When You Give Yourself Tangerines...
There's an inherent risk to experimenting with something. Especially when creating a work of art, deviating from what you know will work means that you run the risk of winding up with bubkiss at the end of it all. Often experimenting means setting a limitation for yourself. Can I shoot this movie so it looks like it's only one take? (Rope) Can I shoot this movie so it actually is only one take? (Russian Arc) Can I make an animated movie with an all human cast, but ensure they don't fall into the Uncanny Valley? (The Incredibles)
The movie Tangerine, directed by Sean S. Baker, set a challenge for itself: shoot the entire film using the built-in camera of the iPhone 5. The sound was recorded professionally, a lens adapter put the aspect ratio at 2.35:1 (like CinemaScope), and the colors were enhanced digitally, but otherwise, this was made with a camera many people have right in their pockets.
The premise revolves around a transgender prostitute named Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), whose pimp, Chester, cheated on her while she was serving a short jail sentence. Now Sin-Dee is out to track down the girl who stole her man and confront Chester with what she knows.
I like the idea of using an iPhone to shoot a movie like this- I'd expect it to lend an earthy, unfiltered feel to the story, which is focusing on characters who are already on the margins of Los Angeles society. But having set this challenge for ourselves, we have to see what exactly we can do and what we can't.
The camera lens can do a "zoom" effect, but not without severely degrading the image quality. But given that we're using a phone, we can just move closer to the subject to get a tighter shot.
This sets up a new problem: without zooming in, the iPhone lens is quite wide to begin with (about 31mm, if we were shooting with a regular cinema camera.) This means that if we try to get a really tight, dramatic close-up, we're liable to distort the subject's face in unflattering ways. This isn't necessarily bad, there might be a good reason to- it's comedic, or can make the audience feel unsettled.
If we want to avoid this distorted look, we should keep the camera further back from the subjects. If two people are having a conversation, it might be better to shoot it as a two-shot rather than separate close-ups and cutting back and forth.[ref]This also presents new challenges for the actors and the editor, and makes shooting lots of coverage of the scene more difficult. Everything is a trade-off.[/ref]
If we're keeping multiple people in frame, and using longer takes, this presents opportunities for ensemble staging. The wide lens naturally has a wider depth-of-field, so more of the image is in focus. We could orchestrate events to happen in the background that might contrast with what's happening in the main part of the scene.
What does Tangerine do? The opening scene is Sin-Dee talking to her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) sitting at a booth in a restaurant. Both are covered in close-ups, faces distorted, and we cut from face to face. The rest of the film continues in this vein. Sin-Dee is followed in long tracking shots, and when she meets someone new, we go to close-ups for their improvised, motor-mouthed conversations.
I challenge anyone to watch this film with the sound off, and see if you can follow the story. The images, shot with a cell phone, of all things, do very little work.
There is one scene that I really liked: Alexandra meets a client, Razmik (Karren Karaguilian), for a trick in his cab. The only chance they have for any privacy is while the cab is going through a car wash. The sponges and suds on the windows are a beautiful compliment to the silhouetted interaction between the characters. I wish the same creativity had been used when creating the rest of the movie's shots.