Making A Feature Film on an iPhone with Matthew and Tori Butler-Hart

This week was special – we had our hosts Matthew Butler-Hart and Tori Butler-Hart chatting to Giles Alderson about their latest film Infinitum: Subject Unknown

The film, which was shot during lockdown, was filmed on an iPhone – using an app, a gimbal, some ingenious MacGyver-like problem solving and some very minimal lighting.

Infinitum: Subject Unknown, which is out now, was written and produced by Matthew and Tori. Matthew was DP and director, and Tori stars in it.

How It Got Started

“It was a couple of days into the lockdown that I suppose we were thinking, we can work on scripts. For a while, I’d really wanted to work with an iPhone – to know how far you can push it. This was a great opportunity to do that. We’ve got a little gimbal – let’s stick it on that and see what happens.”

Matthew saw a tweet by Edgar Wight saying that he hoped that “some indie filmmakers out there are making use of the empty streets of London. I hope they’re out there just filming stuff. And we were like, that’s a good point.”

They had already written a script for Infinitum – a big budget sci-fi film. “You see the parallel worlds and how the experiment started. The characters that Ian and Conleth play are much bigger roles in the original screenplay.”

Matthew and Tori’s manager asked whether they could turn the screenplay into a series “so we did all of that work, expanding the world and turning that into the pilot. We got that into a pretty good place.” And from that they had the idea of focusing on one character in the experiment.

“We’d take one person who happens to be lost or trapped between worlds. In this one there happens to be no one else. She wakes up in this strange attic where there’s no one else around, apart from the ominous Zeppelins and people watching.

That was the idea for Infinitum. Who’s making this experiment? How does this work? A big governmental experiment starts off as a small science project. And then governments step in and try and use it as a way to develop human evolution. The military get in there and they’re finding subjects in different worlds to put in these little time loops to push them forward, to see how people do extraordinary things in extraordinary situations.”

They said that “the idea is that anything can happen and does happen. Every time you decide to go left, there’s a version of you that has gone right. It creates another parallel universe with every choice you make. The idea is that you can key into that, you can alter reality. The subjects become almost superheroes because they can change their reality.”

Matthew and Tori started this as a fun lock-down project to pass time and keep sane.

They’d send daily footage to Will, their editor, who was also locked down and available at the time. “He had to check it was all working. Did it make sense from a story point of view? Is it visually working? Was it in focus? Because we worked on the small screen.”

They started posting on Twitter to see what would happen, and people were interested.

Filming

Tori said that she wasn’t convinced that it would look good, when they first started. They used her 64gig iPhone and Filmic Pro – “that was a game changer. But it is very technical.”

They watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to use the app and the gimbal, and learnt “the special ninja walk, to make it smooth, and work out the technicalities of shooting. Lighting is a thing we’ve never had to think about properly from a creative point.”

Matthew says that he’d “always known it’s really hard, but I now fully appreciate how hard it actually is.” They shot some of the scenes at night, to make it realistic, but soon realised that you couldn’t use lighting ‘from the moon’ because you couldn’t see the action. They also realised that the iPhone wasn’t great with bright light, so they bought an ND filter which was a massive help. 

“There’s no way we could have done it without the ND filter – not to make it look like it does. But when we put the ND filter on you have these weird ‘ghosts’ – like a reflection. So we put bits of angled cardboard and used other things to balance out the gimbal.

Honestly it was Robinson Crusoe, throw things together, like real higgeldy piggledy, kind of botch it and make it work. That’s basically how we shot it.”

TOP TIP: Use an iPhone with a larger memory

Because the phone was only 64gb, they’d film for 20 minutes (on 4K) and then run out of space. Matthew said that he was so shocked that a phone could make this film. “The fact that a tiny little thing can do this, makes a difference.”

They paid the extra £15 for the cinematic feature which meant that the app “really flattened it all down so we could really play with the image afterwards. You can really control things a lot more.”

They said that the great thing was “because it was just two of us, we didn’t have the time pressure – we didn’t know when things were going to unlock, but we didn’t really have to rush. You don’t have 40 crews waiting on you. So if something took longer then we went ‘Okay, let’s go have a cup of tea and let’s keep doing it’.”

Making A Film on an iPhone

Matthew says making a film on an iPhone is “doable these days. If I can do it, anyone can. I’m not trying to make it sound like it’s easy. None of this is easy, but it is doable.”

He went on to say that he “would genuinely happily shoot another film on an iPhone now, especially now I know more about it.”

To find out more about more about our brilliant podcast episode with Matthew and Tori Butler-Hart, click here.

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