It’s a question that comes up again and again at filmmaker Q&A sessions: How can a person get started in the industry? Especially when it seems like there’s no real way into Hollywood without some kind of close personal connection. As iPhone cameras continue to get better and better, directors and cinematographers alike keep spouting the same idea: “Make a movie on an iPhone!”
But is this really the best advice? Especially when, more often than not, they aren’t practicing what they preach. To find a practical answer, it’s best to consider how an iPhone compares to a real digital movie camera.
The most popular digital movie camera is undoubtedly the Arri Alexa. So, how does the latest Arri Alexa model look in comparison to the latest Apple iPhone model? Let’s weigh their specs, consider their respective pros and cons, and compare which popular movies have been shot with which digital method.
Additionally, it’s worth laying out how one would even go about shooting a decent-looking movie on an iPhone in the first place. Finally, we’ll be able to say for certain if you can really use an iPhone to shoot a Hollywood-quality film. Let’s start with the specs.
iPhone Camera vs Arri Alexa: Specs Compared
|iPhone Camera||Arri Alexa|
|First Released||January 2007||April 2010|
|Latest Release||iPhone 14 Pro Max||Arri Alexa 35|
|Aspect Ratio||4:3, 1:1, 16:9||3:2, 16:9|
|Sensor||48MP Main sensor with second-generation sensor-shift optical image stabilization, seven‑element lens, and 100% Focus Pixels||Super 35 format ARRI ALEV 4 CMOS sensor with Bayer pattern color filter array|
|Frame Rates||24-60 fps||0.75-120 fps|
Is Shooting a Movie on an iPhone Really a Good Idea?
When director Steven Soderbergh called smartphones the future of filmmaking in 2018, several filmmakers had already made entire feature-length films using iPhones (including Soderbergh himself, who shot his psychological thriller Unsane with a phone, a $10 app, and a special lens.)
He wasn’t the first, nor was he the last to suggest that Hollywood productions could be replicated with the very phone many of us have on us now. It’s slowly becoming an oft-repeated notion, but the truth is that it’s something of a misconception. In other words, hypothetical truth is not the same as real truth.
Hypothetically, you can shoot a movie on an iPhone. You can do whatever you want with your iPhone’s camera. Feel like cutting together nine hours of paint drying interspersed with nine hours of grass growing? Go for it. You can call that a movie if you want. This is obviously an exaggeration, but it gets to the root of this commonly held misconception.
- Tested for battery health and guaranteed to come with a battery that equals or exceeds 90% of original capacity.
- Inspected and guaranteed to have minimal cosmetic damage, which is not noticeable when the device is held at arm’s length. Successfully passed a full diagnostic test which ensures like-new...
- Includes a brand new, generic charging cable that is certified Mfi (Made for iPhone) and a brand new, generic wall plug that is UL certified for performance and safety. Also includes a SIM tray...
- Backed by 1 year satisfaction guarantee as brand new Apple products.
Namely, is 90 minutes of footage the same thing as a 90-minute Hollywood production? Depends on your definition of what a movie is. This is a much larger debate than we have the time or space for here, so let’s set semantics aside.
Without being disingenuous, the point of the question is as simple as this: Can a person who feels locked out of the Hollywood studio system circumvent the whole thing and just make the movie themselves? There’s a similar debate about novelists self-publishing, musical artists on SoundCloud, and graphic designers on social media.
Do we have the power to make a splash with just the technology we have at our disposal? Altogether, it depends on your proficiency. Technology is more than capable, but it’s just as important to have the skills to back it up.
Arri Alexa’s Revolutionary Impact
The pros don’t have to use iPhones when the Arri Alexa exists. A digital movie camera system first created by German motion picture equipment manufacturer Arri in 2010, Arri Alexa is not to be confused with Amazon’s virtual assistant.
No, the Arri Alexa is the Arri brand’s first real foray into professional digital cinematography tools in the wake of their earlier, smaller-scale efforts (namely the Arriflex D-20 and the Arriflex D-21). In more than a decade since the Arri Alexa’s debut, digital cinematography has gone first from an alternative to celluloid film, then to the outright replacement for it.
Shift Toward Digital
- Alexa Mini LF Unified Accessory Kit (Pro, 19mm)
- Included Items: Unified Cage (Alexa Mini LF), 2x 19mm Rod (15"), NATO Handle Plus v2 Kit, UVF Mount (Alexa Mini / Mini LF, No Clamp), Unified Bridgeplate (19mm), 2060 Dovetail (12"), Rod Clamp (19mm),...
This revolutionary shift away from film toward digital is largely credited to the Arri Alexa. They aren’t the only digital cinematography brand, of course — there’s also Red Digital Cinema and the Sony CineAlta Venice, to name a few — but they are undoubtedly the most prominent today.
Cinematographers the world over immediately saw that the Arri Alexa was different than the digital cinematography tools that had come before it. From its image quality to its variety of formats and high resolution, the Arri Alexa was an immediate revolutionary advance. It changed everything.
With this revolutionary shift in mind — which, interestingly enough, took place just a few years after the iPhone’s debut — it’s clear to see why filmmakers would suggest using an iPhone. In theory, both the iPhone and the Arri Alexa can function as a tool for digital cinematography.
Both can shoot in 4K, both have a variety of aspect ratios and frame rates to choose from, and both have intelligent software and sensors for optimal video quality. And yet, “similar” and “identical” are not the same words. An iPhone camera is similar to the Arri Alexa in that it can record high-quality video, but it’s far from identical.
Shooting a Movie on an iPhone: Examples
- This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011): iPhone 4 [presumably]
- Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015): iPhone 5S, anamorphic lens, FiLMic Pro video app
- Unsane (Steven Soderbergh, 2018): iPhone 7 Plus, FiLMiC Pro video app
- Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018): Director Aneesh Chaganty’s personal iPhone
- High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, 2019): iPhone 8, anamorphic lens, FiLMic Pro video app
- Shin Ultraman (Shinji Higuchi, 2022): Personal iPhones and iPads of cast and crew
Shooting a Movie with an Arri Alexa: Examples
- Dune (Denis Villeneuve, 2021): Arri Alexa LF IMAX, Arri Alexa Mini LF IMAX
- Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, 2019): Arri Alexa 65
- The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017): Arri Alexa XT Plus, Arri Alexa Mini
- Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016): ARRI Alexa XT Plus
- Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013): Arri Alexa Classic
- Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011): Arri Alexa Classic
How to Make a Movie on an iPhone
As you can see from the examples above, it is possible to film a beloved, Oscar-nominated, box office-topping feature equipped only with an iPhone, an app, and a lens. However, as we discussed in the earlier section, you need more than just physical tools to make a movie. You also need the skill. When used to your advantage, the tips below can certainly be just as essential as the camera itself.
1. Shoot Horizontally
Firstly, you need to shoot your video horizontally. While it would certainly be an artistic choice to film your movie vertically, this is probably going to make it even harder for you to get the right eyes on your work. Vertical mode is just not aesthetically pleasing.
Therefore, horizontal is the way to go. Moreover, you can adjust the aspect ratio to either 4:3 or 16:9 depending on the look you’re going for. 4:3 is a more nostalgic look, matching the look of a 20th-century Old Hollywood production, while 16:9 is a more modern take, matching the widescreen aesthetic of most current-day productions.
2. Keep Things Steady
Secondly, you’re going to need a stabilizer. This will help counter one of the most jarring parts of videos shot on the iPhone: the automatic stabilizer. When shooting an iPhone video while moving, you can sometimes see a weird, laggy-looking smoothness over the footage.
This is to help reduce shakiness in the video, but when trying to make something that looks professional, you might want to avoid any shakiness to begin with. This can also be avoided with the next step.
3. Use an App
Looking at Steven Soderbergh and Sean Baker’s work with the iPhone, there’s one big thing in common – the use of the FiLMiC app. Available for $10 in the App Store, the FiLMiC app basically helps to bring a more cinematic look and feel to the standard iPhone camera quality.
This includes reducing some of that auto-stabilizer and auto-focus that can come off looking so amateur. When making movies on an iPhone, those built-in camera tools are unquestionably two of the biggest hurdles to overcome. For this reason, using an app can help you significantly.
4. Keep Things Well-lit
Don’t overlook the importance of good lighting. As a matter of fact, good lighting is one of the most vital components of a quality film. Overlit, underlit, weirdly lit, poorly lit…these are all like nails in the coffin for an up-and-coming filmmaker, and they can look more prominent than ever when shooting on an iPhone.
Touching the screen and bringing the sun icon up or down will help you adjust your exposure temporarily, but too much movement will reset your settings. This is another place where a dedicated filmmaking app will come in handy.
5. Don’t Forget Mics
Finally, it’s important to ensure that your audio quality matches your video quality. This is going to require the use of an external microphone. The microphone built into the iPhone probably won’t cut it, unless you’re filming something right in front of you.
Even then, it’ll be in your best interest to use an external microphone for post-production purposes. It’s never a bad idea to have separate audio tracks to work with. For some iPhone filmmakers, this can be something as simple as placing other iPhones strategically within the scene to record better audio.
iPhone vs Arri Alexa: Pros and Cons
|Pros of iPhone||Cons of iPhone|
|Cheaper than an Arri Alexa||Built-in auto-focus and stabilizer can look amateurish|
|4K camera quality with adjustable aspect ratios and frame rates||iPhone video quality can look jarringly sharp|
|If you already own one, there’s no need to buy one to make a movie||Taken less seriously than a professional camera|
|More compact and lightweight||Requires additional apps and lenses for Hollywood-quality filmmaking|
|Pros of Arri Alexa||Cons of Arri Alexa|
|Professional quality digital cinematography||Astronomically more expensive than an iPhone|
|Used and trusted by the biggest and best filmmakers||Several Alexas can only be rented, not owned|
|Made specifically for filmmaking||A lot more advanced and far more delicate than an iPhone|
|Higher resolution paired with more frame rates||Much bigger and much heavier than an iPhone|
Is Shooting a Movie on an iPhone Really Worth It?
So, is it actually worth it to shoot a movie on an iPhone? Well, it depends on what you’re shooting. This Is Not a Film, Searching, and High Flying Bird all have one thing in common (beyond being shot on an iPhone, of course). The film itself actually makes good use of the iPhone quality by making it make sense within the confines of the film.
This is one instance where shooting on an iPhone truly makes sense; when it makes sense within the world of the film. It’s a creative way to counter the distinct lack of quality compared to the Arri Alexa.
Although the Arri Alexa is the best of the best in digital cinematography, the iPhone can get the job done if the situation calls for it. iPhones play a key role in the above films, hence an excuse for iPhone camerawork.
Therefore, if your idea for a movie can find a way to incorporate iPhones into the story, then it might work better in your favor. It’s a lesson in metatextuality; if the film can comment on the iPhone quality before the audience gets a chance to, the ball is subsequently in your court.
Undoubtedly, it all goes back to creativity. If you have the creativity to shoot a movie on an iPhone, then you can unquestionably find a way to excuse what the film lacks within the context of the film itself. If you have the creative drive and the necessary skills, you can absolutely shoot an exceptional movie on an iPhone. Regardless, if nothing else, you’ll get some great practice for the major leagues.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Serhii Yushkov/Shutterstock.com.