How To Make A Film With Your Mobile Camera

 

The world has now experienced some version of quarantine or isolation – what can we do when confined within the four walls of our home(s)? Isolation creation would be the medicine to some of that cabin fever, and we’re pretty sure you’ve got the right gadget within your midst.

Your trusty mobile phone is more than just a tool to connect to the outside world.

Apart from your video calls with friends and family, flip that camera around and you’ve got a perfectly functioning film camera. One where you can tinker to your fancy – tell a story or just build some video essays, even.

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JD Chua, the Viddsee Originals web series ‘Queen of Hearts’ showrunner and director of ‘Episode 1: The Moderator

If you’re still skeptical, here’s a fun fact: the Viddsee Originals web series, ‘Queen of Hearts’ was filmed entirely using mobile phones! We get some tried and true tips from the professionals themselves: JD Chua, the showrunner, the directors of each of the 5 episodes (Tang Wanxin, Benjamin Low, Alistair Quak, Rifyal Giffari and Joann Nicolette) and the director of photography James Hia.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Start with the default camera app in your mobile phone

Although the ‘Queen of Hearts’ creators used the Filmic Pro app, they also deferred to the one tool that comes with all mobile phones: the default in-built camera app. (Or an app you probably already have – such as filters from your favourite social media apps.)

Benjamin Low: “Honestly you can make a whole film through social media apps, but I find myself using the in-built camera app for my own stuff. Hyperlapse by Instagram is very good and easy for moving time-lapses. A lot of live-effects can be done in camera without having to do it in the edit, and there are plenty more apps that offer more cinematic looks that can quickly add some polish or style if needed.”

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Benjamin Low, co-director of ‘Episode 3: The Singer

JD Chua: “I wish AR [augmented reality] features can be built into traditional film cameras. If a phone has it, why don’t the conventional cameras have it? Imagine the ease of distance measuring, or motion tracking, which will be super helpful for shoots that require VFX. (Or inbuilt deep fakes, wouldn’t that be something?)”

Rifyal Giffari: “The default Camera app is fine, although, some options you have to dig deep in the system preferences, but a simple record button and a frame is all you need. Nothing wrong with the basics.”

Joann Nicolette: “We used Filmic Pro but personally I’ve been using the default Camera app on my iPhone and doing edits in Premiere Pro on my laptop.”

Alistair Quak: “I typically use the phone’s camera for regular random day to day stuff; and sometimes I’m shocked at how cinematic an image can come from just the regular phone camera.”

The director of photography, James Hia had a very specific appreciation for the mobile phone: “The digital zooms to change shot sizes (were helpful).”

Focus on your story, not the equipment

Don’t be distracted by using a mobile phone for a camera.

Joann Nicolette: “Narrative > Tools. I think it’s easy to dismiss your capability to produce films especially when you think you don’t have the desired ‘pro’ equipment on hand. Focus more on developing your story and how you will bring your script to life. A tip would be to craft a story that uses the capabilities of mobile filmmaking.”

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Joann Nicollette, director of ‘Episode 5: The Victim

Alistair Quak: “Story is king. Shooting on a mobile phone gave a very significant look and style to the end product, which helped enhance the story of QoH (‘Queen of Hearts’), but might be lost on a different project. I feel to maximise the impact of shooting on a phone, the story should come hand in hand with said style and look that the mobile phone gives.”

Tang Wanxin: “I think there’s a stigma that shooting on phones are for amateurs and if you’re a professional, you wouldn’t do it. I used to have that as well. But, I’ve shot two 3-minute shorts with a team of less than five. I think it’s a great alternative to capture your film, especially when you have a compact team and no money. At the end of the day, filmmaking is really about working with what you have and of course, nothing beats a good narrative.”

The physical space and presence of a mobile phone camera

The expected and assumed benefit of a mobile phone camera is that it’s small enough to fit in all positions and spaces, and the likelihood of getting candid shots as its less noticeable.

JD Chua: “It’s awesome! I can throw the camera in unusual angles, I can have unconventional camera movements. I would love to do this again. I felt that I was a little too restrained from my experience using conventional cameras. If given the chance again, I would go crazier. I’ll share with whoever intends to shoot on the phone: go crazy. Your limit is unbound. Tight corners? No problem. Not close to the actor enough? No problems. No permission to shoot in a location? Run and gun baby! (Okay don’t do the last bit.)”

Tang Wanxin: “There are advantages in using a phone for outdoor scenes, especially in crowded spaces. People tend to not notice the camera and you have lesser bystanders with curious glances.”

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Tang Wanxin, director of ‘Episode 2: The Outcast

Benjamin Low: “Phones can go just about anywhere and everywhere, that’s the best thing about it. So finding new angles to squeeze it in gives us more options and freedom to how we want to frame our scenes. But then you now have to find a way to look at the screen, adjust settings, or even start rolling when your phone is flat up against a wall or a tight corner.

We had a bit of that pickle when we were recording in a car, and our phone was up against the inner side of the windscreen with lens pointing at the driver. James (Hia, the director of photography) had to be inside the car tapping the buttons, while Jolinna (Ang, camera assistant) had to stand outside the car to watch the screen and tell him where to move his fingers and tap. That was fun.”

James Hia and his approach: “A lot depends on how the directors see each scene being captured. But essentially, it can be placed anywhere or be mounted easily with gaffers tape. I remember a shot from inside a fridge in Rifyal’s episode [episode 4]; it would normally take some time to place a small camera in the fridge. But with a phone, you literally just had to place it there, that simple.”

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James Hia, the director of photography of ‘Queen of Hearts’

Nevertheless, traditional filmmaking rules still apply

There’s no short-cut even though the nifty size and in-built features of a mobile phone camera opens many doors to creativity. Rehearsals are still necessary, as well as the necessary practice of blocking a frame for a scene.

JD Chua: “I’ve seen a variety show shot (last minute) on a phone due to emergencies and it worked perfectly. But for what we did, having a script is the baseline. I lined my scripts and will refuse to shoot if I don’t have a coverage plan. I believe Ben and Ali [co-directors for episode 3] did storyboards. And boy, we did rehearsals. It’s a must for me, at least a script read. Really important for my process.”

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From JDChua’s Instagram: The handwritten script of the first draft

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From JD Chua’s Instagram: Rehearsal notes

Alistair Quak: “It did help that we had a mobile phone on hand and could test out if some of the crazier shots we planned for were possible (during storyboarding); but more or less the key part of filmmaking remains.”

Benjamin Low: “The structure of filmmaking still holds because it helps you visualise how you piece a film together. For Alistair and I, we went through storyboards after coming up with some crazy shots that we wanted especially from the phone. That’s because we had to make sure people understood how we wanted the camera to move in all sorts of weird positions and spaces!

But the camera is merely your eye, and you still have to work closely with the other elements in front of your camera that will make or break you film. Such as prepping with actors, the look of the scene through art, lighting, etc.”

Rifyal Giffari: “The process was similar to any other project. The camera just happened to be a mobile phone. That was the attitude going in because the script was straightforward and it wasn’t an experimental film, so you try to always fit the right approach with the right story. I’m not a fan of over complicating technique in compensation for a story. Or worse, going for experimental approaches in spite of a story that wants to be told in a more traditional manner.”

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Rifyal Giffari, director of ‘Episode 4: The Assistant

James Hia on the more technical considerations when using a mobile phone for a camera: “The movement of the actors and camera movement are things to consider. The phone’s quality of rolling-shutter is something that can still be improved. As with whip-pans when actors are moving, the wobble effect can be seen quite clearly. As well as the pulling focus as the actor or camera moves.”

More technical considerations (such as white balance)

Here’s a technicality to consider: white balance – which is the process of removing unrealistic colour casts that will take into account the warmth or coolness of white light. This relates to the light sensitivity of the camera and can be easily managed within the app (whether Filmic Pro or the camera app).

James Hia: “Fortunately Filmic Pro has a white balance adjustment setting. Select the function and adjust the colour temp slider. In Filmic Pro the colour temp slider is really small so it was of a challenge to get it to the right numbers.”

Benjamin Low: “On the in-built camera app you can tap-and-hold on a spot which will lock your exposure or white-balance and/or focus.

JD Chua has wise words when it comes to the equipment: “Having light sensitive cameras does not necessary means they are better cameras. Different cameras have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to you to learn them and use them accordingly.

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Behind the scenes of ‘Episode 4: The Assistant

What about audio?

If it’s possible, record the audio on an external device for clarity and so it won’t pick up too much ambient noise. If not, consider recording all audio in post during edits.

Tang Wanxin: “Sound is often overlooked but so important. As David Lynch once said ‘Films are 50% visual and 50% sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual’.”

Alistair Quak: “Use a separate device and then sync it up in post. The in-camera audio is just for reference. If you don’t have a separate audio device, you could always shift to ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement, which is redubbing all the audio in post-production) but that is opening up a whole other can of worms.”

Experiment, play around with angles – it’ll be exciting to see what isolation creation will give you!

Watch ‘Queen of Hearts’ by JD Chua (Singapore) here:

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