11 Lessons in Smartphone Filmmaking

In early September 2018, I attended a class in smart phone filmmaking presented by Nick Clausen at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. To (third-party) app or not to (third-party) app?

Most smartphones come equipped with enough standard applications that power the device’s options and expand its functionality. Various platforms’ app stores burst with millions more apps for those seeking just the right tweak or feature. It is easy to get lost in choosing just the right app with just the right look and feel in order to make your film. Focus more (no pun intended) on actually using the apps instead of hunting for yet another one.

2. That said, FiLMiC Pro rocks.

FiLMic Pro seriously transformed my smartphone from an entry-level tool into a professional device. Running about $15 USD, FiLMic Pro offers intuitive controls that refine the device’s optical and sound equipment into a well-honed machine. I have only begun to explore this app’s possibilities. More on those later.

3. Expect a case of GAS.

No, not from beans. GAS is an acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. While the smartphone offers an all-in-one device for making videos, audio, and still images, some extra equipment ups your game from amateurish to more polished. Similar to apps, take care not to overinvest in seeking just the right gear.

4. Shake, rattle, and roll.

As such small devices smartphones have issues with getting a stable image. This shakiness particularly becomes a problem in lower light and in motion. Some smart phones offer built-in digital (more likely) and optical (less likely), and FiLMiC Pro provides a digital stabilization option. If you have shaky hands like I do, invest in a tripod or a gimbal. I ordered this one.

5. Bipedal zoom is best.

While many cameras offer both digital zoom and optical zoom, the bipedal zoom is still the best. In other words, move your feet to zoom the camera instead of using the in-device options. The images will be clearer.

6. Sound is hard.

Enough said? Well, maybe not. Sound still remains important yet so often overlooked. Voices become muffled, volume becomes inconsistent, words drop out. With documentary’s focus on people and their speaking for themselves, sound becomes even more important.

The advice I have heard on sound using a smartphone is mixed. Some suggest that using the device’s microphone held close to the speaker is enough, but others suggest using an external microphone, such as a Bluetooth lavalier or a shotgun mic.

7. Power up.

Video recording drains smartphone batteries quickly. With portable batteries running the size of chewing gum and costing about $10 USD, there is no excuse not to have a spare or two with you.

8. Sensor size matters.

No matter how advanced and fancy smartphones get, the sensor sizes on the cameras always will be a challenge. The beautiful bokeh available with a prime lens on a DSLR is more difficult to achieve on a smart phone. Smartphones flatten depth of field and struggle with low light, so avoid Citizen Kane aspirations.

9. Editing options abound.

Editing used to be a complex process that required scissors, reels, and film. Nonlinear editing software allows editing both on-the-fly in the smartphone and in-the-seat on desktop or laptop systems. In-device editing, such as through iMovie, appears helpful for live events or quick turnaround times. The key is to remember the default settings and what they allow and limit, such as the default transition settings and how to undo them.

10. The results can be stunning.

Bad smartphone video is everywhere, but intended results can be stunning. The Painter of Jalouzi, by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, is an excellent example of these kinds of results. This short was recorded on an iPhone 6s Plus, and shots include walking ones and drone ones. Watch it here.

11. ‘Undo’ can be your best friend.

This one speaks for itself.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed, and it offered much inspiration toward developing the multi-media documentary production course.

11 Lessons from a Documentary Bootcamp

In mid-August 2018, I attended a Documentary Boot Camp presented by Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents a first step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. “Not all who wander are lost.”

No single path leads to learning production or a completed documentary. Our fearless facilitator Melody Gilbert picked up a camera and made her first film without formal training. Everyone in the room came to the session from different backgrounds, including marketing, graphic design, high school education, and others. Each of these backgrounds can be useful in learning documentary production.

2. Good documentaries start with good subjects.

People are the beating heart of the best documentaries. Without interesting people, the documentary will end up dull and unwatchable. Compelling people make for compelling stories and compelling viewing.

3. People over style.

People are more important than having a particular visual style. While a documentary might look compelling visually, it will remain just a spectacle without interesting people in it.

4. Story over style.

Every documentary possesses an underlying question, and its story leads us through to answers to that question. While some beautiful cinematic documentaries do exist — think Sweetgrass or Nostalgia for the Light — style should never overshadow or overwhelm the story.

5. Put the time in.

Documentaries require time to produce. In particular, filmmakers should put the time in with their participants in order to earn their trust and hear their stories. Dropping in once in a while might result in the elevator version of people’s stories. Putting more time in might get you the family-reminiscing-at-Thanksgiving version instead. You can guess which one will be more interesting.

6. Access is key, but not everything.

Gaining access to people and situations can represent the difference between a good documentary and a great one. Sometimes that one, larger-than-life figure propels the story and its telling. But what if you can’t access that person? Talk to the people who know them. Those people might offer even more interesting information than the larger-than-life figure.

7. Pitching is an art form. And a negotiation.

One of our activities during the session included writing a pitch for a documentary we might like to produce. Each of us had interesting ideas, but those ideas became negotiations with the other people in the room. My own idea was expanded in several new directions. The direction it goes ultimately depends on you.

8. Watch and discuss.

So much of our media consumption now is based on individual preferences with personal devices that we forget the community part of documentary reception. A key strategy is to watch documentaries for their strengths and improvements with other people in person and talk about them afterward. While the film director’s presence changes the conversation somewhat, audiences can talk among themselves just fine as well.

9. Lather, fail, repeat.

Documentary filmmaking is not for the timid or the weak. It requires bravery in order to set foot into the swirling snakepit of human life. It requires the courage to fail. It requires the strength to pick up and try again.

10. Treasure the gifts.

People telling you their stories is a gift. This present is as true for the person on the bus as it is true for the person sitting before your camera. You telling these people’s stories for other audiences is another gift. It is important to treasure these gifts and honor them.

11. Use the equipment you have.

Filmmaking offers a great opportunity for GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Avoid obsessing over the latest software, hardware, and gadget, and start with the equipment already available to you. A smartphone can capture that quick interview. An extra microphone boosts the sound recording, if needed.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered much inspiration toward developing my own pieces. It further was a useful affirmation of the production flow I had taught in previous classes. In all, a good start.