Amateur Moviemakers

crazy-iphone-camera-lensIt’s a great time to aspire to be a moviemaker without any credentials whatsoever. Ambitious amateurs are proclaiming that anybody with a smart phone in his or her pocket is a potential filmmaker. Is it true that no special knowledge or skill is needed when you point that I-phone, other than the ability to hold it straight? And are the films being made with such minimal preparation any good? So far we haven’t seen the ambitious phone-wielders on a red carpet at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes. But there have been enough breakthroughs in the past few years to give amateurs hope.

Just by googling “movies made with I-phones,” you can find numerous examples of phone-based productions that have garnered attention, a few of them enough to win prestigious prizes. For example, a movie called “Tangerine,” shot on an Apple device, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It is based on the true story of a love triangle that developed at a popular donut shop between a transgender woman, her boyfriend, and a biological woman.

On looking closer, it seems this production adhered to certain professional standards. The writer and director, Sean Baker, did know what he was doing. He used three phones, as well as an app called Filmic Pro, a Steadicam to keep the phones from shaking, and some adapter lenses to give it a professional look. He also employed post-production techniques that reflected his knowledge of traditional filmmaking.

There is now at least one annual festival devoted to recognizing and rewarding iPhone films. Belarus-born Chris Nong, also an established director, won an award at the second annual festival for an eight-minute Russian action movie shot with an iPhone 4. Again, other devices were used, and the director’s professional credentials were in evidence. Michael Koerbel, the producer of a TV series called “Goldilocks” that features a blonde secret agent called Jasmine, maintains that anybody can do it. He is also the author of a book called “Studio in your Pocket,” and the producer of several short films. He declares, “We want to inspire the next generation of filmmakers to get out there and start sharing their stories with the world.”

How about full-length feature films? “Uneasy Lies The Mind” (2014) was billed as “the first narrative feature film to be shot entirely on iPhone.” This film is a psychological portrait of a man suffering delusions due to a head injury. Accordingly, its use of distorted and disjointed images is actually a selling point. The director, Ricky Fosheim, the founder of Detention Films and known for his music videos, pointed to the relative affordability of this method.

So is everybody really doing it? These experienced directors give the impression that they are experimenting with ways of cutting costs and getting a production up and running with amazing speed, but that they could return to their more traditional and expensive methods at any time.

What about absolute rank amateurs? Are they doing anything noteworthy? Maybe not yet, but they are trying. There are numerous meetup groups here in the DC area devoted to writing scripts and critiquing them. However, if a movie is ever to arise from a script, it has to be “crewed.” That is true whether the filmmakers make use of their handy personal toys or bring in traditional cameras. You either need to hire an existing production company, which is an expensive proposition, or put together an amateur one.

The “Film in a Day” method is an increasingly popular and relatively affordable technique for ambitious but under-subsidized outfits. For example, a meetup group called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z, located in suburban Washington DC, proclaims: “Writing, producing, directing, acting, filming, and editing, we do it all!” Founded in March of 2015, the group has two “executive organizers” in charge of all productions. They periodically send out a call for screenplays of five to seven pages, from which they aim to select one for production every two months. Once the script is selected, they put together a temporary production company, locate a single set, and accomplish the shooting in one day. Four films have been made up to this point, three to five minutes in length, and posted on youtube. They range from a comedy about bumbling thieves (“Decaf”) to a psychological fantasy about conquering internal demons (“Critics”). By necessity, the story lines and messages are simple, yet five minutes seems enough time to at least make a point. It’s not red-carpet stuff, but it’s a start.


5 thoughts on “Amateur Moviemakers

  1. Interesting. The only amateur movies I’ve seen are the ones my sons make with their Kindle fire. Probably should nurture more their passion in movie making. You never know.

  2. One of the books I’ve read over and over in great detail is Shoot to Kill, about making indie movies (written by Christine Vachon, who produces many of them). I learned a great deal about making movies from learning where to cut the corners.

    I have no interest in making my own movies right now, but the idea of being able to do what ‘real’ movies do with minimum equipment and financing is the essence of indie shared with writers.

    I think the one thing those movies should have, though, is a good script – and there are many fails there. All camera work (and some acting) can be explained as ‘art,’ if not perfect, but the lack of a story can’t. Some tricks get around it (Blairwitch), but without a good story, it is just inferior moviemaking.

    Use your cousins and friends, if you must, but give them something real to hang onto.

    Oddly enough, I’m much more demanding of indie writers: because it isn’t arty to skip proper punctuation and decent language use, as these are available almost for free to anyone who has read a lot; it’s merely lazy.

    I’ve only been able to read one indie book which had it’s and its reversed everywhere – but had such a good story and engaging way of writing otherwise that I gritted my teeth and plowed through. I liked it – but haven’t recommended it. And that’s a shame – it would have taken ten seconds to do it properly.

      1. The hardest thing is to SEE that the vision in your head and what you’ve put on the page are not the same, and learn what to do about that.

        A few sessions with a writing teacher who had a group showed me it was going to take a lot of time; from then on, I put in the time. I did it on my own – because of personal circumstances – but the time must be invested.

        Then you have to find other eyes, and I was lucky there.

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