How Oscar Snub “Tangerine” Was Made With 3 iPhones, a Few Apps and a $100K Budget

January 19, 2016 • Blog Post • By Ari Karpel, WIRED Brand Lab


  • After debuting his iPhone-filmed feature “Tangerine” to great acclaim at Sundance in 2015, director Sean Baker continues to use technology to make a splash in Hollywood…on a budget

7 tech tools all indie filmmakers should have

When Sean Baker’s film “Tangerine” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, it blew up the notion of what a movie made on a phone could be. Baker’s boldly cinematic take on the lives of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles put to rest any assumptions that a smartphone is only good for capturing grainy, handheld shots. In fact, “Tangerine” is so bursting with saturated colors it’s hard to believe it was shot on an iPhone 5s.

Cellphones are just one tool in the vast array of technologies that are opening doors to aspiring filmmakers. From apps that turn your smartphone into an editing bay to social media sites that aid every aspect of production—even drones that can take aerial shots so sweeping they look like they were filmed from a helicopter—studio-quality filmmaking tools are out there now for anyone.


The art of iPhone moviemaking

Everywhere you turn, someone is filming on their phone, but most of those people’s “movies” won’t turn out like Baker’s because they don’t have his director of photography or the apps and anamorphic lenses that can maximize their phone’s shooting potential.

Truth be told, Baker didn’t actually want to shoot “Tangerine” on his phone. But without more funding he had no other choice; he made “Tangerine” for a mere $100,000. When he called Radium Cheung, his cinematographer, to tell him his decision, Cheung was filming the TV series “The Americans” on 35-millimeter film. Cheung was disappointed by the news, but he agreed to come “play” with Baker. “Oh, no,” cried Baker, “don’t use that word. The minute we think of this as anything less than, we have failed.” So they resolved to make a movie on their phones that looked like it was shot on film.

One essential tool was the Filmic Pro app. You know how your phone is constantly changing exposures based on available light? Filmic Pro, which costs $9.99, stabilizes exposures, focus and white balance and allows for a high compression rate. Baker worked closely with the people behind Filmic Pro, who now have a filmmakers’ production fund to help up-and-coming storytellers. He also happened upon a Kickstarter for Moondog Labs’ anamorphic lenses, which allowed him to convert the phone’s filming ratio to the widescreen 2.40:1 for only $175.

There’s at least one major plus to shooting on a phone: It’s stealth, which helps when shooting first-time actors who might be intimidated by a large camera and crew. And it can go in tight spaces. More recently, Baker shot a short film for the fashion company Kenzo using the iPhone 6, which at one point he placed in an out-of-the-way spot while he monitored what he was shooting from his Apple Watch.

The Kenzo project made clear to Baker how much that technology has progressed in just a year or so. “The latest anamorphic lenses from Moondog are even more sophisticated,” he marvels, “and we were able to shoot in 4K.”


Casting and scoring through the cloud

iPhones weren’t the only tools critical to “Tangerine’s” success. Baker turned to social media for many aspects of the film, including casting (Instagram, YouTube) and promotion (Twitter, Facebook) and sometimes simply for a diversion. “I was addicted to Vine at the time,” Baker says. “I was watching these six-second videos just to get by, to laugh a little.” That’s how he came upon Wolf Tyler, a Viner whose trap music—an aggressive sound with snappy snares and low-end bass—inspired the score of the film. “If I hadn’t found that one Vine that night, it would have been a very different movie,” says Baker, who captured the energy of the streets with this hyper-kinetic sound.

When it came to actually scoring the film, Baker found SoundCloud indispensable. “I originally told my producers, don’t even budget for music,” he says, because he thought they simply couldn’t afford it. But SoundCloud gives access to unpublished artists eager for exposure. “You can hear their work and reach out directly to negotiate a price.” “Tangerine”wound up with wall-to-wall music that even yielded a soundtrack on Milan Records.

Shooting with drones

Baker didn’t use drones on “Tangerine,” but he tried one out for the Kenzo short, and he’s hooked. Even with corporate funding, he didn’t have a big budget. They were shooting near the Salton Sea in the California desert and looking into hiring a drone operator to come out from Los Angeles. “We were pulling our hair out, worried about our budget and then, during a location scout, I was driving down the street and I saw a guy with a drone,” says Baker, who pulled over and asked if he could hire the man for some overhead shots. “That’s how accessible drones are.”

Drone use is becoming so common that there’s now a festival for it: The New York City Drone Film Festival. Drone tech is perfect for mid-range indies that have all-star casts but smaller budgets, such as the recent Drew Barrymore-Toni Collette movie, “Miss You Already”. You can see two aerial shots in the trailer, at 1:54 and 2:13—grand, sweeping shots accomplished with an unmanned drone.

Baker thinks that his next movie will be shot on film, thanks to the boost he’s gotten by making such an impressive work on a phone. “It’s not like I’m trying to start a movement,” he says of all the aspiring filmmakers who have been excited by what he’s done. “You have to show the industry you’re worthy. There are just so many tools out there right now, why wait? No one is going to make the film for you.”


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