Phoning It In — Literally

While working on a commercial for the Motorola V710, a cell phone that can record three-minute video clips, director/cinematographer Ed Lachman, ASC jokingly told a Motorola executive that he looked forward to someday shooting a movie with one of the phones. He got his chance almost immediately, when Motorola asked him to use the phones to make a series of two-minute films showing real people talking about their most unusual experiences with their cell phones.

While considering ways to approach the project, Lachman, who studied painting before he became a cinematographer, thought about Cubist painters such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, and how they incorporated multiple perspectives into their work. He realized the Motorola spot offered an opportunity to do something similar, only as a movie: each phone produced a 176x220-pixel image, and by combining a number of them, he could fill a 35mm frame and simultaneously capture different views of the same subject.

Lachman was intrigued by the thought that this approach would let him combine some of the latest motion-picture technology with an experiment dating back to the very beginning of the art: the motion studies pioneered by photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Beginning in the 1870s, Muybridge used arrays of still cameras to analyze the movements of animals and humans. “In a sense, he was the first director and cinematographer ever, but he did it with stills,” says Lachman.

By combining six V710 cell phones in a grid, three across and two tall, Lachman could create an overall image with an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1. To adjust the placement and field of view of the cameras, so that they could either overlap or point in different directions, Lachman asked his brother Robert, a special-effects artist, to build a rig that consisted of three panels: a fixed one in the center, and two hinged wings that could swing in or out. Each phone could be adjusted up and down in its mount, allowing Lachman to set the angle of every camera’s field of view.

The 10 storytellers in the spot are all non-professionals who describe incidents that actually happened to them. One young man used his cell phone to frighten off a bear that menaced him and his girlfriend while they were on a picnic in the woods. A woman in New York left her phone in a taxi, then called her number to see if someone might return it to her; a man did, and the two of them have been in love ever since. Another romance was saved when a young woman got a series of wrong-number messages intended for someone else’s boyfriend; she ended up giving the caller an hour and half of advice, then later learned that the caller and the boyfriend had made up and were getting ready to marry.

In addition to having people tell their stories, Lachman decided to include some reenactments of the incidents they were describing. For example, in the film about the man who frightened away the bear, Lachman went to a zoo and photographed a bear with the rig, creating multiple perspectives of the animal that he could incorporate into the man’s story. Explains Lachman, “I did what I normally do in documentaries: I interviewed the subjects, and then I developed a structure with a beginning, middle and end. I then looked for images that would reinforce the stories.”

He eventually shot eight movies over a three-day period. He had a crew of four, including a camera assistant to trigger all the cell phones at the same time, a lighting assistant to help set up an occasional Kino Flo, and a sound recordist. Lachman notes that using such a small crew helped make the performers more comfortable, as did the fact that the cameras were cell phones, devices that are part of their everyday lives. “When I told them I was going to shoot their story with a cell phone, they didn’t feel a big crew was coming in to violate them.” He adds that once he establishes a comfortable relationship with non-actors, he generally has no trouble working with them. “Real people can be themselves, just don’t ask them to be something else!”

Once the spots were shot, editor Steve Covello, who owns Doublewide Media/Post with Don Faller, worked with Lachman to find the best way to assemble the shots and integrate the reenactment images. Working in Apple Final Cut Pro, which gave him the flexibility to create an odd-sized canvas, Covello set up a template, then had an assistant transfer all the video clips from the phones to the computer and arrange them into six-panel sequences. These were then combined with the audio recorded separately on set and used as though they were the original dailies.

Covello and Lachman agreed that it wouldn’t be appropriate to use a lot of editing tricks on the spot. “What people were saying and how they were saying it was of primary importance,” says Covello. “The six-frame aesthetic wasn’t meant to do anything more than reinforce the primary story. Ed wanted to concentrate on telling the stories in a way that would bring viewers into what was happening to the people onscreen emotionally.”

With that goal in mind, Lachman and Covello were judicious about their use of changes within a frame. Most of time, they edited in a conventional way, cutting from clip to clip. But at certain key moments, they would swap out some of the six images within a single clip, occasionally mirroring one image to the quadrant on the opposite side of the frame, or adding images to illustrate part of the story. In the bear movie, as the man describes how the animal reared up and threatened him, the storyteller’s image stays in the center-bottom frame, imitating the bear, while the other five frames change to low-angle shots of the real bear clawing at air. “It was like editing a storyline, but also editing a storyline between each quadrant,” says Lachman. At the same time, he wanted to add a sense of visual abstraction. “There was a visual design to each story with the multiple cameras, and I made that part of the palette.”

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.