A Potted History of the Smartphone in Film / by Emma Barnaby

It may not come as a surprise that the history of the smartphone filmmaking is rather short. Here’s our attempt at a potted history that we hope will leave you feeling inspired!

Phones with inbuilt cameras came out around the year 2001, and we’ve all been using our phones to capture selfies and our dogs since we were the proud owners of Motorola Razors. But it wasn’t until 2011 that director Hooman Khalili claimed to have made the first film shot entirely on a smartphone.

Olive came out just in time for the Oscars. Unfortunately it didn’t make the cut, but did get a theatrical release; No mean feat for a smartphone film made in 2011. Olive was made on a budget of around $400,000 and was filmed on a Nokia N8 with a homemade 35-millimeter attachment. Though this might not have been the runaway success that Khalili hoped it would, Olive seems to have got the smartphone-film ball rolling.

That same year, critically acclaimed director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Vengeance Trillogy) joined the still small family of smartphone filmmakers when he made the short Night Fishing; a 30-minute creepy and atmospheric fantasy horror about one mans unexpected catch. The film went on to win the Golden Bear for the Best Short Film at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival.

A personal favourite of mine is the lesser known, Les Ongles (The Nails), made by director Clement Deneux for the 2011 Disposable Film Festival. The generally groan-inducing phrase ‘found footage’ is here a cause for celebration. Deneux has skilfully pulled off a genuinely horrifying short, using the smartphone to its full advantage. Watch with the lights on and try not to bite your nails!

In the world of documentary, director Peter Snowdon gave a whole new meaning to ‘found footage’, when he pieced together The Uprising. Taking a look at the events that unfolded in front of citizens’ phones during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, The Uprising is ‘a multi-camera, first-person account of that fragile, irreplaceable moment when life ceases to be a prison, and everything becomes possible again.’ Snowdon spent over tow years scouring the Youtube for smartphone footage of the revolution and threading the pieces together to form a feature length documentary. It is both a testament to the bravery of those involved in the revolution, and the power of the smartphone to bring real-life events to global audiences as they unfold.

Shooting ahead to 2015, we all witnessed with delight the buzz around Tangerine. Not only was it a box office smash but it went on to win multiple awards. Both outrageously funny and sincere, Tangerine made us forget the humble equipment on which it was shot as we were drawn in by the unique and compelling narratives and brilliant performances.

So, what does the future of smartphone filmmaking hold?  With the quality and capability of smartphone cameras growing exponentially, we think the smartphone filmmaking only will too. And its relatively short history should not be a deterrent to filmmakers. These are, as it were, unchartered waters and in it we can see nothing but good opportunity! As Chase Jenkins said, “The best camera is the one that's with you,” so what are you waiting for? 

By Christa Standard-Green