How to be the Martin Scorsese of Smartphone Cinema

May 15, 2017


Take a quick scroll through the videos on your smartphone and you’ll probably come across the usual suspects. Your three-year-old godson’s stage debut as a sheep in his nursery nativity play. That time you got drunk and your friend got tasered by a policeman. You SO enjoying the Inca Trail at Machu Pichu. You managing to (finally!) do a handstand in Bikram yoga class. That kind of stuff.

But maybe there’s more to your phone camera than capturing all those drunk, silly and cute moments in your life? Imagine this: you can actually use your phone to create the next Godfather franchise.

Or a super-cool indie flick that gets the attention of the big guns at the Cannes Film Festival? This isn’t entirely unheard of: Ruben Kazantsev, who founded the iPhone Film Festival, made it to the glittering red carpets of the Cannes Film Festival with his 2015 short flick, Departure. And, yep, you guessed it: the whole thing was shot on an iPhone.

High-speed chases, atmospheric landscape shots, moody romance scenes, memorable music vids (have you seen the latest from Grimes?)… Turns out, smartphone cameras can do anything a Panavision Genesis can.

And filmmakers are being recognised for their innovative and unexpected mobile film: see Sean Baker’s 2015 Sundance Film Festival hit, Tangerine, shot entirely using an iPhone for the gold standard in how to do this.

OK, OK, the 5s had a teeny bit of help to make the now-cult movie. Baker also used the 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter from Moondog Labs, the FiLMiC Pro app and audio recorded with lavs and boom mics (more on all of this later).

The iPhone 7 series, Samsung Galaxy S8 and Huawei P9 are all devices which boast impressive cameras and can shoot high-quality video.

And you won’t be paying for much else when you get started. Just a professional app like FiLMiC Pro, to control things like focus and aperture, a stabilizer rig to prevent your shaky hands from ruining your shot. Oh, and some anamorphic lenses to get those wide-angle and bokeh blurry-effect shots when you need them.

Which is to say, you don’t need a Hollywood-sized budget to start making professional-grade movies on your phone. You don’t need any budget at all – handy if you really are an unemployed, skint film school grad).

Making a pro mobile film is totally worth trying out, especially since there are now plenty of ways to achieve global recognition as a smartphone director, with awards and competitions like the Toronto Smartphone Film Festival and Mobile Motion Film Festival, to name a couple. Or dream big. Cannes, baby.

Follow these tips from Three Blog mobile film guru Tom Reynolds, and smartphone cinema stardom awaits… In fact, maybe you’ll be strolling the Cannes red carpet with your internationally lauded movie this time next year? 

What you’ll need…

Before you start filming, invest in a few essentials.

FiLMiC Pro

“This great app is the first thing you should buy,” says Tom. “It gives you absolute control over your camera: lens, aperture, frame rate, focus point, the lot. If you’re going to be taking things seriously, then this is the first thing you need.” £7.99, available on iTunes and for £8.49 on Google Play:

Beastgrip Pro

This is a bracket/phone holder (technical term: rig) that stabilises your camera handling for a smooth shot and allows you to attach things like a small top light, microphone and most importantly, lenses. Tip: You can use use their DOF adapter to attach vintage lenses for that real Instagram-filter look. Some of those filters are based on it!

Sound Recorder

“You can have the most beautiful-looking shot in the world but if your sound is crap, then it really brings the film back down to amateur levels,” Tom explains. Plus, poor sound quality is more noticeable than you might initially think, and it can be very distracting. The MXL MM-4000 MINI MIXER is a great starting point as it can do four mics at once and mix between them.


Every filmmaker needs a tripod – it’s the first thing to buy after a camera. You can attach this onto pretty much anything and attach anything onto it.

Pocket Skater Pro

Essential for creating that iconic “dolly shot.”

This will help you capture that smooth motion (forwards, backwards and side-to-side) shot seen in many of the greatest films – it’s usually an expensive luxury for filmmakers.

How to get the shots you want…

When it comes to composition, there are three staple shots to bear in mind: the close-up, medium shot and the wide angle.

Often, you’ll use a close-up to express drama – during a character’s moment of discovering something, like shock or happiness.

Pro tip: to make a close-up more extreme, get more weight behind it. For example, if someone is about to be hit by a car, you’ll probably want to get really close, so the person’s face fills the entire frame. To achieve this, attach a long lens (as opposed to a wide one).

The medium shot is good for a normal scene where you want the audience to pay attention to two people having a conversation. You’ll need to master three-point lighting – the standard for an interview.

The easiest way to get this shot is to attach the 50mm. It’s the one with the most natural feel. This is most like the human eye when focused on something.

Use the wide-angle to introduce a scene. It gives the audience a sense of space for the scene and tells them where they are. Which can help you pay attention to the action.

For serious filmmakers looking to get wide-format shots and Hollywood-style distortions, an anamorphic adapter lens like the 1.33X Anamorphic Adapter – 37mm from Moondog Labs is a must-have piece of kit.

For that nice bokeh effect (you know, that gorgeous, blurry, out-of-focus look everyone is rocking in their photos these days) and depth of field behind your subject, attach a real lens to the Beastgrip Pro. You can also use the tripod to stabilise your shot.

When it comes to angles, something like the Pakpod tripod can help you nail anything you want because it hangs off of anything (it also goes underwater, can be rigged onto any kind of transportation and you can even rig it to yourself if you’re going for a free-fall bungee jump shot). You would use an extreme angle in an action sequence, for example.

If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on an iPhone 88 Plus or iPhone X then you’ll benefit from some of the best smartphone video available. Think faster frames, real-time video and motion analysis, combined with a wider range of colours and true tone technology, and you’re just getting close to understanding how high quality this really is.

Main image: Via Beastgrip