The days of lugging vast amounts of equipment around when you're making a film is fast coming to an end, especially in the world of low budget filmmaking. It used to be pretty difficult to put together a film crew and the funding to get the equipment you need, but with the advances in smartphone technology - and how affordable the technology is - it's never been easier to release your inner Spielberg on the world.
For every film snob that dislikes digital technology in film, there is somebody who has embraced it and bucked the trend. The horror genre has leant itself perfectly to the digital age, with found-camera footage movies like The Blair Witch Project in 1999 all the way through to the Paranormal Activity franchise showing that movies made on the cheap can be effective and successful on a grand scale.
Apple now has an iPhone short film festival, created especially for iPhone users who are creative and want to make short films. There are also countless other websites and festivals that have embraced smartphone moviemaking - or VSS (very small screen) filmmaking, to use another term.
Of course, there are limitations. Unless you're making a low budget spoof of a big budget movie for you and your buddies to giggle at, there's not much point trying to create an Avatar style epic on a smartphone. Short, simple stories are the way forward. After all, it's the characters and the story that draws you in and keeps you interested, not special effects (unless you're watching something like Transformers, which has no character or story - ooh controversial!).
Getting Your Story Straight
Whether you're making a two minute short on a Samsung Galaxy or a two hour historical epic with a multi-million dollar budget, the story is everything. Remember that feeling of walking out of a movie theatre after watching a bad film and you've forgotten it before you've got to the car park? You don't want people feeling that way about yours, so put maximum effort in at the beginning, middle and end of the process. It'll rub off on your crew, your audience and could be the start of something.
Some of the best films - short or feature length - have come from simple concepts. It's what you do with that concept and where you take it in terms of the story that really matters. When you are making a low budget film on a smartphone, you will be well aware that you won't have the same sound and image quality as a larger budget film has. So keep your dialogue sparse and concentrate on creating a short, pacy and interesting narrative.
So the time has come to put your (lack of) money where your mouth is and start shooting your mobile phone movie. This is where a little knowledge of resolution is really handy. YouTube handles 320 x 240 pixels, but your average HDTV is 1280 x 720, sometimes even more. So you see the problem you have right away. The better the phone, the better the resolution, although the higher resolutions will eat up the time that you can film for, and kill your battery pretty quick. The best way to deal with this is to be prepared and have a spare battery for your phone on stand-by. Then you can concentrate on getting as high a resolution picture as you can for you movie.
A number of phones can get pretty high on the resolution scale, and if you capture the right amount of sunlight (or have lighting available for your shoot), you can get some really high quality images for your film.
The phone you use to shoot the film should also have brightness, colour and other manual options to play around with, so make the most of these options to get the very best picture you can. Just leaving it to the auto option is fine, but if you think you can help set the mood of your film with some manual adjustments: Go for it! It could pay off when it comes to the editing process.
Smartphones are pretty expensive too, so you have to be careful with them. If you're filming something with an action sequence, or your shooting near water, damage to your phone is a possibility. It might be a good idea to get mobile phone insurance as a back-up, or have a spare phone on stand-by, just in case. Fingers crossed you won't need either!
Capturing the Sound
Some filmmakers like to record the sound in post-production, with the actors dialogue re-recorded after the filming has ended and the editing process has begun. If you have the budget to that this, that's great, although dubbing should only be attempted by guys who know what they're doing, or your film could end up looking like a poorly dubbed foreign film from the 70's.
You can use the built-in microphone on your phone for sound, but it is important that it is on the same side as the lens. This is so it can best capture the sound and dialogue from the actors, rather than facing the person holding the camera and capturing more of what they are doing. It could end up a muffled mess, and damage the quality of your film. Sound is always difficult to get right, even in big budget films, so getting it right in such a low budget film would do your reputation as a low budget filmmaker the world of good.
Thanks for the Memory
The higher the quality of the images and the recording rate in FPS (feet per second), the more memory the camera phone will use, and that can cause huge problems for your film. The key is to be like a good boy scout and be prepared, and by that, we mean have a mobile phone SD card or some kind of extra memory on hand. You will definitely need it if you care about the quality of your images and the film as a whole. Don't cut back on quality; just have plenty of extra memory.
Finally, when you have a finished film and are ready to show it around, remember to do your research into finding the best ways to put it out into the world. YouTube and Vimeo are always good for finding an audience, but competitions and festivals are a great idea too. Reach out to as many people as you can, because you never know who might be watching.
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