Cell-Phone Documentaries: Films & Tools

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When I spoke to Rhode Island School of Design professor Dennis Hlynsky a few months ago, he marveled at the number of video-recording devices among his students, and the notion that every moment in our lives is eminently recordable. The smartphone continues to evolve, but it’s already created a new form: the cell-phone documentary.

And there have been some notable ones. The first of the best had less to do with convenience or cost than with stealth. Tehran Without Permission is a landmark work in this respect, a wonderful documentary shot by filmmaker Sepideh Farsi on a Nokia N95 phone. Farsi knew if she used even a palmcorder, she’d be taking disproportionately bigger risks.

The film was widely praised, and of course the assumption was that the video quality would have some of the rawness of her experience. But with devices such as Apple’s iPhone 4S, the presumption of a quality/size tradeoff is less of a given.

The iPhone 4S is a camera, with a 1080p CMOS sensor and an aperture that opens to f/2.4. Pretty amazing.

And with the rise of the cell-phone camera has come a cottage industry of add-ons for making good documentary films — a stable camera, good audio and smooth movement. There are windshield mounts and stabilizers, among the many accessories and a-p-p-s now on the market. It seems the want of filmmakers is to take the smallest, simplest device and dress it out into a real gizmo. It would seem to defeat the purpose. (Check out this iPhone 4 video setup or this one.)

Filmmakers are furiously experimenting with HD phone video either in a supporting role — picking up video on the street or in impromptu situations — or as the lead, making it the camera of choice for an entire project.

Michael Koerbel created the first notable iPhone 4 movie, Apple of My Eye, which was proudly edited with Apple’s iMovie software. And Park Chan-Wook, director of the Cannes Grand Prix award winner Old Boy, has turned in an iPhone-filmed short, Paranmanjang.

I’ve always been fascinated with people who can do good work on the least technology. Being able to produce kingly work on a pauper’s budget makes it that much more exciting.

http://vimeo.com/30466827

To mock the revelation that an iPhone could be a legitimate filmmaking tool, videographer Brandon Bloch compared the $30 Barbie Video Girl camera with the 100-times-more-expensive Canon EOS 7D. You can decide whether it’s the right tool for your next doc.

Edward J. Delaney spotted this rig incorporating an iPhone at a football practice.


But it all goes toward the evolution of the form. The 1080p capabilities of these small devices are amazing, both to record video and to assist in the recording of it.

I was on a shoot last month in Los Angeles and saw an iPhone being used as part of a rig recording a football practice. (I’m not sure if the iPhone was being used as a second stream or as a monitor.) I’d expect someday someone will be running a 1,500-pound pneumatic dolly with a little smartphone on top, but the principle of all this is simple: A camera is a lens, a sensor, a computer and a hard drive in a tiny package. And just as the technology in “real” camcorders is improving, one can expect smartphone technology to continue improving as well.

If you’ve got a smartphone and are itching to use it for filmmaking, below is a quick, no-nonsense instructional video for getting starting. Have fun!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDJ6XIUSX6w

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.
  • Wfu1986

    android app please!

  • Anonymous

    Have you seen the free app “Videolicious”? You can shoot video and edit it on the phone. You can do a voiceover and add music too. This post really looks like spam, but it is a serious app. Thanks!

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