Filmmaking on phones

The Department of Performing and Screen Arts (PASA) at Unitec has been teaching filmmaking on the smallest possible screen – mobile phones and other mobile devices. 

We’re watching more and more of our video content via the ‘very small screen’ and the PASA course ‘Entertainment Lab for the Very Small Screen’, or ELVSS, aims to address this new medium. “ELVSS is an experiment in acquiring footage with a whole new set of tools, repurposing their films for delivery in a whole new way: back onto the same devices with which they were shot, and trying on a whole new mindset in regards their craft. We’re challenging the students to demonstrate new approaches to traditional visual narrative conventions. There’s already a well-established cinematic language for the 70-foot screen. Now we need one for the 70-millimetre screen,” says Senior Lecturer Dan Wagner, who leads the course.

Not content to simply teach his students about this kind of filmmaking, Wagner took it one step further and created an exciting international project that means his students collaborate with other students from Salford University in Manchester and also students from the University of Strasbourg in France.

The project, which has been presented at international conferences and received funding from the Unitec Research Committee, embraces the Unitec philosophy of innovative teaching and learning, says Wagner. “The pedagogy involves structured uncertainty. We inspire them with context – showing them mobile innovations that have already been trail-blazed. Then we challenge them to contribute to this newly developing cinematic language. The journey they take to achieve this is very much driven by them.”

The first course started in 2011, and initially students experimented with the new medium, learning how to create something visually appealing to mobile phone viewers. “We gave them mobile devices, and said ‘You can make movies with these’,” says Wagner. “It was mind-blowing for these students of conventional filmmaking to be able to put cameras in places they weren’t able to put them before, and to shoot anytime, because they had an HD camera in their pocket. They could put the cameras in watertight bags and put them in fish tanks, or tape them to doors, or tape them to steering wheels, or tape them to the bonnet of a car. So they were exploring all these ideas.”

The students experimented with a range of techniques, some involving the technical aspects of the device itself, and some to do with the way it would be viewed. “That’s the focus of the research,” says Wagner. “Coming from a film background, I’m interested in the dramatic transition we’re in the middle of – from film to new media. What are the differences in approach between conventional filmmaking methodologies and capturing content on mobile phones? What carries over, what gets left behind, and what new approaches and methods pop up? Current research, including ours, is finding that the methods for acquiring, manipulating and delivering do indeed affect the content.”

The ELVSS projects have been exciting and intriguing to watch as a lecturer, says Wagner. “It’s fascinating to me and fun. I spent 20 years in a film camera department, working with physical film, as an assistant, then as a camera operator, and then as director of photography. That’s what I know, that’s what I love, that’s where I come from. To now be using these completely new types of devices, and to apply the tools of filmmaking to them, it’s a thrill. Also to see the students do new things with them, to create and innovate on their own. It’s not predictable where they go. I love that about it.”