Everyone’s buzzing about the Sundance smash Tangerine which stars trans actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as two working girls in search of a wayward pimp on a fateful Christmas Eve in Hollywood. The film – which was shot entirely on an iPhone – was bought by Magnolia Pictures at Sundance and is looking at a Summer 2015 release.
TANGERINE follows two working girls on Christmas, Sin-Dee and Alexandra (Rodriguez and Taylor) as they look for the pimp boyfriend (James Ransone, STARLET, “Generation Kill“). who may or may not have cheated on Sin-Dee while she was in the slammer. Their story runs parallel with that of a married Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian, THE PRINCE OF BROADWAY), who lusts for Sin-Dee despite his strict, traditional culture.
TANGERINE is a high-energy, effervescent comedy that transcends any expectation you might have going in — sharp in its humor, yet filled with deep, relatable emotion.
Plenty of amateur films have been shot using iPhones, but by all reports, this is the first movie at the Sundance Film Festival to be shot almost entirely on an Apple device. It was a decision that indie writer and director Sean Baker made to accommodate the film’s small budget. But you’d never guess the camera, to look at it: Tangerine was shot in a widescreen, 2:35:1 aspect ratio, and its camera zooms through the streets of LA with a fluidity you’d never expect from a handheld device. And yet despite his camera of choice, Baker says the iPhone made for a good partner. “It was surprisingly easy,” Baker says. “We never lost any footage.”
So how do you make a Sundance movie for iPhone? You need four things. First, of course, the iPhone (Baker and his team used three). Second, an $8 app called Filmic Pro that allowed the filmmakers fine-grained control over the focus, aperture, and color temperature. Third, a Steadicam. “These phones, because they’re so light, and they’re so small, a human hand — no matter how stable you are — it will shake. And it won’t look good,” says Baker. “So you needed the Steadicam rig to stabilize it.”
The final ingredient was a set of anamorphic adapter lenses that attach to the iPhone. The lenses were prototypes from Moondog Labs, and Baker said they were essential to making Tangerine look like it belonged on a big screen. “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have even made the movie without it,” Baker says. “It truly elevated it to a cinematic level.”
Like any conventional film, Tangerine underwent post-production. “With a lot of these social realist films, the first thing you do is drain the color,” Baker says. “We went the other way. We pumped the colors and put the saturation through the roof. Just because the world there is so colorful, and the women are so colorful. We wanted it to match them.” (Orange emerged as the dominant color in the film, inspiring its title.) The final step was to apply a digital grain to the movie, giving it a quality more reminiscent of actual film.
At first, the cast wasn’t convinced shooting with the iPhone would work. “I had some hesitancy about it, more out of pride,” says James Ransone, who plays Chester, the pimp at the center of Tangerine’s love triangle. “I’m like, Jesus Christ, man, I was on The Wire. I’ve ended up in iPhone movies!” But Ransone came to appreciate the flexibility of the device. “There’s a lot that can be done with an iPhone.” (One example: Baker shot several scenes while riding his 10-speed bicycle in circles around his actors.)
Ransone said that the key to shooting Tangerine was having a team well-versed in traditional filmmaking. “You still need to know how editing works. You still need to know how sound works. You still need to know how a camera works,” he says. “You can’t just go out and shoot.” iPhone footage hasn’t yet caught up with true 35 millimeter film — a high bar — but Ransone expects it will some day. “Yes, you can make a beautiful-looking film on a shoestring budget,” he says. “But you have to know 100 years worth of filmmaking.”