Sundance Favorite Tangerine is a Feature Film Shot on iPhones
July 2, 2015
A still from Tangerine. If not for the anamorphic lens adapter prototypes from Moondog Labs, Baker may not have shot exclusively on iPhones.
Tangerine actors Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Shooting on iPhones forced director Sean Baker to get close to his subjects, lending his film an intimacy that other social-realist films often lack.
“As a cinephile, I’d say that if I heard a film was shot on the iPhone, I probably wouldn’t rush out to see it,” says Sean Baker, who directed Tangerine, a feature-length film shot exclusively with a pair of iPhone 5s smartphones. Having made previous movies with film and pro HD video cameras, Baker warmed to the idea of using smartphones when it became clear that they would make it possible to produce the ensemble-cast movie on a meager $120,000 budget, as well as create a less-intimidating experience for the first-time actors who star in the film.
As the production got under way, Baker and his crew embraced the iPhone’s unconventional cinematographic characteristics to create a film whose punchy, distinctive look does a remarkably effective job of conveying its frenetic energy, melancholy undercurrent, and mixture of humor and anxiety.
Set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, Tangerine tells the tale of Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker who hears a rumor that her boyfriend/pimp was two-timing her during her recent stint in the clink. She sets out in hot pursuit of her rival, intermittently in the company of her friend Alexandra and her cab-driver client, Razmik. Shot in the bright winter daylight and neon-tinged nights of Hollywood, the fast-paced film follows its characters through the city streets and into cars, bars and kitchens before circling back to Donut Time, the mom-and-pop venue where the story begins.
One of the key factors in Baker’s decision to use iPhones was the availability of anamorphic lens adapter prototypes from Moondog Labs. The adapters, now available for purchase, made it possible for Baker to stretch the iPhone video aspect ratio out to Super 35 format. “It was really their footage that I saw that totally sold me,” says Baker. “I probably would not have shot the film if it wasn’t for a couple of these tools that allowed me to elevate it to a cinematic level. It was really the combination of using the Moondog adapter and an app called FiLMiC Pro.” The app allowed Baker and his co-cinematographer, Radium Cheung, to lock the frame rate at 24 frames per second, control exposure and focus settings, and capture footage at a higher-quality compression rate than the iPhone’s native camera supports.
Baker and Cheung also used Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee to reduce camera shake, as well as tripods for the few locked-down shots in the movie. To create his own swirling version of the dolly shot, Baker got on his ten-speed and put his skills as a former New York City bike messenger to work. “I was able to get 360-degree shots,” he explains. “I was able to control the speed just by controlling my bike.” They also used an 18-foot painter’s pole for a bird’s eye view in a couple scenes, and Cheung augmented available light with small light panels and bounce cards for fill. Otherwise, the crew stayed away from the bulky rigs typically found on a professional film shoot, with the exception of the sound engineer’s standard rig.
Using such minimal gear allowed Baker to work with a small crew and shoot in real-world locations that would otherwise have been expensive and onerous to close off for a film shoot. “We wanted to use the iPhone to its full potential, and part of that was shooting in a way that was clandestine and small and not making a big footprint,” says Baker. The passersby, store clerks, and customers in the film are all real people going about their business, not hired extras. “I think that for the most part, people probably thought that we were just playing around on our phones,” says Baker. He got signed releases from anyone who stepped into the frame: “We had to have a couple PAs chasing everybody down,” he notes.
Baker and Cheung shot each scene with one or two iPhones, depending on the number of actors and the setting. Although they initially purchased three iPhones for the project, they sidelined one because the images it produced were slightly noisier than those from the other two devices. The lack of professional image calibration options to make images from different devices consistent was one of the few technical drawbacks Baker encountered. “We thought that we were going to be filling up our phones nonstop and would need a media manager on set to be downloading constantly,” says Baker. But they ended up being able to shoot all day without filling up their 64GB iPhones, and anticipated technical problems, like overheating, never arose.
Editing the footage also turned out to be a surprisingly smooth process. “It was extremely easy,” says Baker. “I was expecting headaches upon headaches, because this was the first time anybody was trying to edit an entire feature film with iPhone footage, but I didn’t have any hiccups.” He and his editing and effects specialists used Final Cut Pro 7 and CineLook filters to edit and color-grade the video, which was first converted from FiLMiC Pro’s H.264 format to Apple ProRes files. To enhance the distinctive look of the movie, the editors boosted the color saturation and added celluloid grain effects, which masked any native video noise and worked with the 24-fps frame rate to give the movie a consistent, film-like esthetic.
The saturated look of the film is just one of its stylistic departures from the realist tradition that its storyline belongs to. “The normal path is to desaturate everything,” Baker explains. “For some reason, we consumers of media associate desaturation with reality.” He started out with the intention of following that convention, but changed his mind when he first saw the footage. “We were already trying something very different on many levels, with the subject matter and the way we were shooting, and I thought, Why not try something different in the postproduction as well?”
The iPhone’s lens characteristics also broke from convention. “Another stylistic tool of the social realist film is to use telephoto lenses, like you’re always observing from afar,” says Baker. “It’s almost like a National Geographic sort of thing.” Shooting with the wide iPhone lens and anamorphic adapter instead draws viewers close to the action of the scene. “It really feels like we’re in with these girls, we’re living these moments with them, we’re intimate, and we’re participating in the chaos of their lives,” says Baker. “We’re not just observing the chaos of their lives, which I think in the end becomes a more respectful and responsible way of shooting things like this.”
The iPhone’s extensive depth of field also breaks from the current popularity of shallow focus and works by combining the intimacy of extreme close-ups with the context provided by sharp background elements. “When you shoot on one of these lenses on the iPhone, you’ll see everything, from an inch from the lens all the way to infinity,” Baker explains. “Everything is in focus, and I think that’s actually pretty cool. It plays against all the other films that are out there right now.”
Tangerine offers a powerful rebuttal to anyone who thinks that shooting with a high-quality smartphone camera (and a few essential accouterments) means falling short of professional standards. “I think that once people see this,” says Baker, “they will see that we produced images that are very different from film but just as striking in many ways. And I hope that people give it a chance.”