New Zealand feature film ‘Blue Moon’ is a twisty, real-time thriller entirely on an iPhone by cinematographer Ryan O’Rourke

New Zealand feature film Blue Moon is a twisty, real-time thriller from writer/director Stefen Harris nimbly staged and shot entirely on iPhone by cinematographer Ryan O’Rourke within and around a Motueka petrol station in the wee small hours of the morning.

By Ryan O’Rourke.

I’ve known writer and director Stefen Harris for a few years. We were both police officers in Christchurch and were introduced to each other by another cop who knew we were both interested in film. I’ve shot several things for him in the past and worked with the two lead actors on test shoots for another film. We’ve been able to develop a level of mutual trust, which is critical. That turned out to be particularly important on this project due to our shooting schedule.

Harris had shot a couple of feature films prior to Blue Moon, so I was really lucky to get the opportunity to work with him and grateful that he felt able to trust me.

Our limited budget was one of the main drivers for choosing to shoot the film on iPhone; however the more we looked into it, the more it began to be a stylistic choice as much as a budget-driven decision.

The film is shot effectively in one location; a service station in Motueka, which is a town with a population of about 8000 at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. There are two main characters – Horace played by Mark Hadlow and Darren played by Jed Brophy – and a lot of dialogue between them. Harris had some ideas about how he wanted the film to look, which involved a lot of camera movement.

Our testing showed that it was potentially achievable to shoot a film in the middle of the night at a service station, on a phone.

I knew it was possible to get nice pictures with an iPhone, but assumed that conditions had to be perfect. This is true to a point. Our testing showed that it was potentially achievable to shoot a film in the middle of the night at a service station, on a phone. The most concerning aspect was that some of the scenes were night exteriors and we knew we wouldn’t be able to light everywhere outside. We were worried about how the tiny sensor would perform.

Being able to shoot anamorphic helped our decision. We used Moondog lenses that clipped onto the front of the phones. These lenses changed the whole look and feel of our film. A number of people have commented that they didn’t realise Blue Moon was even shot on a phone. Although it’s fair to say none of those people are cinematographers. However I feel if you have a solid story and great performances, the audience is going to be drawn in regardless.

We had a test shoot about three months prior to the main event. This helped to answer a lot of our questions about the iPhone, confirm that it was going to be technically feasible and allowed us to test various settings in the FiLMiC Pro app.

We were really worried about shooting in 4K and so decided to shoot in HD. We were worried the phones would overheat during the shoot, worried about data storage and transfer, worried about battery life and generally worried that the phones wouldn’t handle the job. After testing, we became confident that the iPhone would be up to the task and in the end we didn’t have a single technical issue with the phones for the entire shoot.

The petrol station in scene from the film ‘Blue Moon’ – DOP Ryan O’Rourke

We looked at the film Tangerine (2015, cinematography by Radium Cheung) prior to the shoot. Directed by Sean Baker, that film had been filmed using the iPhone 5+ and made a splash when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. For us, we were mostly interested in what could be achieved with the technology. Tangerine showed that it was possible to shoot a feature film on a phone, but that it was also possible to get some beautiful pictures and have the whole think look quite ‘filmic’, if that’s a word.

Harris made it clear what our schedule meant; no room for delays. It was nerve wracking, particularly ahead of the test shoot. By then I had spent a lot of time thinking and testing various aspects, and the tests helped put those different aspects together. It helped to solidify our thinking around how we would approach the shoot.

We liked the idea of a service station as a pool of light in the middle of a small town, surrounded by darkness. The whole story playing out within the confines of the service station without anyone else being aware of what was unfolding. The seedy underbelly of humanity that comes to life when the rest of us are sleeping.

The film features Horace and Darren, our two main characters, engaging in some pretty intense dialogue. Harris was keen to keep the camera moving as much as possible. Particularly during the action sequences he wanted minimally rehearsed camera movement. The gimbal was great for that, but focus was a real challenge on the small screen, and with only one operator.

Cinematographer Ryan O'Rourke and director Stefen Harris on location with 'Blue Moon' - PHOTO Supplied
Cinematographer Ryan O’Rourke (L) and director Stefen Harris (R) on location shooting ‘Blue Moon’ – PHOTO Supplied

One bonus was that the actors really enjoyed working with the smaller camera. Partly because of the way we were shooting, which meant there were no setup delays; but also because they felt the small size of the camera didn’t interfere with their performances to the same degree as large-format cameras and equipment. It was the only shoot I’ve been on where the sound department had more gear than me!

Blue Moon was shot using three iPhone 7+s, which had varying amounts of storage. With the iPhone too, there’s no ability to change batteries and that was a bit terrifying heading into the shoot. We worked with the two phones with the biggest storage capacity and had another operator shooting some beauty shots with the third phone. Shooting one phone until the battery was low, swapping it out for the second.

We had crew downloading the footage to a laptop, checking it and backing it up to three hard drives. The phone was then charged and wiped. One phone would get us through two to three hours of shooting. The phones were always downloaded and charged by the time we needed to swap so it worked out really well.

Playback was effectively non-existent The FiLMiC Pro app did allow for Harris to monitor using an iPad and Bluetooth, but most of the time he didn’t use it. That put a lot of pressure on me to be confident about what we were capturing. There was no ‘video village’. Most of the reviews were by watching the shot on the phone. For some of the action sequences or continuity issues we would review shots on the laptop.

Actor Jed Brophy in a scene from the film ‘Blue Moon’ – DOP Ryan O’Rourke

The FiLMiC Pro app provided a really good level of control over the camera and I felt comfortable with what we were capturing most of the time. Using the app meant we were able to keep the workflow really tight.

Our shooting schedule was unreal. We had six nights to shoot the film. That mostly came down to the availability of cast and crew as well as the budget, but also the access we had to the service station. It closed at midnight each night and opened again at 5.00am. We had the place to ourselves for five hours each night. My math isn’t great, but I’m pretty sure that means we shot a feature in just thirty hours.  

The actors were amazing. The two leads are very experienced film actors and nailed their performances time after time. They were an absolute pleasure to work with and really made the difference in terms of completing the shoot.

We would start with a dinner and briefing from Harris at 9.30pm every night at a local café.  Then we were usually on location and ready to go by about 11.00pm and would be gently suggesting the late shift staff member might want to go home early. Or, we would just start shooting while the service station was still open. The short timeframe and the pressure that provided really suited the look that we were after.  

Boom operator Ben Dunker and cinematographer Ryan O'Rourke - PHOTO Supplied
Boom operator Ben Dunker and cinematographer Ryan O’Rourke operating the camera – PHOTO Supplied

We didn’t put any additional light into the service station. The harshness and the authenticity of the service station lighting was exactly what we were after, and lighting as we went was never going to work. The main challenge inside the service station was reflective surfaces. We knew we’d be dealing with windows and fridge doors however we didn’t expect that all the cabinetry and display cases would also be as reflective as they were. We spent a lot of time working out where the boom operator could go, especially with so much camera movement. The rest of the crew spent a lot of time lying on the service station floor during shots.

We did have the odd person rocking up in the middle of the night thinking the service station was open and wanting to buy a pie. There were a few hold-ups like that.

There’s a number of sequences in the film that I really like, but one that stands out is where one of the characters, Darren, is walking across the forecourt looking for a serious amount of his cash that’s gone missing. The camera is moving backwards as Darren stalks towards a car over the far side of the forecourt. The green light from the BP service station canopy is illuminating his face and he just looks evil.  

There’s plenty of other bits that I love, probably mostly around the action sequences where we got to have a bit of fun with the camera. Some of the dialogue heavy scenes involved really intense performances from the actors and it was really satisfying capturing those performances.

Actor Jed Brophy in a scene from the film ‘Blue Moon’ – DOP Ryan O’Rourke

The film was shot in March, and quickly accepted for the New Zealand International Film Festival which was screening at the start of August. This meant the post-production phase of Blue Moon was also pretty hectic. We shot with a natural look baked into the footage, which meant there was less opportunity to manipulate the look in post.

It’s obviously about trying to capture the director’s vision first and foremost. But within that framework there’s plenty of scope to apply myself. What I really enjoy about filmmaking is trying to make every shot as beautiful as it can be. But the challenge is doing that within all the constraints that you are faced with, which is usually time. But also equipment and environment.  

I’m really proud of what we achieved. I’m even prouder when I think about the incredibly short timeframe, the small size of the crew and the non-traditional equipment we used. I think what it shows yet again is that story is king, a camera is a camera and making movies is hard work!

If we were just starting to plan the shoot, with the knowledge I have now, I’d do my best to lobby for more time. I’d be happy to use an iPhone as a camera again, but I’d really want to get a bigger monitor in there somehow and probably a focus puller. Which isn’t technically feasible and then we’re sort of defeating the purpose of shooting on a phone anyway.  

My next project is a serial killer film based on a true story. But that’s about all I can say at the moment.

Ryan O’Rourke is a cinematographer based in Nelson, New Zealand.

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