Sean Baker says he doesn’t want to be a poster boy for Apple. Yet with two films now that were shot entirely on iPhones, that’s exactly what he’s become. The first of those films, Tangerine, was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The story of a transgender prostitute who goes on a rampage looking for her cheating boyfriend-pimp, the film won raves among cineastes and put Baker on the map as a director to watch. Something else it put on the map was the iPhone as a tool that’s capable of doing far more than taking selfies. With its rich, saturated pallet and smooth-flowing visuals, there’s no question that Tangerine is artful cinema and not just DIY experimentation.
With his new short film, Snowbird, Baker has captured a similar effect. Released last week on YouTube, Vimeo, and Kenzo.com—the fashion company that commissioned the film—Snowbird is a dreamy character piece that follows model/actress Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) as she drifts around trailer parks in Slab City, a desert community in California, offering each person she visits a piece of homemade cake. Baker shot the film in four days with a crew that at times consisted of just him and his director of photography wielding smartphones.
“One time I was asked when we were going to set up the cameras,” Baker says. “I said, ‘No, these are our cameras.'”
Baker is just one of a growing number of filmmakers who are turning their iPhones into movie cameras, and not just as a way to save money—though smaller budgets are indeed a big draw. The Land, a film about teen skateboarders that premiered at Sundance this year, was partly filmed using iPhones as a way to give the film a gritty, intimate feel and to let the audience get as close as possible to all of the backside flips and 360s. Bryn Moser and David Darg of Ryot Films decided to shoot their short documentary The Painter of Jalouzi on iPhones because of how vibrantly the phones capture color—the film is about a man in Haiti who transforms his slum by covering houses in Crayola-colored paint. Even network television shows such as Modern Family have turned to iPhones to shoot episodes.
The embrace of the iPhone as a movie camera has been accelerated by the technological advances of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, which hit the market last fall. The phones’ larger screens mean that “you don’t have to be squinting all the time,” says Baker, who did exactly that while making Tangerine, which was shot on a 5s. The newer phones also allow video to be shot in high-resolution 4K, making for a much crisper picture, and let users adjust their own frame rates. The 6 models also have better stabilization than their predecessors, meaning that even if someone’s hand shakes while they’re holding the phone, the device will self-compensate and smooth the shot out.
These improvements made by Apple have been complemented by the evolution of the ecosystem of iPhone accessories over the last few years. Even since Baker shot Tangerine, he says that tools such as Filmic Pro—an app that allows filmmakers to control things such as white balance, focus, and exposure—and adaptive lenses made by Moondog Labs, which allow for wide-angle filming, have matured significantly, making the process of making a movie with an iPhone a much more seamless effort.
“The CEO of FilmicPro, Neill Barham, is constantly putting out new versions of the app,” Baker says. “He listens to feedback, which is great. I’ve gotten to know him because of Tangerine, and I give him my wish list of what I’d like to see on the next app.”
Interestingly, though, technological innovation was never Baker’s motivation for opting to shoot his movies with smartphones.
“Shooting on the iPhone has become more of a directors’ tool to lower inhibition of first-time actors and nonprofessionals,” he says. “While it’s helped me become more mobile, no pun intended—running around, finding tight areas and different ways of moving the camera—to me it’s more about using this device to catch candid moments. That’s the biggest thing. Because nobody takes, no matter who they are—maybe really seasoned actors do—but nobody takes the iPhone as seriously as a regular camera, so they have lowered inhibitions. Also, everybody owns an iPhone, or at least a smartphone, so there’s nothing elitist about it. Nothing intimidating about it. That, for me, is why I even did this.”
For Snowbird, whose cast consists mainly of real inhabitants of Slab City, the iPhone’s low-key presence was crucial. “I was just walking into an off-the-grid desert community and asking people to act,” Baker says.
“Also, we were asking these people to let us into their homes. That was a big deal. So we had to be very polite. We had to have a small footprint. At times, shooting only required two people. All the rest of the crew stayed away; sometimes they weren’t even around the trailer. They’d be 200 feet away while we shot remotely inside with two people and two tiny phones.”
The film was commissioned by Kenzo as a campaign for the French fashion house’s 2016 collection. Baker said he was approached by the company based on Tangerine, and was given carte blanche to come up with his own narrative.
“They just happened to call me the day before I was actually thinking about going and shooting something in Slab City. I said to them, ‘I have images of a woman walking around Slab City—that’s all I have right now.’ They said, ‘That’s funny, we have an image from Slab City up on our inspiration board. I said, ‘Oh, that’s serendipity. We’re on the same page, let’s explore this.'”
Lee’s involvement in the film also came by way of Tangerine—she approached Baker after seeing the film twice in theaters and said she’d love to collaborate. “I said, ‘Okay, well, I may have an opportunity. I was just offered this fashion film,'” Baker recalls.
The filmmaker initially assumed he’d film Snowbird with a traditional camera, but after he visited Slab City he saw it differently. “I should learn my own lesson, here,” he says. “Why am I not looking at all the benefits that came from the film I just made?”
As for the limitations of an iPhone, Baker says: “You have to accept the size of that small lens. A small lens gives you a very specific look. You don’t have a shallow depth of field. I think most of our eyes are trained to background being completely out of focus, but you can’t do that with an iPhone unless you manipulate it quite a lot in post.
“You have to accept the fact that your film is going to look a little different on the big screen,” he continues. “Even though the resolution holds up, it does have something very different about it. I don’t mean different in a bad way, some people really love it. But it’s definitely different.”
Indeed, despite the success he’s had with Apple devices, he says he’s planning to shoot his next film with a camera. “I love celluloid, I love the look of it. I’m still hoping for that beautiful, theatrical experience,” he says. “I know that my film is not going to be like Tangerine or Snowbird. It’s going to be slower. There will be more lockdown shots.”
Asked if Apple had assisted him in any way on his films, he said that the company reached out to him after Tangerine and lent him iPhones to shoot Snowbird. “They’ve just been more communicative about how to help push the film and do PR on it. But unless they’re going to hire me, I don’t need to be the poster boy for Apple.
“At the same time, they did create a product that I’ve now used twice, hopefully successfully. And I feel that if it’s helping to inspire other filmmakers, or younger filmmakers, I guess this is a good thing.”