Is the iPhone Good or Bad for Filmmaking?

September 6, 2016
Gear News and Ideas
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A few weeks ago, Malcolm Gladwell stopped by The Bill Simmons Podcast and, at one point during their conversation, he brought up the idea of precipitous decline. Using Folger's coffee as an example, Gladwell essentially remarked that people don't notice massive declines in a product's quality if that decline happens slowly and incrementally over time. Has this happened in filmmaking? Everyone has access to video technology, and the media landscape is flooded with amateur video in a way that we've never seen before. 

If we are seeing a decline in our own video standards, then the iPhone is the ultimate culprit. The iPhone began the smartphone revolution that has, since the 3Gs, given everyone and their grandparents the ability to record, edit, and broadcast their own video content all from something that fits in their pocket. It has, though, also changed the indie film scene in some interesting ways. Is the iPhone good or bad for filmmaking? With the official announcement of the iPhone 7 just a few days away, let’s discuss.

The Good: Versatility

The iPhone doesn't come out of the box as a very good filmmaking device, but that hasn't stopped app and peripheral developers from attempting to make it one. Out-of-the-box thinking is what defines success in the mobile market, and some of the filmmaking creations for the iPhone have been unlike anything we've seen in the market before. Additionally, there are ton of great iPhone apps that make filmmaking easier for when you're shooting with another camera.  This kind of creative energy can only be good for filmmakers.


The Bad: The Real Cost

While the smartphones seems like a low-cost option for filmmakers on a budget, the price of adding everything needed to turn your smartphone into a quality video camera adds up quickly. You're gonna need extra battery life, some sort of stabilizer, extra lenses, video improvement apps, an audio solution and, in the iPhone's case, prohibitively expensive memory. Added peripherals and app power alone can easily set you back $500, and that's before you add in the cost of the phone. Are you sure you wouldn't be better off spending that money on a DJI OSMO, a Lumix G7,  or a Blackmagic Pocket?


The Good: Creativity

How can adding another avenue for filmmaker success be anything but good? 8mm and16mm film revolutionized early independent cinema. The prevalence of camcorders revolutionized the possibilities of found footage horror. What if a smartphone revolution in film style is just around the corner? What if "Tangerine" is just the beginning? I mean, a Swiss TV station has replaced a traditional studio with iPhones and selfie sticks. Maybe the revolution is already upon us.


The Bad: The Slippery Slope

It's one thing to talk about the iPhone compared to other home video options, but it's another to talk about it as a tool for professional filmmakers. If iPhone footage is becoming more and more acceptable as a filmmaking norm, will clients begin approaching filmmakers with lower budgets and iPhone demands? Even if filmmakers don't forget what truly beautiful footage looks like, what if audiences and the folks with the money do? The democratization of video content might allow anyone to become a filmmaker, but might not actually be lowering the barrier to entry. Terry Green, writing for Filmmaker Magazine, puts this anxiety nicely.

"Today, a hand-held digital camera and home editing system is all you need to make a film and to call yourself a director... On one hand, it’s made filmmaking possible for those who otherwise would never have the opportunity. On the other, it’s watered down the landscape and made it harder to recognize filmmaking talent."

The Good: Finding the Next Great

For those of us shooting on cinema cameras of one kind or another, maybe it's too late to become inspired by the iPhone. The next generation of young filmmakers, though, will grow up with smartphones in their pockets. What if it inspires them? What if the next JJ Abrams or Steven Spielberg is out there right now honing their craft on an iPhone 6?

The iPhone is also a great tool for budding photographers. With very few extra purchases and a tiny learning curve, the iPhone can provide great early lessons on compositionediting, and lighting. For those inspired enough to go down the rabbit hole, the iPhone can even deliver some pretty astounding images on its own. Having your phone with you at all times also teaches that, with image capturing, you're never going to want to miss a moment.


The Bad: Bad Habits

I've heard photographers talk about teaching photography students using entirely manual film cameras. The idea is that, with limitations, we become better at our craft. If you're reading this, you've probably owned or operated a camera that really tested your skills and forced you to be a better filmmaker. Maybe you've hacked into your DSLR to get a flatter image or you've developed a raw workflow that maximizes your image potential or just simply worked with a camera that was above your skill set and rose to the occasion. You probably remember the first camera that led you to the cameras you're working on now.

Does the iPhone lead young filmmakers (and photographers) in the right direction, or create a generation of bad habits? You don't need to learn about lenses or lighting or audio or editing to set your creation loose upon the world. All you have to do is hit the record button and share for instant gratification. These habits could become distressing to filmmakers faced with the slower-moving, production-oriented film industry. Does the iPhone even meet the basic requirements to be entry-level anything?


The Future?

Is the iPhone liberating filmmakers with the expressive power of new technology or is it a dangerous gimmick that is creating a new industry of bad habits and lowered expectations? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Right now, it seems like the iPhone's best days as a filmmaking tool are ahead of it, so all we can do is wait until the iPhone 7 is announced for a glimpse of what those days might look like. Right now, we know that Apple acquired the innovative camera company Linx in 2015, and rumors suggest that they might be implementing some of Linx's creations into the iPhone 7. This could mean a lot of things, since Linx's developments as of 2014 include dual system cameras that produce DSLR-level images, multi-aperture cameras, refocusing technologies, improved low-light performance, and 3D object modeling. If Apple adds any crazy new technologies or even improves on what it already has working, the iPhone 7 is going to be tempting to amateurs and professionals alike.

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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