A Filmmaking Revolution: Phone-made films that took the world by storm

30 Apr 2018

10 mins
Used for a News & Views piece - the most significant films made with phones
Used for a News & Views piece - the most significant films made with phones

It's safe to say that films made with smart phones are currently enjoying something of a moment, having become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to the ever-developing quality of video and filmmaking apps. Legendary director Steven Soderbergh most recently embraced the trend with his psychological thriller Unsane, describing it as ‘one of the most liberating experiences that I've ever had as a filmmaker.' 

Above all else, this exciting development in cinema means that more than ever before, anyone can start making films. No longer do you have to be held back by a lack of quality equipment or even experience; you just need a smart phone, some good filmmaking apps and the passion to get going. With this in mind, it's time to get inspired with a countdown of five of the most significant films made with a phone.

Night Fishing (2011); Directed and Produced by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong under the name PARKing CHANce; Distributed by Korea Telecom; Running Time: 33 min; Rating: 15 

The critically-acclaimed director of classics such as Oldboy and The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook, teamed up with his brother Chan-kyong in 2011 to make a surreal, fantastical and visually stunning short film entirely shot on an iPhone 4. Following a fisherman who pulls the re-animated corpse of a woman from the depths of the ocean, this fantasy-horror was one of the earliest signs that a truly cinematic experience could be achieved through a smart phone. Interestingly, Night Fishing was actually commissioned and funded by local mobile phone provider, Korea Telecom, and so originated largely as a publicity stunt and advert for the iPhone. It ended up as far more than that though winning the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at the Berlin film festival and undoubtedly revealing the countless possibilities that smart phones could offer to other filmmakers. For anyone that's interested, the short film is available online. 

This Is Not a Film (2011); Directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb; Produced by Jafar Panahi; Distributed by Kanibal Films Distribution (France); Running Time; 1h 15 min; Rating: 15 

Considering that smart phone films are still a relatively new phenomenon, the stories behind the most successful ones are almost always unexpected and fascinating, and this is certainly true for Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film. Panahi is a seasoned Iranian director who was banned from making films for twenty years and sentenced to six years in prison for anti-regime activities. While living under house arrest and waiting for a verdict from the appeals court, he decided to bypass the ban by inviting documentary filmmaker Mirtahmasb to his house to record him on a phone. From there, they set about making what appeared to simply be a plain account of his time waiting for a court decision but was far more meticulously planned out and executed than they could reveal. This stranger than fiction tale culminated in the finished film being smuggled out of Iran in a cake in order to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival where it immediately gained high praise from critics. The documentary contains heavy subject matter that is ultimately designed to highlight the repressive censorship that holds industries like film back in Iran. However, thanks to Panahi's compelling personality and insight, it is also an incredibly entertaining viewing experience that everyone would enjoy.   

Searching for Sugar Man (2012); Directed by Malik Bendjelloul; Produced by Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn; Distributed by NonStop Entertainment (Sweden) and StudioCanal (UK); Running Time; 1h 26 min; Rating: 12

While only partially shot on an iPhone, Searching for Sugar Man is certainly worthy of inclusion on this list for countless reasons. In fact, considering that it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary, it is easily one of the most significant films in legitimising phone-made projects as a worthy pursuit. Like many films of this nature, director Malik Bendjelloul turned to his iPhone because of a lack of resources he was originally shooting his documentary on a Super 8 camera but completely ran out of money. He soon realised however that by using a one dollar app called ‘8mm Vintage Camera,' he could film the rest of what he needed and it would look almost exactly the same. The main appeal of the app is that, much like what Instagram does for photos, it gives video a retro feel, and this ended up fitting perfectly with a narrative centred on a mysterious 1970s rock n' roller named Rodriguez; especially thanks to some unorthodox methods by Bendjelloul such as using the app from the window of a plane and filming footage on a laptop to achieve the right 1970s aesthetic.   

Tangerine (2015); Directed by Sean Baker; Produced by Sean Baker, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Darren Dean and Shih-Ching Tsou; Distributed by Magnolia Pictures; Running Time: 1h 28 min; Rating: 15 

While not the first to make a feature length film entirely on an iPhone, Sean Baker's Tangerine most certainly pushed the approach to new levels of respectability and popularity. The ground-breaking film immediately made waves at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival after Baker's reveal that it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. It is certainly an immaculately executed technical decision that allowed Baker to move beyond a serious lack of resources, gain a lot of publicity for his film and present a fresh route for a new generation of filmmakers. Tangerine's behind-the-scenes story shouldn't overshadow the fact though that it's also a completely brilliant film and a landmark moment for transgender cinema. The buddy comedy centres on two transgender prostitutes, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) who decide to track down the latter's boyfriend/pimp after discovering that he cheated on her with a cisgender woman. It is a great premise that is made all the better by the pure charisma of the two leads; two non-professional actresses that Baker discovered by hanging out at Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard where he wanted to film. Baker took this rough and ready approach to filmmaking much further than an iPhone, casting many of his actors through Vine or Instagram and getting part of his soundtrack from SoundCloud. Before this film, Baker was unsuccessfully trying to get bigger productions off the ground but the fact that he was able to utilise his micro-budget for Tangerine so effectively is an inspirational story for everyone hoping to become a filmmaker. We would also recommend checking out Baker's follow-up, the brilliant The Florida Project

Unsane (2018); Directed by Steven Soderbergh; Produced by Joseph Malloch; Distributed by Bleecker Street, Fingerprint Releasing (United States) and 20th Century Fox (International); Running Time: 1h 38 mins; Rating: 15 

Steven Soderbergh's latest thriller follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) who is committed to a mental institution against her will, and is forced to face a fear that could very well be a product of her imagination. The acclaimed director has been in the film industry for decades now and has become something of a master at finding innovative ways to make or fund his films. Whether by turning to French and Spanish distributors to make his 250 minute, Spanish language biopic of Che Guevara, pioneering high-definition digital filmmaking with Bubble or selling his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra to HBO, he is always willing to tread new ground. It's pretty unsurprising then that he has now turned to phone-made films to achieve his vision and considering his increasing distaste for the traditional studio model, that he sees phones as the ‘future' of filmmaking. Soderbergh has another film coming out this year - sports drama High Flying Bird - and bearing his previous comments in mind, it seems almost certain that he's returned to the iPhone for a second time. 

So there you have it. Whether forced by a lack of resources, compelled by political pressure or commissioned by a phone provider, smart phone filmmaking is proving to be a great way of presenting unique and uncompromising filmmaking to the world. Whatever direction the trend goes next, it's certainly an incredibly exciting time to be a filmmaker.

You may also be interested in...

Viewing 4 of 4 related items.

Into Film Clubs

Into Film Clubs

Find out everything you need to know about starting an Into Film Club.

News details

Want to write for us?

Get in touch with your article ideas for the News and Views section.