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Shot on an iPhone, 'Tangerine' Captures a Moment in Time

Telling the story of transgender sex workers in a film shot with an iPhone is so, well, 2015.

Magnolia Pictures

“Tangerine” isn’t the first movie shot on an iPhone. Nor is it the first film to explore the stories of transgender life on the streets.

But, in marrying that theme and smartphone technology, the filmmakers have certainly picked their moment well.

The film, a mix of drama and comedy that Variety called “exuberantly raw,” debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January and hits mainstream theaters this Friday. On screen, “Tangerine” tells the story of two transgender sex workers, one just out of prison and looking for her cheating pimp boyfriend. The story, set on the streets of Hollywood, takes viewers both on an interesting journey and deep into a world that most have never seen.

Magnolia Pictures

Behind the scenes, “Tangerine” tells the story of what is possible — and what is not — when using a smartphone as a cinematographic device.

Using an iPhone offered several benefits. First, it was a camera technology the film’s makers could afford.

“We had no money to make this movie,” said filmmaker Sean Baker. “It wasn’t a gimmick.”

The iPhone also created an intimacy that helped tell the story in a way that might be harder with the bulk of a traditional movie camera. Plus, it allowed the crew to shoot some footage on the sly in the few cases where it didn’t have permits. Scenes on the bus, for example, were captured with real passengers — a feat that might not have been possible had they been riding with a full-on movie set-up.

“We were under everyone’s radar,” said Chris Bergoch, Baker’s partner in making “Tangerine.” After the scene, crew members rushed to get signed releases from the passengers on the bus. Some didn’t really believe a professional film was even being made.

Each night they would upload the footage shot that day on the three iPhone 5s phones, clear the cameras and shoot another day of footage. Though running out of space during the day wasn’t a problem, battery life was of course an issue. “We had plenty of Mophies around,” Baker said, referring to the startup’s external battery charging cases.

When envisioning the film’s creation, it’s important to know that “shot on an iPhone” doesn’t mean that Bergoch and Baker just ran around with phones in their hands. The iPhone was supplemented with an add-on lens from Moondog Labs and attached to a stabilizing rig known as a Smoothee, with Filmic Pro software that helps keep the capture at a professional 24 frames per second with higher compression quality.

And, perhaps most important, said Bergoch: “We did the sound in the traditional way” by using wireless mics.

 Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, the stars of “Tangerine,” which was shot using several iPhone 5s’s.
Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, the stars of “Tangerine,” which was shot using several iPhone 5s’s.
Magnolia Pictures

The optics of the iPhone may add a certain realism and closeness, but there is no redeeming value to the tinny, limited sound that its built-in microphone can capture.

Even the camera part has its limitations. The iPhone creates its own style, with its big depth of field and wide-angle lens. “We came to like it,” Bergoch said.

That said, Bergoch and Baker admit they aren’t likely to shoot their next film on a phone. “I might have to switch it up just for the sake of switching it up,” Baker said. “People will be expecting me to shoot on the iPhone.”

The two are working on several projects, Bergoch said, with hopes that commercial success for “Tangerine” will lead to financing for those efforts.

As for the subject matter of “Tangerine,” it’s pretty cutting edge, though perhaps less unique than when Baker and Bergoch began their project. Transgender story lines are more common now in films and TV, from trans characters in “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Orange Is the New Black,” to the shows “Transparent” and “Becoming Us,” which both center on transgender characters.

Bergoch said that he is pleased to be part of a broader conversation on transgender issues. “If we can help keep the dialogue going, that’s a very positive thing that I’m proud to be a part of,” he said.

And despite increased attention, Bergoch and Baker noted that there remain relatively few opportunities for transgender people to star in and tell their own stories. Though “Tangerine” is fictional, the filmmakers say the two transgender stars were instrumental in creating the story as well as ensuring the authenticity of the action and dialogue.

“This is a time when the industry will be more open to trans actors and that’s so important to me,” Baker said. He added that he hopes that first-time co-stars Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez can parlay their roles in “Tangerine” into acting careers.

And, while not all audiences have had the same experiences as lead character Sin-Dee, Bergoch says the themes of the movie are universal.

“We’ve all had a broken heart, so I’d say my hope is that audiences click in and relate to Sin-Dee as she tears through Tinseltown and that they have a few laughs along the way,” Bergoch said.

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