Excuse Me, I Think Your Camera is Ringing — Mobile Devices in Movie Making

by | Sep 4, 2013 | Essays | 0 comments

By James Mathers, Cinematographer and President of DCS

JM LitByPhone

Photo by Mark Forman — Lighting by iPhone

My friends at Zacuto took some flack last year as they showed documentary coverage of a Camera Evaluation project they organized and sponsored under the supervision of longtime DCS member, the renowned DP, Bruce Logan, ASC. The program was set up as a “blind” test, where a particular shot was done with a variety of cameras, then projected back to back without revealing which camera had shot which takes. The cameras ran the gamut of cost and quality, from a Sony F65, Alexa, RED Epic, as well as Canon and Panasonic HDSLRs; interestingly, they also included an iPhone.

Different Cinematographers who had experience and were comfortable working with the various cameras were allowed to do a little relighting for each shot. The idea was to help compensate for any weaknesses of the lesser quality cameras which generally needed more exposure and less contrast in the lighting. Detailed notes were taken of the additional resources needed to make the best looking shots, both on the set and in color correction. According to the documentary’s Producers, Zacuto’s Steve Weiss and Jens Bogehegn, the test was designed to show that it was the talent of the Cinematographer that really determined the quality of footage, more so than the tools they were using.

I was honored to be in attendance with many distinguished DPs and leading Cinema Technology executives at the Los Angeles premiere of the footage, screened in 2K at Hollywood DI. The lights came up after the screening and the audience was quizzed, both verbally, and asked to match on a paper survey which takes, listed as “A” through “E,” were shot with each camera. Having a lot of experience shooting both RED and Alexa, I was able to pick those two out pretty easily, but like most of the crowd, I was guessing at the rest;(and remember, this included one of the arguably best Digital Cinema cameras ever produced, the F65, along side an iPhone!). It was enlightening, and I think it made the Producers’ point that a great DP, who knows his craft and the limitations of his tools, can make any camera look good; even an iPhone.

There were those in the very prominent audience, however, who were angered at the Producers. They seemed to feel, (and I can see their point,) that if word gets out that you can shoot acceptable footage with a tool as inexpensive as an iPhone, other Producers will make that the benchmark for what we are allowed to work with. This ignores the fact that working with lesser tools takes more time on set and in Post to get similar results, and that these kinds of adjustments may work in a controlled studio situation, as here, but could be much more troublesome on location. Still, you can make a movie on a iPhone, or other brand, and the cameras in these phones just keep getting better and better. Filmmakers will tend to use whatever they have access to in order to tell their stories, so we are bound to see more mobile device acquisition. More than one feature has been created this way, and there is now an entire film festival devoted to this kind of movie short subject called the Rev Up Cell Phone Film Festival.

Electronics manufacturer, Acer has just announced their new Liquid S2 which will feature the first 4K Camera in a smartphone, and Apple is widely expected to announce major new smartphone technology at their September 10th press conference.  Longtime Friend of DCS, Schneider Optics has even come up with the iPro Interchangeable Lens Kits specifically designed for the iPhone. Offering 2x Extenders, Wide Angles, Macros, and Fisheye Lenses, it uses a bayonet mount to securely fasten onto the included iPhone custom case. The iPro handle can attach to either side of the case and serves as both a tripod mount and a case for all the lenses.

Thankfully, I have access to top quality tools, so I’ll stick with a real Digital Cinema camera, (thank you very much;) but having an internet-connected computer in your pocket, which is essentially what a smart phone is, can be very helpful to a Filmmaker in a huge variety of ways. Lets look at some of the great apps and new techniques using smart phones and tablets in making movies.

IPhone 5 34L Black PRINTWhile many apps are available in other popular mobile operating systems, and Apple OS devices are not the most popular worldwide, in the creative community, they are very well established, so allow me to concentrate on apps for the iPhone and iPads. Having just celebrated our 10 year anniversary, the Digital Cinema Society predates these Apple mobile devices. Yet in that handful of years over 500,000 apps have already been downloaded some 18 billion times from the Apple websites, iTunes and App Store. It’s not only a communications device; it can be used for everything from a flashlight to a cine-calculator, a wireless monitor to a level, an exposure meter to a compass, a slate to a test chart; the uses expand every day and start to seem limitless. I can’t say I’ve had a chance to properly evaluate them all, but below are listed some Apps I use, which have caught my eye recently, that I think are worth Filmmakers knowing about.



– Probably the most established of the electronic Cine-Calculators is the pCam developed by longtime First AC, David Eubanks. Its utility goes far beyond the traditional depth of field calculator and hyper focal distances; (for those not in the camera department, the hyper focal is the area with the largest range of focus, and the lens perimeters, including focal length, f-stop, and distance settings to achieve it.)  It does all sorts of formats, and also has field of view, exposure, running time, HMI safe speeds indicators, etc., etc., etc.. Available on iTunes App Store at $29.99.


Toland ASC Digital Assistant


– A worthy competitor to the pCam developed in partnership with the ASC is the Toland ASC Digital Assistant. Named after the legendary ASC cinematographer Gregg Toland, who shot Citizen Kane, it has many of the aforementioned features with updated details for particular popular Digital Cinema cameras. Available on iTunes App store at @ $39.99.


Kodak Cinema Tools


– An app with many of the aforementioned cine-calculator functions is offered free of charge courtesy of Kodak. Beyond such things as depth of field, this app also emphasizes film footage calculations, and includes a comprehensive glossary of film terms, and the “Kodak Contact Tool,” that tells you everywhere in the world how you can purchase stock and get technical information on their products. Available FREE on iTunes App store.




– Another useful and very established cine-ap is the Helios Sun Position Calculator. It graphically charts the position and angle of the sun from dusk to dawn, on any given day in any geographical position, making it an essential scouting and shooting tool for the Cinematographer on exterior locations. It even works without network connection, which I’ve found handy on some very remote locations. I only wish it had been around in the 1970s when I had an assignment to capture a perfect sunrise locked off on a very long lens that would later morph into one of the glowing orange balls of the Master Card logo. We had to get up in the middle of the night for about a week, driving out to the desert, setting up in the dark, only guessing where the sun would pop up, before we found the right pre-framing for the shot; with Helios, it would have been a breeze. Available on iTunes App store at $29.99.

Storage Calculators:

A popular tool on the set and into post are the new breed of Storage Calculators, with guides to how much space you will need to record and back up various formats based on Resolution, Frame Rate, and Compression. Sadly, one of these early Apps that I got a lot of use out of, “iSee4K”, is no longer available. It was free, but when the developer didn’t pay to renew his license with Apple, it was pulled from the store. It was focused almost entirely on the REDone, but if you happen to have previously downloaded the app, it is still useful on the Epic for simple, easy to understand, perimeters of RED data management.


AJA DataCalc


– Fortunately, AJA picked up the slack and offers a very well rounded storage calculator, and you can’t beat the price: FREE. It also covers many more formats and codecs and is really quite useful for any type of data management. Available FREE on iTunes App store.

PreViz Apps:


Artemis Director’s Viewfinder


– I haven’t had a chance yet to use this app, but it sounds interesting. You take a photo from your iPhone/iPad camera then use overlays to visualize estimated field-of-view for various lens sizes and aspect ratios. I’m not sure it would substitute for a real Director’s Viewfinder, but it could be a useful previsualization tool without lugging around a bunch of glass. Version 6.4 is available on iTunes App Store at $29.99.


Shot Designer


– The Hollywood Camera Work company has come up with a great tool called Shot Designer to help block complex scenes, complete with Camera Diagram, Animation, Shot List, Storyboards, Director’s Viewfinder, and Sync & Team Sharing via Dropbox. Shot Designer also features an integrated Director’s Viewfinder as both a storyboard replacement, and location-scouting tool. Shot Designer is Available on iTunes App Store free to use on a single scene at a time. $19.99 Pro Upgrade adds File Management, Mac/PC Pro Version, Sync & Team Sharing via Dropbox, PDF/Excel Export, Scene Freeze, and more.

Exposure/Green Screen Lighting Tools:


Cine Meter


– Our own DCS Advisory Board member Adam Wilt has come up with a great metering tool that is particularly helpful for lighting of greenscreen. It’s called “Cine Meter,” and using the built-in camera of your iPhone/iPad, provides a shutter-priority reflected light meter, an RGB waveform monitor, and a false-color picture mode. It also shows you at a glance how evenly your greenscreen is lit, and where high-contrast hotspots and shadows may give you trouble. It is not, of course, a substitute for your Spectra, Minolta, or Sekonic full function light meters, but it is a another very useful tool to have available, and it really helps when lighting a green or blue screen. Can’t go too far wrong for $4.99 from the iTunes App Store.




– Another metering tool geared even more towards helping to perfect green screen lighting is called GreenScreener. You can lock the auto-exposure and compare luminance of the Red, Green, or Blue channels with a Lo/Mi/Hi selection for 2-stop, 1-stop, or 1/2 stop to show up variations. You can also tap anywhere on the green background to set an exposure target to match. Available at $9.99 in the iTunes App Store for iPad, iPhone and elsewhere for Android phones and tablets.

Streaming and Dailies Viewer:




– There are probably other Apps used for streaming and viewing dailies, but our friends at Light Iron have really gotten it right with their LIVE PLAY, a digital playback and on-set collaboration tool that lets users view, share, and comment on clips from their iPads. LIVE PLAY allows for immediate review of H.264 content served via the free server application, LIVE PLAY Server (downloadable at www.lightiron.com). Key production personnel have the ability to efficiently review camera takes or pre-visualizations independently from one another wirelessly and in HD. It also has the capability to “tag” clips with custom notes, which can then be passed on to Post. For instant playback of captured clips, LIVE PLAY can be paired with Teradek’s CUBE H.264 transmitters (http://cube.teradek.com/). LIVE PLAY credits include The Amazing Spider-Man, Total Recall, and Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Light Iron’s answer to sending Dailies home with the Filmmakers is for them to check out preloaded iPads which are reloaded with new footage content as the shoot progresses, much faster and at higher quality than the traditional DVD dailies. LIVE PLAY is available for $9.99 from the iTunes App store, but some of the noted services may be only available from Light Iron.




 – It may not take the place of TimeCode Slate, but an App like FilmSlate can be very handy to have a small slate you can pull out of your pocket. It can serve as an insert slate, when shooting run and gun, or if you are shooting something small and don’t want to attract attention with a full-size slate. It features its own timecode, letting you set to time of day or manual jam-sync it. To slap the sticks you give it a quick flick motion or a screen tap. You can also email log notes with timecode notation Available at $4.99 in the iTunes App Store.


KeyFrame Camera Report


– KeyFrame is designed to replace traditional paper camera reports, while integrating critical data and helping to bridge the communications gap that sometimes develops between editorial and production. Being on a mobile devices allows for quick e-mailing of notes, and besides the typical lens, duration, and scene number data, some features like GPS location data and using the iPhone to take angle and orientation readings seem like they could be very helpful. Available at $29.99 in the iTunes App Store.

iHandy Level and Clinometers:


iHandy Level, Clinometer HD, Clinometer+3


 – These and others are free or nearly free apps that allow the iPhone to serve as a level. For example, with a nominal in-app upgrade for 99¢, Clinometer+3 becomes a pretty serious tool in notating inclination for the purpose of matching VFX shots. It calibrates and launches quickly and replaces a inclinometer that used to cost several hundred dollars. Most are also available for iPad, and range from free to $1.99 at the iTunes App store.

Post Production:





Avid Studio


– Whether using Pinnacle Studio, (formerly known as Avid Studio for iPad,) iMovie, or other brands, filmmakers can definitely edit content on their mobile devices. These editing apps offer features such as 1080p support, integrated uploads to cloud services, and many of the other features Editors are used to having on their desktops all at very reasonable prices. Pinnacle Studio, for example is available at $12.99 from the iTunes App Store.




– TouchEdit is a frame-accurate video editing system for the iPad that uses timecode to export the project to other non-linear systems. I saw it demoed at the last San Francisco SuperMeet by it’s developer, Dan Lebental, A.C.E., an Editor who has cut such films as Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Cowboys & Aliens, to name only a few. Even if it weren’t for the fact that it is designed to be used on an iPad, it’s not your typical NLE. To perform edits, users have two monitors—a source and a record monitor—controlled by two corresponding touch controlled filmstrips. Users control the filmstrips by running their fingers back and forth across them, using gestures. Available at $24.99 in the iTunes App Store for a limited time only!


Weynand’s REV Up Transmedia Training


– Our old friend Shirley Weynand has come up with a number of post training and tip apps. For example, her iKeysToGo: Final Cut Pro 7, is a personal short cut assistant listing 800 keyboard commands, shortcuts, and definitions on your iPhone. iKeysToGo: Premiere CS6 offers the same sort of utility for the Adobe NLE. Ripple Training for Final Cut Pro X is an iPad App for in depth pointers on the latest workflows such as RED footage, multichannel audio editing, multicam editing and other real world workflow situations. All available on the iTunes App Store, from 99¢ to a whopping $2.99.



Dark Sky


– You can certainly check the weather report on any internet connected device, but Dark Sky, which was developed via a successful Kickstarter campaign, has very specific location based short term accuracy. It uses state-of-the-art weather satellite forecasting data to predict when it will rain or snow in your exact location, down to the minute with very detailed radar visualizations. It’s perfect for shooting in areas with volatile weather conditions, like for example, Ireland, where they say, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” It can literally be perfectly sunny, and five minutes later, it could be pouring rain, and then in another ten minutes, it might be back to beautiful weather. This app lets you see the storm front coming, track as it passes over your head, and see it on its way, all in real time. Available on the iTunes App Store for $3.99.

VFX Fun:


Action Movie FX App


– The Action Movie FX application comes from JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot company’s Interactive division. It is great fun to add Hollywood style Action Movie FXs to movies you shoot with your iPhone, iPad, or iTouch. A free version comes with two effects inspired by Abrams’ movie Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. A Missile attack and a car smash. There are a whole plethora of additional over the top VFX that you can buy for 99¢ for each two-pack.  You shoot a short video clip, then choose where to add the effect. It takes a matter of seconds to render, then you can view the comp, and share it via email or social networks. Starter pack available FREE on the iTunes App Store. (Warning, this may become addictive).

I know I’m leaving many of your favorite apps out, but the list just gets too long. Let us know of ones you would like us to cover and we may revisit with an update in a future eNewsletter. Until then, please remember to go into Airplane mode when you’re at the movies so your camera doesn’t ring and disturb other viewers. Mobile devices have done a lot to improve our lives, particularly in the Entertainment Industry, but that is one consequence Filmmakers can do without.

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