The Challenge of Smartphone Filmmaking

An honorary award is a big deal. And as one of the pioneers in the mobile film industry awarding mobile filmmakers around the world for outstanding films shot with phones, we decided it was time to present one to Conrad Mess. During MFF2016 in San Diego we presented the award to Conrad Mess whose admirable achievements to the mobile filmmaking community have inspired many others by mastering the art of making films using smartphones. Conrad Mess does not make a movie every few weeks, but he has achieved more awards for his mobile films than any other mobile filmmaker in the world today. The award was “Best Global iPhone Filmmaker.” It has gained him a good amount of good publicity, globally.

Every year during our film festival we have featured one of Conrad Mess’ films. Conrad Mess was a competitor during our inaugural International Mobil Film Festival™ in San Diego on the last weekend of April 2012. He was the very first filmmaker to submit a film to us in 2011 while we were looking for a venue to show films on the big screen and he won MFF2012, along with two other filmmakers. Since then, Conrad Mess has achieved challenges, as an iPhone filmmaker, which he has put on himself. He doesn’t think about making new mobile films. He thinks about making new mobile films unlike any other. He likes to be the first to make a mobile film which has never been made before. He always raises the bar on himself and enjoys the challenges of mobile filmmaking to create what we label as epic cinematic mobile films. So far, all his films are shot with iPhones.

This year, he completed another epic film called Time to Pay Off Debts shot with an iPhone and it was, as usual: a challenge. Conrad Mess lives in Zaragoza, Spain. He had to travel to New York and as his meticulous filmmaking style evolved during production, he found himself out of time to finish production while in New York. He left New York with one last scene pending. This is a story about the challenges of mobile filmmaking and about the person taking the challenge by the horns, which is inspiring. By the way, we were privileged to include a private screening of the film to our audience during #MFF2016SanDiego following the Red Carpet Awards Ceremony on Sunday, May 1st.

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We interviewed Raphael Corkhill, in New York, who was an actor in the film, Time to Pay Off Debts. We wanted to include his perspective for you. It is often a great insight to not only discover the director’s point of view but the actor’s as well, especially when the actor was also directed “online” via Skype in order to complete the film. Be sure to read Raphael’s perspective after Conrad’s, below.

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The Director’s Perspective – Conrad Mess

SBP: First of all, share a bit about your film and what it’s about.
Conrad: Time To Pay Off Debts is a black and white noir film, an old-school gangster’s movie, an actor’s movie if you wish, nine actors talking in one location, the cheapest way of making a movie.

SBP: What is the history behind the film?
Conrad: TTPOD [Time to Pay Off Debts] was born from the impossibility of making “Desert Eagle,” it was gonna be my most ambitious project so far, but the budget of this movie increased 3 times due the VFX. So as we weren’t be able to raise the money for it, I decided to write a new, and cheaper, short film. Just one location and a few actors—you can call it an actor’s movie. That’s how TTPOD was born.

SBP: The location where you shot it had some history as well, didn’t it?
Conrad: Yes,it was shot in “The Back Room” a speakeasy that is still working in NYC. Actually it doesn’t have a regular entrance on the street, you have to go through a dark alley and go upstairs until you get to the entrance door. This place is exactly the same it was in the 20’s. The wood floor is the same, the paintings are the same, definitely the location has personality.

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SBP: What problems did you encounter as you were securing locations, crew and actors for your film and how did you accomplish putting it all together to make the trip and begin production?
Conrad: Actually, all the production stuff was done by my producer, Alex Corn, who did incredible work. We did the casting through backstage.com, and we worked together to find the perfect place to shoot. But I would lie to you If I told you that I took care of these things, as I usually do.

SBP: One of the best skills of a director with actors and crew is good communication and expressing your vision as the director to everyone involved. Since you are from Spain and English is not your native language, were the crew and actors able to communicate well with you and understand your directions?
Conrad: I guess my english is good enough to make people understand what I want, but in anyway, my director assistant was Naiara Eizaguirre a Spanish girl who is living in NYC. To be honest, the more tired I am, the worse my english is, so at the end of the day it was harder for me to communicate properly. But that was one of Naiara’s job. Anyway, we also did two rehearsal days so everyone went to the shooting knowing exactly what I wanted from them.

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SBP: You used the new iPhone 6S Plus and 4k resolution for this film. How was the experience and what settings would you recommend aside from the 4k setting to use for filming?
Conrad: The problems are always the same when you are shooting on an iPhone, these types of devices are not designed for this kind of shooting. You can’t use a cellphone as a camera 12 hours in a row and pretend not to have problems, even more shooting at 4k. Telling the truth, shooting in 4k just for YouTube is a mistake, these kinds of files are huge and hard to edit with. Actually, I had to buy a new computer because the one I always used to edit my movies was not able to handle these 4K files. Besides that, most people will watch your movie on a laptop or even in mobile devices so it doesn’t matter if it is HD or UHD. Different thing is if you want to submit your movie to film festivals, if the movie is screened in a big screen with a 4K ready projector the difference is worthy.

SBP: Did you use direct and external audio with the iPhone or did you stick to external audio capturing?
Conrad: This is the first time I use live sound, I always want to have everything under control, so I used to use ADR in my movies, but this time it was simply impossible, there is a lot of dialogue and nine actors. Live sound was the most intelligence (and cheaper) choice this time. We used external audio.

SBP: Did you encounter any issues during your production in which you had to rethink your original plans or deviate from the original plans? How did you overcome limitations of using a phone to film?
Conrad: As I said before, a cellphone is not the proper device for this kind of “marathonian” shooting, but you can avoid these kinds of problems if you use more than one cellphone. These devices get hot very quickly. They start to do weird things. So it’s better to go changing from one cellphone to the other before having these issues. Beside that, you can download your footage to your  laptop without stopping the shooting, because this process takes for ever.

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There’s no film of mine that I could do all that I wanted to do due time limitation or device limitation, so obviously this movie wasn’t different. So you have to think fast how to fix it or even change the shot, but more than once in these cases you have to think in the editing. If the shot you’re not capable of shooting was a perfect transition to the next shot, you have to think how these changes are gonna affect the editing. So you have to think fast.

SBP: When you left New York, did you already realize you would need to come back or somehow direct a last scene or scenes?
Conrad: Yes, we tried to do it in 3 days but after the first one I realized that we were gonna need one more. But as cast and crew were not able to attend the shooting that 4th day and I had to come back to Spain, we decided to shoot as much as we can and then make one reshoot day through Skype.

SBP: Okay Conrad, what brought up the idea in your mind to use Skype to direct the last scene or scenes?
Conrad: To be honest the idea was from my DoP Wolfgang Lehner. I said that we had to find a way for me to see what is happening on the set, so Skype came up. I also thought in a B plan, we made a couple of tests to verify location’s connection was good enough and that it was. But as you don’t know what is gonna happen my B plan B was to shoot the monitor with a cellphone to see what the iPhone was shooting and then send it through WhatsApp because these types of videos are really small, but we were lucky and everything went fine with Skype.

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SBP: Please share the details of how you did it!
Conrad: What I did, this being even more obsessive, I prepared the schedule and some files with pictures, shot list, explanation and references of what, how and when each person, cast and crew, had to do their job. They are incredible professionals so the thing was relativity easy. I also shot all the shots we needed in my house with my wife, so they had a visual reference of how each shot should be.

The Actor’s Perspective – Raphael Corkhill

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Raphael Corkhill: Working on TTPOD was an experience of 21st Century filmmaking in so many ways! It was shot on an iPhone, auditions took place via Skype and we were even directed via Skype! All this meant that it brought together a global cast and crew, which I think is very fitting for mobile technology.

As an actor I felt that I was part of a truly cutting edge project. When we all met at the table read, an awed silence fell as Conrad shared his achievements – I think that’s when we realized — Conrad is leading the field of mobile filmmaking – he is inventing the medium as he works, making discoveries and breaking ground with each new project. That’s a really exciting thing to be part of and there was a buzz on set to make this the very best it could possibly be.

Of course things can and do go wrong, and we lost half a day due to some technical issues… a delay that took up roughly one fifth of our total shooting time! Nevertheless, I felt that I was in extremely safe and experienced hands under Conrad’s direction. Far from focusing exclusively on the tech side of shooting, Conrad really supported the actors and I felt free to explore and take risks. After all, performing in front of an iPhone is no different to performing in front of any other camera: it’s still about preparing my work, speaking truthfully, and listening to the other actors.

We made up the lost time with an extra day’s shoot a few weeks later. Conrad couldn’t make it back to New York so he directed through Skype, adding another dimension to an already very modern experience! But it again flowed smoothly, particularly with our amazing Assistant Director, Naiara, simultaneously translating Conrad’s Spanish into English, communicating the cast and crew’s questions to Conrad, and generally keeping everything on schedule.

From an actor’s perspective, the whole process of shooting TTPOD was really efficient. The closest thing in my experience is working as a voice actor on video games, which I do a lot of. Technology can make everything streamlined and I personally love being part of projects that have a buzz of rapid, high-level productivity. Of course, the end result still boils down the quality of the material and its interpretation by the person in charge. But as writer and director, Conrad developed, led and executed a superb short film. Working on TTPOD was an extremely rewarding experience!

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SBP: Share some details about your experience, from an actor’s perspective, about being directed remotely from Skype for one day.

Raphael: Performing under remote Skype directing was a fascinating experience.  I initially thought that not having Conrad in the room might pose some difficulties.  But at least from an actor’s standpoint, it all flowed incredibly well.  Our amazing Assistant Director, Naiara, had her hands full translating between English and Spanish, as well as making sure Conrad’s vision was fully expressed.  But because the set-up, rehearsals and takes were all streamed directly to Spain, it was as though Conrad was looking down the camera lens himself.  It allowed him relay some adjustments to the cinematographer and give us actors notes about eye-line, speed, marks etc.  No problems at all!

Of course, we were really only taking care of some pick-ups and additional shots during the Skype session.  It might have been an entirely different situation if we had never met Conrad, had a table read or discussed the script with him in person.  So much about story-telling depends on inter-personal communication.  There is a great deal of nuance involved in conveying meaning – the simplest of gestures or silences can have a huge impact.  As an actor I find it extremely useful being able to work through ideas with a director in person.  So although Skype is an amazing tool, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that directors shoot a film from start to finish exclusively via Skype. Then again, Conrad made it work extremely well, so perhaps it might be possible to shoot an entire film using Skype!

You can watch Time to Pay Off Debts below. We hope you are inspired!

©2016 S. Botello Productions™ Mobile Film Media. All rights reserved.

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