You saved up enough money to buy your shiny new 4K camera with 12 stops of latitude. So, now what? Camera specs alone (resolution, dynamic range, 10-bit vs. 8-bit, etc.) won’t help produce a better movie. Filmmaker Sean Baker proves this with his feature film, Tangerine, a hit at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in the NEXT category, which profiles low-budget films containing true indie spirit.
Shot entirely on the iPhone 5s, Tangerine has a unique look, with saturated colors, flat deep focus and blown-out highlights, similar to films from the DV revolution of the late ’90s/early ’00s. But, make no mistake, Tangerine isn’t an iPhone gimmick film. Baker’s story is inventive, and the performances he gets from his actors are hilarious and heartbreaking. In fact, when watching the movie for only a few minutes, you become completely immersed in the story and immediately forget the format the film was shot on.
Tangerine has a simple story. It’s Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender prostitute, is on the lookout for her pimp/boyfriend. She learns from her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), that he was unfaithful to her while she was in jail. When she finds his "fish," aka mistress, she takes the woman captive, storming through the seediest parts of Hollywood, seeking revenge. There’s also a side plot, telling the story of an Armenian cab driver who has a secret taste for the streetwalkers of Santa Monica Boulevard unbeknownst to his wife and mother-in-law.
After attending NYU film school, Baker made his first feature film, Four Letter Words (2000), shortly after graduation. Soon after, he became one of the co-creators of the cult comedy TV show Greg the Bunny, which ran on IFC, Fox and now MTV for 15 years. The success of the show enabled Baker to make micro-budget indies (Tangerine is his fifth feature film).
For Baker, financing an indie film in today’s marketplace—especially without A-list names—is next to impossible. After failing to obtain the budget he thought it would take to produce his movie the right way, Baker brought the film to Mark Duplass (Togetherness, Jeff, Who Lives at Home), who signed on as an executive producer to produce it on a micro-budget level. In terms of shooting on an iPhone, Baker says Duplass gave them the thumbs up early on and thought it was "very punk rock."
PRODUCING A SMARTPHONE MOVIE
Baker selected the iPhone 5s strictly out of budgetary reasons, as well as the fact that this was his fifth feature and he was basically out of favors. "Even with a DSLR, we would have ended up having extra crewmembers," he reveals, "and I would have had to find certain lenses, which I just didn’t have the budget for. So what we did is just start looking at iPhone experiments on Vimeo, and we were very impressed by what we found. We realized that, instead of spending money on the equipment, we could put the money on screen on things like locations and having extras. I’m WGA and DGA, and we had a few union actors so, basically, we had to pay minimums to those unions."
Instead of outfitting their smartphone with an array of accessories to make it more like a digital cinema camera, Baker and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung went minimal and basically used one lens accessory, one app and one camera movement tool. For the film’s look, they used the FiLMiC Pro app, a $7.99 iPhone video app that lets you control focus, aperture and color temperature, as well as capture video clips at higher bit-rates. They also used the new anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs to capture widescreen. The lens adapter fits over the iPhone’s native lens and squeezes the image to capture squeezed anamorphic images.
"They really were great for what we were doing, as they turn the phone camera into real anamorphic capturing devices," explains Cheung, in the film’s press notes. "This gave the picture a much more classical film look. We were so lucky that the prototypes were made just in time and were available to us."
Another tool Baker and Cheung made great use of was Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee, which allowed them to capture smooth moving shots without the shake normally associated with handheld video. "We also did stuff like going to the paint store and buying a 25-foot painter’s pole and putting the camera on the end of it," says Baker, "capturing impromptu crane shots."
SHOOTING ON A SHOESTRING (IN HOLLYWOOD)
One of the most fascinating aspects of the production was that Baker’s locations weren’t locked off. He shot entirely on location in busy donut shops, West Hollywood clubs, city buses and Hollywood streets. According to Baker, because of their small footprint, most people had no idea they were shooting a feature.
"The only thing that gave us away was our sound department, and that was only one person, Irin Strauss," explains Baker. "He’s a wonderful sound guy, but his equipment was way more expensive than our cameras. We would usually put him around the corner, where he would be less visible to pedestrians. If there was a fire truck going through the scene, we embraced it—the more chaotic, the better. And if people didn’t know we were shooting, we would wait until the end of the scene, run after them, and say, ‘You were just caught on camera, could you sign this release?’ I’ve learned that if you approach people the right way and you’re nice, they see it as an artistic endeavor and everything usually works out."
But being nice wasn’t always successful, as Baker recounts a story where there was one person on a bus who was savvy to the business. "Because we’re in L.A., he knew that this could wind up anywhere, so he tried to charge us $80 for his image to be on camera," says Baker. "We offered him $20 and he countered with $40. Even though it was a great take, I killed the shot. I know that sounds so petty in the real world because what’s $40? Anyone in the industry would laugh that off, but when you’re dealing with such a tiny budget, you can’t let things go like that because $40 would actually buy you lunch that day."
Some of the more "seasoned" actors were taken aback at Baker’s casual style of shooting, but perhaps the greatest strength of Tangerine was the performances of its two leads—Rodriguez and Taylor, both newcomers to acting. (Rodriguez worked at an HIV/AIDS research center as a health educator and Taylor is a singer/performer.) The production worked with a script, but Baker refers to it more as a "scriptment" (half-script, half-treatment), which ran roughly 70 pages. A particular scene would read that the two leads walk down Santa Monica Boulevard and talk about past holidays. Sometimes they would lock down the dialogue and other times it would just be a description and the actors would improvise. Baker recorded all of the rehearsals and had them transcribed so the actors could have reminders on set before shooting the scene. Many of the scenes between Rodriguez and Taylor were shot in a widescreen two-shot, which gave them more freedom with dialogue and blocking.
"It was a very collaborative effort altogether because I’m not from that world," explains Baker. "And I feel that the only respectful and responsible way of making films like this is to get the voice of the people who are closest to that world. In this case, Mya had many friends who actually worked that area."
One of the strengths of working with a smartphone is that nearly everyone has one, so most people feel comfortable in front of one rather than a monster-sized digital motion-picture camera on a dolly. According to Baker, on day one, or even minute one, the intimidation factor was removed and his two leads were on the same confidence level as "professional" actor James Ransone (Low Winter Sun, The Wire).
"There was a huge benefit of being an inconspicuous unit," reveals Baker, "and if we shot it a year and a half from now, we probably would have the iPhone on a drone."
A TANGERINE LOOK
Post is where Baker really developed the look of his film, completing a preliminary look in Final Cut Pro and sharing it with his colorist, who was working in DaVinci Resolve, using contrast and saturation for the film’s unique look and power windows to illuminate faces. Instead of following the trend of many social-realist films, in which they drain the color for "reality," Baker pumped up his saturation beyond "broadcast legal" and began to see the "Tangerine" hue of L.A.’s sunlight. "These women’s personalities were so colorful," says Baker. "Why are we trying to drain the color from this colorful world? Let’s go the other way."
Continues Baker, "People were coming up to me at Sundance and saying how much they loved the look of the movie. Anderson Le from the Hawaii Film Festival came up to me and said he loved the way I made Los Angeles look ‘radioactive.’ Now that’s an interesting way of putting it."
With Tangerine, Baker and team proved that a camera alone doesn’t make a production. Working on a shoestring budget with a smartphone in the middle of Los Angeles may seem like a gargantuan feat, but working with talented non-professional actors like Rodriguez and Taylor with an unobtrusive camera was a liberating experience, with results you won’t find in most Hollywood movies.
"I never like talking about my actors where I call them non-professionals because the industry takes that wrong," says Baker. "They hear non-professional, and they think unprofessional, but both Mya and Kiki come from backgrounds where they had studied acting—it was just their first time in front of the camera. They’re both trying to parlay this into full-time careers in entertainment, and it’s my hope that this film helps them get there."
Tangerine is distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Visit the film’s website at www.magpictures.com/Tangerine.