Smartphone cameras may be making impressive advancements thanks to computational photography and many innovations in sensor technology, but they’re still not chosen for taking professional photos and videos like we see in movies. that we rent and distribute. Dedicated cameras with large sensors and high-end lenses remain the obvious choice at this level, but smartphones and tablets have crept into the production process. Equipment manufacturers regularly come up with new ways to turn our handheld gadgets into must-have accessories for photography and filmmaking.
Hollywood has used gimbals for a long time, but for most of their history they were only used to minimize shaking and maintain a level horizon. However, gimbals for smartphones are responsible for the evolution of new features that have returned to larger gimbals.
The first is based on object tracking, a staple feature found in almost all modern smartphone gimbals from companies such as Zhiyun and DJI. It’s become a handy feature for solo vloggers that allows them to move around while the gimbal constantly reorients to keep them centered in the frame.
This capability has found its way into larger gimbals intended to hold DSLR cameras, particularly Zhiyun’s Weebill line. However, instead of relying on the main camera to perform object tracking and communication with the gimbal, a smartphone is mounted on top of the camera to fulfill this role. When the gimbal moves to keep the smartphone pointed at the subject, the main camera is there and keeps the subject in frame.
This gadget makes it possible to position a camera in dangerous or difficult to reach places without the operator being physically involved in pointing it at the actors, a car or any other element that may be in the center of the scene.
Freeform motion control
Another similar gimbal-based capability has evolved alongside object tracking, but this one doesn’t involve mounting a smartphone to a camera or anywhere on the gimbal. Instead, an app on a smartphone tracks its orientation and direction based on internal sensors. The app communicates these movements to the gimbal so they can be mirrored. This has become a popular feature of Zhiyun’s Crane and Weebill range and DJI Ronin gimbals.
Much like object tracking, this allows a camera to be placed in places that are not easily accessible, such as on top of a tall pole or the side of a moving car. The camera operator can be stationed nearby and out of harm’s way while spinning a phone in the air to control the orientation of the camera.
Automated sliders, jibs and more
Gimbals aren’t the only robots used in film. Sliders, jibs, heads, and various other contraptions have become smarter, more precise, and highly programmable. Many of them are operated by an app on a smartphone.
Over the past few years, companies like Edelkrone and Rhino have manufactured sliders, arrows, and other devices designed to move a camera in specific ways. They are often used to repeat camera movement, so they can capture two identical movements for special effects like cloning a person or making a person disappear from a scene.
Precision movement is also important for shots that require perfect timing because they are expensive to replicate or can only be done once. This is quite common when controlled explosions or props need to be destroyed in a scene.
There are many more powerful and elaborate bots used in Hollywood and advertising, but most of them are controlled by software on a laptop computer. However, we’ve seen MKBHD run one with an Xbox controller, so we’re probably not too far off from seeing phones controlling them.
Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) is highly regarded for creating special effects in famous films and series. The most famous of his recent creations is StageCraft, a sound set surrounded by walls and a partial ceiling made up of high-resolution LED panels that can dynamically change backgrounds and lighting. This was widely used during the production of The Mandalorian and Boba Fett bookas well as several others.
Scenes are developed on computer in 3D modeling software and rendered using Unreal Engine. One detail that often falls under the radar is that most on-set operations are done using iPads. Almost anything that needs to be managed while filming can be done on lightweight tablets that aren’t physically attached to anything. This allows the film crew to quickly change the angle of the digital environment and reposition certain objects while moving freely to assess camera angles. And because they use an off-the-shelf product, it’s inexpensive, scalable, and easily replaceable.
Control the lights
StageCraft is an impressive example of using tablets on set, but there are more accessible examples of remote control hardware in consumer gear. The most common of them are lights.
There are several examples, but Aputure is perhaps one of the most recognizable thanks to its investment in its control system called Sidus Link. The app allows users to control the intensity and color temperature (or the colors of an RGB light) of any connected light or group of lights. Capabilities are similar to home smart bulbs, like Philips Hue, LIFX and others. Aputure’s lights are more powerful and of higher quality.
Much like the benefits of some of the previous examples, the connectivity allows a cinematographer or DP (director of photography) to make lighting changes while standing behind the camera or looking at a monitor rather than to rely on wizards to manually change the settings on each light individually.
Monitors and remote viewing
One of the most obvious and easiest ways to use a smartphone or tablet is to use them as wireless camera controllers. Almost all modern consumer digital cameras on the market offer wireless connectivity with iOS and Android via apps that can view a live feed from the sensor and control basic functions and settings. However, the typical app experience is limited in functionality, giving way to tools that can do so much more.
In the field of architectural and real estate photography, the Cam Ranger has become one of the essential tools for capturing images from a distance. This is a fairly simple device that plugs directly into a camera and transmits a live feed to a smartphone or tablet. What sets it apart from the manufacturer’s standard app are several advanced features and automations for things like exposure or focus bracketing and timelapses. It generally has much better range and optimizations compared to most cameras, so it should outperform them at a distance.
Some cameras depend on another device to act as a viewfinder. Some of them, especially action cameras like GoPro or DJI Action, have either very small screens or no screen at all. Therefore, framing a shot can only be done using another device that can connect wirelessly to view a live video feed.
Although not technically part of capturing an image, audio is an important and often overlooked part of producing a good video. There are a few solutions for capturing audio on set, but field recorders are almost always the obvious choice when you need something small and portable to plug into the other end of a microphone cable.
Most field recorders offer features to edit with standard filters or apply special effects, but they are typically used for recording. The majority will only be attached to a single mic, where they will travel with an actor or boom operator. However, filmmakers on a budget sometimes use smartphones as a free alternative to a field recorder. Earlier this year, we looked at a few microphones from RODE using only smartphones as field recorders.
This requires the use of a microphone with a digital output or a decent analog-to-digital adapter. Since it’s a digital signal by the time it hits the USB port, it usually doesn’t matter if it’s an old phone repurposed to do this job. All the necessary functions of a standard field recorder can be accomplished through a good recording application, and audio processing will be done on a computer during editing.
new movie props
Professional cameras aren’t going anywhere for a long time, and many of the best video streaming services require the use of specific cameras. However, our smartphones and tablets combine high resolution screens, wireless connectivity, powerful processors and numerous sensors to allow almost limitless interactions with other equipment. With the addition of some smart software, it becomes possible to redesign high-end equipment to make it cheaper, easier to use, and more efficient.