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Films shot on smartphones herald new age for cinema, say directors

·3 min read

Smartphone films are no longer just a fun experiment: they are the next step towards a new age of cinema, already attracting top performers and influential directors, believe the two award-winning film-makers behind Smart, next month’s first London International Smartphone Film Festival.

“Anyone can now make an amazing film,” said producer Adam Gee, who has set up the festival with director Victoria Mapplebeck. “All you need is the vision and the talent. It is not a question any more of being able to afford the right equipment or securing a big distribution deal.”

Sequences using shaky phone images have been a fashionable element of mainstream documentaries and dramas since the arrival of handheld digital devices, but advances in technology mean a phone can now also give high-quality cinematic images. In 2019, Gee and Mapplebeck won a Bafta together, the first to beat conventionally shot films with bigger budgets, with their short film Missed Call.

Steven Soderbergh.
Steven Soderbergh. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

Since then increasing demand for more diverse films and the pandemic lockdown have resulted in a boom in smartphone feature making.

Leading directors including Steven Soderbergh and Paolo Sorrentino have been drawn to the form, while A-list actors such as Kristen Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen have appeared in films made with phones.

McKellen has a cameo in the sci-fi Infinitum: Unknown Subject, as does Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill, while Stewart had a central role in one of the lockdown films in the popular Netflix Homemade season of short films made by well-known directors, including Sorrentino.

The production company Shine is also a pioneer in the field, bringing out the recent series for ITV, A Very British Lockdown: Diaries from the Frontline.

“I’ve been a self-shooting director for 25 years – my camera has gone from needing a bag the size of a small suitcase to fitting in my back pocket,” said Mapplebeck, who directed Missed Call and shoots with her smartphone every day, including recording her second Covid-19 vaccination. “I love how it’s transformed my approach to film-making. It works in intimate settings, exploits grey areas of informality and allows for more dynamic and innovative shooting to bring out hidden and personal stories.”

The festival is open for entries until the end of this month and will run online for its inaugural year 21-25 June. Gee and Mapplebeck intend to show that film-making is open to anyone “regardless of their background or means”.

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“We set up the festival around smartphone films because it enables greater access and diversity, as well as innovation,” Gee told the Observer. “Our competition categories cover all the genres, both scripted and unscripted. And there are no implications now about quality. You can have brilliant pictures and brilliant audio, and there are even new apps that give you more control, allowing for remote direction.”

Soderbergh shot his 2019 basketball drama High Flying Bird on an iPhone 8 with a few modifications. He used much of the video footage exactly as he had shot it, whereas in his previous film, Unsane, he had used a special effect plug-in afterwards to recreate the look of old film stock. The American director is reportedly such a fan of the digital camera that when the British director Christopher Nolan challenged him to return to film, Soderbergh said it would be like “writing scripts in pencil”.