Smartphones are such powerful cameras now that they’ve increasingly become a viable option for videographers and filmmakers looking to shoot with shoestring budgets. Shot on an iPhone, primarily in a remote desert landscape, South African film High Fantasy, directed by Jenna Bass, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The story finds four friends heading out on a camping trip and waking up with their bodies swapped. Described as “part Blair Witch and part Tangerine“, it’s a showpiece for what smartphones can do. We spoke with Bass to find out what lessons she took away from the project.
1. Make sure shooting with a phone is right for your film, not just your budget
Bass made the initial decision to shoot High Fantasy with an iPhone for cost-saving reasons. “I considered shooting on the iPhone because it was offered to me for free,” she explains. The director had been working with a documentary-filmmaker friend who was using the iPhone 6 to shoot in 4K, and when Bass admired the results, he joked that if she couldn’t find a camera for her next project, he’d lend her his phone.
Bass went through with it not just because it made an economical production possible, but also because it made sense for her film. As her friend pointed out, “It’s perfect, because if I was a young person who just swapped bodies, the first thing I would do would be to pick up my phone and take a selfie.”
It’s why High Fantasy works so well: form mirrors content. “It’s just something that clicked into place. That was the perfect way to tell the story,” says Bass.
High Fantasy director Jenna Bass
2. Trust your cast to be cinematographers too
Because High Fantasy was shot partly in the style of found footage or Instagram stories — i.e. the characters are recording themselves and each other in the story — any filmmakers looking to do likewise with a phone camera need to be aware that your actors will effectively become your cinematographers. That can beg the question: how do you entrust the look of a film to non-videographers?
First, when casting, keep in mind the need for actors to perform double duty and select accordingly. Then be sure to invest some time into preparing your cast for shooting the film once production starts. But more than planning, Bass says it comes down to believing in your actors, and that they can do what you hired them to do.
If you’re still nervous, Bass also suggests remembering one key thing, especially as it pertains to younger generations: “We shouldn’t underestimate the skills that everyone has acquired over the past very brief period of time,” she says. “It’s a particular kind of filming sensibility, but it’s a cinema language of its own that everyone just has now.”
High Fantasy cast members (from left to right) Qondiswa James, Liza Scholtz, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Michel
3. Don’t forget to use the right tools
Smartphones are powerful cameras, but we’re big believers that you still need some tools and equipment for shooting with phones. Bass didn’t neglect that. Aside from using the iPhone 7 (instead of her friends’ iPhone 6), she also used the DJI Osmo Mobile, a smartphone stabilizer, to steady the shots. For camera settings, she used the FiLMiC Pro app to adjust shots, although for times when the light was constantly changing, she just left settings on “automatic.” For lighting, High Fantasy went inventively simple: they used camping lights, fire, torches, and even the flashlights on the cellphones.
High Fantasy actor Loren Loubser with one of the shoot’s iPhones
4. Expect shooting with a smartphone to be imperfect
There are a lot of aesthetic benefits to using a smartphone as a camera. Watch High Fantasy and it’s hard to miss the remarkable depth-of-field or the often stunningly sharp footage. Bass also praises smartphones’ mobility. “The one thing I love about using an iPhone is that it’s small. We’ve never been able to move cameras in the way that we can now move them now.”
All that being said, Bass does offer a caution about shooting with a phone and the look it produces. “This is a tool that gives a certain look. If you are not happy with the look, you shouldn’t use the tool,” she says. For example, that “automatic” setting can yield inconsistent lighting, colors, and exposure, which can make it easy to dismiss the resulting footage as unprofessional or non-filmic.
But Bass sees it differently. “A lot of these things you’re trained to not see as being beautiful, because we’re taught that they’re mistakes,” she says. “As long as we can see what’s going on and as long as it’s appropriate for the moment, and it’s not distracting us, then it’s not ugly and it’s not wrong.”
5. Embrace those imperfections
Bass didn’t just learn to accept that shooting with a smartphone yields an imperfect look sometimes — she embraced it and incorporated it into her filmmaking. “If we were trying to make a film that didn’t look like it was shot by a bunch of ordinary people, then that would be a big problem. But because it isn’t, it’s fine,” she says.
She even would lean into imperfections sometimes, like at the beginning of the film when the characters are stuck in a car on their way to their destination and it’s shot like an extremely unsteady Snapchat video. “I wanted to throw people in the deep end,” she says. “So I wanted to just go right in for the worst, roughest, handheld, overexposed look right at the beginning, and then ease everyone into more controlled, smoother, better-exposed footage as the story progressed, so that we can just start focusing on the story rather than on the way the film looks.”
High Fantasy actor Nala Khumalo with one of the iPhones used during the shoot
6. Prepare to get creative to deal with a smartphone’s limitations
The fact that High Fantasy was shot primarily in a remote desert led to some challenges shooting with an iPhone. “The biggest problem that we had was the heat, because we shot in the peak summer in a part of the country which is extremely hot and dry,” she says. The iPhone stops working properly at 40 degrees Celsius. “We’d have to put it in an ice box until we could finish using it again.”
The remoteness of the shoot also made power for the phone a challenge. “We were staying in a place that didn’t have any electricity. It only had a generator that we could operate for about two to three hours a night,” Bass explains. “We took three battery packs and charged them every night.” For those shooting in similar conditions, these are valuable tips. But even if you’re not, the challenges unique to High Fantasy do still illustrate a broader lesson: when shooting with a phone, know its limitations in advance, and plan accordingly for any contingencies, so you’re prepared.
High Fantasy cast members (from left to right) Nala Khumalo, Qondiswa James, Liza Scholtz, Francesca Michel
7. Smartphones can help you get your movie made
Ultimately, the thing to know about shooting with a smartphone is that it can make the difference between making a film and not making a film. And if you are a passionate filmmaker, not making a film isn’t an option. “I really strongly believe in embracing what you have,” says Bass. Smartphones can also even be the best option. “I really do feel it was the best way to shoot the film,” she concludes. “It’s not just a gimmick. I don’t think we should’ve done it any other way.”
Photo credit for all images: Gabriella Achadinha and Nala Khumalo