Shooting on a smartphone? Don’t do it alone

From time to time, clients ask us if user-generated footage shot on smartphones is a viable production approach. I admit the idea is tempting: a company could send out a call for submissions, and within a week a bevy of footage would magically show up. The informal setting would allow your colleagues, likely not born performers, to be their authentic selves. And all you would have to spring for is postproduction. What could go wrong?

Quite a few things, actually. Such videos are likely to have varying picture quality, uneven sound, and questionable lighting—not to mention inconsistencies in performance and content. Social media has made user-generated videos valuable currency, but there’s a time and a place. Companies should carefully consider whether such videos are on brand and fit for public consumption—that is, high enough quality.

It’s true that technological advances have made the cameras on smartphones much more sophisticated—just look at the three lenses on the iPhone 11. What these advances have done is put the tools to tell a story in everyone’s hands, which is great. But that doesn’t mean everyone has a story—or the skills to make the best use of those tools. For companies that stake their reputations on top-notch, vetted content, there should be an added layer of quality control.

While the recent Apple commercial featuring a snowball fight shot on an iPhone 11 is bound to make DIY video production more tantalizing, it actually reveals a few important lessons about how to arrive at a high-quality product. Hint: it takes a lot more than a decent camera.

People: from pre- to postproduction: A full production shoot involves a producer, director, one or more cameras, a director of photography, camera operators, lighting, sound, and production assistants. Following production, an editor takes all the footage and translates it into a compelling video, whether 30 long seconds or far longer. Sure, a phone can capture part of that, but without experts who know what they’re doing, the shots can be wildly inconsistent, the sound can be off, and the lighting won’t hit in just the right place to illuminate certain moments in the footage. One of the cool things about the latest iPhone is the three lenses, but the phone doesn’t come with a cinematographer who thinks about how to bring more emotion, drama, or life into a scene by switching angles, distance, and focus—or the overall composition of a shot.

Good creative: I counted more than 40 different shots in the 1:09 version of the Apple commercial. This type of video requires a huge amount of planning: initial concepts, script, storyboards, casting, rehearsals, location scouting, and the actual shoot (likely two days). Then there’s the postproduction needed to edit all the footage together. That process and a considerable budget—not the iPhone 11—is why the commercial is so effective.

Vision: In the “making of the commercial” video, director David Leitch (who has Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbes & Shaw and Deadpool 2 on his résumé) remarks, “You don’t need all the equipment I had on these Hollywood movies to tell a great story.” That insight rings true, even though we’ll point out that he had a full crew and production on the Snowbrawl shoot. But the point is that the more critical decision is selecting the right director and production team to elevate the material as it moves from script to screen.

We constantly reevaluate our approach to video production to consider new technologies and how they can help lower costs while maintaining quality. And we share this information with clients so that they understand the trade-offs. But for now, unless you’re working with the pros, it’s probably best to reserve iPhone videos for your Instagram page.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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