When Sean Baker decided to make a movie about a pair of transgendered prostitutes, he knew he wouldn’t have the budget to buy a fancy camera. So instead, he reached for his iPhone.
In the new film Tangerine — which is making its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — Baker tracks a hectic Christmas Eve in the unofficial red-light district of Los Angeles, a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard not far from his home. He spent months developing a story that follows a closeted cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) and two transgender prostitutes and best friends named Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez). Considering the movie’s deeply uncommercial premise and very limited budget, Baker knew he would have to get extra creative to make the film happen at all.
Instead of settling for a low-end professional or consumer-grade camera, Baker searched for more unconventional solutions. He explored Vimeo — which has become a hub for experimental filmmaking — for potential inspiration, and found it in the Kickstarter campaign for a camera lens startup called Moon Dog Labs.
The lenses took the boxy iPhone video dimensions and expanded them to normal cinematic ratios, giving video the look of a movie instead of, say, a Vine. Combined with an app called Filmic Pro that emulates the internal functions of much more expensive cameras, ”I just knew we had something,” Baker told an audience after a festival screening of the film Thursday.
For those at home looking to scrape together a bare-bones film budget: Moon Dog Labs’ lenses are available for $160 each (even low-level cameras and lenses will run about $500 apiece.) The Filmic Pro app, meanwhile, which helps focus the camera, is just $8. Not a bad deal, especially now that the film has been bought for a reported high six figures by Magnolia Pictures, the distributor behind previous high-profile indies Frank, Blackfish, and Life Itself.
Both Baker, a self-described cinephile who is “mourning the death of celluloid,” and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung (who’s worked on episodes of FX’s The Americans) were still a bit skeptical of whether the experiment would work. But they gave it a try, and realized that the unconventional equipment worked well not just with their budget, but for their film’s story, as well.
The kinetic, colorful film was shot largely on the streets of L.A. and at a few dumpy local businesses. Though it’s not quite vérité-style, there is a whole lot of action taking place in public spaces. The size and flexibility of the iPhone — along with some wireless microphones and the occasional boom pole for audio — was crucial in capturing the natural environment.
As a result, Baker was able to improvise and get some cool, unique shots during production. “I was on my bicycle doing 360s around [the actors], getting shots and realizing this actually really helped us define a style,” Baker said. “And everyone out there has a mobile phone with a video camera and everyone is shooting video of themselves every day. That allowed us to be inconspicuous and not intimidate first-time actors and people on the street and shoot clandestinely.”
Several scenes, including a running fight on the sidewalk and a mesmerizing silent hookup inside a car traveling through a carwash, would have been almost impossible to capture otherwise, especially on Baker’s budget.
Tangerine is not an experimental film, and it pays more attention to its story than the way it was shot. But there is a rich tradition of low-budget, DIY innovation at Sundance, from Steven Soderbergh’s early movies to breakthroughs like Clerks and Primer. Tangerine follows in those footsteps. For aspiring filmmakers, it’s a potential revelation, breaking down the barrier to high-quality production almost entirely.
Related: Read all our Sundance coverage