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‘Unsane’ and the Possibilities of iPhone Filmmaking

"It's not the size of your chip, it's what you do with it."

Director Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Unsane “proves to be an utterly fascinating exploration of sanity that well and truly gets you asking questions,” says Thomas Humphrey. Shot on iPhones, the film allows “the restlessly creative Soderbergh… to push the boat out cinematically too.” To read the full article, click here.

The film, reports Rory O’Connor, “stars Claire Foy as the improbably named Sawyer Valentini, a woman living the young professional finance-job lifestyle: all pencil skirts, pre-packaged salads, and one-night stands. One such date ends up with a bit of heavy petting back in Sawyer’s apartment, but things go strangely awry. The following day, she goes to meet a counselor in a facility called Highland Creek (and if that name isn’t wrought with enough ironic tranquility for you, just wait till you meet Ms. Brighterhouse) to talk it over, but inadvertently commits herself to their psychiatric ward.

Read more: Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane Proves iPhones Are the Future, Not Film

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“We quickly discover that the administrators in Highland Creek wish to keep Sawyer and her fellow patients in house until their respective insurance companies stop paying out,” O’Connor continues. “The single day that she accidentally, originally signs up for soon becomes a week-long stretch. A fellow inmate (Jay Pharoah) estimates that just one in ten of their fellow patients have any real reason to be there.

“Unfortunately for Sawyer, however, there are more worrying fish to fry. It becomes apparent early on that she has moved to the city not for a job opportunity but to escape a stalker. Things get shadier still when an orderly resembling the man in question shows up at the hospital to work the night shift. Is he really there or is the woman actually losing the plot? What first appeared to be a fun riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest soon transforms into something much darker.” To read the full article, click here

Unsane Finds Steven Soderbergh Thriftily Delivering Psychological Horror Thrills

Unsane, A Stellar Piece of Psycho Fiction

Unsane, says Guy Lodge, “serves as an interesting case study for the ever-expanding possibilities of smartphones in cinema, not least because its grimy aesthetic and breath-on-your-face atmosphere couldn’t be further removed from the iridescent visual poetry of Sean Baker’s Tangerine— the first major title handed the ‘iPhone movie’ label.

“As wielded by Soderbergh (or his cinematographer alias Peter Andrews, if we must be formal about it), the device forshortens space and tightens perspective in ways that feel aptly constrictive in a story hinging on one woman’s paranoia.” To read the full article, click here

“I’ve been experimenting for years with this equipment, with these phones and with the lenses that are available to put onto these phones,” Soderbergh says. “I knew I would, at some point, make a movie with this technology because I looked at it as the future.

“It was also my intention that the resulting movie be one that any person can go into a theater and watch—and have no concept of what it was shot on, or care, because it looks like a normal film.”

The director details that “the phone Unsane was shot with was an iPhone 7 Plus, of which we had three. That phone is a 4K [digital] capture, so when you show that on a big screen it looks great because of the resolution. We used an app called FiLMiC Pro that 14 allows for extra layers of control over the camera in terms of exposure: shutter speed, color temperature, focus. FiLMiC Pro also has a remote version, so if I put the lens somewhere that doesn’t allow me to see the phone screen I still can remotely—on another phone—control all of those things.

“The iPhones are light, so they are sensitive to vibration. So for those overhead drone shots of the hospital facility that we needed, we could not use the 7 Plus; the phones could not be mounted on drones because they would shake too much and the image would buckle. The drones already had cameras as part of them, mounted inside.”

Soderbergh adds that “the lenses were very small, too, and they came from a company named Moment. We used three that they make; one is an 18mm, one is a 60mm, and one is a fisheye. I had three sets of each lens ready in case I wanted to use them on three cameras at the same time, which I never did. The 18mm was pretty much our default lens. On occasion, I would just use the lens that was in the iPhone itself if it was the right focal length for what we were doing.”

He muses, “I embraced using more wide lenses and having actors closer to the lens than I typically would—and all of this was part of throwing away what Steven Soderbergh would do. It was, what is the ‘director of Unsane‘ going to do? I just went with it, and it was really fun. 

“There were many times during a day when I was setting up a shot and thought to myself, ‘Oh, I would never do that.’ Even without the alternate directorial name, I’m looking forward to an active conversation about what I did go off and do.”

Utilizing the technology also reduced the production’s carbon footprint and kept the feature within its modest. Soderbergh assesses, “The ripple effect that takes place when you can make a film with a crew this small, and it’s all positive. This is a movie that was made with a truck and two vans, basically. Except for the shooting days when we had a lot of extras, our on-set presence was about a dozen people. That was the way we could execute Unsane properly at this scale. I wonder who will be the first filmmaker to shoot something that’s not low-budget with a camera this small.

“What I was hoping to achieve was a level of liberation in staging that is only possible when you have a capture device that is this small; you can place the camera lens anywhere you can think of in a matter of seconds. That was a big ‘get’ the experience provided, and made me excited about doing it again very soon; the freedom was palpable.

“I’ve shown Unsane to director friends who have taken note of what could be gotten by putting the lens anywhere, whether in a room or a car; they can feel the energy that comes from being able to move that quickly. Going forward, there are going to be certain filmmakers that see the benefits of 15 having a camera small enough to place wherever you want it without any danger to the camera or to the people around it.”

He concludes, “To paraphrase a saying: it’s not the size of your chip, it’s what you do with it.” 

Read more: You Can’t Unsee Unsane, Steven Soderbergh’s Thriller About Mental Illness