On first hearing that American indie filmmaker Sean S. Baker’s latest feature was shot entirely on three iPhone 5s smartphones, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was something of a marketing ploy. Or even some sort of marketing deal with Apple, featuring logo’d products in every frame. But it’s not.
So much so that Baker didn’t even reveal the sole use of iPhones until he introduced his film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. If he hadn’t mentioned it at all, you’d also be forgiven for assuming that it had been, in fact, filmed on a regular, bigger and more expensive piece of equipment.
Such is the quality of it.
Apple have had nothing much to do with it at all, actually. Following the release, those involved did do some Apple Store talks which also led to the cast getting iPhones, but that’s about it.
Tangerine was shot over the course of a month in Los Angeles, during the winter, and set on Christmas Eve, featuring unknown actors and was filmed without much of a stir (shooting on iPhones can be incredibly stealthy). Indeed, they couldn’t afford to section-off areas they wanted to shoot in, though they did get all the correct permits, or even set up in the traditional way.
Apart from interior portions of the shoot, where ceiling lights were manipulated, only natural lights were ever generally used. This was a guerrilla project using equipment you could carry round in your pockets.
‘It really started as a financial decision,’ said Baker in a recent interview with MacWorld. ‘We were stuck with a very tight budget, and I was exploring many different options. I came across a Vimeo channel that focused on iPhone experiments. I was very impressed.’
By using the FiLMiC Pro app, Baker and his team avoided the exposure constantly changing at random, which would normally be a major stumbling block to shooting something on a smartphone.
They also used Moondog Labs Anamorphic Adaptor, to give themselves around 2.40:1 aspect ratio rather than the standard 16:9, and the Steadicam Smoothee. Such iPhone 5s compatible devices allowed Baker to elevate the visuals to near cinematic levels, at the fraction of the price of those used in more usual productions.
One of the most important aspects for Baker, however, was the sound quality. ‘We did use professional sound,’ he said. ‘Young filmmakers interested in doing this, don’t think you can get away with using recorded sound on the iPhone. You have to record it separately.’
Irin Strauss, Tangerine’s sound man, used a 664 recorder for the sound, as well as a Schoeps CMIT5U shotgun microphone, a Lectrosonics SMV wireless system for his transmitters, and Sanken COS-11D lavaliers. Plus, he also made use of a T-powered Schoeps CMC 4U for locations with low ceilings.
Despite such an experimental approach, however, the idea for the film came to Baker a long time before he ever considered using the iPhone. His desire to tell a story set in LA’s unofficial red light district, specifically about the transgender subculture community, led to eight months of going out on the streets and meeting the people on the scene. Baker himself is originally from New York.
He soon came across Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, two aspiring transgender actors, who would go on to play the lead characters. They became his unofficial guides to everything in a community he had no first hand experience of. He’d been inspired to make the film after moving to Hollywood and overhearing a conversation in a doughnut shop near his home.
Before agreeing to take part, however, Rodriguez wanted Baker to (taken from an interview in The Guardian) ‘promise to show the harsh reality of what goes on out here. These women are here because they have to be, and I want you to make it hilarious and entertaining for us and the women who are actually working the corner.’
Such a promise would be asking a lot of a director whose previous work includes Four Letter Words and Starlet, essentially very downbeat and gritty dramas. But Baker soon realised it was the only way he could tell the story, which, in his words, as he told The Guardian: ‘would present these characters to mainstream audiences in a pop culture way, so that they could identify with them.’
It was about reaching the mainstream, and how much more mainstream is an iPhone?
To further achieve the desired pop-culture look, in post production Baker over-saturated the colours to reflect the colourful characters he was showcasing. Usually, he makes use of washed-out and undersaturated palettes. ‘This was more about setting a style,’ he said, but he also wanted it, like any film, ‘to be colour corrected properly and professionally.’
Ironically, however, as well as not initially revealing that the film was shot on such an everyday device, in the promotional image we simply see a silhouette of Baker’s two leads, neither revealing that they are transgender or that they are, in fact, women of colour. The official synopsis he released also makes no mention of this.
Everything it seems was done to maximise the everyday appeal and to highlight the fact these characters, though not necessarily what is considered ‘mainstream’, indeed have just as much appeal as anything else.
And it’s certainly been a critical hit, with a 94% ‘Certified Fresh’ rating on film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, while the distribution rights were quickly bought by Magnolia Pictures.