Historically, filmmaking has been pretty inaccessible to most people. Sure, you could grab your parent’s video camera and shoot some fun videos in your backyard, but the idea of creating a music video, short film, or feature film that would stand up to what the professionals were making was simply out of reach. Enter the smartphone. The status quo of the past 100 years of filmmaking was completely upended in less than 15 years. Today, everyone has the potential to be a filmmaker with nothing more than the phone in their pocket.
The advancement of smartphone technology, specifically in the past six years, is what helped legitimize mobile filmmaking. Look at Sean Baker’s feature film Tangerine, Steven Soderbergh’s features Unsane and High Flying Bird, Lady Gaga’s music video Stupid Love, or David Leitch’s iPhone11 commercial for Apple titled Snowbrawl and you’ll see examples that make the future of mobile filmmaking impossible to deny. We dipped our toes into the world of mobile filmmaking in 2020 as the world was in quarantine. We wrote an 8 episode web series called The Quarantine Files and, using only our phones, filmed ourselves and remotely directed our actors as they filmed themselves. You can watch the entire series here and we welcome your feedback!
If you’ve ever had the itch to pick up a camera and tell a story, now is the time to do it. We’re going to highlight some basic equipment that can help you elevate your visuals to the next level. We want to be clear that these are supplemental tools and none of them are absolutely necessary for you to get started. If you have a good script and a smartphone you have enough to start telling your story. However, if you want to invest a little money into a mobile filmmaking kit you can really kick things up a notch. It’s also worth noting that once you’ve shot your film if you need help editing, we offer customized editing services and would be thrilled to collaborate with you!
Our smartphones are incredible and most of them now shoot 4K video. Even with all the advancements, however, your control over the video settings is limited. We mentioned the app FiLMiC Pro in our article on the best software, tools, and resources for filmmakers in 2021 and this is still the primary app worth mentioning in this article. FiLMiC Pro allows you to control white balance, exposure, ISO, shutter speed, focus, zoom, resolution and aspect ratio, and so much more. It’s the closest you’ll get to turning your smartphone into a true prosumer camera.
While you don’t need a specialized app to start sharing your vision, FiLMiC Pro is an undeniably powerful tool to boost your production value.
Tripods / Mounts / Stabilizers
Holding your phone with two hands and getting your shot isn’t ideal. Yes, the internal stabilization in most phones is pretty good but the benefit of adding external stabilization to your mobile video kit will be noticeable in the final product.
One of the most basic tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal is a tripod. When it comes to mobile filmmaking, a flexible tripod is going to offer the most versatility. The advantage of having a flexible tripod is that it can be wrapped around or hung from just about anywhere, giving you incredible freedom to get those shots you may not have been able to get with a full-sized camera and normal tripod. Effortlessly stage your phone in a tree for a creative overhead establishing shot, mount it to the side mirror of a car to get an action shot, or attach it to a skateboard to get a unique dolly shot. Casey Neistat helped pioneer the skateboard shot by simply holding his camera on his Joby GroliiaPod as he sped through the streets of New York.
Joby GripTight Pro Video
Joby is one of the most trusted names when it comes to flexible tripods. Our recommendation is the GripTight PRO Video because of its quality and Joby’s available phone mounts with fluid pan and tilt capabilities.
A great alternative to the Joby is the Ulanzi MT-11. It offers many of the same features as the Joby, but just comes with a lighter price tag. Ulanzi also makes other quality smartphone-compatible filmmaking products that won’t break your bank.
In our opinion, Ulanzi’s best products are their smartphone rigs. These are extremely useful because they not only hold your phone steady but they allow you to add multiple attachments such as portable lights, shotgun mics, and sometimes even battery packs. The main benefit of mobile filmmaking is being mobile and camera rigs allow you to be just that. Plus, let’s be honest, they look really cool.
Ulanzi U-Rig Pro Smartphone Video Rig
Our suggestion is the Ulanzi U-Rig Pro Smartphone Video Rig. It fits a wide range of phones, has three cold shoe mounts on top, as well as two Universal 1/4″-20 threads that allow you to screw the camera mount onto the top of a tripod. This kind of versatility is what you want to look for when picking out mobile filmmaking equipment.
Beastgrip Pro Lens Adapter
An alternate camera rig is the Beastgrip Pro Lens Adapter. This is from a company called Moment, and they offer some quality mobile filmmaking gear, however, they also carry a hefty price tag in comparison to other companies.
In traditional filmmaking and in mobile filmmaking the look of a smooth, gliding camera is often a desirable style; where it almost looks like the camera is just floating along with the action. This look is most often achieved by using a stabilizer, also known technically as a gimbal. Out of all the items in this section, it could be argued that it is the most non-essential, but at the same time, it is without a doubt the coolest piece of equipment you can get.
The only mobile gimbal we’re going to recommend is from a company that has led the industry for years with its tech. From drones to gimbals no one does it better than DJI. We own the Mavic Pro drone as well as the Ronin-S gimbal for our main camera and it’s difficult to convince us to use anything else. DJI’s premiere mobile gimbal is the DJI OM4 and what they’ve been able to accomplish in four iterations of this product is nothing short of mind-blowing. It’s not cheap but it is priced very well for what you’re getting.
It’s said that nothing can kill a film quicker than bad audio. The same rule applies to mobile filmmaking. The on-board microphones in our smartphones have become almost unbelievable in regards to their quality, ability to filter out ambient noise and to automatically level sounds coming in. Chris Riggi provides an incredible example of this in his film Good Luck with Everything where he strapped smartphones to the actor’s bodies during filming. You can listen to Riggi discuss this technique on Noam Kroll’s podcast Show Don’t Tell. In this episode, he talks about how it’s taken him a long time to figure out how to implement this method, and, even with all his experience, the audio for his film still needed a good deal of manual leveling during post-production. Until you have the time to experiment with this approach you may need to go with a more traditional method of capturing audio.
Rode VideoMic Go & Rode VideoMicro
The audio company Rode makes some fantastic smartphone-based external microphones. The two you should look at are the Rode VideoMic Go and the Rode VideoMicro. Both deliver great sound quality and don’t take up a lot of space. The VideoMicro is the smaller of the two but don’t let its size fool you, it’s still a solid contender. The VideoMic Go is a little larger and has a better shock mount which helps reduce noise if it gets bumped or shakes while attached to the camera, but it’s about $40 more than the VideoMicro. It’s important to note that with either of these you’ll also need to get the Rode SC7 patch cable which converts audio into a signal that can be understood by your phone.
If you want to make sure you’re getting every nuanced line your actor is delivering then you’ll probably also need some lavalier mics. Rode smartLav+ gets our endorsement because the sound quality is great and it plugs directly into a smartphone without the need of any additional wires…unless you have a newer iPhone, in which case you’ll need one of those fancy headphone converters which you probably already have. If your actor has their phone on them, you can plug directly into their phone, record their audio, and then have them send you the files after you’re wrapped. IT’S SO EASY!
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a normal camera or a smartphone camera, additional lenses don’t come cheap but they can often mean the difference between something looking good and something looking spectacular.
Moment Anamorphic Lens – Blue Flare
The normal smartphone camera has a very basic lens baked in, but if you’re looking to get creative, we’d suggest heading back over to Moment to take a look at their available lenses. In this realm, they’re consistently considered one of the best smartphone lenses you can buy. Again, they don’t come cheap and, unfortunately, you will also need either a mounting plate or a special Moment phone case that allows for their lenses to be attached. If you think you may go this route, we propose getting one of their anamorphic lenses which will give you a wider field of view and that cinematic look that everyone desires.
Xenvo Pro Lens Kit
If the cost of the Moment lenses is a little too steep for you at this point, our alternative is the Xenvo Pro Lens Kit which comes with a wide-angle and a macro lens that clip onto your smartphone so you don’t need to buy any extra equipment or adaptors.
Extra Battery Power
Running your camera for a few hours, with a microphone plugged in, and potentially using the FiLMiC app is definitely going to drain your phone’s battery. For this reason, we strongly advise figuring out a way to have some extra juice on set. Since phones vary so much, it’s hard to recommend something specific. What we can suggest is finding a phone case that will automatically charge your phone without using up your connection port. That port is prime real estate when you start to build out your mobile filmmaking kit. If that’s not possible, then make sure you invest in a portable charger or power bank.
The items we’ve talked about here can do wonders to make your projects look and sound amazing. However, as we said at the beginning of the article, and as so many filmmakers and storytellers have echoed throughout the years, your equipment doesn’t matter. Don’t wait until you have all the fancy gadgets and shiny toys to try mobile filmmaking and start telling your stories. If you have the idea, pick up any camera you can get your hands on and start filming!