If you still needed convincing that smartphone cameras are more than capable of professional results, “Romance in NYC” may do the trick. Shot not only entirely from the a single character’s point of view, but using nothing more than an iPhone 6 and a selection of apps and accessories, the 15 minute short was crowdfunded on Kickstarter in late 2014 and is now making the rounds of the festival circuit. I caught up with director Tristan Pope to find out what made him put down his pro-camera kit for a smartphone, how the iPhone 6 delivered in unexpected ways, and why he ended up wearing a GorillaPod like a Hannibal Lecter mask.
Pope previously worked for Blizzard Entertainment, doing cinematic work and cut scenes for the studio after he made a name for himself through a series of popular Machinima movies. After five years there, he decided it was the right time to do more live video work, and moved back to the East Coast.
Just as the iPhone has something of a track record in being used for serious videography in its various incarnations, Pope himself is no stranger to the handset. An earlier feature, “Dancers of New York,” was also recorded entirely on an iPhone 6, using 240 FPS slo-mo, and shot and edited in just four days.
SlashGear: Beyond convenience and affordability, what appealed about using an iPhone rather than a more traditional camera?
Tristan Pope: The decision to shoot with the iPhone was inspired by our previous film “Dancers of NYC”. During that shoot I saw one of the dancers running toward the sun as I was still accidentally filming. What I saw sparked in me a fire I knew I had to fuel; a story about romance I had been sitting on for a long time, unsure how to achieve it with my current equipment, in that moment i saw a glimpse of a moment I had imagined before. The ability to capture beautiful picture on a medium that was both small in form factor and could capture image quality I found acceptable seemed to be in my hand finally.
Sure I own many prosumer cameras, but I always felt they were just too big and invasive for this particular film idea. To achieve the right intimate, candid feel, I felt I had finally found my medium, the iPhone 6.
For years I had been sitting on an idea for a film that could capture that “everyday” between a boyfriend and his girlfriend. I have notes all over my journals and in documents on my computer dating back to 2007, each with a different moment from a day that I loved and wanted to re-create. I have loved to shoot home videos ever since I was a young boy. I was always the person who captured the family movies and was able to do so in an inconspicuous way that really captured, in my eyes, the essence of my family.
This bled over into my relationships; I would capture small moments during a relationship with my phone and after awhile I had enough to cut together a cute romantic piece that could depict our love for one another over the months or years we had been together. It was these small moments of each day that made a pretty montage.
Being inspired by that relationship and randomly filming clips on my phone of our days and ending up just throwing together a cute video for her when she went away for the holidays kept me going, knowing it could be done, and ultimately sparking that light in my brain that the iPhone may be the best weapon of choice. But these were snippets, tiny moments, not telling a complete story, but a feeling. It was intimate, cute, and very personal. I wanted this to feel the same way, but dressed differently, as a complete story from beginning to end. What I wanted was an entire day!
SlashGear: There’s a variety of mounts and video accessories out there for the iPhone, why did you make the choices you ended up making, and is there anything you wished was available or that you’d done differently?
Tristan Pope: Even though we were shooting on an iPhone 6, the basics of film still apply. So for natural motion and movement you use a Glidecam for sure. This was our go to for any walking, running shots. It was important that myself and the actress [Rachael McOwens] could be playful but not give the audience vertigo. It added a smoothness to the shots but also retained that natural bob so not to feel like “the boyfriend” was on rails.
The Blackwing was great for more stationary shots, acting as an easier way to hold the phone steady, with the gun-handle grip just allowing for less shake and easier push and pull movements, especially for the “kissing”, considering how close we had to get the camera to the actresses face. The GorillaPod was a backup device that ended up stealing the show if you ask me.
Other than that we had multiple brackets (thankfully because we broke 5, the RetiCam mount being the most durable go-to one we used) to hold the phone on any rig, tripods, monopods, and shoulder rigs that we would use for shots here and there when it called for it.
One piece of equipment I wish I would have had, although looking back was glad I didn’t, was the Fly-X3: The Handy Motorized Phone Stabilizer. This thing is basically a motorized version of rails you can carry. It is quite amazing how smooth it makes motion, and it was released the day of our first shoot day. However, looking back I realized it was just my nerves talking about being able to portray the proper amount of shake to the shots without dizzying the audience. Unless we had a roller skating scene, it would have been way to fluid and unrealistic, almost video game-esque.
Oh and gaffer/duct tape.
SlashGear: You use a GorillaPod in a pretty unusual way – how did you come up with that idea?
Tristan Pope: This piece of equipment was a backup source of stabilization for the iPhone, but ended up being instrumental in such an unexpected way. We coined the term “Boyfriend Angle” throughout the film. It was holding the camera just slightly higher than my own eye level to give that “comforting feel”.
What the Gorillapod allowed was the ability to almost attach it to my head via two of the legs and still have one for stabilization. This made head turning and head bob very natural as well as a great viewfinder where I could look through it as I walked as my own view.
As for how we came up with it? On the first day of filming, I realized I needed a free hand when I walked into the storefront with the actress and I was getting too much shake from all other rigs I had, and I have been blessed with really steady hands. So I was just sitting there kinda scratching my head and getting nervous so obviously I had the GorillaPod in hand, bending it all over the place to release tension.
I said to my assistant Natalie Johnson, I wish I had a VR headset I could put the phone in or I should just strap this thing to my head, jokingly. We both kinda looked at each other and said.. hmm why not! And thus the Borg Rig was born.
It was amazing how well it stabilized with the 2 arms on my head and the one in my hand, still giving me access to my other. It also gave a really natural motion bob for that first person perspective we were trying to make as natural as possible. This whole film had these “ah-ha!” moments that really ended in awesome results! I would say some was luck but most was a very creative team working very closely together to make this a reality.
SlashGear: You mention that a mobile shooting rig meant you could be more improvisational in how you filmed. Could you give an example of how shooting on a phone allowed you to be more flexible “in the moment”?
Tristan Pope: To be able to get shots at a minutes notice, no huge setups, gave us more time to focus on the improvisational aspect of the script. Shooting on the iPhone created a “bubble” for me and the actress to work within, focusing more on the story than the technical aspects of it all.
We shot in many locations that were heavily populated such as the subway, clothing stores, restaurants, and all around us people were non the wiser as to what we were up to. We took up such a small footprint that we could get away with so much more, because we weren’t bothering anyone. No one was in a rush to kick us out – even if the store owners were extremely nice to let us use their places of business with prior consent, any film crew will overstay their welcome eventually.
Plus we had no one trying to get into the shot and yell “Hi Mom!” as well, and the businesses could go on as they normally would because we didn’t require the entire premises for crew and equipment.
We had a general outline, getting us from point A to B, but the true magic happened when we were tired, spent from the days of shooting, and just interacted naturally.
No lens changes, heavy equipment, just pulling the phone out of my pocket was freeing. Rachael was amazing at being able to snap into character as well when that camera went up to my face; she would immediately look at the lens instead of me even if what I was capturing was the conversation we were in the middle of, which ultimately made it feel very very real.
Keeping the camera rolling for those moments was key, capturing true interactions and true friendships that we had formed, which I would say is what a real relationship is in the long run, a strong bond and friendship. The iPhone allowed me to keep it on me as my eyes at all times, ready to go when I saw something really interesting.
SlashGear: Playing Devil’s advocate for a moment, the iPhone 6 isn’t the highest resolution phone-camera out there. What made you pick it rather than, say, a 4K-capable phone?
Tristan Pope: The iPhone’s limitations such as low light and resolution (which I had the option, via the MoviePro app I used to film the entire film, to shoot in 3k with) and certain situations made looking at dailies a scary exercise in not being OCD. But as we continued to shoot I realized it wasn’t about the grain in a shot but about the way ”the girlfriend” would look into “the boyfriend’s” eyes and how we could use the iPhone’s limitations to our advantage, maintaining the suspension of disbelief during post, with some truly interesting and unique cutting sequences.
Our choice of the iPhone was because its camera and glass are still the best on the market. A story is a story whether you view it at 1080p or 4K, and the iPhone 6 had what we needed to get it done, plus a time and time again proven track record with capturing great quality footage consistently. On any set that is worth its weight in gold.. or space grey.
It doesn’t mean we didn’t look at the competitors, we did; we even had GoPro’s on standby if we were in trouble. Lucky for us, the camera and iPhone just worked the entire time. Specs do not mean much if the hardware and software don’t line up.
With the combination of the hardware Apple provides and the app MoviePro – being able to lock ISO was a HUGE one, this saved us on our last day of shooting where we lost the light due to cloud cover and needed to match footage with minimal lighting setups – we were able to push the camera to the limit, gaining 50mbps 60fps 1080p video to capture one of the smallest nuances of the human experience, romance.
The most important thing to remember is that no matter what medium is being used, the basics of filmmaking still apply. But with any new medium, it is even more important to not lock myself into filmmaking 101 and push the boundaries of the techniques and processes I have learned over the years.
Be creative. Embrace the fact that your camera won’t shoot 4K resolution RED footage and play. Enjoy the small form factor to get those shots otherwise impossible on a large camera, while embracing the suspension of disbelief.
“Romance in NYC” is currently in the festival circuit, and being judged for multiple festivals globally including TriBeCa.
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