Steven Soderbergh is about to release his newest movie, Unsane, in theaters in a couple weeks and if you haven’t already heard, the whole movie was shot on an iPhone. While there is precedent for shooting a movie on an iphone (Sean Baker shot Tangerine on an iPhone), this is the first time that I can think of where a filmmaker who doesn’t have to shoot on an iPhone actually chose to do so. The big question I’m sure everyone is wondering is WHY WOULD HE SHOOT A MOVIE ON AN iPHONE???????
Here’s a trailer to the film so we can all get on the same page in terms of what the film is about and the aesthetic integrity of the image, which we’ll talk about throughout this post.
Now if you read the indiewire article about Steven Soderbergh and Unsane he says that he was so impressed by the quality of the iPhone’s image that he actually plans on shooting his movies on iPhones moving forward. What? I don’t think that anyone who just watched that trailer can honestly say that it looks anywhere near as good as any of the films he’s shot on film or the RED cameras – it’s just in a different world in terms of quality and not for the better. So what the hell is he talking about and what’s really going on?
A Great Titan of an A-List Director
First of all, we need to just take a minute to acknowledge that Steven Soderbergh is a titan of filmmaking – especially independent filmmaking. While he has done a handful of studio films, even those seemed to have an independent flair to them where he took chances and did fun and interesting things that a studio normally doesn’t like to see directors do.
But looking at Oceans 11 & 12 (I happened to not care for 13 much), Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Sex Lies and Videotape, Traffic – the man can direct. I think I’ve watched Traffic a dozen times or so. I have a soft spot for hand-held camera work that feels like cinema verite but in a narrative context – so I studied Traffic quite a bit.
He also has a pretty strong relationship with RED cinema so I’m sure he could have gotten cameras and media from RED for cheap or even free given his history with them – yet he chose the iPhone. Sean Baker has been quite verbal about the iPhone being a financial reality as a camera choice when he shot Tangerine – that is absolutely not the case with Steven Soderbergh. He’s not an idiot. He knows the image he’s getting with the iPhone isn’t in the same league as a real cinema camera so what’s really going on? There are a few possibilities….
(Just as a quick aside – even though I don’t like movies being shot on the iPhone – I think watching movies on the iPhone is just fine. You can read all about my reasoning here: watching movies on an iPhone).
Steven Soderbergh is a Marketing Maven
Steven Soderbergh has been quite brilliant when it comes to marketing. Few filmmakers have made themselves as relevant through the years as Soderbergh has. I’m pretty sure his whole “retirment” announcement was just a way for him to get some press.
He might not have done it maliciously but I don’t think that there was anyone in the film community who really took him seriously. If he was joining some philanthropic cause or other business venture we might have believed him but when you leave features to direct a TV show (he was working on The Knick for Cinemax) it’s only a matter of time before you jump back into the feature world.
But even after he had his big break with Sex, Lies and Videotape at Sundance it wasn’t before long that he was experimenting with digital and shot Full Frontal on the Canon XL1 cameras which was an absolute nightmare to watch. It is still one of the ugliest films I’ve ever seen. I would have forgiven it a little if the story was stronger – I loved “Once” – but it was just boring to sit through.
I forgave him though and he did the same thing again when HD cameras came out and shot Bubble – another horror show of a movie with non-actors. It was still cutting edge enough at the time to get press, but when he decided to do it a few years later on a RED camera he had to take his game up a notch and cast a pornstar as his lead for anyone to take notice.
Now he’s back in the headlines again because he is shooting on something literally millions of people own. It’s important to note, however, that it’s only newsworthy because he’s an A-list director. Obviously anyone can shoot a movie on an iPhone but when a A-list director with access to whatever gear he wants decides to shoot on an iPhone that’s something worth reporting in the trades. In a way he’s really abusing his status as an A-list director to make shooting on the iPhone cool. Will it sell more tickets or downloads of the film? If Full Frontal, Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience are any indications probably not.
Trying out New Business Models to Fight the Studios (smaller crew)
Another possibility that Steven Soderbergh has chosen to shoot the movie on an iPhone is as a knee-jerk reaction to the franchise movies that Hollywood is making that cost over $100,000,0000 on average. I think Steven Soderbergh is well aware that independent film is constantly battling against the blockbusters and if he can figure out how to make movies in new and different ways that appeal to an audience that’s a win.
Shooting movies on an iPhone (if it proves to be something audiences accept as a “real” movie) could be the start of a new production company where films are funded and developed specifically to be shot on the iPhone. You could make films INCREDIBLY cheaply this way and it could shepard in a new wave of filmmaker talent. I could easily see Soderbergh putting up or raising a few million to make ten films from new filmmakers with iPhones as the only camera.
Another reason Soderbergh said he loved shooting on the iPhone was because of speed and mobility. I think this is half-true. If you’re comparing shooting a movie on an iPhone to shooting a movie on an Arri Alexa or even a film camera – which I despise – then it’s much faster and more mobile – but compared to a small mirrorless camera like the GH5 I often shoot with it’s only marginally more convenient. The GH5 also has some great conveniences that an iPhone doesn’t like a swappable battery.
One thing that an iPhone does have though is its light weight and flat profile. You could kind of stick an iPhone anywhere. You could literally gaff tape it to a wall to get a shot – whereas even the smallest of mirrorless cameras get a bit too big and heavy to do that once a lens is attached.
However, from the trailer it doesn’t look like there’s really much of that going on so Soderbergh is either comparing it to a larger camera system like an Alexa or he’s just fueling the marketing angle with this claim.
Restricting Yourself From Bells and Whistles
One thing that is absolutely true about working with an iPhone is that it’s very limited in what it can do. As a result of its limitations, there aren’t any big bells and whistles you can add to it to build up a proper rig. This inability to build a camera up to a big rig is actually a great handicap that can force you to shoot quickly and focus more on telling the story and getting good performances from your actors.
I have a goal this year to shoot a couple short films with my GH5, one lens, and no lights. I want to go out and just shoot. Putting restrictions on gear is a great way to just get out there and shoot and if the iPhone is your main camera this is taking the idea to the extreme. If Soderbergh was pressed for time and only had his actors for a few days instead of a few weeks – then the iPhone was DEFINITELY a huge advantage in making sure things went quickly. You also eliminate the number of crew you need because there’s no focus pulling, lens swapping, hauling of camera equipment etc.
I also speculate that shooting on an iPhone is lowering everyone’s expectations. If the film flops then who cares? It was shot on an iPhone and nobody expected it to make any money. It’s a great way for an A-list director to blame the capture device if the film fails. I think this is played in his favor with other experiments quite a bit. I doubt anyone has ever brought up Full Frontal as a bomb because “hey, it was just a fun little experiment.” You can get away with quite a lot if people think you’re just messing around instead of making a “real” movie.
Steven Soderbergh and the Pursuit of Inspiration
Finally, the last reason that I can think of as to why Soderbergh would shoot on an iPhone is to inspire young filmmakers to go out and make their movies. I can’t think of many public filmmaking icons who are as motivational as Steven Soderbergh. While his films don’t always work for me, I still hold him in the highest of regards. He has films that I’ve watched time and time again to learn about the craft. He’s known for wrapping shoots early and being on or under budget, and I haven’t heard anyone who thinks he’s anything but great to work with. His sense of adventure when approaching filmmaking is second to none and I think if other filmmakers had, excuse the expression, 10% of the balls that Soderbergh has we’d be seeing films that take a lot more risks.
Part of me hates that he is shooting on the iPhone and another part of me is jealous that he’s getting away with it. I suppose I could always go out and shoot something on an iPhone and see how it turns out but there’s that artistic self-doubt that says I’m not good enough as a story-teller for people to look past the fact that it was shot on an iPhone. I made sure to use the greatest camera I could find for my first feature film to make sure the image quality just wasn’t a factor in the criticism. Soderbergh’s status and history, however, make the process of shooting on an iPhone interesting in and of itself.
This analysis could all be a total waste if his film Unsane doesn’t do well at the box office. The truth is that changes in the industry are always results of financial successes. The reason we saw a lot of cheap digital movies twenty years ago was because they were so cheap to make that earning a profit on them was pretty easy – but now with so many streaming channels and producers of content the market is a lot harder to penetrate. I’m excited to check out Unsane myself and if it does well I expect to see a trove of iPhone films coming shortly after it.