Smartphone feature film production rises and rises

As the funding environment gets worse, smartphone filmmakers get organised and grow their aesthetic.
Olapido O'Fresh shooting Number One

With government funding for Australian features primarily through the offset, which now excludes films costing under $1 million, independent filmmakers are increasingly finding it hard to make feature films. But is there an option to this model that sits in most filmmakers pockets? 

Angela Blake from the Sydney based SF3 smartphone film festival thinks there is. 

‘SF3 has been going for 7 years now and right from the start we saw a few feature films being made each year on mobile phones. The numbers kept steadily growing and to honour these filmmakers we introduced the SF3 Best Feature Film Award in 2019. In our first two years we got 11 entries each year then this year we had 18!’ 

Filmmakers are discovering that the smartphone is a hugely versatile tool with its own disciplines and aesthetic possibilities, but low budget creators rarely reach the mainstream. Instead, they turn to self distribution through aggregation to SVOD’s or Vimeo On Demand. 

Read: One Punch – smartphones, improvisation, tiny crews and night crowds

Ten conferences old

Melbourne academic Dr. Max Schelser of Swinburne University runs the Mobile Innovation Network Association (MINA) which held its tenth conference in Melbourne and online, featuring presentations from mobile filmmakers and academics worldwide. Schelser’s book, Smartphone Filmmaking: theory and practice, is published today by UK company Bloomsbury Press.

He chaired a panel of Film Festival Organizers including Angela Blake from SF3, Robert Fitzhugh of the Dublin Smartphone Film Festival and Michael Osheku of the African Smartphone International Film Festival. 

Some emerging trends in feature film production on smartphones became apparent. Until recently, smartphone film festivals had been primarily for short content, but many are now including screenings of features and competitive categories, with Angela Blake noting;

‘Feature filmmaking used to be for the very few. Now with smartphones, and especially the new generation of smartphones, feature filmmaking is more affordable and accessible than ever. It’s really opened the doors of possibility to indie filmmakers the world over, many of whom have strong feature film screenplays but no way to make them, and these films are trailblazing and really breaking new ground.’

Blake went on to comment on the emergence of Australian smartphone features, with the latest iteration of SF3 featuring not one but two Cinema screenings of Australian smartphone feature film. 

‘When people think of smartphone feature films they only think of Sean Baker’s Tangerine or one of Steven Soderbergh’s films and the conversation stops there. But a whole world of smartphone feature films exist and we need to start talking about these. Right here in Australia we currently have features playing in SF3 this season and both of which everyone needs to see. Across the pond, Blue Moon by Stef Harris, took the world by storm two years ago. These films are changing the landscape of cinema and opening the entry doors to new Australian voices in cinema.’

But how did we get here? Schleser was there from the beginning. 

Instant heritage

‘We saw the first wave of mobile feature films appearing between 2005 and 2010. In France Jean-Charles Fitoussi produced Nocturnes pour le Roi de Rome (Nocturne for King of Rome) in 2005. Their contributions to screen storytelling were realised at the first feature film screenings, such as FILMOBILE in London or Pocket Film Festival in Paris and their mobile specific qualities still resonate in contemporary smartphone feature films.’

Titles included Nausea, Max with a Keitai, Sotchi 255, Journal à deux mains, La Ligne brune, Le Monde vu par mes jouets and Max with a Keitai, all featured in his book. Schleser also goes on to name many of the groundbreaking smartphone films made since those early days. 

Below is a comprehensive list of the most influential smartphone feature films made to date, who made them and where you can (or can’t) catch them.  

SMS Sugar Man, 2008 (1hr 21 minutes)

Generally considered the first smartphone feature film, this darkly raw film about a pimp travelling on business through Johannesburg at night was shot on a Sony Ericson W900i by Aryan Kaganoff. Its 3G aesthetic has a beauty to it that’s hard to describe.

Olive, 2011 (1hr 28 minutes)

A seemingly failed adventure in trying to make a commercial feature with smartphones, Olive was announced to much fanfare in 2011. And subsequently sank into oblivion. The story of a young girl who doesn’t speak, having influence over the lives of three people, was headlined by Gina Rowlands, and used cinema lenses taped to a Nokia N8 smartphone. Producer/Director Homman Khalili raised a $500,000 USD budget and plenty of trades from the era mention its Oscar aspirations, but the film has ultimately fallen into obscurity. You can see the first 5 minutes on the official site.

I Play with the Phrase of Each Other, 2012 (1hr 50 minutes)

Using the device of cell phone conversations shot with cell phones, Jay Alvarez shot the film with iPhone 4’s and married smartphone photography with the narrative style of Mumblecore into a clever and engaging feature. The film screened at Slamdance in 2014 and follows the lives of four twenty somethings as they navigate relationships and their early careers. You can catch it in its entirety on Alvarez’s YouTube page

And Uneasy Lies the Mind, 2014 (1hr 30 minutes)

Ricky Fosheim directed and shot this horror/thriller using the iPhone 5 and attaching cinema lenses using a turtleback adapter. The image looks akin to 16mm film and has a rough edge to it from the vignetting of the lenses that works for the story. The film screened at SXSW in 2014.

Tangerine, 2015 (1hr 28 minutes)

This is the smartphone feature most people come to first. After it’s successful screening at Sundance, Tangerine ran through most major festivals, earning a swag of awards for the cinematography, performances and non-stop storytelling. Following transexual prostitutes on the streets of LA as they seek love and validation, Sean Baker’s film brought a first taste of legitimacy to smartphone filmmaking and uses the small phones and anamorphic lens adapters to enhance the gritty story. Tangerine is available on YouTube on demand.

9 Rides, 2016 (1hr 23 minutes)

Matthew A. Cherry’s film follows an Uber Driver on New Year’s Eve, as he navigates his customers’ personalities amidst a personal revelation. Shot on an iPhone 6s, the film screened at SXSW and used the location of one car over the course of a night to tell a complex and dramatic story. Cherry has since seen his career grow, including winning an Oscar for his animated short, Hair Love, in 2019. You can catch 9 Rides through Amazon Prime.

High Fantasy, 2017 (1hr 11 minutes)

Taking the body swap genre to new heights, director Jenna Bass follows her protagonists on a camping trip that forces them to examine their friendships through a new lens. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and uses the reflexive style of the first person camera to tell the story. High Fantasy is available on Vimeo on demand.

Unsane, 201. (1hr 38 minutes)

Steven Soderbergh memorably bends the mind with this paranoiac thriller about a woman harassed by a stalker. The lead is played by Claire Foy (The Crown) and the film was shot on an iPhone 7+ but with significant crew and prime lenses. Unsane gained a cinema release in the USA and has done well on the SVOD platforms, and Soderbergh showed appreciation for the format, using smartphones to shoot his 2019 drama High Flying Bird. Unsane is available on most SVOD platforms and High Flying Bird is on Netflix. 

Blue Moon, 2018 (1hr 25 minutes)

New Zealand filmmaker Stef Harris used the iPhone 7+ top film his taut thriller set in small town New Zealand. What starts as a mundane night for service station manager Horace devolves into a game of cat and mouse when a figure from his past arrives with an agenda. The film won numerous smartphone festival awards and premiered at the 2018 New Zealand Film Festival. Blue Moon is available through Vimeo on Demand

Ghost, 2020 (1hr 25 minutes)

British filmmaker Anthony Z James’ debut feature uses the iPhone 8 to transport the audience to London and tells the story of a recently released prisoner reconnecting with his son. The film has a lyrical feel that follows the cast around the backstreets of London and evolves through a series of conversations to a tense finale. The film has been distributed online through Vimeo on demand

Charon, 2021 (1hr 23 minutes) 

Jennifer Zhang used her time during the global pandemic to produce her feature film Charon about a hacker held under house arrest who faces increasingly bizarre requests from her boyfriend. Zhang pretty much did everything on the film, shooting and editing on an iPhone 8+. The film received distribution and won best feature at the International Mobil Film Festival in 2021. 

Twice x 2, 2021 (1hr 26 minutes)

Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manukov set out to shoot a commercial looking film with smartphones, and the resulting film about two couples falling out looks well produced and professionally lit.  The film was shot with a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and was distributed into Russian Cinemas in early 2021. 

No 1, 2021 (1hr 43 minutes)

African filmmaker Oladipo O’Fresh’s film tells the story of a young man led into a life of crime. Set in Nigeria, the film uses tons of natural light and real locations to explore contemporary issues for African youth.

Darcy Yuille made the smartphone feature One Punch, which emerged from his love of cinematography and an MA in Directing from AFTRS. He is a teacher who aims to democratize filmmaking through new technology and old school smarts.