Saturday, June 28, 2014

Shooting Full HD with an iPhone

I've been reading about efforts by professional indy cinematographers to shoot entire feature films or documentaries with an iOS device. It sounded absurd to say the least. Then, the shock came when Zacuto of USA recently sponsored an all shoot-out among the greatest camera names in professional digital cinematography with the iPhone as one of the contenders. Out of sheer curiosity I watched the entire project on YT to see pros at work and experience the difference between capturing gear of a 'toy' costing less than a thousand bucks with all those industry monsters, costing several tens of thousands dollars. Of course, to avoid shake and be able to shoot like the pros, they dressed the iPhone in all sorts of camera rigs, with matte boxes and filters and French flags. If they could mount a follow focus they'd do it too, but the iPhone is supposed to be an iPhone last I heard, so, let's be serious. The iPhone eventually managed the feat with its built-in autofocus, as expected. Anyways, the final result was more than descent, yet far below the big dogs, like Red Epic, Arri Alexa, Sony F65, and Black Magic Cinema. Footage was shot all in Full HD, ie. 1080p at the presumably cinematic 24 fps.

This morning I read another article about cinematographers getting again serious about iOS feature film productions, and I said to myself, what the heck, let's try to see what comes out of an iOS footage. I never really shot anything longer than ten seconds before, and was quick to delete it right away, after a few moments... This time however, I wanted to  live the experience on my own big-ass TV in full color FHD. So, I'd have to postprocess the footage like it was coming out of any of my other prosumer gear. I'm not a pro by far, but I can stitch together simple shots with final rendered clips that look fairly OK, technically speaking. Needless to say, I dispose of quasi pro gear, like a 5D M-III, the latest 4K GH4 and a Legria G30, even a kit of cheap Samyang cinematographic lenses, and a shedload of supporting accessories, a steady camera-like thing (Merlin), couple of motorised sliders, a Manfrotto video tripod with fluid head, a motorised pan/tilt head, and full versions of FCP, Motion and Compressor. I just wanted to see for myself how far I could go compared to my other 'prosumer' footage and clips. Especially the couple I did the last few days in 4K, the moment the Lumix GH4 marvel arrived.

I thus put my old iPhone 5 (not an S, neither a C) in my shirt pocket and came out in my backyard for a shoot. I actually shot about two dozen takes without steadycam support. Just in handheld. I tried to simulate a few dolly movements and did some pans and tilts, all handheld, trust me. Forgot to mention, I used Filmic Pro and not Apple's own camera app. Filmic is quite good as you can chose separate points for measuring light and defining focus reference points. You can also lock those, and you can separately select output resolution and frame rates. Almost like the big lads. I eventually transferred all those clips to my quad 27" iMac via the Photo transfer app, a very neat way to transfer photographic source files between iOS filmrolls and Macs.

Reading those same source files in FCP, I transcoded  them in Prores Proxy (I always do that, unless I capture in ProRes 422 with my Ninja Blade) and stitched the shots together by adding here and there dissolve transitions, trimmed a great deal, you know... the usual. I tried stabilisation on all of the shots, but some were hopelessly shaky and the FCP algorithms made a mess eventually, so I either dropped those out of the Timeline or softened further the stabilisation parameters. I eventually added a nice track from 'The Grandmaster' soundtrack (Wai Kar Wong - 2013), namely Moyou by Shigeru Umebayashi. And... Bob's your uncle. Oh, yes, before compressing to a final delivery format, I combined everything into a compound clip and I graded the latter with FilmConvert, a plugin that runs under the 'Effects' tab of FCP. Normally, to judge objectively the true quality of iPhone footage one shouldn't do too many tricks in post. But I am not a formal iPhone reviewer. IAnd never intended to be. I just wanted to see what comes out of it, if I did my regular stuff like in any other workflow I normally follow in post.

My personal conclusion is that indeed, one could actually put an iOS device in the hands of professional cinematographers/film makers to produce something worthwhile. Using purpose made add-on lenses, they could could even achieve a touch of cinematic bokeh. And with the proper grading in post one can achieve the sphere that serves script and story. With a good story and plot, lighting, art direction, camera movements and editing techniques, one could actually create a technically acceptable feature indy film that can proudly stand next to a Hollywood establishment with their millions worth big production budgets. Maybe some cheap iOS gear will offer the opportunity to realise a filmic form of Arte Povera... Like Polaroid once did. Arte Povera is still good Arte! Why not?

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