Starting with Smartphone Filmmaking

During the last year or so, I have been looking at different points of entry into filmmaking. This post focuses on perhaps the easiest entry point: a smartphone.

A smartphone offers a complete filmmaking kit that fits in your pocket, with recording, editing, distributing, and, of course, viewing.

Both Apple iPhones and Android phones offer these functionalities. Both have cameras with video recording capabilities, and both feature ways to edit the files in device. Apple includes iMovie, while Android includes options with Google Photos.

At minimum the phone will need on-board storage or cloud storage. You also will need a way to get the files off the device, particularly if you wish to edit on a laptop or tablet. Options include syncing devices via cable, moving files via wifi connection, or moving files across cloud spaces. Another option for moving the finished files would be uploading to a site such as YouTube or Vimeo, and YouTube offers some editing options as well.

Seriously, in terms of technology, this is all you need to get started.

Of course, playing with gear can be half the fun, and the market obliges with a flurry of products both useful and extra. So what are some good additions?

One is a tripod with a smartphone mount. The size of the tripod would depend on how much you want to carry, as the smartphone mounts adapt to almost every tripod. When I started, I bought a Joby GorillaPod with the smartphone mount for about $30. The setup is small, portable, and easy to use. The bendable legs on the GorillaPod allow you to mount the tripod almost anywhere, from any angle. One downside is that you have to make sure your shots are level when the tripod is not.

Recording video burns through even the largest smartphone batteries quite quickly. A separate portable battery with a charging cable can keep the phone continuously charged as you record. Many portable batteries are small enough to fit nicely in your pocket. Anker in particular offers a variety of sizes, and this one stays in my basic kit.

This might sound obvious, but consider adding screen protection and a bumper to your smartphone. Using the phone in filmmaking makes it more prone to drops and possible breaks outside normal use. Be careful of some cases that offer industrial-strength protection, such as some of the Otterbox cases, as they might be too thick to fit within the cell phone mount.

FilmicPro is a filmmaking app that is available for Apple and Android devices. The app elevates your video recording options as it offers fine-tuned layers of control, including focus, frame rates, and white balance. The app syncs with some gimbals and is also incredibly easy to use.

These four additions to your smartphone filmmaking kit might run about $125.

Are there options beyond these basics? Of course.

Unfortunately, the onboard microphones for many smartphones produce pretty bad sound. Voices sometimes sound tinny, and environmental sounds become harsh. One possible solution is to add an external microphone to your smartphone filmmaking kit.

Two options exist here. The first — and simplest — is to buy a shotgun microphone that plugs in to your smartphone, such as through its headphone or charging point. Shure offers the MOTIV MV88, which features a lightning connector for iPhones, while Røde offers a VideoMicro Mobile kit.

Be warned that adapters to add the 3.5mm headphone jack to a smartphone without one might not support the device recording through it, as I found out the hard way.

The second — and much more complicated — is to record sound separately and sync it in post. With this approach, the sound setups include an array of microphone options (lavalier, shotgun, boom), recording options (wired, wireless), and recording devices, from handheld to full decks. Delving into these options would be for another series of posts.

Bright, sunny days are not always possible when filming, and sometimes an additional light is necessary to help make the scene recordable and your participants visible. Lume Cubes offer ultra portable lighting options that can be mounted directly to the smartphone, or they can be added to a tripod for more control and direction.

With the release of the iPhone 11 and the Google Pixel 4, the cameras within smartphones have been getting better and better. The iPhone 11 Pro, for example, features three cameras: an ultra wide, a wide, and a telephoto. But some want more flexibility with lenses, and several companies offer lens attachments for smartphones. Olloclip offers lens systems for both iPhones and other smartphones. Some of their lens options include macro, telephoto, fisheye, and wide angle. Other brands include Moment and Aukey. Prices vary widely on these products.

I did try the Olloclip set for my smartphone. I mounted the lenses, took a couple test shots, and removed them, never to be used again.

Gimbals, also sometimes called stabilizers, offer a way to record motion while keeping the phone stable. If your filmmaking focuses on sports and other active people whom you want to catch in action, a gimbal is a must. The same applies for things like house walk-throughs and nature tours. Otherwise, the wobbly footage might make some viewers a bit sick.

So you have a microphone, a light, the smartphone, the extra battery, and perhaps some other adapters and wires. How do you hold all that? Multiple options exist for mounting everything into one handy way to carry it all. Small Rig is a popular one that builds for multiple devices, including smartphones, DSLRs, and others. Joby, too, offers a mobile rig for handling all the extras.

I hope these provide some good starting places for thinking about building your smartphone filmmaking kit. If you have any suggestions for further gear, please leave them in the comments below.

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