How To Make Short Films On Your Mobile Phone

Shooting short films on a mobile phone is not a brand new concept. Filmmakers have been using their smartphones to shoot full length feature films too. Be it a commercial or a short film, smartphones are used to shoot high quality videos which have a contrasty, rich, and elegant look. Here are a few hacks for shooting a film on the small screen.

Don’t Treat Your Phone Like a Phone

There are some filmmakers who still see mobile filmmaking as unprofessional and will avoid using it rather than taking full advantage of a smartphone’s features. But hey, so many beautiful, cinematic, pro-level work has been shot with smartphones. Don’t treat your phone like a phone! Sean Baker shot Tangerine on an iPhone 5 and Steven Soderbergh shot High Flying Bird on an iPhone 8 and Unsane on an iPhone 7. So clearly, these filmmakers treated their phones like cinematic tools. You should do the same.

We have tried to put enough information here to get you started, without burdening you with too much information and technical jargon.

1. Learn by Doing

Firstly, whether you are shooting on a smartphone or a professional camera, the basic principles of filmmaking apply. Pretty much every film or video camera is essentially doing the same job. So if you want to learn how to make short films, check out 5 Tips for Beginners to Start With Short Filmmaking

There’s a lot you can learn only from shooting and editing. Those two activities are at the centre of what you produce as a filmmaker and there are books, websites and tutorials on the web which will cover more knowledge than you will ever be able to fit inside your head.

Secondly, there really are no rules. Filmmaking is an art and you will discover your own voice, and your own method, by making films. There’s no short-cut to becoming a filmmaker other than to spend as much time as you can filmmaking.

2. Pro video camera app

If you want to shoot a short film on smartphone, the first thing to do is to download a video shooting app that gives you manual control over your camera and allows recording at maximum bit rate. In addition, the camera has a fixed aperture lens so there’s no iris control, which means your exposure will be the result of just your ISO setting and shutter speed. 

Shoot at UHD 4K and at maximum bitrate, which is around 100 – 105Mbps. Try to use 1080p high frame rate setting for specific special shots. It’s much more important to have the maximum bitrate and maximum resolution for post.

You can use apps like Filmic Pro but it isn’t the only one out there. Mavis is very good also, and gives you a histogram which is very useful for judging your exposure.

These are the most important things you want to learn to use manually.

– ISO

– Shutter Speed

– Focus

3. Stay Steady

You obviously don’t want your short film to come out distorted, blurred, or affected by “rolling shutter” the best thing to do is to keep your phone steady while recording. Use both hands to hold your smartphone as close as possible to your body as you record the video. This can be a bit fatiguing in long takes or sequences, and there are other ways to support the phone:

Things like Tripods, Stabilizer and Camera Cages allow you to keep your smartphone or mobile device still when taking a video with it; they have perfect handles to accomplish this.

If a tripod or stabilizer for your phone is not in your budget or not practical for you in your circumstances, you can rest your phone on other physical supports like tables, chairs, desks, shelves, etc.

4. Exposure

Selecting your exposure with a smartphone is often a trade off. In some cases you can capture all the light and contrast in your scene, but sometimes you have to choose between retaining detail in the highlights or sometimes in the shadows or find some middle ground and compromise.

When you choose to compromise, make sure you are aware of what detail you are going to lose, and know how it may affect you further down the line.

Exposure on a phone camera with a fixed aperture is going to be controlled by setting your ISO, and your shutter speed.

5. Good Lighting is Critical

Proper lighting has a great impact on smartphone cameras because they have smaller image sensors and lenses. Unless it’s not necessary try to shoot as much as possible to shoot your video in brightly lit areas. This will help you avoid unnecessary shadows and grainy areas in your video. Conversely, you also must be careful not to point the camera directly at bright light sources, it will lead to unusable overexposed footage and lens flaring. 

Lighting should be stable and steady, image sensors in most of the smartphones do not react to dramatic changes in lighting very quickly. If the light is still making it tough to shoot your video try working with back-lighting and white balance settings if your phone or app provides them. Most phones also offer touch focusing in the event your camera is focusing on the wrong area of your composition. After setting the focus on the most important aspect of the video, the automatic exposure control will have an easier time making small adjustments if the lighting condition begins to change.

6. The Audio Matters as Much as the Video

Even if your video is in high quality with poor audio quality, it’s junk unless you plan to add a completely new audio track “in post” while editing your video. While you want your video to look good, the quality of your audio is more important than the video so it should matter as much, if not more. Unfortunately, the built-in microphone in most smartphones is both low quality and improperly placed. It is very common to catch wind and unnecessary environmental noise that will compete with or drown out any important audio while shooting video outside. This is almost impossible to edit out later. It is advisable to shoot your video in a quiet place, preferably indoors when possible with less ambient noise. 

Professionals are shooting all sorts of commercial grade videos and feature films using their mobile phones but audio is mostly captured with a separate recording device suitable for the job. 

So, for exceptional quality videos with superb audio, you should get an external recording device or at least a directional microphone that will work with your smartphone. If using an external microphone isn’t possible or in your budget stay as close to the audio source as possible and try this little trick: use your hand to cover around the phone’s microphone (but don’t completely cover it). This way, unwanted noise can be reduced, which might give your final product a chance.

If you haven’t caught up with the trend of using your mobile phone for filmmaking, then it’s high time that you do. These hacks will ensure that you start off on the right note. If you are an aspiring filmmaker, you can try your hand at mobile filmmaking in India Film Project’s 50 Hour Filmmaking Challenge and win professional lighting equipment and audio gear to kickstart your career without any investment!