October 19, 2017 Andrew Walker

Filmmaking On Smartphones

When we started making STARVECROW nobody was sure precisely where the project would lead the team. That sort of uncertainly comes with experiments and unexplored territory. But one thing was certain: The goal was to shoot a professional, feature-length, cinema-ready film on mass market, popular tech. That kind of filmmaking on smartphones wasn’t really possible back in 2010 when the project started, and as a result, the quest to stick to the original mission presented some unique filmmaking problems.The idea came from a conversation over a beer between David Bark Jones and John Carver. It began (as often these things do) talking about how the name of John’s road “Starvecrow Lane” would make for a great horror movie title (without the “Lane” obviously). They wanted to create a film that looked real. No crew. No lighting. The actors would be at the heart of the filmmaking process, improvising the scenes and filming themselves whilst doing it. It was taking the found footage genre to its next logical step.

Early experiments used a Canon 5D DSLR (you’d be surprised how many films and TV shows are shot using DSLRs – see an IMDB listing here). The decision was made to go without lighting, but apart from that, traditional film shoot logic seemed to make sense.

But the results weren’t quite right. As Director John Carver notes “It looked like we’d filmed it professionally. We wanted to make something that looked like it really existed, genuine – creating shots that looked like they actually happened. The 5D wasn’t cutting it, the quality was too high.” So it was back to the drawing board.

The quality issue presented some big camera and audio problems. Back in those days, the mobile phone tech wasn’t really suitable for filmmaking. Some handsets recorded in formats that weren’t compatible with digital editing suits. Most had impractical data storage capacities and low quality audio recording. So the initial decision was to find a more suitable alternative that enabled the same kind of handheld shooting but better quality.

Eventually, the team chose Flip Video. In 2010, the Flip Ultra had captured about 13% of the home camcorder market, it offered hours of storage, high quality audio and decent battery life, but it was the same size and produced the same kind of shots as a smartphone. The Flip became the staple until 2012-13, filming to MP4 format, supplemented by video-enabled mobiles like the iPhone 3s, and Nokia 6730 until newer smartphones took over from Flips as their capabilities improved. The team also had access to a CCTV system that was already installed at one of the venues where STARVECROW was shot, which added scope for some very menacing, big-brother-is-watching-you long shots for key scenes.

The shoot, generating over 70hrs of footage, eventually incorporated newer, more film-friendly mobile phones. On that front, post production is critical – as it is for all films – but in reverse. As Executive Producer Anna Carloss explains “Most of it blended together well, but the problem was the CCTV footage was really high quality, so to make it resemble the grainy finish people expect to see from a security cam, we had to work on it to pixelate those shots to match the overall feel of the rest of it.”

The end result of merging films shot on Flipcams, a variety of different mobiles and CCTV is very consistent considering the mixed bag of source cameras. Today this issue has all but disappeared. Associate Producer Will Sudlow notes “HYPEREAL filmmaking has to reflect the way people create videos and film themselves. When we started we had to be creative about capturing that kind of feel with equipment that was practical, a couple of years in, the smartphones were up to the job. Nowadays you could do the whole thing on an iPhone 6.”

Which leads to a strange conclusion. STARVECROW started as the cutting edge of high quality mobile phone video. By the time it launches, it’s got a slightly retro feel to the image quality because the technology in our pockets has advanced so quickly. It also points to a new generation of HYPEREAL possibilities, as apps and onboard smartphone camera kit advances even further. Slow motion, time lapse, rotoscoping are all becoming standard features on smartphones, presenting the opportunity to introduce HYPEREAL cinematography akin to Matrix style bullet time, Kill Bill style animations or montage sequences of the seasons changing.

If you can self-shoot it out-of-the-box on your latest gadget, it’s a HYPEREAL production technique. Filmmaking with smartphones, GoPros, mobiles, webcams and drones? That’s just standard studio kit for a HYPEREAL movie… and the set is anywhere and everywhere.

The possibilities are endless.