May 23, 2019 | 66° F

iPhone film cottage industry expands with 'High Flying Bird'

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There are plenty of variables to consider when trying to craft a compelling cinematic experience. There are multiple different film camera types as well as editing processes, not to mention the difference between digital and film, Technicolor or Super 8 format. 

“High Flying Bird” is a sports drama flick that was released into the United States two weeks ago on Feb. 8 on Netflix. The story renders the upward climb toward better aspirations and higher glory for Ray Burke, a more socialized rendition of Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire, from the movie of the same name. 

Ray is played by Andre Holland, who is known for acting as the long-lost love interest in the critically lauded “Moonlight,” which took home many top accolades in 2017. Excellent actors aside, the way the film itself was shot may be more impressive.

The film is shot using the new iPhone 8, which can be detected in distinct color tones and angles throughout the film. The director, Steven Soderbergh, is known for directing movies such as the “Magic Mike” series and the 2000 biopic “Erin Brockovich.” 

This is not Soderbergh's first film shot using the iPhone, as “Unsane” came out back last year in February 2018. It was first screened as part of the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival, where he was enthusiastically received for combining the iPhone's distinctive optics with the psychologically tense story at hand. 

In “High Flying Bird,” the visual tonality of the smartphone camera keeps the characters close at hand. Oftentimes it feels like they're in on a secret that the audience is peering into as well. Not unlike a sports-esque huddle, the effect creates an intimate atmosphere, as two men consider their options and current trajectories into the world of professional basketball. 

The angles are often shot from the range of the actor's naval, which force the viewer to view them from below, creating a more domineering or overeager energy. The dialogue fits refreshingly well here, as the conversations often revolve around the high stakes involved. The angle and spacing making it very different than “Unsane,” where the camera often creates a dizzying, claustrophobic fish-eye lens perspective. 

Soderbergh's usage of a smartphone comes with particular equipment to help structure the shots. Devices such as the DJI stabilizer allows the camera to stay completely stable, but the trick to consider is that Soderbergh made these iPhone-based films using three rotating cameras to capture different angles. Soderbergh's reputation as a forward-thinking filmmaker can be considered optically innovative, and his interview with “The Hollywood Reporter” notes that his goal was to find "the best way to maximize eyeballs." 

“High Flying Bird” is one out of a multitude of new films using innovative new styles that utilize social media and smartphone techniques. The laptop-camera angle, Skype-structured film “Searching,” was directed by John Cho, and the 2018 thriller uses different vantage points in the form of video chat-inspired storytelling. This brings hope to many rising filmmakers, especially those with student budgets. Many films require huge payrolls to supply an army of cinematographic equipment, manpower and specialized skills.  

New formats are constantly a telling sign of a growing, daring community of artists, with the relationship between technology and creativity providing endlessly new streams of productivity. They promise more variety and strength in storytelling due to ending conventional limitations. Soderbergh's film is not without a strong narrative — its plot and substance engaging and filled with high pressure situations. “High Flying Bird” provides a framework for how future artists can deploy their craft with the freedom of a budget that can fit in the size of what's already in their pocket.

Haolun Xu

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