As technology expands and improves, cell phones have become an increasingly popular method for viewing and recording video

By Julianne Mosoff

It’s a Wednesday night at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a group of students are crowded together watching a funny video that junior Elisabeth Brown made for her experimental film class. The class roars with laughter at Brown’s video, a clip showing a bunch of old women dancing at a wedding mashed up to a popular Britney Spears song. They applaud when the clip is over, and as the crowd disperses something interesting becomes clear: they were watching her video not on a computer, not on a television, not on a projector—but on right her cell phone.

In the past three decades, cell phones have morphed from large silicone bricks to pocket-sized multifunctional devices capable of just about anything. Cell phones can now do much more than just call and text—they can watch and record video, too.

On a YouTube clip viewed more than 1.4 million times, “David Lynch on the iPhone,” the unconventional American filmmaker is clear on his feelings about this new phenomenon: “Now, if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness, to think you’re seeing a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.”

Not everyone in the film industry, and especially the under 30 crowd, agrees. Picture and video quality on cell phones has increased exponentially, making images on all phones, not just the iPhone, clearer and more detailed than ever. Now, industry professionals are beginning to turn to the small screen as a serious medium for shooting and watching video.

“David Lynch is upset about anybody watching film and television or longer form genre projects on the phone,” says Karl Bardosh, an NYU Tisch School of the Arts professor and self-proclaimed cell phone cinema guru, “but I think in this case he was simply misinformed.”

Professor Bardosh is sitting in Dojo, a café nearby NYU where he often brings his film students for one-on-one meetings, sipping from a cappuccino. He is one of the primary figures in what he calls the cell phone cinema movement, and is currently taking a semester off from teaching to organize two cell phone film festivals in the Dominican Republic and Australia.

“It provides an option to the masses of people out there, because they’re carrying a phone in their pocket anyway!” says Professor Bardosh excitedly in his thick Hungarian accent. “It opens up all kinds of opportunities.”

Cell phone cinema has made it easy to plan, shoot, edit, and distribute films—all by using a device so small it fits right in your pocket. But it’s one thing to record and compile random video clips, like many cell phone users do, and quite another to actually plan out a cell phone movie that includes all the elements of traditional filmmaking. Anyone can play around with a cell phone and make a short movie, but  a number of people are taking the genre seriously and using it’s artistic and practical advantages to create great cell phone films.

Lorraine Grula, a professional videomaker and writer of videoproductiontips.com, almost can’t believe how far technology has come since she started in the field decades ago. “It’s just amazing to me that these teeny-tiny gadgets can, in some respects, do more than the 30 or 40 pounders I lugged around for years,” she says. “I think today’s cameras are totally amazing.”

There are a variety of people creating video with their phones, but all are made in pretty much the same way—with mobile phone cameras that are standard in almost all models. The newest phones shoot picture and video at up to 12 megapixels—comparable to a typical point-and-shoot digital camera—and some even record high-definition video. Video can be uploaded right onto a computer for editing, and now applications like Final Cut Pro for the iPhone and new Nokia models allow editing right on the phone.

Along with being functional, cell phone video cameras offer some unique advantages over the traditional video camera. They are easy to use, less expensive, require less set up and crew, and are much smaller and lighter. They can shoot both long and short films in any genre, and are often useful for capturing images and video of breaking news events.

Grula points out another advantage of the cell phone camera—their ease of mobility, which allows the cell phone videomaker to essentially film anything. “If you’ve got something like a teeny tiny camera, you can go anywhere. You have more mobility, you have more freedom, you have a lot more ability to get where you need to be,” she says. “It opens up a whole nother realm of things you can do.”

Obviously, there are also limitations when shooting with a mobile phone. Most phone cameras are not equipped with a digital zoom, and video shot with the handheld device is often not as steady. A number of gadgets are availability to improve the quality of footage, though, such as interchangeable iPhone lenses that zoom and external microphones that improve audio quality.

Mark DiCristofaro, a former student of a cell phone film class offered at Boston University in 2006, says that he and his classmates were able to overcome these disadvantages while shooting their projects. “We adjusted the way we filmed the series we shot in order to accommodate the medium we were shooting on,” says DiCristofaro.

For example, when working on the short web series about college students for class, DiCristofaro and his classmates attached the phones to rolling dollies that were used to get a steady shot, and would use small lights to illuminate each scene. Each student had a role in the production of the series, similar to a professional film crew with a director, cinematographer, and sound guy. They treated the medium as if they were shooting with a traditional video camera instead of tiny mobile devices, and found that their videos were just as good.

The beauty of cell phone cinema is that it allows anyone to try out a new art form and distribute their movies without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on equipment. With 285.6 million cell phone subscribers in the United States—91% of the population—according to CTIA – The Wireless Association, so the potential market is huge. And because of the easy accessibility of cell phones, users can watch videos at any time: while waiting for a bus, standing in line for coffee, or anywhere else on the go.

Some cell phone filmmakers enter their movies in mobile-made film festivals to gain recognition and sometimes even cash prizes. There are a number of film festivals specifically for cell phone films, showing that mobile-made movies are being taken as a serious viewing and recording medium. These film festivals often showcase shorts between 30 seconds and 3 minutes long and include the categories of comedy, drama, documentary, music videos, among others. Even the Sundance Film Festival now offers a section for films made for cell phones.

While many cell phone users learn how to create movies by trial and error, there have been a few college courses that teach filmmaking specifically for the mobile platform, such as the class that Mark DiCristofaro took. DiCristofaro says that learning how to shoot video with a cell phones and learning how to overcome particular challenges made him a better filmmaker overall. “I say without hesitation that working in that class has certainly contributed to my thought process in creating narrative work,” says DiCristofaro.

Professor Bardosh offered a similar class at NYU in the fall of 2009, where each student worked on individual video assignments. Elisabeth Brown, an NYU junior who took Professor Bardosh’s cell phone cinema, especially enjoyed making music videos and short comedy skits. “With a cell phone you can literally film any thing you want at any given moment,” says Brown. “It really says something about how far technology has come.”

NYU’s cell phone cinema class was also invited to participate in the Indian Film Festival in New York, where each student’s 1-minute film was shown on the big screen at the Quad Theater in front of over 250 people. “The theater was packed,” says Professor Bardosh, “and they were absolutely blown away that these short films caught on cell phones held up to regular theatrical projection!”

Andreas Allica, a former NYU film student who has worked closely with Professor Bardosh on a number of projects, stresses the point that cell phone videos don’t have to be watched just on the cell phone, they can be watched anywhere. “I think the innovation of cell phone videos has added to the ever-expanding accessibility of cinema,” he says. “You can shoot a video on your cell phone and then watch it on your TV, your computer, on your friends’ computers and cell phones.”

Even professionals are intrigued by the concept of cell phone video and are jumping on the bandwagon. “Quite a few established filmmakers are joining the camp,” says Professor Bardosh. “They find it fascinating and play with it for a while.”

Director Spike Lee teamed up for a year-long project with Nokia in 2008 to create a compilation video of short user-submitted cell phone clips, and actor and filmmaker Gary Oldman recently directed a music video using a Nokia N93 phone. Amateur filmmakers and established professionals have found that the most successful cell phone videos are often short—between 30 seconds and 3 minutes—and often comedic.

That’s not to say that a full-length film can’t be made on cell phones, though. Aryan Kaganof’s film “SMS Sugarman” was shot with 9 Sony Erikson phones, and the 87-minute long movie was the first full-length film shot solely on mobile devices. “SMS Sugarman” has received much critical acclaim and will next be screening at the British Film Institute, according to Kaganof.

Cell phones are also unique among filmmaking mediums in that they can also broadcast live video. After taking another sip of his cappuccino, Professor Bardosh pulls out his iPhone and opens up Ustream, one of his new favorite applications, and presses the ‘record’ button. He points the camera at himself and suddenly, he is being broadcast across the Internet. “This image can be seen all around the world—live,” he says.

And though the mobile device is smaller and less complex than a traditional film camera, a cell phone film can still show just the same amount of artistic vision. Grula points out that as long as someone’s got a great idea for a story and the tenacity to carry it through, they can make a good cell phone video that compares to one made on a video camera. “With the video you take on your cell phone in the end, the viewer isn’t necessarily gonna know that it’s any different than if you did go in there with a traditional camera,” she says. “There’s not really any difference, you’re just working with a smaller machine.”

Cell phones are not expected to replace the traditional video viewing sources of movies, TV, and computer, but they certainly are taking their place as “the fourth screen.” And as the most portable and easily accessible, it seems that cell phones might even become the most prevalent screen there is.

“I want to emphasize again and again—this isn’t meant to replace anything, it is just an addition,” says Professor Bardosh. “It simply opens up more opportunities.”

Almost finished with his cappuccino, Professor Bardosh picks up his iPhone one more time and quickly pulls up the David Lynch YouTube video. He presses ‘play’ and watches it again, laughing as Lynch rails against the small screen that he is now appearing on.

“I understand that he’s concerned about the quality of image,” Professor Bardosh says, “but my question is this: Can he turn the tide of teenagers and mass consumers who simply ignore what he says and keep watching stuff on the small screen? I don’t think so. I don’t think just he himself can stop that movement.”

How to Make a Cell Phone Film in 5 Easy Steps

A cell phone film is much easier to make than a traditional film. Cell phone cameras are smaller, lighter, cheaper, and require less set up and a smaller crew, making it the most easily accessible medium for shooting video.

Mark DiCristofaro, a Boston University graduate who has had much experience with cell phone cameras, says that filming with a mobile phone was fun and also practical. “We were able to go wherever we wanted with the phone, and everything was on a smaller scale,” he says. “We had smaller lights, smaller tripods, smaller dollies, all that—there was little limitation as to where we could go and what we could do.”

You don’t have to be a film student to enjoy this new medium, though. With a little bit of work, anyone can make a great cell phone video that follows the elements of traditional filmmaking. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Plan

The most important part of any film is the story. “You can’t just take the cell phone and make a great video that somebody wants to watch if you don’t pay attention to your storytelling,” says videomaker Lorraine Grula. Figure out all of your elements—plot, scenes, characters, and write out a detailed script. You should pick a target length and genre—most cell phone videos are between 30 seconds and 3 minutes, and comedy videos seem to be the most popular.

Cell phone films should be planned out with a storyboard in the same way as a traditional film. The storyboard should show each shot you plan to shoot to tell your story and if it’s done right, you shouldn’t run into any problems while filming. The storyboard can be drown out from scratch on paper, or you could download and print a PDF of an already-made storyboard from a website. Apps like Storyboard Composer for the iPhone an also be downloaded to help with this stage.

Step 2: Shoot

Open up the video recorder on your phone and take a few test shots. Once you’re set up, you’re ready to assemble your actors into their places and call out, “Action!” You’ll probably want to shoot a few takes of each shot so you have options to work with when editing later. Follow your storyboard closely so you get everything you need for your film, but don’t hesitate to improvise  as you go.

There are a number of things you can do while shooting to make your cell phone video better. Grula recommends trying to remain as steady as possible—“You’re not gonna get good footage if you’re waving your camera around,” she says. You could build a dolly to hold your phone steady, or you could use a small tripod. You can also improve the audio by adding an external microphone, or improve the shot by attaching an interchangeable lens that allows you to zoom. If your cell phone doesn’t record for the full length of the shot you want to record, work with a partner—have her cell phone start filming as yours stops.

Step 3: Edit

Now that you have the shots you need, it’s time to start editing them together. You can download the footage to your computer using a cable, and then edit it on iMovie or Windows Movie Maker. For the more advanced cell phone cinematographer, professional editing software Final Cut Pro is great for working with cell phone videos.

Some cell phone models even allow you to edit right on the phone. You can purchase the Final Cut Pro app for the iPhone and some new Nokia models, and if you’re looking to save some money, the Reel Director app for iPhone works similarly.

If you need for a different type of clip to tie your shots together or to set a scene that maybe you were unable to film yourself, you might want to check out stockfootageforfree.com, where you can download video clips to add to and enhance your project—for free! Make your film as cohesive as possible, making sure that each shot flows seamlessly into the next, as savvy viewers will certainly pick up on mistakes made in the editing state.

Step 4: Finish

You now have a mostly-complete film, but there are some finishing touches you can add to your film to make it even better. You could put music in some scenes to establish a mood by simply adding it right from your computer or iTunes account, or you could add in the ending credits.

Cell phones record video in all types of format—3GP, AVI, MOV—but you should probably convert your file to an MP4, a standard video file that ensures your film will display correctly on all mediums, whether on the cell phone or computer screen.

If you put your finished file on a DVD, you can watch it right on the TV, and you can even project your film onto a bigger screen. Generally speaking, bigger screens lead to less quality, but high-quality cell phone video cameras can compensate for this.

Step 5: Distribute

When you’ve reformatted your film, there are a number of ways to post it online. You can upload your video to YouTube or Vimeo from your computer, and you can also upload right from your phone with the push of a button—an advantage that no other filming medium has. Check out the Qik or Magnify Mobile apps for iPhone for another ways to get your movie up online.

Now, you should try to get as many views to your video as you can, and you might want to post a link on your Facebook or Twitter. The key is generate some buzz for your video so that you get as many pageviews as possible.  You might also want to do a quick Google search to see if there are any cell phone film festivals currently accepting submissions. Receiving critical acclaim from a film festival is a great way to earn recognition for your film, and some even offer cash prizes to winners.

Lorraine Grula is extremely excited about the possibilities that shooting by cell phone offers to young filmmakers, and thinks that just about anyone can follow these simple steps and make a great cell phone video. “The best advice for a young filmmaker is just do it,” she says. “Just get out there and do it.”