Ten Commandments To Shoot A Film On Phone: Mahesh Narayanan Of CU Soon

The director of Take Off And CU Soon on the techniques he followed while shooting his film during the pandemic, and why it is important to respect the medium.
Ten Commandments To Shoot A Film On Phone: Mahesh Narayanan Of CU Soon

Director Mahesh Narayanan of Take Off and CU Soon is a huge fan of screen-based content. "I've been watching them for a long time from my film school days. The first one I saw was The Collingswood Story, which was a crude form of screen-based movies. I'm not specifically talking about screen-based films, but also about how we can minimise the crew and equipment," he told participants at a workshop organised by Film Companion Front Row.

"We are in the age of high, large format sensors and high-resolution cameras that are very small. New-age cameras such as RED or ARRI or Sony F65 — these are very popular. But, there are also independent camera makers who function on a low-key basis. Someone from Germany or Ukraine makes small specific cameras for a particular requirement. These cameras are also fairly good, but I don't know why they aren't popular. Maybe, lack of marketing and the presence of big competitors makes it difficult for them to reach out to filmmakers," he said. 

When the COVID-19 lockdown happened, Narayanan thought about filming something with a phone. "This whole idea of filming with a phone started only because the idea of the real incident was shared with me by a journalist friend. He shared a vertical format video — a girl had sent an SOS to her family saying 'I'm stuck here and need help to be rescued out of this place'. So this was more similar to what I'd done in Take Off in terms of a rescue kind of a film. But then Fahadh Faasil and I understood why this hit us, is because of the format," the director said.

Explaining, he added: "The vertical format that we keep near our face makes it very real. There's a slight kind of a history happening now in terms of cinematography, if you look at glares, flares and unbalanced compositions. We like those things because we're used to taking selfies right now, and we're familiar with that. We know that there is a camera here and we look at one particular angle knowing that I'm pretty this way or somebody would say This side is better for this kind of lighting. So these are the tech things that normally every filmmaker would consider, but at one stage we thought that since its a screen-based movie, let's pitch it with real formats like if its a video call let's use an IPhone, if it's a computer webcam thing let's use the Mac's high-resolution camera with some third party applications and there are certain sequences for which we used 4K smaller cameras also. So, it's not mostly phone-based filmmaking but also involves the use of multiple gadgets." 

Here are the 10 commandments Narayanan lays out for shooting on a phone. 

Content is king

So, first of all when I was coming to this session I thought of mentioning some pointers, so my first point is: Use whatever device you take to make your film, the content is the king. So  we have to work on the content first. You should not consider that since you're making a film on the phone, your phone is available all the time with raw materials, my actors are living in my house itself so I don't need to write a story or a screenplay. That is not good. Basically you have to move ahead only with a draft, so my first thing is to write a draft. It need not be a final kind of a draft but you can improvise anyway on location. 

Choose your gadget

The biggest advantage we faced while making CU Soon was that normally, a regional Malayalam cinema that comparatively functions with a very low budget has 100-120 people on set. After finishing CU Soon, we realised that only a 15-member crew is required because those are the key members. The lighting technician who is very much associated with the camera person and that person can multitask and be a boom operator.  So my first point is to write a draft, the second point is to choose the gadget. 

While choosing the gadget, you'll have to think 'So, I don't have that much money for filmmaking'. I'll quote from Anurag's [Kashyap] interview where he said he rewrote Raman Raghav for the budget he has got. You'll have to tweak a lot of things according to your requirement. Budget is actually a requirement, so you can't exceed your budget with higher imagination saying I need 300 people on my set. At times, it will go through a tacky phase where the filming process will backfire and go into a different zone.  So, I always think that when you go in for indie filmmaking, you should pick your right gadget. There are a lot of 10-bit high resolution cameras right now. Recently, RED announced a new camera called Komodo which is a competitor to Sony and Panasonic 10-bit cameras, but smaller in size. When you realise that you don't have a budget to even pick up a DSLR camera with 4K resolution, you'll finalise your phone. A lot of phone companies say they have 16K resolution and this many megapixels so you shoot with my phone but this doesn't mean that it's equivalent to the RED sensor or ARRI Alexa sensor, which is a larger sensor. It's treated like a large-format camera, so even if you're going with a phone, pick the right one.

Third-party applications

There are a lot of third-party applications that normally don't come with your phone. Those have multiple vendors and you can check out these third party applications for professional filmmaking. If you look at the new iPhone, it has a vertical format video. They used a third-party application called Filming pro. We also used it for CU Soon. That app treats your phone as a proper cinema camera, you have these IFSO and colour temperature variations, everything is there. So you have to study about these third party apps. Normally what people do is that, when they have a phone they don't realise its functionality.  The minimum usage of our phone is to make a call, we don't consider the other possibilities on the phone. So we need to know about these third party apps. 

Choose your format

Another thing is the ratio, in what format we have to shoot, whether it's a vertical video, which is what we used for CU Soon, or an Instagram story or a documentary content. If it's 60×9, its vertical, then the entire frame alignment, the balancing, the editing space is all different. If we're going with 1x 2.5 ratio (camera ratio), you have to be more thorough and understand that ratio well. Also, test your device before shoot. You should not feel: "Okay, I have a phone with me always. I've written, so let's go to the place and let's try shooting it." Even if there is no money involved, and you have your actors in your house, that kind of energy or effort is equivalent to money. 

Test your device

So, before going into the production stage, you have to test your device. You have to know how much latitude this device has, or whether your audio recording is pretty good, the similar way when we test before a zoom call. Then you have to choose your correct rig. Rigging is an important thing. Shooting any content with your phone in a handle position is complicated. It can really give you shaky experiences during post-production. So you have to pick your correct rig. In the market, there are high-end stabilisers as well as indie stabilisers that are affordable for emerging filmmakers. So you'll have to test the rigs and decide what you're comfortable and happy with. 

Get a tripod 

When you're shooting a conventional fiction film, you definitely require a tripod. To fix the camera onto the tripod mount, you'll need certain other accessories also. So, you have to consider that. The biggest mistake filmmakers make while shooting on a phone is that they don't maintain the vertical level. The camera should be on the level. Balancing the frame in the post-production stage is extremely difficult. So, if you want to shoot it properly with levels on your mind to consume it in a classical way where a mid-shot or a long shot is treated, you need a proper rig set up.

Lens matters

Another important thing is picking your lenses. All phone cameras come with generic or default lenses. Those are actually good, but if you're going ahead with a sensitive kind of filmmaking, then you definitely require a lens adaptor. If you look at films shot in Hollywood, I see lens adaptors being used and you can actually add some vintage lenses into the iPhone. That way, your focus is very sharp, your depth of field is perfect and the coverage you get is correct in terms of image capture, image size and balance. So , picking a lens is also a tricky thing, because you'll have to research your equipment  and go to those renting it out. If you have some kind of a budget to rent at least a few lenses, it's perfect. 

Respect the camera

Always treat your phone camera as a cinema camera. You should not be like, "I'm shooting with a phone, my phone is my camera so I can do anything in that." Yeah you can do anything, but at least give it some respect because any kind of thing recorded in your phone is basically your raw footage. That's when your third party applications always help, because I see filmmakers and bloggers keeping their focus in the autofocus position and they have tracking markers on their frame. 

Know your phone well

The phone is not a professional device for filmmaking so if you have a decent know-how of operating these third party apps, you can go ahead and actually try shooting with manual focus. You can actually pull the exposure and focus and treat colour temperature with these third party apps. The menu and overlay system will function like a professional camera, so you can do all these adjustments there. You can even put up a LUT [Look Up Table] that's used as a view to see what's in the location. This is also to transfer footage for the grading stage.

Respect the medium

The last thing is to basically respect the medium. I started editing from the film age, when there was a kind of respect for film. It was basically because of the cost of film. To shoot four-and-a-half minutes of footage, we had to spend Rs 12,000 to Rs 30,000. Cameras were expensive, and so, directors used to do rehearsals and then go for takes. Now, there are no rehearsals, only takes, because footage is not that expensive. 

You should try to do it in a proper way where you have respect towards the medium. I've seen small camera attenders and filmmakers, they've thrown these SD cards out, saying Catch this buddy. It's not fair, even if that shot doesn't cost much, what's been captured in that card is priceless. You can't recreate that. That is the approach every filmmaker must take when you're shooting with a phone or any kind of indie equipment. 

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