When watching films, it’s easy to get lost in the cinematography and special effects and overlook the technology being developed behind the scenes, which plays a crucial role in making films such a gripping and immersive experience. Not only that, but it is actually responsible for a lot of decisions made in the filmmaking process and is shaping what is possible to create in the film industry. Read on as we lift the lid on some of the technology around today that shapes films and the way they are produced, from the directors decisions to camera operators’ capabilities. And if you fancy yourself as the next Tarantino or Nolan, I will also be delving into some of the best technology for amateur filmmakers to utilise whilst starting out.
Of course the most obvious place to start would be the video camera technology, as quite clearly, you couldn’t make a film without it. We can all tell from the improvements in image quality over the last 50 years that cameras have become a lot more advanced, with technology such as 4K ultra high definition camera capabilities making it possible to capture the smallest details in the highest quality.
However, the technology that’s made it possible to achieve a more dynamic range of shot movements is camera support devices, which have made a very noticeable difference to the camera shots we see in films today. Camera sliders and dollies, jibs/cranes, tripods/monopods, and motion control systems are all used in film studios as they enable greater movement of the camera, as well as offering balance and stabilization that a human operator can’t provide. Sliders are bracketed tracks that allow smooth movement of the camera over a left to right and forward/ backward motion and a camera dolly is a wheeled cart or similar device that a camera is mounted to. Jibs/cranes act as long arms for getting higher shots, the difference being that jibs rely on a counterweight on the other end of the arm (usually the camera operator).
The motion control camera systems are probably the most advanced piece of technology used for camera movement. They don’t rely on humans moving the device, meaning they can provide a more fluid movement, more precisely and at greater ranges. Not only this, but it allows the operator to shoot multiple elements with the exact same camera movement, which wouldn’t be possible with a human operator. This means that when the footage is layered in an optical printer they are combined with precision to allow for VFX to be created.
A prime example of this is Iris, a seven axis robotic motion control platform created to shoot scenes in Gravity, and developed by Bot & Dolly – a design and engineering studio based in San Francisco. The agility of the camera rig, real-time tracking ability of multiple subjects & objects and the capability to coordinate with multiple robots within one millisecond, shows how far this technology has come since human controlled camera rigs. It incorporates the Maya 3D computer graphics software by Autodesk, which allows 3D animations to be converted to instructions, which the cameras, lighting and other technical aspects of the film set are synchronised to. This impressive piece of technology no doubt contributed towards the BAFTA and Academy awards that Gravity received for best cinematography and VFX.
Drones are another type of camera device that have had a huge impact on the types of shots used, not just in the biggest blockbuster films, but also smaller independently made films. Since 2014 when commercial drone flight was made legal , aerial shots were no longer reserved for films with a big enough budget to afford a helicopter. They are a handy tool for filmmakers as they are small and very manoeuvrable so they can track moving objects and fly in otherwise inaccessible locations, whilst also being better for the environment and less intrusive than helicopters.
We are becoming accustomed to drone shots in films even if we take notice of them – how many film introductions have we seen that start with a high perspective shot sweeping over the cityscape? Drones have become such a useful tool in providing a bird’s-eye view of the world that most directors would consider the aerial shots they provide in films as integral, especially for establishing shots. Recent developments include improved camera gimbals (sensors that respond to motion) for 3D aerial coverage, collision avoidance technology, customisable flight path options, and improved stability to eliminate shaky camera shots. As drone technology becomes more accessible, they are being used for more than just the soaring overhead shots we associate them with. Some filmmakers are already using them in place of land-based technology, such as jibs, as they have the ability to produce the same kinds of shots and more because of their versatility. Therefore, drone technology is impacting the film industry as it’s offering an innovative, reliable and non intrusive way of filming from the sky, which is becoming more commonplace.
However, it isn’t just camera systems that are shaping the film industry. The development of 3D printing technology has made it a more commonly used tool in film production, whereas it used to be relatively rare, used in only the biggest blockbusters. They have revolutionised costume and prop design in film, but also prototyping and conceptual aids, as new ideas can be printed and communicated in minutes, meaning designs can be tested against each other on set. This process is also far more precise than set designers creating costumes and props by hand, which also takes much longer because of the need to source materials and make it.
Furthermore, 3D printers have reduced the issue of errors or inaccurate designs/ information on sets and continuity errors. Take Star Wars: The Force Awakens for example; in their mission to use as many practical effects as possible, they used 3D printing to create all the costumes, set details, and even whole characters, such as the robotic BB-8. For sets that were used in multiple shots they needed to make several versions of the props, including different versions for closeups, distance shots, stunts and VFX shots. Would it have been possible to make them all accurately without the use of a 3D printer? Without this technology there’s no doubt using practical effects would be used far less in the big films, as the accuracy of handmade props wouldn’t be to a high enough standard. So, technology isn’t just impacting the way that films are recorded, but also elements of the mise-en-scene, particularly costume and prop design and shaping decisions on whether to use practical effects or visual effects, created through post-production editing.
Of course, all of these developments are great for the big production companies with million pound budgets, but what about us at home? Developing technology hasn’t just changed the game for the big brands, there are changes going in the world of amateur filmmaking too, making it more affordable and accessible than ever. If you own a smartphone then you can begin your filmmaking journey without having to spend a penny.
Innovations in phone camera technology have increased rapidly over the years and it feels as though it won’t be long before they are catching up to the image quality of professional cameras. For example, the current iPhone pro models feature three cameras; a regular camera (26mm), an ultra-wide camera (13mm) and a telephoto camera (52mm), meaning it’s capable of shooting high quality video/images from a range of distances. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, widely regarded as the best phone for video capture, features a telephoto camera with 10x optical zoom, a 240mm camera lens, a 108MP sensor and the power to produce cinema-grade 8K videos.
This technology comes with a hefty price tag but even with a more affordable smartphone, wonders can be achieved with the power of post-production editing. There is a massive range of free video editing apps, such as Vimeo, InShot, Zoomerang, Viamaker, iMovie, Splice, Kinemaster, just to name a few. These apps allow you to put together your masterpiece by adding all your footage and ordering them, trimming each clip and adding transitions between shots. Other features enable you to edit the lighting, audio, shaky camera movements and action speed, as well as adding filters and music to add those finishing touches.
Tip: If you’re looking to achieve a more professional look to your film, investing in a phone tripod or a lighting kit would add another trick up the sleeve, both of which come in affordable options and higher quality, more expensive options.
Making the most of the phone technology available may not be shaping the film industry by producing the most innovative and high quality films, but it’s making the process of getting into filmmaking easier and more accessible for everyone, so the opportunity to explore this passion isn’t just reserved for the most highly trained individuals. Many young filmmakers start off experimenting in this way, and even some more renowned directors such as Steven Soderbergh, Sean Baker, Chan-Wook Park and Chan-Kyon Park have created full feature films just using phone technology. For inspiration on what can be achieved with this technology, check out I play with the Phrase Each Other by Jay Alvarez, which is a film consisting of mobile phone calls, filmed on mobile phones. It won the special Jury Award at Slamdance Film Festival in 2014.
Realistically, shooting films on phones does come with its limitations, so once you start developing your skills and decide you want to commit to the filmmaking path, getting a professional video camera would be advisable. With the ability to use hundreds of different lenses, shoot in RAW, manually change each setting such as white balance/aperture, and generally providing much higher image quality, they are still well worth the investment. Shooting on a video camera means that the footage is easily editable on more advanced software such as Adobe Premiere Pro/Elements, Cyberlink PowerDirector, Final Cut Pro X and Corel VideoStudio. These editing apps give you the option to refine and edit every small detail about your film, experiment with VFX and animation and play with sound effects.
Given what can be achieved with editing, it’s clear this technology is one of the most crucial components in shaping the amateur film industry. On an individual level, editing software is usually the second technology that young filmmakers invest in (after a camera), they shape their experience of filmmaking and the quality of the films produced and the limits of what they can achieve. On a wider scale, the fact that this technology is improving whilst also becoming more affordable, means it is also becoming more widely available. As a result, amateur filmmakers are getting to use features that, only 50 years ago, would have been reserved for the most advanced film editors working on the best films.
It’s apparent that filmmakers, be it the biggest in the business or someone starting out on their phone, depend on technology to shape their decisions and set limitations when it comes to their film. Not only that, but the ongoing innovation of film technologies means that the films continue to improve at such a rate that we can see notable differences in films being made now to just 10 years ago. It plays a crucial part in the way films are made, from producing and directing, to camerawork and post-production editing and ultimately, creating that spellbinding experience that the 2021 film audience demands. Thanks to the constant work going on behind the scenes to develop film technology, the future of film is more exciting than ever.
Chloe is a content creator with a passion for writing, photography, graphic design and making music. She loves experimenting with creative media and has a desire to work in the music and media industries in the future.