The iPhone Is Already Changing Filmmaking

The smartphone and the decentralization of video production.


Apple's Tim Cook

Apple announced significant improvements today in the video recording capacity of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. These were incremental steps in a digital video revolution that started about twenty years ago.

The logical conclusion: Smartphones will one day become the go-to devices for shooting documentaries, news, television, and feature films.

The new iPhones have a 4K camera, meaning they capture 4096 x 2160 pixels in a frame, or far more information than is displayed on a high-definition television. As Apple's Phil Schiller explained, the new phones have sensors that use "deep trench isolation" to capture 50 percent more information without creating artifacts.

Hollywood filmmakers won't be ditching their ARRI Alexas anytime soon, and radical improvements in the iPhone camera are still years off. (Apple's purchase of the Israeli camera technology company LinX earlier this year provides hints about what's in the pipeline.)

Tangerine, a feature film shot with an iPhone.

The era of smartphone filmmaking is already upon us. Sean Baker's Tangerinewhich premiered at Sundance this year, was the first major motion picture shot on an iPhone. Baker used an iPhone 5s, which came out two years ago and has significantly less firepower than the new iPhone camera released today.

But nobody would be fooled into thinking that Tangerine was shot on 35mm film. Baker's decision to us an iPhone gave the movie a limited dynamic range, meaning that certain details in the frame are occasionally overexposed to a point that you rarely see in a professionally-shot film. And Baker was forced to correct for the camera's limited color palette by de-saturating his footage.

Like the Dogme 95 filmmakers, who made Hollywood films with an earlier generation of handheld digital video cameras, Baker dealt with the limitations of his camera by incorporating them into his storytelling. The iPhone gives Tangerine an observational quality and dream-like aesthetic that enhances its plot.

Another milestone in iPhone filmmaking: In 2014, Bentley Motors shot a high-end commercial on the iPhone 5S, but the ad was shot in black and white to deal with the phone's color limitations.

Someday filmmakers won't need to compromise.

For more on how we can expect news, documentaries, feature films, and porn to change once everyone on earth is walking around with a Hollywood-caliber video camera in their front pockets, read my feature story from the November 2014 issue of Reason magazine, "Video's Gutenberg Moment."