Making films with your smartphone

June 28, 2021 08:46
Modern smartphone cameras such as those by Apple and Nokia are now starting to approach the capabilities of their full sized sensor brothers like DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.  Photo: Apple/Reuters

Most people have this idea that making films is an expensive proposition, especially when they hear that Hollywood blockbuster film budgets can sometimes top US$100M. But in the last few years, filmmakers like Sean Baker and Steven Soderbergh (of Oceans Eleven
fame) have made films with smartphones. Soderbergh even had a film on Netflix called High Flying Bird that was filmed mostly with an older iPhone 8.

Modern smartphone cameras such as those by Apple and Nokia are now starting to approach the capabilities of their full sized sensor brothers like DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Recently, the German camera firm Leica announced its own smartphone that sports a large 1 inch image sensor, almost at par with current ones used in professional cameras. A bigger image sensor allows more light in, which also allows smartphones to achieve something called Bokeh, a Japanese term meaning that the subject being photographed is in focus, but the background is not.

Granted that for certain demanding applications the professional cameras made by specialist cinema camera firms like Arri, Red, Sony are still needed. But for many applications (e.g. adequate lighting, no large dark light contrasts) these new smartphones are able to do the job.

Current flagship smartphone models now have precision optics from Leica, Zeiss, and Hasselblad to minimize optical distortions, have both mechanical and electronic image stabilization and zoom, computational photography to take multiple images and remove the noise, real time color correction of a 10 bit color image (e.g. Dolby Vision HDR), 4K/8K resolution, and other capabilities. External attachments like anamorphic lenses allow for that cinematic look, coupled with filters and look up tables that give the image a desired aesthetic.

Future image sensors from Sony, etc will even have lenses on each pixel. Aperture might eventually be adjustable, not just shutter speed, for future smartphones, to help with the Bokeh effect.

One of the more interesting capabilities is that of LIDAR, which is basically the use of a weak laser to get the range between the subject and the camera. This comes in handy if a person is wearing a red sweater and seated on a similarly colored red sofa (red on red). A regular optical camera and viewer would have to guess where the red sweater ends and the sofa begins. But with LIDAR, the new smartphone cameras can sense where the person’s torso ends and the sofa fabric begins.

So you have a situation during this COVID-19 pandemic where millions of people have these powerful smartphone cameras. But for filmmakers for example, there are things they might want to do that they cannot at this time.

For example, what if a Director cannot physically be in the same room (or place) as the Actor. Is filmmaking already impossible? Obviously not but it is not a perfect situation by any means.

Some companies now make software that allows a Director to take control of a remotely located actor’s smartphone camera and adjust focus and exposure and view the video in real time. In the future, a robotic tripod could allow the remote Director to control also the pan and tilt of the smartphone camera. This can easily be developed anywhere.

With cheap green screens, many people are now able to make videos with different backgrounds by replacing the green background with another image. Also, 5G technology allows actors outside to still send back real time high resolution videos to a Director. who is located elsewhere and not physically on the set.

While it is true that filmmaking can be an expensive proposition, developments in mobile phone technology have made it affordable for anyone with a smartphone to make their own films. At some point, the technology will become so good that only experts can tell what type of camera was used to make the film.

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Philippines based author, columnist and playwright