In his landmark 1969 essay, For An Imperfect Cinema, Cuban filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa predicts that the advancement of camera technology will lead to smaller, cheaper and more accessible cameras. In short, Espinosa writes, this will result in the possibility for anyone to make films, and in the possibility of a revolution in filmmaking. For the Third Cinema movement this was significant, because cinema would thus no longer be the preserve of the elites, or of Hollywood, but would instead be in the hands of the people: “The new outlook for artistic culture is that no longer must everyone share the tastes of a few, but that all can be creators of that culture.”
Espinosa was right of course, but perhaps couldn’t have predicted just how ubiquitous cameras would become due the proliferation of smartphones in the networked era. In addition to this, the extent to which the participatory cultures of the internet would transform consumers into producers themselves, is perhaps unprecedented in scale. How to make sense of the ever shifting landscape of digital moving images, and the role that cell phones play in the lives of filmmakers today? Max Schleser’s book smartphone filmmaking THEORY AND PRACTICE is an important contribution this developing conversation between art and technology, and the “democratisation” of the means of production. These emerging technologies have been a site of disruption and rule-breaking in the established methods of film and television storytelling. They have also been a site of community creation and innovation, from Keitai aesthetics to mobile XR (extended reality – virtual and augmented).
smartphone filmmaking not only highlights the accessibility of cell phones as tools of film production, but also celebrates its unique opportunities, both aesthetically and socially.
Schleser writes smartphone filmmaking as part of a body of practice-led research, from multiple vantage points. Schleser created the experimental mobile film Max With a Keitai back in 2006, and has made more that a dozen short and feature smartphone films. His festival, The Mobile Innovation Network and Association (MINA) is the longest running smartphone film festival in the Southern Hemisphere, and has become an important locus for the global smartphone film community.
In addition to an academic discussion and analysis of mobile form and aesthetics, the book features interviews with filmmakers, festival curators and technologists working in the mobile filmmaking space. A common theme among these interviewees is the unique accessibility of smartphone filmmaking, which is a significant step forward in challenging the historical hierarchies found in film and television industries. Another common thread is the sense of community that runs through these spaces, coalescing around the idea that mobile filmmaking is not just about the technology, but about a shift in the relationship between audience and producer, a more egalitarian and horizontal way of working as opposed to the rigid hierarchy of industrialised film production.
Besides the economic benefits of shooting with a cellphone, this mobile technology has added value for filmmakers, such as increased mobility, compactness (shooting in small, enclosed spaces) and discreetness. In film history, technological innovations have often pushed forward the development of new experimentation and aesthetic practices that have contributed to film language over times. While I referenced Third Cinema in the introduction as a prism for understanding smartphone filmmaking, Schleser makes a connection to the French New Wave movement:
There are a number of parallels that can be drawn between the French tradition of La Nouvelle Vague and the contemporary smartphone filmmaking movement. This 1960s movement was a rejection of studio productions working with 16-mm cameras and improvisation in the streets.
These characteristics can be used to describe the smartphone filmmaking projects described in this book. The French New Wave developed new ways of filming and consequentially editing that led to the emergence of new techniques such as jump cuts. The world of smartphone filmmaking embraces personal filmmaking and handheld camera. With the dissemination via mobile social media, new formats such as vertical video emerge.
Smartphone filmmakers have leaned into the unique qualities of phones, to challenge and disrupt established cinematic norms, such as image resolution and aspect ratio. Vertical filming, which for years has been resisted by filmmakers and media practitioners as “the wrong way” to shoot, is now finding a home with the mobile community. Schleser points out that vertical has become a new format (1:1) with its own dedicated festivals, and has its own inherent authenticity value (like viewing a video sent to you by a friend.)
Overall Schleser argues that innovation, intimacy and community are at the core of smartphone filmmaking, and that these contributions to the evolving language of moving images need to be documented. Through extensive interviews with filmmakers, festival directors and tech entrepreneurs, smartphone filmmaking gives unique insights into mobile filmmaking practice, and beyond the academic framework of analysis, it could also serve as a useful reference for those who want to pursue the craft of using cellphones as a cinematic storytelling device.
Schleser also reflects on the ways in which mobile filmmaking has come of age, from experimental and pixelated shorts to award winning Sundance-premiering features like Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015)and Steven Soderbergh’s last two films, the psychological thriller Unsane (2018) and Netflix’s basketball thriller High Flying Bird (2019), all shot on iPhones.
With smartphone camera technology increasing steadily, and 4K becoming a standard format, the line between professional and consumer technology is becoming increasingly blurred. In this context, Schleser realises the utility of defining modes for this budding art form, following the work of Bill Nichols’ widely adopted documentary modes. Schleser outlines five modes of mobile filmmaking as the scaffolding for a novel analytic framework:
1. Poetic and Experimental Mode: A mode that leans into the experimental nature of a novel medium. Not only experimenting with technology, but using mobile technology to combine genres, such as Night Fishing by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong.
2. Participatory and Engagement Mode: Similar to Nichols’ participatory documentary mode, however actively engages audiences and ‘amateurs’ as active co-creators.
3. Smartphone Native Mode: A mode which recognises the phone’s potential as a full production studio (such as in Mobile Journalism or MOJO). This includes shooting, editing and music production.
4. Conversational Mode: This mode involves a synthesis of mobile filmmaking with social media. These can be episodic, nonlinear or transmedia in approach. For example, the Sickhouse “experience” using Snapchat, live streams and re edited uploads.
5. Red Carpet in Your Pocket Mode – These are narrative feature films that use Hollywood convections to produce smartphone films, often leaning into the aesthetics of the camera to provide an effect or mood eg Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.
While these modes might seem a bit much to absorb upon first reading, they are useful tools for making sense of the novel forms of filmmaking that are taking shape due to filmmakers’ interactions with these mobile tools. Due to the increased accessibility of smartphones as cameras, and the high proliferation of smartphones on the continent, it would make sense for African filmmakers to engage in smartphone filmmaking.
Nollywood is another film movement that used the technological development of lightweight and low cost cameras to drive a new aesthetic, methods of working and watching. In Chapter 3 of smartphone filmmaking, Schleser interviews Michael Osheku of the African Smartphone International Film Festival (in Lagos, Nigeria – the first smartphone film festival on the continent. Despite the ubiquity of smartphones on the African continent, Osheku laments the fact that smartphone filmmaking is “close to non-existence” in Africa. There is an obvious opportunity here for film festivals, commissions and universities to explore smartphone filmmaking as a way to remedy the problem of access to budgets and gear in Africa. While not everyone has a smartphone, there are many more that do than have access to other low cost film gear such as DSLR cameras, which Osheku believes will soon be replaced by high end smartphone cameras. African filmmakers have long been experimenting with smartphones as a means of production, from Aryan Kaganof’s pioneering SMS Sugar Man (shot on the Sony Ericsson W900i in 2005 and starring John Matshikiza) to Jenna Bass’ sci-fi political comedy High Fantasy. Both of these feature films could be considered as fitting into the Red Carpet in Your Pocket Mode, as they both employ genre conventions of feature films, mashup and remix them.
In conclusion, smartphone filmmaking opens up a conversation that reminds us that those of us with access to smartphones possess powerful tools inside of our pockets, and that our ability to use them is mostly prohibited only by our creativity. While mobile video sharing apps, specifically TikTok and Instagram Reels have currently usurped the attention of mobile video creators, these platforms are not the only ticket in town. Communities of practice have been using cellphones as cinematic or televisual tools since video cameras were introduced to cellphones. This book highlights the creators, the curators and innovators who have been working enthusiastically in this space for years. Like the Third Cinema movement, many of these creators have found refuge in emerging technologies as a way of creating work outside of the industrialised filmmaking system. Others have used cellphone cameras as a way to work within the system in a novel and low cost way. For filmmakers the choice is really up to them. Coming back to Espinosa, the future is about “truly letting a thousand flowers bloom. The future lies with folk art.”