Sometimes, the best thing that you can do creatively is to give yourself limitations. For filmmaker Jason van Genderen, that meant putting down his camera and picking up his smartphone.
Van Genderen (@Jasonvangenderen on Instagram and Twitter) prides himself on being a "pocket filmmaker." Living in Terrigal, Australia, van Genderen spends his days running a creative agency and whenever he gets a chance, he uses smartphones to create films.
Recently, he gained notoriety when his documentary Red Earth Hip Hop that he made for a Nokia competition was featured at the Sundance Film Festival. He also gives advice on smartphone filmmaking for CNET and is constantly uploading his latest work to his own YouTube channel.
We spoke to van Genderen via email about his work on the documentary and his experience using the Lumia 920 for filmmaking.
Connect: How did you get started using the Lumia 920 as a filmmaking tool?
Nokia put out a global challenge via Talenthouse to invite filmmakers all over the world to submit a 60 second 'pitch' for an unheard underground music story from where they live. From there, I was lucky enough to be one of two finalists selected to make their films come alive and we were both supplied with a couple of Lumia 920s, and a production budget of $5,000 U.S. It was an amazing opportunity and a huge challenge all rolled into one!
Connect: Briefly step me through how Red Earth Hip Hop came to be. How did you learn of the subject? Was it created with the contest in mind?
I heard about indigenous hip hop on a local radio interview, and started looking up archived articles online about musicians collaborating with indigenous communities. What really intrigued me was how a relatively new music culture could be helping a 50,000-year-old race preserve both language and it's own storytelling structure, through the mounting challenges of an ever encroaching modern culture gradually distilling traditional indigenous story and song. Australian Aboriginal culture has so many other influences threatening to water-down its rich history… if there was an opportunity here to document a process reversing that trend, then I wanted to shine a light on it.
Connect: Do you use the Lumia 920 as your daily phone as well?
I tend to switch between a number of smartphones as I try out their features, the Lumia 920 is one of my favourites, as is my iPhone 5 just because of the app support of its iOS. I think it's good to stay on your toes and experiment with new models as they become available, otherwise my pocket filmmaking style could stagnate too.
Connect: I often hear from smartphone photographers that using a phone instead of a big camera makes subjects feel more comfortable. When shooting the Red Earth Hip Hop documentary, did you feel like you had an advantage by using the smartphone over a more traditional recording device?
Without a doubt, people feel far more comfortable in interview situations when they don't feel like they're being recorded. The smaller the camera, the less intrusive the process and the more natural the responses we get. Larger cameras mean more crew to operate them, and that whole introduced environment can be very off-putting to the person being filmed (unless they're an actor of course!) In my line of documentary filmmaking, smartphone and DSLR cameras fit the bill perfectly. I choose the camera dependent on how much manual control I need over the vision, aperture, lensing, etc. Sometimes it's a smartphone, other times it's my Nikon 1 or D4, all depends on the end 'look' you're after.
Connect: Did you use any other tools during the shoot? Other cameras, a tripod, microphone, anything? Where did you edit the footage?
Yes, I accessorized the Lumia 920 with add-on glass lens fittings, introducing both a wide and fisheye field-of-view. They're very inexpensive lenses I purchased off eBay, and simply attach the the smartphone body with a simple magnetic stick-on ring. I also used a small field tripod to keep the interview shots nice and steady, and to keep the camera rock steady during the time-lapse pieces I recorded.
Regardless of the smartphone, getting good audio quality for movie recording is always a challenge so you'll need to have a way to record audio via a microphone to a digital recording device, that's pretty imperative I think. I used a Zoom digital audio recorded and a small radio lapel kit for my interviews, and that worked perfectly once I synced it with the vision in edit.
Connect: What was it like showing at Sundance? What was the reaction of viewers when they learned it was shot on a smartphone?
Having the opportunity to show my film at London Sundance was truly a dream come true. To sit in a cinema watching films shot on everything from 35mm film to RED cameras, and then have the two Lumia 920 finalist films play – was just mesmerizing. The quality totally held-up on the big screen and to be honest, the audience had no clue which film was shot on which camera so that was incredibly affirming of the whole exercise. In the end of the day, a brilliantly captured story is far more powerful and impressive that the capture tool used to film it.
Being able to use smartphones for this level of filmmaking is just indicative of the massive leaps in quality and functionality we now face. The old-fashioned high barriers to entry [to filmmaking] have largely dissolved with this kind of technology. It's really helped democratize the art of storytelling and empowered millions of people worldwide with the ability to capture and share an amazing story. Creatively – we're entering a new age here. It's so exciting.
Connect: Are you working on any current projects?
I have about six documentary projects that I'm working on, however, one thing I'm hoping to invest lots more energy in is expanding and sharing my pocket filmmaking experiences with people everywhere. I've set up a 'Pocket Filmmaker' Facebook page and if anyone reading this article is in any way keen to follow that technology and learn, I'd encourage them to like the page and I'll keep making content to share. In this age of user-generated content, I'm hoping my skills can help inspire many more to get out there and start making great little films, wherever they are.