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Mobile Filmmaking with iPhone, FiLMiC Pro, and Final Cut Pro

Oliver Peters runs through his shooting and editing iPhone workflow including using FiLMiC Pro and Final Cut Pro. 

Smart phones have ushered in an era of unprecedented mobile filming capabilities. My first inclination would always be to use pro cameras for serious cinematography and, barring that option, then some form of DSLR as a second choice. But it’s clear that the latest iPhone models have taken it well beyond just “the camera you have with you.” Whether for reasons of budget, being adventuresome, or just filming inconspicuously, modern smart phones, especially the iPhone, have made mobile filmmaking a viable option for many pros. Films by Sean Baker, Steven Soderbergh, and Damien Chazelle prove that point.

FiLMiC Pro for iOS and Android has been one of the go-to applications used to enhance the camera capabilities of the iPhone. Since its start, FiLMiC has expanded their offerings. FiLMiC Remote allows you to control and monitor FiLMiC Pro on your iPhone from a separate iOS device. DoubleTake records both the front and rear cameras for both sides of an interview or uses the multiple front cameras of an iPhone 12 for simultaneous angles. FirstLight is a still photo application that also goes beyond the internal photography app. It can work with an iPad, but the interface is optimized for the iPhone. With both FiLMiC Pro and FirstLight installed, you can easily toggle between the two from inside each application.

Getting started with mobile filmmaking

FCP OP Filmic iphone 10I’ve had FiLMiC Pro on my iPad for a few years, but mainly just for testing. I recently upgraded my phone to an iPhone SE 2020 with 64GB. That’s the base model with the A13 chip (as opposed to the A14 on the iPhone 12), but uses the same 12MP camera system as the iPhone 12. Camera limitations are a single lens, a few less features, and only 8-bit recording (10-bit is available on the iPhone 12). Video recording supports 4K up to 60fps, as well as slomo up 240fps at 1080 resolution.

This seemed like the ideal opportunity to revisit the idea of filming with the phone. I loaded FiLMiC Pro and added CineKit, which is an in-app purchase. This increases the dynamic range by adding flat and log modes (Log v2 for 8-bit recordings and v3 for 10-bit recordings on an iPhone 12). This article is not intended to be a FiLMiC Pro or iPhone tutorial. FiLMiC includes several quick start tutorials on their website, as well a downloadable user guide. For in-depth information, check out PhotoJoseph’s YouTube videos on the topic.

 

FCP OP Filmic iphone 4

 

The reason to use FiLMiC Pro, rather than the built-in video application, is its larger feature set. You can set various frame rates and aspect ratios, add a timecode track, set scene/take naming, and more. The biggest plus is control over manual or automatic levels, focus (including focus pulls), and color balance. With CineKit installed, gamma curves can be switched from natural to dynamic, flat, or log profiles. Save your settings as presets for quick recall.

FCP OP Filmic iphone 3

 

While DoubleTake is interesting for pseudo, multi-cam recording in a single device, I would recommend using multiple iPhones for a serious production. While you can record sync audio through FiLMiC Pro on the iPhone or iPad, I prefer a separate device for double-system sound recording. In keeping with our iPhone theme, I would suggest Apogee’s MetaRecorder (iPhone or iPad) app. This supports external mics and records in a manner friendly to Final Cut Pro. For example, you can assign audio roles.

Filming around town

My mobile filmmaking has been purely casual - filming around town on successive weekends. This gave me a chance to see how the iPhone SE and FiLMiC Pro fared under different outside lighting conditions - overcast, partly cloudy, full sun. I was shooting straight handheld without any extra attachments, like a cage, gimbal, or any external lens attachments. I relied strictly on in-camera stabilization, which yields excellent results.

Since I was going for a cinematic look, my base (playback) rate was 24fps and I opted to set the resolution at 3K with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Since this is all effectively MOS B-roll, I decided to shoot “over-cranked” at 30fps - meaning it recorded in-camera slomo. (Set the playback rate to 24fps and the record rate to 30fps.) This results in slightly smoother motion without everything being obviously slow.

FCP OP Filmic iphone 2

 

Whenever you stop a slomo recording, the iPhone has to retime the clip, while writing it to the drive. This retime step varies depending on the length of the recorded clip, Therefore, you can’t instantly stop and start recordings when shooting this way. Also, slomo clips do not have audio and will not write a timecode track based on time-of-day. The gamma curve is reset to “natural” (default setting) for any recordings over 30fps. If you decide to shoot some shots at 60fps, then be sure to reset your gamma profile when you return to the lower frame rate if you were using any of the other profiles.

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The quality setting I picked was FiLMiC Extreme with HEVC enabled for best results. My files had a data rate at about 60Mbps; however, this is a variable bit-rate codec, so you will see some compression artifacts. For example, some darker clips definitely suffered from compression noise and items like dark foliage on distant trees in a wide shot were obviously blocky and lacked definition. I don’t know whether that’s the codec, the software, or the iPhone camera sensor itself. In general, though, most shots did not suffer from objectionable compression issues.

At these settings, 65 minutes of 3K 24fps footage took up about 28GB of space. If you are disciplined in how you shoot and your phone isn’t already loaded up with apps and files, then 64GB of total capacity isn’t unreasonable for standard usage. Obviously, more is better if you want your iPhone to be a primary camera. FiLMiC Pro also enables a clean HDMI output, so you could route video to an external device, like an Atomos, and record in ProRes. This would require a Lightning-to-HDMI adapter, but I haven’t personally tested it.

Light and motion considerations

One thing to be very mindful of is light. In a conventional camera there are three factors to balance - ISO, exposure, and shutter speed. Exposure is controlled by the iris setting within the lens mechanism. Shutter speed is what gives you a crisp or a blurred frame. Standard film methodology is to shoot with a 180-degree shutter angle, which translates to a shutter speed of double the frame rate. That’s a shutter speed of 1/48 for 24fps and 1/60 for 30fps. This is part of what defines a “cinematic” look. Objects moving quickly across a horizontal plane - or during a pan - are slightly blurred while in motion. If you shoot at a high shutter speed, then each frame is crisper, which results in the type of effect seen during the Normandy invasion scenes of Saving Private Ryan.

FCP OP Filmic iphone 1

 

FiLMiC Pro lets you lock the shutter speed or the ISO, but there is no third exposure or iris parameter, because there is no conventional lens on the iPhone. So you are stuck with only two of the three variables. If you lock the shutter speed at 1/60, then under bright sunlight, the ISO cannot be lowered enough to avoid extreme overexposure. ISO 22 is as low as mine went and the image was still blown out.

There are two solutions. You can simply leave the shutter speed unlocked and live with the faster speed (and crisper frames). Then adjust the ISO manually or automatically for the best exposure. The better option for serious filmmaking is to purchase an external filter attachment for the lens and add neutral density (ND) filters to knock down the light intensity hitting the sensor. In addition, be mindful of time-honored pan speeds recommended for smooth filming at 24fps.

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In my case, I was shooting without any attachments and simply had to live with the results. Slow pans were fine. People walking through the shot looked fine. But, birds flying past or an excited dog being walked appeared too crisp for my taste. Adding a motion blur effect in post doesn’t appeal to me. It’s too artificial and doesn’t look the same as in-camera motion blur. Since my iPhone SE only has the single, wide-angle lens, there was also no shallow depth-of-field.

Post in Final Cut Pro

Back at home, I loaded the footage into the iMac. There are several ways to transfer files, but the easiest, though not fastest, is to AirDrop the files from the iPhone to the iMac. This took several hours for 28GB. I recommend doing this in small chunks rather than all the files at once. If you try to transfer 50-100 files at one time, AirDrop may fail or some files simply don’t get transferred. Take it slow if you use AirDrop and you should be fine.

iPhone files and Final Cut Pro are made for each other, especially when you use FiLMiC Pro, because the frame rate is solid. I occasionally work with iPhone files recorded with the built-in app, which uses a variable frame rate recording. This often results in sync drift of the audio. The FiLMiC Pro-generated files perform much like optimized files on a fast Mac.

FCP OP Filmic iphone 6

 

I shot 3K, but set up my project as a custom 2K 2.39:1 DCI format (2048 x 858). This gave me some room to zoom in if I needed it. This also meant most files were down-scaled from 3K to 2K, thus minimizing the appearance of any compression artifacts. Since these files were recorded with in-camera slomo, no additional retiming was required in post. However, you could also record at 30fps (record and playback), place the clips into a 24fps project, and use Final Cut’s retiming functions to slow the clips in post.

Grading for a film look

I filmed using the v2 log profile (except the few 60fps clips), since the iPhone SE is limited to 8-bit recording. FiLMiC’s flat and/or v2 log profiles do not appear as flat as other log curves, such as ARRI Log-C. In fact, many of the clips are useable without a LUT or color correction. (iPhone 12 10-bit recording using the v3 log profile is much flatter.) Like any camera’s color science, it takes a bit of experimentation to see what color correction works best, especially if you want a cinematic look.

My impression is that iPhone video doesn’t take well to extreme grades. It also likes a lot of light and errs on the side of contrast. Shadow detail is more crunched than with other cameras. The sensor likes light. Sunny shots were clearly better or easier to grade than those filmed under overcast skies. If you are serious about mobile filmmaking with an iPhone, then external ND filters are essential in order to tame the amount of light under sunny conditions.

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I played with the grade in Final Cut Pro using the internal color correction, as well as various plug-ins, including Koji Advance, Color Finale 2 Pro, and FilmConvert Nitrate. Overall, I liked the looks that I was getting from Color Finale and FilmConvert best, but settled on FilmConvert for this footage. While Color Finale gave me a nice look, I was going for character and so I opted for the film stock emulation and grain presets built into FilmConvert Nitrate. However, if you want a “cleaner” result, stick with the Final Cut Pro correction or Color Finale 2.

FilmConvert offers various camera profiles for Nitrate, including for Apple iPhones. I decided to use FiLMiC’s own LUT via the Custom LUT filter first. Then I applied FilmConvert Nitrate set to its generic default for the “look.” Depending on the clip, I used Kodak or Fuji emulations, with some color correction tweaks and added film grain. I also applied the FCP hue/sat curves correction to adjust some individual colors. Lastly, a vignette filter - just to “pinch in the corners,” as a DP friend of mine likes to say.

I’m generally skeptical of relying on an iPhone as the primary camera, but I was happy with the results, especially given my mediocre camera skills. If I were to compare, these clips felt closest to 16mm documentary film print footage - albeit with more vibrance. Serious filmmakers who invest in the gadgets that round out the package can certainly end up with impressive results.

The edited video grade with FilmConvert:
Color study - iPhone Scenics - Part I on Vimeo

The same video graded in Resolve:
Color Study - iPhone Scenics - Part II on Vimeo

 


Written by
Top BloggerThought Leader

Oliver Peters is an experienced film and commercial editor/colorist. In addition, his tech writings appear in numerous industry magazines and websites.

He may be contacted through his website at oliverpeters.com

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Brinky's Avatar
Brinky replied the topic: #112380 28 Jan 2021 09:42
I notice a lot of 'jitter' in the shots. Any idea how come?
Oliver Peters's Avatar
Oliver Peters replied the topic: #112394 28 Jan 2021 16:39
Hi,

I'm not sure about "jitter," but I believe what you are commenting on is the lack of frame blur, which I explained in the article. Basically, if you shoot at any rate, you want a 180-degree shutter angle, which equates to 1/60 shutter speed for 30fps or 1/48 for 24fps. You can lock that in with FiLMiC Pro, but that means you can't crank the IOS/exposure low enough on a sunny day, unless you use an external ND filter. The camera/software balances shutter speed and ISO to give you proper exposure. This means that without an ND filter, you get a high shutter speed, but individual frames are very crisp.

When people shoot 24fps footage with a professional camera/lens, they are used to this issue. They try to mitigate the apparent "strobing" of horizontal objects moving across the frame by using low shutter speeds (1/48) and very slow panning. If you watch any "standard" motion picture and analyze the individual frames as someone walks close past the camera, you will note that the image of that person is slightly blurred and not crisp. That's a result of a low shutter speed (180-degree shutter angle).

Many consumer video devices (phones, camcorders, etc) these days default to 60fps. This means that even though you have a high shutter speed and crisp frames, you have so many more frames. Therefore, this sort of "strobing" is less apparent. And, of course, more of that "soap opera" look to the video.

In the case of this footage, there are likely two other factors that affect it. First, it's all handheld without external stabilization, cage, or other type of rig. Getting good handheld movement using only the phone is a challenge. Second, the app has built-in stabilization, which I had turned on. This appears to create some aliasing and adds some sharpening. That's as compared with the iPhone's built-in camera app in the video mode. I did a test of the two side-by-side and FiLMiC Pro does a much better job than the camera app, but it isn't perfect. Trying to shoot handheld without the stabilization enabled is considerably worse.

I hope that explains it.