How to make a movie with your iPhone

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Through a partnership with Digital Storytellers, and with support from Bank Australia, we invited eight environmental organisations to attend a free 2-day workshop on how to make their own digital content with an iPhone. Participants brainstormed and distilled their story ideas, and gained skills to produce powerful content without the need for expensive equipment or a big budget.

In recent years we’ve seen that you don’t need complex equipment to make a powerful film. Kurdish journalist detained on Manus Island, Behrouz Boochani shot Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time on a smartphone. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's This Is Not A Film (2011) was shot partially on a low-definition camera phone. And Sean Baker shot the critically acclaimed Tangerine on an iPhone in 2015.

The ubiquity of modern technology and the power of the internet means you don’t necessarily need complex equipment to shoot a film that stands out.

Here are some basic tips to help you make a movie on your iPhone like a pro.

Before You Start 

Switch your phone onto Flight Mode and close any apps you have open. To turn off app notifications, switch on Do Not Disturb. Close any apps you have open. The reason for all of this is that filming is battery intensive.

Go into settings and see how much space you have available, and clear your phone as much as you can. As a general rule, 10 minutes of footage takes up about 1GB of space. Once you delete files off your phone, you again have to follow up in ‘Recently Deleted’. If you have the option of taking a portable storage drive or laptop, do so and upload as you go to hold as much space on your phone as possible.

Remember to take your phone charger with you. The last thing you want is your phone dying mid-interview.

You Are The Tripod

If you’re filming without a tripod, your comfort should be priority. You don’t want your arms or stance to droop if you’re filming someone speaking for five minutes – consider yourself a human tripod. Hold your phone with two hands, hold the camera just below your eye level, and bring your elbows in towards your body. This stance allows you to rest one arm if you need to. Finally, relax your body and don’t be stiff.

You should always make sure the lens is at the top of your grip, not the bottom.

The Basics

This seems obvious, but make sure your finger isn’t covering the microphone.

Never face into lighting.

Digital zoom is just expanding on the available image it has. Optical zoom gives you a physical zoom where it pops in and out. You can put lenses on but they’re usually giving you a wider shot.

If you want a close up, physically move closer to what you are filming. If you can’t get closer, you have to make that judgement between having a bad shot and a good one.

4K is 4 times the res of the normal footage we get on many phones. You can switch to 4K in your camera options, which increases the quality. You may have this available on your phone as a setting.

Filming Interviews

Complete a sound check.

Keep in mind that smartphones film best with natural light.

You always want the main source of light to be falling on the face of your subject. Choose daylight over indoor light any day. Light that falls on your head will never fall evenly on your face – it will usually leave you looking like a bit of a panda.

Light takes priority over background, always.

Daylight is blue light, synthetic light is yellowy light.

If you’re filming indoors, it’s tempting to play with artificial light. But if it’s available, natural light is always your best friend. Before you press record, experiment with a few lighting options. If your subject is standing right underneath the light source they will have shadows on their face. Have them step out from directly underneath the light, and this will even out the light casting on your subject’s face.

Always film at eye level, so that you are filming straight on. So much can be communicated through angles, so use this to empower your subject. Anything filmed lower than the subject will make the character seem dominating, and anything above the opposite, making the subject look smaller.

Match eye level no matter where you are. If you’re filming a child, you want to get on their level, if you’re filming someone lying down, you want to be looking straight at them.

It’s easy to get excited about finding the right background and get distracted from establishing the best lighting and sound conditions. Sound and lighting should always come before background.  

That said, the background is an intrinsic part of the story you’re telling – it contextualises your subject. You want to be able to get a sense of the story just from looking at the shot, with no sound. So if you’re filming a person in a workshop, you might want to film them in front of the class they’re teaching.

Never put someone in front of a wall. There’s nothing duller than a white wall or a blue wall. If you absolutely have to film in front of a wall, step at least two steps away from the wall so your subject doesn’t look ‘backed in’. The space behind your subject will create a depth of field.

Ask the subject to stand with their legs apart.

You’d like your interviewee and filmer to be shoulder to shoulder, so that the subject is looking just off to the side of the camera.

It’s important to frame people correctly. Leave just enough room for a halo above the head, and use the rule of thirds. That is, have your subject stand to the left or right hand side of the screen, and looking into empty space.

If you’re working on your own and you don’t have a tripod, you should centre the subject. Hold the camera below your eye line and peer over the top of the camera – this will make the speaker more