Jessica Henwick made a movie on a phone. It wasn’t exactly easy

“There is definitely a stigma in the industry. I wouldn’t really say from the audience’s perspective, a good movie is a good movie. But I think there is a stigma within the industry.” She eventually worked with Nick Cookewho, like her, saw using a phone as a challenge rather than an obstacle.

Stettner believes this reluctance to take phone cameras seriously stems from the movie industry’s fetishization of high-end equipment. Using a professional cinema camera can make your work feel ‘professional’, even if that’s not always the case. Students also come to film schools to use and learn about advanced cameras and lenses, so it doesn’t seem appealing to use a smartphone then.

However, using something as familiar and mundane as a phone can make it harder to think critically about the details of a shoot. “The contemplation of the image — the composition, the blocking, everything — becomes a much more thoughtful element when you’re dealing with something that can’t be immediately captured,” says Stettner. You actually have more opportunities to stop and think. It is logical. We use phones every day to read the news, play games, reply to messages, and capture content. A cinema camera is a focused tool that allows you to tap into your creativity. A phone may not put you in the same mindset.

Under control

Every year, phone manufacturers highlight the improvements to their respective image processing algorithms, which affect how a video clip will look. That could be automatically brightening footage, boosting color saturation, or removing noise by smoothing out details. Henwick says her team pushed all that proprietary processing aside and instead used an app called Filmic Pro to access the raw hardware inside the Xiaomi phone. “We would actually have two phones. We would focus on one phone and we would use Wi-Fi to control the headphones. It worked the same way as a normal crew, except the gear fits in the palm of your hand.

Disabling all of Xiaomi’s edits gave Henwick and Cooke more control over the look of the film. However, there were still things the camera did that they had no control over. Smartphone cameras are designed to take good photos no matter how bad our photography skills are, so they often “help” improve the shot by automatically adjusting camera settings to take a bad photo to the next level, but sink artistic attempts to break the rules. Cooke explained a scene where he deliberately wanted to shade an actor’s face, but the phone would automatically compensate to make them look prettier in a “glowing, beautiful, shiny way”. The phone also kept trying to automatically correct scenes, even changing exposure mid-shot, as the team tried to make sure each frame was consistent.

The team found a few ways to trick the camera into stopping by lighting scenes a certain way or pointing the sensor at a bright or dark surface to “reset” the camera’s exposure setting. Often they simply solved these problems in post-production, a process that Henwick says is similar to what is done with other shorts that use cinema cameras.

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