How the iPhone 5s Can Make a Sundance-Worthy Movie
Here’s what you probably didn’t know about the iPhone 5s: it was crucial in the making of Tangerine, a breakout hit from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Tangerine is the first movie at the Sundance Film Festival to be shot almost entirely on an Apple device.
Making a movie using the iPhone 5s
Indie writer and director Sean Baker made the decision to shoot the entire film using an iPhone 5s, to accommodate the film’s small budget. Some filmmakers may dismiss the idea of using a smartphone to film a movie, but Baker says the iPhone made for a ‘good partner’ and that shooting scenes on an iPhone was ‘surprisingly easy’. The crew reportedly didn’t lose any footage.
You’ll never guess that Tangerine was shot on an iPhone, though, just by looking at it. The film was shot in a widescreen, 2:35:1 aspect ratio, and scenes fluidly, smoothly zoom through the streets of LA.
Baker and his crew were able to make a Sundance-worthy movie using three iPhones along with three other tools: an $8 app, a Steadicam rig, and a set of anamorphic adapter lenses that can be attached to the iPhone.
The app Baker and his team used is called FiLMiC Pro, and the app has received various accolades for its ability to raise the bar for iPhone videography. FiLMiC Pro allowed Baker to fine-tune the focus, aperture, and color temperature of each scene they shot. The app also allowed Baker to shoot video clips at higher bit-rates.
The Steadicam rig is essential, especially since the iPhone 5s is so small and light. No matter how steady the hand is, it will shake when holding up an iPhone 5s for extended periods of time. A Steadicam rig, or other camera stabilization systems, will ensure that shaking is completely eliminated and that scenes are clean and smooth.
Last but definitely not the least among Baker’s tools were a set of adapter lenses that can be attached to the iPhone. These anamorphic, 1.33x adapter lenses were prototypes from Moondog Labs and these allowed Baker to shoot in widescreen format using the iPhone 5 or 5s. According to Baker, these were absolutely crucial in making Tangerine look good on a big screen. “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have even made the movie without it,” Baker says of Moondog Labs’ lenses.
Like other films, Tangerine was put through a post-production process, mostly through Final Cut Pro and Da Vinci Resolve. While many films tackling social realism tend to bleed colors from scenes during post-production, Baker and his team went the other way and pumped up the saturation through the roof on the entire movie. As evident in the movie, colors are bright and eye-catching, with orange being the dominant color (hence the title of the film). Baker and his team wanted to match the colorful world of Hollywood, California and the equally vibrant characters of the film.
A digital grain was also applied to the movie, to make it look more like an actual film.
The cast’s take on the making of the movie
The cast of Tangerine wasn’t convinced that filming the entire movie on an iPhone was a good idea. James Ransone, who plays Chester, the pimp who’s Sin-Dee’s fiancée, wasn’t particularly convinced that the film would work, saying, “I had some hesitancy about it, more out of pride. I’m like, Jesus Christ, man, I was on The Wire. I’ve ended up in iPhone movies!”
Despite the hesitation, Ransone later appreciated the flexibility of the iPhone, realizing that an iPhone can do a lot that a standard movie camera can’t. Several scenes, for instance, were shot by Baker while he was riding a 10-speed bicycle around the actors.
Ransone goes on to say that the team behind the iPhone camera was just as important as the iPhone camera itself. The team still has to be well-versed in the ways of traditional filmmaking, and it has to have a good knowledge of how editing and sound works. In short, a camera crew has to know how a camera works. Ransone expects that iPhone videography will be able to catch up with true 35-mm film videography someday, but only if filmmakers know what they’re doing behind the camera.
The creative process behind Tangerine
The fact that Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5s is just one of the many interesting things about the film. The subject matter is worth a second look: transgender prostitutes trying to make their way in a decidedly non-glamorous part of Hollywood. The tough, unyielding characters don’t play the victim by any means, in a story that most major studios wouldn’t even go near.
Tangerine follows the story of Sin-Dee Rella, an ex-convict who is looking for the mistress of her pimp fiancée on Christmas Eve. She makes her way through Hollywood with her best friend and fellow prostitute Alexandra, who plays the proverbial angel on Sin-Dee’s shoulder, cleaning up the messes Sin-Dee makes along the way. The bond between Sin-Dee and Alexandra adds some depth and emotion to the comedic side of the film.
Baker reportedly got some inspiration to make the film after becoming obsessed with Donut Time, a donut store in his neighborhood. Particularly, Baker’s neighborhood was a block on Santa Monica Boulevard, a seedy area known for its slightly dangerous reputation. “There was always something going on in Donut Time,” Baker says.
Wanting to make a film centered on Donut Time, Baker and his cowriter Chris Bergoch visited a nearby LGBT center, where they crossed paths with Mya Taylor. An aspiring actress and singer, Taylor introduced the duo to her roommate, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez.
Rodriguez and Taylor began sharing stories with Baker and Bergoch, particularly a story about a trans woman who became enraged when she found out her boyfriend had slept with a biological female. The trans woman decided to hunt the woman down. Thus, the central theme of Tangerine was born. Rodriguez and Taylor eventually played the roles of main characters Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, respectively. The writers often collaborated with their cast on the script during filming.
Tangerine has received mostly positive reviews from review aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Critics from The Hollywood Reporter, The A.V. Club, and Indiewire also acclaimed the film, praising the film’s style and its portrayal of the subcultures of LA’s sex trade. Critics also praised Tangerine for its portrayal of the underlying themes of betrayal and friendship.