At First, Director Sean Baker's Choice To Shoot On Iphone Was Simply Budget Issues
Director Sean Baker's movie Tangerine from the year 2015 was well-received amongst the audience and critics for finding the beauty and sweetness of the sordid subcultures of LA's rough streets in its story.
The narrative took the viewers on a journey through a series of events between transgender prostitutes from a not-so-glamorous part of Hollywood—LA's rough streets. The plot was essentially a comic take on the hardships of a prostitute during her mission to exact her revenge on the pimp who cheated on her with a real girl.
Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post critiqued the movie to be,
"Bursting with unbridled humor and nervy, uncompromising brio,"
Even more, she credited Baker for turning a wild side of the streets of LA into "a witty and unexpectedly heartwarming meditation on friendship and human nature at its most resilient and optimistic."
The flick is even more impressive once we go behind the lens and process the fact that the entire feature film was shot on a handheld device from five years ago—the iPhone 5s.
"It was surprisingly easy"
Although the iPhone 5s was the latest offering from Apple at the time, Baker gets a fair amount of credit for such a bold ambition. However, in hindsight, the intention behind the decision was not to be bold or ambitious.
In an interview with Film Courage, the critically acclaimed director gave us a peek into the minds that went into the development of the heartwarming drama.
During the conversation, Baker informed the audience that the decision to make the movie Tangerine came long before the decision to shoot on an iPhone came to the table. "Looking at how we're going to make this [the movie 'Tangerine'] on a limited budget that we had, that option [to shoot with an iPhone] eventually arose," the director told.
What's even more surprising is that Baker and his crew did not know the benefits of shooting on the iPhone, apart from it being budget-friendly. A lot of the ideas about how the utility of the iPhone could be maximized came as they were shooting the movie.
It should also be noted, Tangerine was not the first movie to have been shot on an iPhone that time by any means. A fair amount of amateur movies have been prive to the Apple device. However, this movie was the first of its kind on account of the fact that it was showcased at the Sundance Film Festival.
Just watching the movie and claiming that it was hard to tell the movie was shot on a handheld device is just being generous. The movie was shot entirely in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Said that the camera movement while traversing the streets of Hollywood is so fluid that it was impossible to believe, it was a product of such a lightweight device.
The problem with light-weight hand-held camera systems is that not even a neurosurgeon, who is known for having steady hands, could deliver stable footage without assistance.
See Mickey "Dinah" O'Hagan on this season's #Homeland! Season premiere 1/15 at 9pm & available now on Showtime on Demand / Showtime Anytime. pic.twitter.com/ea8Yxo8gPK — tangerine (@TangerineFilm) January 9, 2017
The iPhone 5s featured an 8MP, f 1/2.2, 29mm autofocus sensor governed by the Dual-core 1.3 GHz A7 processor paired with PowerVR G6430 quad-core graphics. These numbers paired with the iOS platform's image processing algorithm make for a decent camera experience at best.
However, the team from Tangerine coupled this hardware with a few other adjustments. On the software front, the crew made use of an app called Filmic Pro that granted them finer controls over the focus, aperture, and color temperature. This app cost the production of $8 when they purchased it from the Apple App Store.
The iPhone was then mounted on a Steadicam rig. The rig provided a stable platform for the cinematographers to capture the scene. Another hardware adjustment that was made was a set of anamorphic adapter lenses.
The lenses of choice were prototypes from Moondog Labs and Baker credited them for making the movie look like it actually belonged on the big screen. The Verge reported that Baker claimed he would not have made the movie without the added hardware.
Another instance where Baker defied the cinematic tradition was when they pumped the colors and put the saturation through the roof in a social realist flick. Generally, the norm was to drain the colors out of the videos post-production.
The operations planned for the movie were so unconventional that even the cast members had a doubt. The Wire star James Ransone, the central figure in the Tangerine love triangle, even stated to the outlet that he was hesitant about the move, somewhat out of pride. He added, "Jesus Christ, man, I was on The Wire. I’ve ended up in iPhone movies!"
He was later convinced when he came to appreciate the versatility that the device offered. The actor also pointed out the fact that you would need a lot of experience in traditional filmmaking to deliver a movie like Tangerine with an iPhone at the heart.
However, Tangerine is not the only title that the maverick director Sean Baker is known for. Even after he told the tale of the scruffy side of Hollywood, the creative went on to make a short fashion film Snowbird, which was also shot entirely on an iPhone. This time, he made use of the iPhone 6s.
The 11-minute film outlined a young woman's life in a desert campsite in Slab City as she interacted with her fellow residents. The movie starred Abbey Lee of Mad Max: Fury Road and Clarence Williams III of The Mob Squad, as well as, real-life Slab City dwellers in minor roles.
Another notable instance where Baker showcased his incredible know-how around iPhones was when he shot The Florida Project. During this shoot, the crew used the iPhone to sneak footage from inside the Happiest Place on Earth.
Whatever the reason for picking up an iPhone was, Sean Baker has proved to the critics and audience alike that with ample experience and know-how one can deliver a memorable experience to the intended viewers regardless of the available resources.