Cell Phone Cinema | An Overview | The Birth of the Mobile Phone Camera

by Karl Bardosh

India is a country that produces by far the most films in the world, about a thousand features per year. It is the land of film where film is still revered almost like religion, where the stars are cherished as demi-gods.

In January 2006, Prof. Sandeep Marwah, the Director of the Asian Academy of Film and Television in Film City, Noida, had invited me to deliver lectures and workshops for their graduate and undergraduate students in screenwriting, narrative shorts and documentaries.

I found the students quite serious and eager to learn, and I came across quite a few ambitious projects. Almost all projects focused on social issues and had a progressive agenda. In addition to my lectures and workshops I had a second goal on this trip to India: I wanted to shoot three narrative shorts with my cell phone in co-production with Marwah Studios. These were scripted in New York, before my travel. I knew by research that no original productions had been shot on cell phones before in India.

I proceeded to co-produce the 3 narrative short films with Prof. Sandeep Marwah. His studio provided me with full crew, actors and locations. The films were shot on my Nokia 90 cell phone. It was almost comical for me to stand on a dolly with my tiny cell phone surrounded by a professional crew with lights, actors and extras in a crowd scene at a local hospital, but the shots turned out to be quite beautiful, and no one could tell how they were executed.

The Digital Revolution and its Discontents

The first social revolution carried all over the world by the digital revolution of cell phones has been in the summer of 2009 in Iran. As the government shut down all professional camera operations that could beam images of the upheaval to the outside world, newspapers and television networks had no other choice but feature stills and videos captured on cell phone cameras by amateurs and professionals alike. For the first time in history, a government and her protesters were locked in a cyber warfare both receiving state-of-the-art technical help from the outside. The protesters received strategic guidance on the web from sympathizers on how to avoid the shutting down of their cell phone services and how to continue posting images on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. On the other hand, the government has been using monitoring devices purchased from the West, to listen in and track cell phones users. This practice, of course, has been going on everywhere even without a revolution.

In the digital age, we all enjoy the freedom of mobility with our mobile phones, while Big Brother is also watching. But that is for our own well-being as well. How else can you safeguard us against crime, against terrorism? The terrorists attacking the London Subway were first recorded by security cameras and the first images of the terrible explosions and the victims were filmed on bystanders’ cell phone cameras. It is important for our safety that no one can walk the streets of New York today without being watched and recorded by scores of security cameras. Obviously, the very definition of privacy has changed by the spread of these, as well as cell phone cameras and digital, internet communication forums and devices. From credits to medical reports to even library profiles, everything about us is stored and shared digitally. As a result the definition of privacy in the digital age, according to congressional committees, no longer means anonymity but that the government and the corporations make sure that private information is handled responsibly.

Obviously, the ethical questions and moral dilemmas concerning the use of cell phone cameras are large and complex. Enough to bring up the example of Saddam Hussein’s execution, that was secretly recorded on the camcorder of a cell phone and then posted on the Internet. At the same time cell phone cameras have also been in the front line of fighting crime, identifying criminals and solving murder cases. Please, consider that technology has always been subject to misuse, always depending on the human factor that can be either good or bad for the rest of us. However, just comparing cell phones let’s say with a kitchen knife, it is clear that while the kitchen knife could be used for murder, you can never dial for help on it.

The complexity of the legal and ethical issues of cell phone cameras are beyond the scope of this article.

The Birth of the Mobile Phone Camera

According to an interesting anecdote, the camera phone was born during the birth of a child, Sonia Kahn on June 11th, 1997 in Santa Cruz, California.

The inventor, Philippe Kahn’s wife, Sonia Lee had been in long labor in the delivery room. Philippe was restless and to kill time had started to toy with the idea of snapping pictures of the baby and sending them instantly to their friends and relatives. He suddenly thought of trying to connect his digital still camera to the phone. He got some soldering equipment and quite miraculously he made it work. The rest is history. This was in 1997 and since then nearly one billion camera phones have been sold.

Headlines and Timelines

The February 2009 “MoFilm” global competition in Barcelona received 250 entries from more than 100 countries. Entries were restricted to films that were five minutes or less in length – ideal for viewing and sharing on mobile phones.

In April 2008, a major filmmaker and Artistic Director of NYU’s Graduate Film School, Spike Lee, teamed up with Nokia, to direct a short film comprising YouTube-style videos created by teenagers and adults using their mobile phones.

By entering into a co-venture with Spike Lee for the project, Nokia was keen to attract more users to their brand by the power of a famous director’s endorsement of cell phone cinema. The film had three acts, each three to five minutes long, with the theme loosely based on the concept of humanity.

In 2008, at the Cannes Lions Film Competition, a team from The Netherlands has won the inaugural Cannes Lions Young Creatives’ Film Competition for which entries were filmed on the new Nokia N93 mobile video device.

“Sundance recently turned 25, and to me that [cell phone] was the new venue of where we were going to next,” said Robert Redford on November 8, 2006, upon launching his Global Short Film Project with 5 filmmakers in February of 2007. Redford has negotiated an arrangement with the Global System Mobile Association to disseminate Sundance’s cell phone cinema to GSMA’s more than 2.6 billion cell phone subscribers.

One month earlier, between October 6-8, 2006, the Pocket Cinema Festival opened in Paris at the Pompidou Center’s Museum of Modern Art showing 80 films including full-length features entirely shot on cell phones.

Some 8500 people attended the event in Paris. One of the sensations of the French Pocket Film Festival was a 90 minute long documentary (shot on a Nokia-90 cell phone) by the Italian creative team of Marcello Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi. Entitled New Love Meetings, it is a loose remake of the late great filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1963 documentary, Love Meetings interviewing a large sampling of Italians on their views of love and sex. The new version is one of the world’s first feature-length cell phone documentaries. It has also made waves at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival in late November, 2006. I was lucky enough to shoot an interview with these pioneer cell phone filmmakers there, of course, with my own cell phone.

Released in February 2006, one of the world’s first full-length narrative cell phone feature film credit goes to a South African filmmaker, Aryan Kaganof. Telling the adventures of a pimp and three high-class female escorts on Christmas Eve in Johannesburg, this film was released in 3-minute segments on cell phones but it was also blown up to 35mm for projection in movie theaters as well. The camera originals were shot with eight Sony-Ericsson cell phones.

In American film education, Boston University jumped on the bandwagon first. In 2006, under the direction of a professional filmmaker/educator, Jan Egleson, a class of eleven students started to learn how to make cell phone movies.

Regarding cell phone film competitions, as early as March 2003, a Los Angeles company called Big-Digit had organized one of the first ones in the US, and called it The World’s Smallest Film Festival. It debuted at a trade fair in New Orleans.

Asia and especially India’s Bollywood have been among the first ones to take advantage of advertising on the Cell Phone platform. Arindham Chaudhary’s feature film Rok Sako To Rok Lo was premiered on cell-phones a day ahead its theatrical release on December 10, 2004; a first of this kind of distribution in the world.
China now has the largest population of mobile-phone users in the world (437.5 million), of which – right now – more than 25 million are high quality video cell phones. Chinese companies are predicting that cell-phone movies will become the next television.

Indeed, mobile television is the most exciting next business model.

Samsung Omnia HD breaks all records by introducing the 12 megapixel cell phone that can record and receive true High Definition video.

Cell Phone Cinema Theory

This is not to say that mobile videophones can or should replace regular video camcorders in either amateur or in semi-professional productions, The main purpose of video cell phones is definitely not to replace regular digital camcorders, rather these new devices are additional accessories that we can always carry around like ball-point pens in our pockets, for taking notes on the go.

This analogy between videophones and pens takes us back a long way into the past of World Cinema.

It was back in 1948 when Alexander Astruc, the famous French film theorist and director formulated the theory of “Camera Stylo” that is “Camera Pen” – meaning that the holder of the “pen” is the real author of the film, and that is – he said – must be the Director. Not the writer, not the producer, not the actors, not the cinematographer, but it is the director who has true authority over the film, who is the actual author of the film, because he is the holder of the ‘camera pen’.

So Astruc used the analogy of the pen to establish the authorship of the director at the beginning of the important French New Wave Cinema of the late Fifties and Sixties.

In my theory, Cell Phone Cinema means that by carrying around these tiny videophones like “Camera Stylos” (pens) in our pockets everyone may become a filmmaker. The difference between carrying around a pen or a “camera pen” is being diminished by modern digital technology.

Most importantly, PDA Video Cell Phones (“Smartphones”) can function as full service Production Centers, able to assist anyone in becoming a filmmaker. Pretty complex film productions could be run entirely on these new, state of the art mobile phones. One current example is an application called “Hitchcock” that makes possible to compose and store very complex storyboarding on the iPhone.

In the near future cell phones can put the whole world of Hollywood or independent productions literally into our palms.

Welcome to Cell Phone Cinema.


Accumulating over 30 years of professional experience in Europe, Asia, Brazil, Hollywood and New York in all genres of film and television, Karl Bardosh has been an award-winning director, producer, writer, and editor of features, shorts, television series and documentaries. Bardosh has numerous writing and directing credits, including “Iron and Horse,” shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC; he initiated Hungarian American Television in 1978; and writing, directing, and editing an American documentary on Bollywood and Indian Parallel Cinema (Bombay,1992). Bardosh is invited back to India make a follow-up documentary about the Hollywood-Bollywood connection 17 years later. www.cellphonecinema.org


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