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How your smartphone is changing cinema

Smartphone technologies are increasingly playing a major part in film production, distribution and reception. This month sees the launch of what is being billed as the “world’s first selfie movie”. And next a series is to air on Instagram. Last year, Tangerine became the first film shot on an iPhone to feature at the Sundance film festival.

The first known film shot entirely on an iPhone was Night Fishing (2011). The director attached a 35mm lens to the iPhone’s camera in order to achieve a cinematic look. Night Fishing draws on the framing and grammar of traditional film, eschewing the characteristics traditionally associated with portable recording such as unstable imagery, shaky camera moves, distorted audio, and sickness-invoking motion.

The iPhone mounted onset of Night Fishing, 2011. Image courtesy of Moho Film

More recently, Tangerine presented a blend of traditional codes and conventions associated with cinematic storytelling (such as cross-cutting and using an anamorphic adapter to achieve a wide screen) with newer mobile-specific features (such as continual takes, long tracking shots, and hand-held fluid camera work). The result is an absorbing on-screen intimacy with the characters, and a unique screen aesthetic – a hybrid of old and new methods of cinematic storytelling.

New modes of viewing

Rage (2009) was the first feature film to be designed for mobile phone viewing, and one which embedded the mobile phone symbiotically into the processes of production, distribution and consumption. Although the film itself was shot using a conventional video camera held by the director, it clearly considers the mobile phone in its creation: each of the protagonists addresses a fictional camera operator who is filming each of their private exchanges using his mobile phone. Rage was distributed simultaneously as a theatrical release and as a downloadable film via Babelgum (for free) to be watched on a mobile phone.

The Silver Goat premiere, 2012. © Sam Pearce

The launch of the iPad in April 2010 opened up further possibilities for cinematic-style storytelling. The Silver Goat (2012) was the first feature film to be created exclusively for the iPad, the first to be released as an app in the UK and several other countries, and the first in the world to have an iPad-only premiere. This took place on a London Route Master bus which traversed many of the film’s locations throughout the city while the audience members watched the film on their individual iPads.

APP, 2013. © Raymond van der Bas

Then there’s the film APP (2013), for which audiences were required to download the accompanying app – Iris - prior to entering the cinema and then encouraged to interact with it in the auditorium. A horror film in which an app takes over the main protagonists (and the audiences phones) – alludes to the consequences of our new reliance on smartphone devices and its subversion of our privacy.

APP exemplifies how new mobile cinema forms – through choice of story, subject matter and style – can explore the impact of computer mediated communications on our everyday life. This is also a recent topic of documentary cinema in Werner Herzog’s soon to be released Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.

New ways of filmmaking

The consequences of mobile technologies on our everyday lives is most explicitly explored in the newly released #Starvecrow, the “world’s first selfie movie”. The film is a blend of improvised footage, shot entirely on the actors mobile devices, with characters turning their cameras on themselves and each other. Blurring reality with fiction, the improvised material is cut with found footage from the actors’ own mobile phone film libraries and personal home video archives culminating in over 70 hours of footage.

This material was then mined and assembled, and further semi-scripted scenes were shot to create multi-streamed narratives in an 85-minute feature film. This style, coupled with the challenging themes of the film, makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience, and is an unapologetic social comment on the darker side of the mass-uptake of new technologies – the pervasiveness of self documentation, self-surveillance, narcissism and social voyeurism.

Today, the ubiquity of the smartphone means that a generation’s behaviour is being recorded and made publicly available on social media for future audiences. Through these social media channels - lives are now characterised, shaped, and sometimes ruined by naive behaviour and past misdemeanours - the implications of which we, as a society, are yet to fully comprehend.

As with all emergent media forms, the content and themes reflect and exemplify the tools of their making - ultimately creating new ways of storytelling, new modes of production and new types of audience engagement. As such, these pioneering and visionary examples of smartphone films will undoubtedly take their place as significant innovations in the history of cinema.

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