With the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot latest feature, Unsane, dropping this week, and continuing the theme of the democratising effect of newer technologies from my interview with cinematographer Matt De Sousa last week, I would like to highlight ten feature films shot on consumer-grade cameras. I hope some of these films will convince you that access to equipment is not stopping you from making great films, and will inspire you to get your project made.
Unsane Official Trailer, directed by Steven Soderbergh (2018, Bleecker Street).
My focus here is on narrative feature films rather than documentaries, the latter form having seen a slightly different evolution in its adoption of video and digital technologies. Oftentimes, my interest in these films transcends questions of budget and accessibility, as I examine whether the formal and contextual choice of recording medium informs beyond the purely practical and is in fact a reflection of the films’ themes or theses.
The Films – Listed in Chronological Order
1. Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) — Sony DCR-PC3 Handycam
Festen, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (1998)
The film that ‘started it all.’ The first official Dogme 95 film, Festen is shot on the Sony DCR-PC3 Handycam on Mini-DV cassettes. The film is an act of resistance to the economic and cultural hegemony of Hollywood, as well as a superb example of form and function manifesting hand in hand. The low-fidelity image becomes a site of trauma as it falls apart in front of the viewer’s eyes, explicitly presenting the digital medium’s flaws for all the see. The cinematography is as hideous as the film’s characters, and in a film about truth and lies, brings to mind the academic debate over whether digital images can be said to exist as a truthful record of reality in the same way that film is a physical record of a moment in time.
2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) — RCA Hi-8 camcorder
The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (1998)
A large chunk of this film, which played a large role in the found-footage craze, was shot on Hi-8 video cameras. The low-fidelity imaging technology exists diegetically, as the story follows a group of student filmmakers attempting to film a documentary about the legendary eponymous Blair Witch. Shot on a small budget, the film is a prime example of an indie breakout hit, having seen a box office of over 248 million US dollars, and spawned an entire franchise.
3. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000) — Various prosumer Sony camcorders, including Sony DSR-PD100P, with custom anamorphic lenses.
Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier (2000)
I questioned whether to include this on the list as I read Björk’s comments on her experiences working with von Trier. To quote Claire Dederer, what do we do with the art of monstrous men? Do von Trier’s actions take away from the fact that when I saw this film, it shook me to my very core? That it left me thinking for days, and was more shocking than any film I had ever seen, more so even than the more graphic likes of Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) and The Isle (Kim Ki-duk, 2000)? I don’t have an answer, so leave it up to you, the reader, to decide what your stance is.
4. Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010) — Canon 7D
Tiny Furniture, directed by Lena Dunham (2010)
We have jumped forward a decade and the DSLR revolution is in full swing. Vincent LaForet’s Reverie (2008) has rocked the digital cinematography world, and a pre-Girls Lena Dunham directs her first (or second depending on your definition of running times) feature film, Tiny Furniture. It proves to be her breakout hit. Dunham’s middle-class background no doubt played a role in her ability to build a network of like-minded creatives but the film still exemplifies the reality that if the script is good, and the director has a unique vision, it is possible to shoot a feature film with a group of friends and very little money, and build a career off the back of it.
5. Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011) — Canon 7D
Like Crazy, directed by Drake Doremus (2011)
Another indie hit, Like Crazy won best drama at Sundance and was picked up for a lucrative distribution deal. Director Doremus and cinematographer John Guleserian chose the Canon 7D for its compact physical size, perfect for a heavily-improvised and tonally-naturalistic film. Admittedly they also used PL-mount cinema lenses, which will have contributed to the more polished look.
6. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012) – Canon 5D Mark II
Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach (2012)
Nothing much to add here, other than to say that the films shows that it is possible to desaturate DSLR footage in an aesthetically-pleasing way.
7. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013) – Panasonic GH4
Upstream Color, directed by Shane Carruth (2013)
This was the first notable feature film shot on a Micro 4/3 sensor, and proves that the smaller sensor size does not detract from the cinematic look.
8. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013) – Canon 5D Mk II
Coherence, directed by James Ward Byrkit (2013)
Another film made by a director and a group of their friends, largely through improvisation. The size of the camera allowed the filmmakers to shoot on location in the director’s own house, and easily move the through space as they followed the drama. A great example of making a movie for nearly nothing, although as with many of these examples, Byrkit does have a Hollywood background which no doubt aided his festival and distribution strategy.
9. Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015) – iPhone 5s
Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker (2015)
Director Sean Baker has spoken often of the difficulty he had securing a large enough budget for the film, and has credited not even being able to afford DSLR lenses as the key reason the production resorted to shooting on the iPhone 5s, using the budget saved to pay cast and crew.
Indeed, public and media fixation with the way the film was shot has taken away some of the attention from the film’s fantastic treatment of transgender sex workers, with the film raising interesting questions about voyeurism and The Gaze. On the one hand the very distinct visual style hints towards a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, particularly when coupled with the fact that those watching the film will likely have pre-existing knowledge of what camera it was shot on. On the other, Baker has stated that the small camera removed the “intimidation factor” for the actors, enabling them to forget its presence, and allowing the camera to become an unacknowledged voyeur. Read the following article on hdvideopro.com for fuller details on how the film was shot.
10. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2016) – GoPro HERO3
Hardcore Henry, directed by Ilya Naishuller (2016)
Perhaps the most outrageous of the films I have listed here, judging by its trailer, and one I haven’t actually seen. I have cited it for its pioneering use of first-person-view GoPro cameras, its theatrical distribution proving that GoPro footage will hold up on the big screen. The production had to invent new ways of rigging the cameras to actors, as existing GoPro head mounts did not provide a true FPV field of vision.
In 2011, Park Chan-wook co-directed a short film with his brother Park Chan-kyong, shooting on the iPhone 4. Largely overlooked, it won a Golden Bear at the Berlinale that year, and is available to watch for free online.
It must be remembered that all of these films used professional audio equipment to record sound. The unattributable adage that a film with bad images is art but a film with poor audio is garbage remains true, at least for the moment. I recommend taking the budget you have saved by shooting on consumer equipment, and spending it on hiring a sound recordist who knows what they are doing.