While the folks at Apple would undoubtedly love it if filmmakers everywhere ditched their high-end video cameras for iPhones, the fact is that the phone's tiny lens, sensor and other features are no match for those on something like the RED Scarlet X. It was those limiting factors, however, that made the phone an ideal choice for the recently-completed indie psychological thriller, Uneasy Lies the Mind. It's being promoted as "The first narrative feature film to be shot entirely on the iPhone."
The film was conceived by California-based writers/actors Jonas Fisch, J'aime Spezzano, and Dillon Tucker, and was shot/directed by cinematographer Ricky Fosheim. Its story is told in the form of the disjointed, distorted memories of a character who has suffered a severe head injury, so sharp, clear images were not the order the day. The use of grainy 16mm film was considered, but the filmmakers ultimately decided that it was more affordable to achieve a similar look using an iPhone 5.
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A Turtle Back lens adapter was added to the phone, in order to shoot with proper Nikon Cinema Prime lenses (although the output from those lenses was ultimately still funneled through the iPhone's existing lens). That adapter, perhaps more so than the lenses mounted in it, was responsible for much of the film's look.
"In the middle of the lens adapter is a glass focusing screen with a patterned texture, almost like a finger print," explained Fosheim. "Hair, dirt, and oil from my hands would always get stuck on these focusing screens. I completely welcomed these textured imperfections and chose not to clean or replace any of the dirty parts. At times I would even add dust and dirt."
The focusing screen also introduced a vignetting effect to the shots – once again, it was something that would ordinarily be considered a flaw, but in this case was desirable. That effect became more pronounced as the iris was closed down, sometimes to the point that it actually became too much. This meant that the aperture often had to be kept wide open, which in turn resulted in a shallow depth of field. That, in turn, produced an effect of the actors moving in and out of focus within the shot – which Fosheim also liked.
Filmmaker Evan Glodell, incidentally, similarly encouraged dirt specks and minimal depth of field in the cameras that he built to shoot his film Bellflower. Additionally, the makers of the Academy Award-winning Searching for Sugar Man used an iPhone to shoot some scenes of their film.
Flosheim controlled parameters such as white balance, exposure, frame rate and compression using the Filmic Pro app. Audio was recorded on a separate system, and synced to the iPhone footage in editing using Final Cut Pro 7.
Challenges involved in using the iPhone included very short battery life when shooting outdoors in the winter. As Ricky recalled, "In between takes we would have to place the camera underneath our armpit in order to keep it warm." It also didn't do a great job at shooting in dim tungsten lighting, requiring a lot of post-production tweaking in order to match up the color temperature of shots.
As would be expected, though, the iPhone rig was also very easy to move around the set, and to use in tricky locations such as on a toboggan. And, it did give the filmmakers the distinctive quality that they were going for.
"Now that the movie is done I couldn't be any happier with how it turned out," Flosheim told us. "The iPhone 'look' that I created fit the story, mood, tone, and the character's inner psyche way more than any other traditional camera could have ... I'm not advocating for everyone to go shoot their next movie on the iPhone, but if you can find a creative and plausible way to make it work, then I would encourage you to take as many risks as you can and try to push the limits in the ways in which we tell stories."
Uneasy Lies the Mind is being shown at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose on March 8th, and at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas the following day. Ricky and the other team members are currently seeking a distributor for the film.
You can see how the iPhone footage came out, in the mini "making of" documentary below.
Project page: Detention Films