What do Steven Soderbergh and Sundance have in common? They’ve both championed the iPhone as the ultimate indie-filmmaker’s tool. So, on a busy Bank Holiday weekend in May 2018 a micro-crew set out to see if we could make a cinematic masterpiece in glorious 4k with just an iPhone 6s. As a result, Create50 has its very own iPhone entry in the shape of Life’s A Beach, shot in true guerrilla style on a stunning beach in Byron Bay, Australia Norfolk.Here’s how it unfolded…
Phase 1: Acquiring a Target
I decided to direct and entry for The Impact very late in the day. Because I had already acted in David Jacobson’s version of Can She See Us Daddy (the companion-piece to his extraordinary wild-card entry The Watchers) I was unable to appear in second film, as to do so would definitely rule-out either one or the other. But in April 2018, whilst on holiday in Ibiza, I made a video of our family trip (as I always do) filmed and edited entirely on my iPhone. I was struck by two things:
- In good natural light the iPhone video quality is awesome.
- I really wanted to direct a narrative film.
So I checked my acting alter-ego (Mark Hampton, my Equity name) at the door and decided to stay behind the camera. When I got home I checked the stats page on the Impact50 site and started reading the un-optioned scripts (because why go up against another film when there were scripts still waiting to be made?). I read them in alphabetical order and immediately stopped after I read Life’s A Beach. I loved the interaction between surfer-dude Leo and English gap-year traveller Charlotte, and the fact that their views of the world couldn’t be more different. In a nutshell, she knows about The Impact, he doesn’t. I was really surprised no-one had chosen it. On 20th April I optioned the script with 40 days to shoot, edit and submit the first cut.
Phase 2: Battle Planning
Tackling the script would require some changes. The script opens in a beach hut, in the southern hemisphere. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that but immediately imagined Leo in a camper-van, living on the beach. There was also something that troubled me – at the end of the script Charlotte is wearing a wetsuit, but we never find out where it came from. To solve this problem Leos’ Surf School was born. I contacted screenwriter Rachel Welch and shared my thoughts about the script and my idea about the camper-van. She was totally on-board.For the shoot itself I wanted every penny spent to be up on screen. That meant everything that contributed to the visual impact I would pay for (including talent, props, wardrobe and make-up) the rest I would do myself.
Behind the camera I would be a one-man guerrilla army. The hype around Sundance-winner Tangerine and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane has elevated the iPhone from youtubers/vloggers-only to a tool for potentially making ‘real’ movies, so I thought I’d give it a shot (pun absolutely intended). To supplement my trusty iPhone 6s I acquired some additional kit to get the shots and production value I wanted: A smartphone rig, an LED fill-light, a reflector, a 120cm slider and a second tripod. Sound would be recorded on my Tascam DR-40 and my only lens was an 8x telephoto adaptor. Apart from the slider and tripods, the whole lot fitted inside a single flight case.
Guerrilla tip #1: Give your camera some ‘weight’. You get massive production value from a smooth track or even a well-framed static shot. No matter how small the camera, try to make the shots feel heavier, as if it’s been shot on a much larger piece of kit.I posted a casting brief on Mandy for the role of Leo, but already knew who I wanted for Charlotte. I had worked with Sarah Broadbent in the past – she is a wonderful actress and a total pro. Luckily, she was available and prepared to travel to the Norfolk coast on a Bank Holiday! Mark Teale applied through Mandy and had a great look for the role, as well as being an actual Australian!
In Cambridge there is a small but active film community. I reached out for local help and was lucky enough to have Nicole Stone come on board. She’s credited for costume design which is her primary role but is also a fantastic production assistant and generally great to have on set. I was also blessed to have make-up artist Frances Straker join the team. She’s hugely experienced and gave me complete confidence that the cast would look amazing.
Kit, cast and crew sorted, I prepared call-sheets and was almost ready to film. But there was one more thing I had to do. When it comes to guerrilla shooting I always find it easier to ask forgiveness than permission, but experience has taught me that when you are location shooting you usually have an Achilles heel – people who don’t want you there will ask a series of questions that ultimately lead to one thing: do you have insurance? If you don’t have it, that’s where the conversation ends and not how you want it to. So I got it.
Guerrilla tip #2: Insurance is about the only thing you can’t blag. But joining BECTU will give you £10million Public Liability Insurance cover for a full year for just £31.50.
On Saturday afternoon I headed to Norfolk, met with Nicole and we embarked on a three-hour round-trip to collect Ruby, the bright red VW camper-van I had hired for the weekend. I trundled across Norfolk, driving a beautiful classic VW camper as the sun set, marvelling at the wonderful experiences that filmmaking brings.
When I arrived at our B&B (Three Acres – lovely) I went for a recce down at the beach car park. It was being attended by a bored looking teenaged boy. I explained my plan to him. We would arrive early and pay double for a bunch of parking spaces which we would be filming around for a couple of hours before leaving the car-park and hitting the beach. He listened and said the owners would be there tomorrow, but ‘It should be fine’.
It totally wouldn’t be.
Phase 3: Beach Assault
I hit the beach alone at 6am, set-up some shots of the sun rising over the sea, and got some long clean wild-tracks of the waves rolling in. I had one last look around the car park for an ideal spot. Soon I’d be back and we’d get cracking with Life’s A Beach.
At 8am cast and crew arrived at the beach. The teenaged attendant from yesterday had been replaced by the car park owners – several generations older – and the day rapidly went downhill when ‘It should be fine’ turned into ‘Absolutely not’. I had offered to pay twice the full-day cost of for five parking spaces, more money than they could possible otherwise make for the same space, but they were adamant. It was a no. Oh, and no camper vans. Not just for today, but for tomorrow too. Brilliant. I’ve encountered this kind of can’t help/won’t help attitude from older Nor-folks in the past (including on my wedding day) so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but my whole plan had just gone up in smoke.We needed a Plan B. Luckily I am familiar enough with the area to have one (I got married there, remember). We headed to a second beach just up the coast. This was pay and display with no pesky attendants. We parked up and wearing flouro-jackets quickly marked out an area with cones.
Guerrilla tip #3: Everyone assumes you should be there if you’re wearing a fluoro-jacket (who would choose to wear one otherwise?!).
Already an hour behind schedule we started with the camper-van exteriors. This was a Bank Holiday Sunday and a race against time, as cars quickly started to roll in and families made their ways past our ‘set’ to the beach. The background sounds of excited children, family dogs and tyres on gravel would come to haunt me, nevertheless we got the exteriors in the can before the car-park got completely full and moved onto the interiors.
Inside the camper-van the size of the iPhone really came into its own as I was able to get a lovely tracking shot to open the film. A few takes to get the performance just right and it was time to hit the beach.
The size of the iPhone gets me into tight spaces for some great shots.
I wandered over the dunes to check out the beach and found it to be un-useable. This part of the beach had groynes – sea defences that reach out into the sea and would totally destroy the illusion of an Australian beach. We were going to have to move again – but it was already time for lunch, and more importantly – rehearsals.
Guerrilla tip #4: Make time for rehearsals. It’s easy to get caught up in the production side when you’re short on time and budget, but give yourself and your actors time to get the scene right, because no amount of beautiful cinematography can overcome a bad performance.
Time for beach number three!
Another unplanned location move and our guerrilla crew finally made our landing on the beach. I had taken a huge risk with the British weather, and it paid off massively. It was a truly glorious day. This was a doubled edged sword however as it meant that most of Norfolk’s population, plus the Bank Holiday tourists had descended on the beaches to enjoy the lovely weather. It took fifteen minutes to get far enough away from the crowds to be able to film.
By the time we got set up to shoot our only light source (the sun) had moved behind us, and the curvature of the beach (and distant Bank Holiday beachgoers) meant that we had very little room to cheat the actor’s positions. Luckily the reflector bounced plenty of light back and we completed the dialogue scene, with lovely performances from Mark and Sarah.
The sun waits for no man. You just have to work with it.
The final scene involves the two characters diving into the sea. The day may have been unusually hot, but the sea-water was not. Frankly it was freezing. Nevertheless, both Mark and Sarah bravely donned their wetsuits for the final shot – running and diving into the sea. As soon as the shot was completed we wrapped them both in towels and celebrated – we have shot everything, and the camera was wrapped! It was hard to believe that the results of everything we had done were being held in my iPhone, which I simply slipped back into my pocket.Throughout the day I had been recording the sound with the Tascam, listening through each take. However, the background noise of the waves, birds, occasional dogs and families had me worried, so the last thing I did was to head back to the B&B and record the full dialogue as a wild-track. I am very glad that I did.
Guerrilla Tip #5: Get wild-track of everything. Atmosphere, dialogue, footsteps, props moving, breathing…everything.
Phase 4: Consolidation
Back home I had a pick-up of the prop-iPhone to do and took a few days before I started on the edit. I find its important to come back to the rushes sometime after the excitement of the shoot, so that you see what’s actually there, and not what you thought you got on the day, as these can differ sometimes.
I edit on FCPX on my Mac and reviewing the footage for the first time the shots looked great, but listening to the audio tracks I knew I had problems – as well as the unavoidable (but okay as its set on a beach) waves rolling in there was almost constant noise from seagulls overhead. I hadn’t even noticed during the day, but they were there and there were no birds in shot. This meant piecing all of the beach dialogue together from the wild-track (See? Thank goodness I had that) sometimes having to cut and arrange individual words or syllables to match the actors. This was a huge task that I hadn’t planned for, and really took the edit down to the wire.
Guerrilla tip #6: Always get a sound recordist. I knew this already but really wanted to push the boundaries of the skeleton crew. In the end it was a mistake – I just couldn’t give enough focus to the image and the sound at the same time.
When a reasonable edit was finally achieved it was time for the music. For the opening I wanted something haunting that would reflect the juxtaposition of the idyllic scene with the unfolding chaos far, far away. But for the ending I wanted an up-beat, Beach Boys style piece that would raise a smile.
Guerrilla tip #7: Audio Network is my go-to for film music, they have every genre, style and its easily searchable. I’ve never not found what I wanted.
I used Final Cut Pro to grade the film. Having shot in 4k, this is when the richness of the images that were captured really became apparent, as I was able to pull a huge amount of colour out and achieve a much hotter, sweatier, summer look than we had on the day. It really helps convince the viewer that they’re on the other side of the world.
Life’s A Beach was submitted it on 31st May – literally the day of the cut off.
Phase 5: Iteration
I did it – I made a short film on an iPhone. I’m not sure it will be seen at Sundance or grab Soderbergh’s attention but it was great fun, and I am genuinely delighted with the result. My top 3 learnings are:
- Collaborating on someone else’s script is great fun.
- The iPhone6s is a great camera…in lots of natural light.
- You can go too guerrilla. I really needed a sound-recordist.
So if you’re itching to shoot something and wishing you had the gear to do it – reach into your pocket, pull out your phone and get shooting!