4 Video Lessons from Oscar-Nominated Films You Can Do with Your Phone

You may assume that the cinematography we enjoy on the big screen has nothing to do with the social media videos or advertisements business owners and marketers are creating for small screens. After all, the most gripping scenes in this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated films were filmed by the world’s most celebrated filmmakers with equipment that far exceeds most of our marketing budgets. But while that’s true, there are quite a few things novice video creators, armed with just an iPhone, can learn from the pros to add impactful, cinematic quality to video ads and stories. All you need to know is a few basic tenets of cinematography. Adobe Spark’s resident filmmaker Ben Watkins shows us how to capture the best footage with just your phone, using the same techniques employed by some of this year’s Best Picture nominees. These iPhoneography tips will walk you through how to capture the most impactful and visually appealing footage with the mobile camera in your pocket. Take it away, Ben…but first a PSA: For the love of movie theater popcorn, make sure you turn your phone horizontal when filming.

Get Close

Turn the sound off and just look at shots in Oscar-nominated films (or even your favorite tv series, for that matter). Notice how subjects are framed. Many scenes may start with a wider shot to establish the scene for the viewer (the place, the setting, all the people or things present). Very quickly into the scene, however, filmmakers will cut to medium and close-up shots of individuals. And they’ll often stay close for the rest of the scene.

This is one power that cinema enjoys over plays: intimacy. The camera can get the audience super close to action, objects and people. Think about it: we’re only ever this close to friends, family and lovers. And when we’re this close, the proximity triggers all sorts of emotional responses inside the viewer.

In fact most films spend very little time showing you establishing wide angle shots. They move into close ups as soon as possible and keep you there for the rest of the scene. That intimacy draws the viewer in and keeps them there. So when shooting people and things, establish the setting with one shot but then quickly move to close ups and stay close.

Here’s a classic scene set-up from from Paramount Pictures Fences, directed by Denzel Washington.

And here again in The Weinstein Company’s Lion.

Here in Paramount Pictures’s Arrival, the viewer is oriented to the scene before getting up close with Amy Adams.

And here’s how to do it with your phone:

Reveal Your Subject in a Variety of Ways

Filmmakers, magicians, and striptease artists use a secret weapon to draw attention: the reveal. Instead of opening on a subject of interest, reveal them with a camera move, a perspective shift, or by having the subject reveal itself to the camera. Here’s a scene from Paramount Pictures’ Oscar nominee Arrival where the “hand” of our extraterrestrial guest comes forward from obscurity. There’s surprise, there’s curiosity. As viewers, we can’t help but turn our attention to the newest thing to enter our field of vision and begin processing its meaning. Even relatively mundane objects can look visually rich when revealed in interesting ways.

Here the camera traces a figure’s arms until it reveals Ryan Gosling’s face in Summit Entertainment’s La La Land.

In this shot from Arrival, the extraterrestrial comes forth from the unseen depths.

In this scene from Lion, the subject’s face comes into focus as he walks toward the window.

Some real-life examples:

Steady Your Shots

Some films like Arrival use highly stylized camera movement while others like Lion go for the realism conveyed by a handheld look. But watch these films and notice that even when handheld, pro shooters keep the shot steady and allow action to pass through the frame. A lot of us have a tendency to follow action with our phone, instead of letting the action move in front of the camera. Unless you’re making a stylistic choice to upset and confuse your viewers with wild camera movement, resist the temptation to pan or follow the action. Instead hold the phone still and let the action pass in front of camera. Another common mistake is to cut away from the subject too quickly. Count to ten when possible then pause the recording after you’ve captured your shot before setting up your next one. This will help you save time in the editing process with Spark Video. You may not always be able to work that methodically, but it’ll help you remember to hold the camera on the subject a beat or so longer than you think you should, which will give you a ton more to work with when editing video clips.

There’s not a ton you can do about naturally shaky hands, but start making a habit of looking around for something sturdy nearby to stabilize your body, hands, or arms or set up a tripod (we love the hyper-flexible Gorillapod). If creating video is a major part of your social media content strategy, you may want to invest in a motorized smartphone stabilizer. (We’re fans of the Ikan FLY X3). And when you’re shooting through a window (like to get those awesome action shots), use it. Press your phone right up to the glass to stabilize that shot.

This scene from Amazon Studios’s Manchester by the Sea lets the action go through the frame.

A classic film sequence from The Weinstein Company’s Lion. The rest of the shots are close-ups.

In La La Land, the cinematographer lets the dancer move in front of a still camera.

iPhone stabilizing tips:

Shoot for Text Overlays

While thinking through our storytelling strategies, we’re typically focused on filming things or people that will support the message directly. That’s great—get those shots, but remember that you’ll likely want to use text to communicate at least part of your video message. In that case, you need visually engaging clips that look good under text. Think of the title sequences in most movies, the shots underneath provide ambiance and contribute to the overall tone of the film, but they’re not too busy that it distracts from the text on the screen. You need plenty of interesting shots that work well under overlays.

While out and about shooting make a habit of grabbing shots like these. Let your mind relax a bit and look around you for shots to serve as excellent backdrops to text.

What to look for out in the wild:

The best way to study shots is to watch tv and films with the sound off. It turns off the magical entertainment of the show and allows you to analyze how the thing was put together. Incidentally it becomes a great demonstration in the power of sound design and music. A great place to do it is on a plane. Just pull the headphones away for a scene or two. You can always rewind and watch the scene again to enjoy it.

Try out these iPhone tips in Spark Video today!