The Future of iPhone Filmmaking with FiLMiC Creator Neill Barham
Since Sean Baker’s Tangerine hit the scene as the first feature film shot on iPhone, more filmmakers have embraced mobile production as a viable filmmaking tool. Steven Soderbergh shot Unsane and High Flying Bird on an iPhone 8. Claude Lelouch shot over 30% of his latest film, The Best Years of a Life, on an iPhone and loved the experience so much that his next film (not yet released) was shot entirely on an iPhone.
Behind all these iPhone-lensed features there has always been one go-to app: FiLMiC Pro. FiLMiC Pro unlocks professional-level control over the phone’s camera, including exposure, focus, color temperature, LOG recording, live shot analytics and many other features.
I got a chance to chat with Neill Barham, the CEO and founder of FiLMiC, about the appeal of mobile filmmaking to more established filmmakers, the democratization of filmmaking tools, and the future of FiLMiC Pro.
Our chat happened before the latest Apple iPhone announcement, where FiLMiC was given center stage to announce some exciting updates. However, there is an addendum to this interview where Neill answered a few additional questions about the new features.
Filmmaker: When you first created FiLMiC Pro, did you ever envision that it’d be used by mainstream directors to shoot feature films entirely on a mobile device?
Neill: I did have a pipe dream that like a Sean-Baker-type Sundance independent filmmaker would do something interesting with it, and I think that’s about where I set the bar. Then after Tangerine came out and got domestic theatrical distribution and then international distribution, I was willing to edge that ambition bar a little bit higher and think that maybe a Hollywood director would use it, like, one time as a novelty app.
But what I didn’t expect is that not only Sean Baker but Steven Soderbergh and Claude Lelouch, two Oscar-winning directors who can basically get any sort of project, any type of crew, and any type of gear they want, are shooting on the iPhone with FiLMiC Pro and then immediately shooting their next projects with the same combination. The budget was mostly the storyline around Tangerine. The Duplass Brothers come along and say, “We can’t give you a couple of million dollars but we can give you 50 grand and if you can figure out something to do with that, knock yourselves out.” But these other guys don’t have that budgetary limitation, and they aren’t treating it as a one-time novelty act and then going back to ARRIs and REDs. They’re like, “That is so fun. That’s so fast. It’s so invigorating. I’m going to do my next project with that.”
So we think that it’s the beginning of a new era. I think the closest equivalent is the French New Wave and what happened with 16-millimeter film cameras. Faster, lighter, more portable, and then a lot of new invigorating ideas came into the cinema space.
Filmmaker: Which phone out there do you believe produces the best image for filmmaking?
Neill: Well, I think right now it’s a choice between the top of the line iPhones and if Apple’s schedule stays consistent then there’s probably another new device on the horizon about a month out, so that will likely replace the XS and XS Max.
But I think one of the interesting developments of the last year or so is that top-tier flagship devices on Android are getting very competitive. So certainly the latest Galaxy S10 is incredibly impressive. The LG V30 is another super impressive phone which has its own version of log. The Huawei P30 is supposed to be an absolute killer device with a much greater zoom lens capability, which makes you think it potentially likely has a larger sensor.
The other thing that’s interesting is unlike iOS there are some really compelling budget Android phones that are now handling video really well. We did a side-by-side comparison of the Pocophone at $300 with the iPhone and it didn’t get embarrassed. It was a compelling, interesting product.
For us, we really do buy into the democratization of media. The voice of a 15-year-old kid anywhere in the world is equally as valid as anyone that’s already inside the studio system. We’re thrilled that there’s a great budget device that lets them leverage most of FiLMiC’s capabilities and that they can share or shed a little light into their window of the world.
Filmmaker: The thing I found interesting when looking at the production of High Flying Bird was not only were they filming on an iPhone 8 but that all of the camera support was kept very consumer level. They used a Moondog anamorphic lens, Beastgrip Pro, and Osmo Mobile 2 stabilizer, both very affordable and accessible products.
Neill: I think one of the most amusing iPhone filmmaking images of the past year is the one of Soderbergh in the gym on High Flying Bird. He has two actors sitting on a bench in a basketball gymnasium and the tripod that he’s using looks like any $79 to $129 soccer dad tripod. And you’re like, man, you’ve got to have a Miller or Sachtler tripod sitting in your closet that’s worth $1,500, so I think that’s like a beautiful moment.
In Unsane he was using the DJI Osmo but he also used a wheelchair dolly. Like the wheelchair dolly is every film student’s secret weapon, you know?
Filmmaker: Like Robert Rodriguez shooting El Mariachi level.
Neill: Right. And so I think it brings people back to that kind of stage of their life when anything was possible, and I think part of the reason that you’re seeing established filmmakers come back to mobile is that it really is invigorating.
Filmmaker: With Lelouch’s films, do you know how lean they kept their production or what other types of tools they used?
Neill: What Maxime Heraud, the DP, ended up doing was build a custom gimbal set up. So he used a much larger gimbal base that was intended for a DSLR camera and then he rigged a variable ND exposure system. So it was sort of like a follow focus, but what you were actually doing was spinning a variable ND filter in front of the lens.
Filmmaker: So that you wouldn’t have to mess with the shutter angle to adjust exposure?
Neill: Right. You don’t have to touch the screen at all and you can get incredibly smooth, granular exposure adjustment in realtime and it looks incredibly impressive. And I think that shows that probably in the next year or two we’re really gonna start seeing some high-end gear for mobile filmmakers.
I think the most exciting era for mobile filmmaking is still ahead.
Filmmaker: At NAB you had a few announcements. FiLMiC now integrates with the Movi Cinema Robot with more modes coming soon. The DJI Osmo 3 was just announced so I’m assuming it’ll be compatible in the future?
Neill: Very likely. The Osmo 3 is a big breakthrough because now you can access the Lightning connector. It’s interesting that it took just two to three years to realize that that was a vital component for mobile filmmakers, especially documentary and mobile journalists.
One of the frustrating things over the past couple of years is there are these great pieces of gear but they don’t really work well together. And so you’re starting to see some of those pain points being solved. Like it used to be you had to either use the gimbal or the Moondog Anamorphic Lens and then suddenly you started to see counterweight for the gimbals. Now you’re just seeing stronger gimbals that can handle the weight and are designed for it from the outset.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your upcoming standalone audio app.
Neill: FiLMiC Pro wasn’t intended to be a newsgathering tool. It was always designed as a cinema application, but it had compelling features that the news or mobile journalism community found really compelling. Suddenly it became used in a scenario that we didn’t envision or design for. So one of the common scenarios we hear from journalists is that going to air with something on audio is even quicker than going to air with something on video, and so they often just rip the audio file out of their reporting, send that to the server, and wait for the video transmission to come after that.
We realized we had a robust audio framework that we could part out and make a standalone field recorder. Then the idea of doing sync file transmission came out of the discussions of Memory Mic [upcoming Sennheiser microphone], and so we were like, we’re already designing this audio app, what if you’re able to sync it with your old iPhone 6 Plus or SE? That became a much trickier component of what was originally going to be a pretty humble and straightforward app. I think it’s going to be incredibly compelling because everybody has probably been through a couple of iPhones. So you can either trade them in or you can leverage that device as a remote control for their FiLMiC remote or soon a standalone audio recorder with a wireless sync capability back to FiLMiC Pro.
Filmmaker: Does this lead to having multiple cameras in sync?
Neill: Yeah, so that won’t be a first-gen capability, but that’s definitely on the roadmap. What we’re intending to do is a major overhaul of the remote app and turn it into what we call, right now, a “Director’s App.” You’re looking at multiple video feeds and being able to look at and control not only your device but a couple of your friends’s devices. Then the idea would be that the audio app can get the primary audio source and then reference it back to all of the cameras.
So, just a simple example would be you’re filming an acoustic guitar performer on stage and you have the FiLMiC audio app right on stage with them for pristine mic placement. Then you’d have an array of FiLMiC Pro devices around the hall or auditorium and they could all have that audio file instead of the distant audio scratch track from 70 feet away from the performance.
I think that’s gonna be a long project apart from the iOS 13 updates.
On September 10th Apple announced the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, which has three lenses. FiLMiC CTO Christopher Cohen and filmmaker Sean Baker were given the stage to announce a new update to FiLMiC that incorporates various interfaces to view all the lenses simultaneously and record multiple angles at once. I asked Neill additional questions following the keynote.
Filmmaker: How do you see the ability to record multiple lenses/angles at once being used by filmmakers?
Neill: We see a handful of early and obvious use cases centered around news, journalism, interviews, and vlogging. Another use-case is a product-centric production (think “unboxing” video, or product review), where both the influencer and the item are featured prominently. Accelerated production time aside, what we find more exciting are the new media formats heretofore unimagined. In the first case, as Sean Baker mentioned in the keynote, filmmakers can increase their coverage per shot by capturing two videos with different fields of vision at the same time.
With the widespread proliferation of smartphone devices, a production can take advantage of compounding benefits if they use several MultiCam-capable devices. A filmmaker, for example, could use a three-camera setup for a profile two-shot, two matching over the shoulders and record each set up on a wide, tele and/or superwide, giving the editor and the director six options to choose from in one take. That sort of power has never existed anywhere near this price point.
But filmmakers are an inherently restless and creative bunch. If we have learned anything from our talented user base, this feature will undergird new developments in filmmaking. Expect radically new narrative story-telling formats to radiate out of the MultiCam capabilities. As the medium evolves, we will be there to listen and develop the technology to help them every step of the way!
Filmmaker: Can you control each feed’s settings individually?
Neill: We are currently constrained by the limitations of some of the optics, primarily the ultra-wide and the user-facing camera (which both have a fixed focus). Fixed focus for the ultra-wide is not as problematic as it might seem: at that focal length, the focal plane is so deep that almost everything is in perfect focus anyway.
Filmmaker: Will you also be able to record a live mixed version as a fifth stream?
Neill: As the FAQ points out, you can preview four streams simultaneously but you can only record two at a time for now. The idea of a “live mixer” is something we are earmarking for a future successor to the FiLMiC Remote app. The idea is that you would be able to monitor and edit multiple streams (from multiple cameras) on the fly.
Filmmaker: In the new director’s viewfinder feature, will it have the ability to replicate framing of other camera/lens combos or is it just a new way to quickly see framing options from the different iPhone lenses?
Neill: The new director’s viewfinder is still in active development, and we cannot speak to how robust the final implementation will be. From a high level, we do think it will expand how a director previsualizes every scene. With a quick exploration of all the shot options available to them, a director can “look through the eyes of the camera,” and let their imagination take its course.
Filmmaker: Any other new features the update will have that’s specific to the 11 Pro?
Neill: There will be some groundbreaking new features that dramatically enrich the filmmaking experience in FiLMiC Pro version 7 for both new and older devices.
Mobile filmmakers need to know that the SOC [system on chip] powering this latest iPhone refresh is an absolute beast! On paper, clock speeds are only modestly faster than the previous generation A12; but the thermal management of this new processor unlocks levels of sustained performance that we have never seen before on a mobile device. The A13 Bionic is shockingly powerful in its own right and handles our Flat or LOG gamma processing effortlessly. To put this in perspective, the A13 Bionic can record 4K Log at 135 Mbps up to five times longer than the previous generation device. In our testing, we have not been able to thermally throttle the system or disrupt a video capture under any circumstances or combination of settings.
This sustained performance will prove to be invaluable to everyone and should inspire those considering a mobile production to upgrade to the new device for a flawless experience.
The multi-cam update from FiLMiC should be out later this year. Even though it was demoed with the iPhone 11 Pro, the update will also support the iPhone Xs, XR, and iPad Pro. For more on the updates, check out FiLMiC’s update page and go here to download FiLMiC Pro for iOS and Android.