​6 Takeaways from Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane for Filmmakers on a Budget

Filmmaking 22/03/2019 5 min read

In case you haven’t heard, Steven Soderbergh is back and he’s causing quite the stir. His film, Unsane, which follows the journey of a young woman (played by Claire Foy) as she tries to evade her relentless stalker (Joshua Leonard), was released just one week ago and is already being lauded as a game-changer for the movie biz.

Por que? I hear you ask.

Because the entire thing was shot on an iPhone 7+ and with a budget of just $1.5 million — pocket money by Hollywood standards.

(Okay to be fair, according to World of Reel, in addition to the iPhone 7+ Soderbergh also had three separate Moment lenses and the $15 FiLMiC Pro video app at his disposal. But aside from that, he was pretty much working with the bare minimum).

Now, while Soderbergh may not be the first director to pull a stunt like this, he’s certainly the most well-known. For a lot of people, Unsane will be the first time they ever watch a feature-length smartphone video production on the big screen, potentially spawning a deluge of more smartphone video productions.

So, assuming this is the dawn of a new movie-making era, what can aspiring directors learn from Soderbergh’s iPhone experiment before embarking on their own?

What Filmmakers Can Learn from Unsane

1. Some Shots Work Infinitely Better Than Others

Unsane Shot Quality
Photo Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Ask anyone who’s seen Unsane and they’ll tell you, the quality is pretty ‘meh.’ That fact that it was shot solely on an iPhone is made painfully obvious time and time again throughout the film.

That said, there are stretches where you completely forget that this is the case. You’ll have three or four consecutive scenes where the footage is crisp, clean, and beautifully framed then BOOM…. Soderbergh hits you with a grainy-ass shot that makes your pupils want to invert.

Basically, in terms of video quality, Unsane is a rambling hodgepodge of some really good and some really bad shots. This inconsistency is distracting and annoying, but it isn’t entirely unavoidable. All you need to do is be super selective with your locations, lighting, and angles.

For example, in Unsane there were some shots — panoramic, moving, wide-angle — that worked brilliantly. While others — close-ups, car scenes, practically anything shot using a fisheye lens adapter — felt like an all-out assault on the visual senses.

Long story short, you can achieve consistently good-quality video on a smartphone. You just need to work out which settings and angles don’t present well on screen and avoid them like the adult chicken pox.

2. Lighting is Key

Unsane Lighting
Photo Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

It’s important to note that not all of Unsane’s quality woes are the fault of the iPhone. A lot of the time it seemed that lighting, or a lack thereof, was the problem. Countless scenes featured washed out actors, criminally-bad backlighting, or were just really really dark. The lesson here: invest whatever you save by shooting on a smartphone on lighting equipment, a lighting technician, or both of the above.

3. Record Audio Externally

Unsane Record Audio Externally

While it is highly doubtful that Soderbergh relied on the iPhone 7+’s mic to record the film’s audio, one thing is for sure… the overall sound isn’t great. You get a lot of unwanted background noise in outdoor scenes and all throughout the film there are patches where the ambient sound really pipes up.

Until smartphone mics prove they can be trusted, we suggest you play it safe and keep using whatever it is you’ve been using — whether it be a shotgun mic or lavs — and record your audio externally.

4. Play Around With Angles… Just Not Too Much

Photo Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

One thing that stands out from the very beginning in Unsane is all the peculiar camera angles. Granted, at times they do help conjure up a creepy sense of foreboding. But after a while, all the excessive jumping around just becomes a distraction. It’s almost as if Soderbergh was trying to overcompensate for his lack of resources by going to town on DP technique. Either that or he got a little too carried away with having such a small and versatile device to shoot on for a change.

In any case, don’t you go making the same mistake. By all means, include a few artsy shots here or there — just not to the extent where your audience ends up feeling seasick.

5. Consider Your Genre

Photo Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Shooting on a smartphone isn’t for every genre. Fortunately, in the case of Unsane, the iPhone’s raw look did a lot to create a sinister, voyeuristic feel that really helped drive the narrative along.

But for lighter genres like comedy, romance, even action, you’ll probably want to stick to a camera that’s capable of achieving that crisp, clean look our brains typically associate with those types of films.

6. Production Time Will Be Cut in Half

Unsane only took ten days to shoot and according to the cast and crew, this had a lot to do with the device being used. Unlike bulky camera equipment that takes hours to set up and move around, the iPhone 7+ brought a level of fluidity to the set that enabled the crew to jump quickly from one scene to the other and the cast to remain in character along the way.

When discussing the shoot with Entertainment Weekly, Claire Foy explained that “… it had an energy, and a rhythm, and a momentum to it that felt fresh, and unrehearsed, and full of life.”

When shooting on a smartphone, it’s precisely this kind of momentum you should be aiming for. One way you can do that is by creating a shooting schedule that isn’t too rigid, labored, or snail-paced.

The iPhone still has a ways to go before it starts dishing out the same video quality our delicate, fussy eyeballs are accustomed to. But what films like Unsane tell us is that when this day does eventually arrive, the migration to smartphone video production will be huuuuuuge!

It’s for this very reason that you should all be out there honing your smartphone DP skills now. That way, by the time the technology does catch up, you and your iPhone 11 Infinity SE+ (or whatever the hell it is that Apple’s churning out by then) will be a formidable movie-making force.

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