A lot of people have asked me why I made a movie on an iPhone. The simple answer is because it hadn’t been done before, and I wanted to be the first.
I don’t think I was thinking clearly when I chose this story for this device. I had no idea what I was getting us into. But it turns out the device and story are fabulously matched. It makes absolute sense–soldiers get recording devices. They record nowadays. But the scope of a military project, both in geography, the need to be accurate, and the fact that you’re trying to make a story about life and death, something that real people go through – we were hardly qualified.
Before I could commit, I had to find help. I was leaving for a summer graduate school program, so my best friend and writer, Kendall Lynch, ended up writing the script. She worked with former Marine, James Ratledge, to write an intimate and exciting story about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, one of whom receives an iPhone4 from his wife in a care package. By the time I got back from school, the script was in shape and we were ready to go into pre-production. My husband, James, quit his job to produce the film full-time, and as a result, we had time to forge a lot of good relationships and put together a hardworking and talented team. Terry McDowell came on as our military advisor and whipped our cast into military-ready shape.
We were rolling ‘phone’ by the first week in October, 2010, and I was delighted with the results.
The actors were truly the directors of photography. After almost every take, we’d all gather around the iPhone4 and watch the footage we’d just shot. The actors would get new ideas and tweak their performance or camera operating based on these sessions. It was truly a collaborative effort and one of the things I enjoyed most during filming.
One of the most exciting effects of shooting a film on an iPhone was that we were able to get away with filming in Wal-Mart, because, hey, all we had was a phone! We had zero permission. We looked like just a couple of gals in Wal-Mart with our cell phones. At one point I pushed a buggy around to try to fit in, but I ended up ditching it somewhere in the frozen foods section.
During production, we were frustrated to find out that the iPhone4 didn’t have an app for green screen video, so unfortunately we had to cut out some of the beautiful surrealistic scenes Kendall had written. We tried to save them by doing some old-school reverse projection, but it wasn’t happening. Onwards.
The scenes on the observational post at night were lit with…you guessed it, the light on the iPhone4. We hung propane lanterns in the hooch. We let the iPhone try to figure out the color temperature, the grain– we wanted to keep to the true nature of the device – see what it could do and what it couldn’t. We wanted to use what Doss would have access to, nothing more.
Zero sound equipment.
We used the ‘on board’ microphone of the iPhone4. It actually turned out great because it distorted some sounds we didn’t want that were going on in the background, so it was a big help. The only issues we had were when someone talked low, it was hard to pick up. We had to shoot those scenes several times, and there is still one or two that I think have issues.
There was no "post." The audio problems could not be addressed in post, since as of this writing, there is no audio editing ability on the iPhone4. We just had to watch and listen to each take to make sure we got it. Since there are no audio-editing capabilities, we also had to do live Foley. We could not avoid having to shoot off a live firearm to get a gun sound, and we had to time it right so the actors responded. There is one song in the whole film, and we used another iPhone4 to download it and play it back next to the iPhone4 that was shooting the picture. It sounds like it’s coming out of a radio or CD player or something. The other time we had to use sound effects was for an explosion. We played back an IED explosion sound we had found online, covered the iPhone4 in something dark and shook it around while the noise was going on. Then we cut that in. Easy Peasey.
It was difficult to edit at first because the touch screen is pretty sensitive, and fingers are fat. We didn’t edit it on Final Cut Pro because I like doing new things, creating rigid rules and then sticking to them no matter what. We’re not ‘shooting in the dark’ anymore with our mind’s eye and waiting anxiously for the film stock to develop. We can instantly see everything we do. As digital filmmakers, we have complete control all the time. Shooting on the iPhone4 was an attempt to keep things fresh and exciting, and it definitely did just that.
The toughest part of making any film a success is finding distribution – meaning, finding people who want to buy your film. We had a few meetings with distributors, but I think the overall reaction was "we don’t know how to market a phone film." Understandable. Neither do I. We decided to do a DIY approach, and we have the film available on our website, www.littlegodsfilm.com. As of the time of this writing, the film is available for streaming online on a "pay what you wish" model. You can also download the film and keep it for a small fee.
I do think smart phones and mobile devices will play a huge part in independent filmmaking in the future. I will definitely work with the technology again, but hopefully in one of its future incarnations. We hope people will watch Little Gods, and look out for "traditionally shot and edited" The People You Know, hitting festivals in 2012!
Elizabeth Spear is a Texas-born filmmaker, with a B.A. degree in English Literature and Studio Art from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She is working toward her phD in Communication at European Graduate School. In 2010, she completed two films, including the first feature film ever shot and edited on the iPhone4, LiTTLE GODS, and The People You Know. She also produced and edited the documentary film Champ: The Steve Mitchell Story, which so far has been selected by the Dallas Video Festival, and award winning Forward/Backward with filmmaker Kendall Lynch, a feature narrative currently on the film festival circuit. Both films feature heroes with traumatic brain injuries; her approach to disabilities as a subject matter is from the outside in, focusing more on society’s response to its members on the fringe than on the subject’s experience of the disability. Her background in experimental video has been the impetus for her non-traditional method of story-telling.