close to capture a brutal intimacy between the characters….the script never takes the cheap route in the telling of the story. For that, SMS Sugar Man is a film that defies expectations on several fronts.”
Night Fishing, a 2011 short from acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook, is the next notable film shot on cellphone. The filmmaker, who would go on to direct hit films such as Oldboy and The Handmaiden, used 7 iPhones to shoot the movie, which was funded in full by Korean cell phone carrier KT. The story follows a man who goes on a fishing trip and ends up reeling in the body of a mysterious woman instead. It won Best Short Film at the Berlin International Film Festival the year it was released.
Searching for Sugarman (2012) is a documentary also partly shot on an iPhone that actually won an Academy Award. The film (unrelated to SMS Sugarman) tells the story American musician Sixto Rodriguez, a man who was never famous in the United States but became a cultural phenomenon in South Africa. Director Mikal Bendjelloul used an iPhone to shoot his film not because he wanted to, but because he had to.
“I started shooting this film on a Super 8 camera with film,” Bendjelloul told CNN in 2013. “But it’s expensive stuff and I completely ran out of money. I needed more shots though. One day I realized there was this $1 app on my iPhone so I tried it and it looked basically the same. So the film was finished on a smartphone.”
In more recent years, cell phone filmmaking has become even more common, and the resources and possibilities available to anyone with a smartphone are nearly endless. Everyone from middle school students to Hollywood directors like Steven Soderbergh or Sean Baker are using cell phones to shoot video, and Apple, the manufacturer of the iPhone, has even got in on the action with some of their recent marketing. “Shot on iPhone” is an advertising campaign that directly references the iPhone’s camera capabilities. The commercials show amazing vistas and beautiful colors, all, as the name implies, shot on an iPhone camera.
There are lots of tips for shooting on cell phones, and while most people today may have access to one, there are quite a few pieces of equipment that filmmakers may have that the average person might not. Some good tips for amateurs though are to use apps that allow you to control things like exposure and frame rate, to use a tripod, and to always shoot in landscape mode.
“I think this is the future,” Steven Soderbergh said in 2018, referring to shooting his movie Unsane on an iPhone. “Anybody going to see this movie who has no idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone. That’s not part of the conceit.”
As cellphone cameras become more and more powerful, professional and amatuer filmmakers alike will likely continue to find new and exciting ways to use them. Whether or not it’s the future of film is yet to be seen, but if the last few years have shown anything, it’s that shooting video on cell phones is here to stay.