Low tech, high drama: Filmmakers forego heavy gear for lighter, tighter tales

A movie shot on an iPhone, a two-person crew and real streetscapes — technology is allowing ambitious filmmakers to attempt dream projects on shoestring budgets and with little support

Updated: Sep 01, 2018 18:59:38

By Dipanjan Sinha

Seby Varghese and a crew member during a shoot for his road movie, Unfateful, for which he raised Rs 8 lakh through crowdfunding over a span of 10 weeks.

To onlookers, they seemed like a bunch of people hanging out, joking and scrolling on their cellphones. But the group of 10 at a Mumbai café were really the cast and crew of a feature film, completing part of a shoot.

The movie is now out on Netflix. It’s called Zoo and follows the lives of two young rappers, a drug-peddling waiter and a teenager fighting addiction.

Director Shlok Sharma used minimal sound equipment, no lights and shot it entirely on an iPhone. He picked the phone because he simply couldn’t afford a traditional movie camera, he says. His first film, Haraamkhor (2015), was stuck for so long — three years in post-production and one year at certification — that he had no funds to make his next.

“Rent for a movie camera ranges from Rs 15,000 to Rs 35,000 per day, not including tripods and Steadicam,” he says. “But not using a movie camera also made the process far easier. A lot of the time, people around didn’t know we were filming.”

Stills from Shlok Sharma’s Zoo, which was shot entirely on an iPhone, using minimal sound equipment and no lights. It is now out on Netflix.

While for Sharma a key factor was cost, elsewhere, innovations in technology are allowing filmmakers flexibility that extends beyond budget. First-time storytellers are making feature films with just one assistant; telling tales set in remote areas, taking their stories on the road. Experienced filmmakers are able to bring the real world to life more convincingly, using elements like natural light to enhance their storytelling.

In Assam, Rima Das won four National Awards this year for Village Rockstars. It’s the tale of a 10-year-old girl who wants to set up a rock band in a remote village in Assam, and it was shot entirely on a Canon digital handheld camera and edited on a laptop. Das worked with just one assistant, her cousin.

Two of her awards, incidentally, were for location sound recording and editing

First-time filmmaker Seby Varghese combined iPhone and drone footage for Unfateful, his road movie about four strangers travelling together through Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. “The aerial shots are an integral part of the storytelling here. I would never have been able to make this movie without a helicopter before,” he says.

Watch the trailer of Zoo here

There’s tech involved in every stage, including post-production fundraising — Varghese raised Rs 8 lakh through crowdfunding over 10 weeks — and distribution.

Zoo might never have found an audience without the OTT platforms like Netflix, Varghese is set to tour the film circuit, and is hoping to make it to such a platform too.


A still from Rima Das’s next film, Bulbul Can Sing. Das has won four National Awards this year for her film, Village Rockstars, which was shot entirely on a Canon digital handheld camera and edited on a laptop.

“In terms of both the making and the consumption of cinema, smaller, digital devices are the future,” says Meenakshi Shedde, film curator, critic and South Asia consultant to the Berlin film festival. “The audience is more willing to experiment, and is open to different kinds of stories. As phones and cameras become smaller, shooting with phones and natural light will become less of a challenge and will allow, in fact, for a greater degree of realism, grittiness or intimacy in a scene.”

Liberation from heavy technology has democratised filmmaking, Shedde adds, making it cheaper and allowing a lot more variety in the kinds of stories being told.

Watch the trailer of Village Rockstars here 

Seasoned filmmakers are revelling in this freedom too. Vikramaditya Motwane shot Trapped (2016) on the Red Dragon digital camera. “It allowed me to shoot even indoors without any extra lighting,” he says. “I then used this process extensively in [the Netflix series] Sacred Games too, where many indoor shots were done with minimal lighting.”

Similarly, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga, the critically acclaimed film released last year, was shot with a Sony Alpha Digicam, in actual streetscapes and natural light.

“But with filmmaking becoming easy, it has also resulted in some lazy work,” Shedde warns. “A background in solid story-telling, combined with modern technology and techniques would be an ideal situation.”


Seasoned filmmakers are revelling in the liberation from heavy technology too. Vikramaditya Motwane shot Trapped (2016) on the Red Dragon digital camera.

The posterboy for this kind of guerilla filmmaking is Sean Baker, the American whose 2015 film Tangerine was a turning point. Not because it was the first to be shot on an iPhone (it wasn’t), but because the 88-minute feature told a compelling human tale of two friends, transgender sex workers, celebrating, arguing, fighting about a cheating boyfriend / pimp, and setting out in search of him.

Tangerine shone on the festival circuit, premiering at Sundance, being nominated for the Best of Next award there, and going on to show and win at festivals around the world. The film is now on Netflix, and one of the phones used to shoot it has been preserved and displayed at the museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which holds the Oscars).

Watch the trailer of Trapped here 

It was Baker, in fact, who inspired Sharma to take up the iPhone. Sharma was at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in 2015, where Baker was on the jury. “I heard about what he had done with Tangerine and it struck me that I could use the iPhone too,” he says.

In addition to slashing costs, the phone camera frees the filmmaker from the baggage of elaborate set-ups.

“Normally we would have to pay or make elaborate arrangements to shoot at a café, for instance,” says Sharma. “But when they saw our small crew and mobile, they just let us do our scenes.”

According to Varghese, drone footage was crucial in the making of Unfateful. “The aerial shots are an integral part of the storytelling here. I would never have been able to make this movie without a helicopter before,” he says.

Shooting in a slum, he adds, the arrangements were so minimal that no one really noticed them. “At one point, some cops arrived because they’d heard there was filming on, but when they saw just four people with a mobile phone, they left.”

This is not to say it’s easy going. Das of Village Rockstars took four years to write, shoot and edit her film. “There is so much information available on the internet, which I used to teach myself,” she says. “But my kind of minimal budget and technique may not work for other stories.”

She’s echoing Shyam Benegal when she says that. “Only some stories can be told only with a device like an iPhone,” says the veteran filmmaker. “It’s like the haiku and the epic. They’re both effective art forms and one can’t replace the other. Which one works best depends on what the artist has to say and what effect he wants to have on the audience.”

First Published: Sep 01, 2018 18:48:55


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