Three Minutes and The Future of Videomaking

“The camera not only represents the director’s point of view but also the perspective of the movie characters."


If you still have not heard about “Three Minutes,” an Apple short film for iPhone X by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Peter Chan, you should. Its already viewed 68 million times in less than a week. You can find the link at the end of this article.

In early February, Apple in China commissioned the big gun, HongKong feature film Producer/Director Peter Chan with 18 Directorial and 40 Producer’s credit and counting with acclaimed movies like Perhaps Love, Dragon, The Warlords, Bodyguards and Assassins to his name. Apple, faced with tough competition from China’s own Huawei, ZTE and Xiaomi (just to name 3) decided it is time to launch an assault to a lacklustre China reception on the heel of a positive looking data in early November.

The film is released at the right moment where millions of Chinese are travelling back to their home-village more often referred to as a mass-migration of a sort, a ritual repeated every year during the festive Chinese New Year all over the world but more poignant to the mainland Chinese due to its land’s vastness. It’s an emotional video where most can resonate about sacrifice, love and hopes represented by a train conductor who has three minutes of relay between stations, meeting her son briefly before she continues on her journey.

Apple approached Chan with the train conductor story. They collaborated for a few weeks on making the story comes to life and Peter added some wonderful input to the storytelling—the real-time countdown clock and the boy reciting his multiplication tables which enables to build its momentum and intensity between the story, time and the mother-son relationship.

What is so interesting, for us at Supervideo as we consider a groundbreaking moment is the fact the short film was shot entirely on what else, the iPhone X. (Just to clarify we are not advertising nor paid by Apple in any form). Technical specifications include Super Retina HD display, 4K video recording at 24 fps, 30 fps or 60 fps, 1080p HD at 30 fps or 60 fps, 720p at 30 fps. Built-in Optical image stabilization for video with optical and digital zoom, supports slo-mo at 1080p at 120 fps or 240 fps, time-lapse stabilization for video, continuous autofocus video, and support HVEC and H.264 video formats (for the techies).

Why is it groundbreaking you may ask? To start, the physical size of iPhone X says it all. What used to be video camera back in the day’s weight tons and only can be found in television studios. But to truly appreciate the gravity of it, we have to go way back.

Brief Evolution of Digital Cinematography
Bell & Howell introduces the first all-metal movie camera, the 2709 standard 35-mm in 1912. In 1932 Eastman Kodak invented the new 8-mm film and becomes the standard for home movies followed with its revamp dubbed Super 8 which covers 30% larger image allowing more detail in 1965. In the 70s, came camcorders that ran on tape with the Sony Betamax and soon followed by Panasonic’s VHS camcorder in the 90s. Digital video format only came into the scene in 1986 with Sony releasing the uncompressed format D1 which was actually limited by the storage capacity of a single tape.

Then in 1993, Ampex, an American electronics company now sold to Delta Information Systems, finally released a compressed digital format called DCT which finally opened the flood-gate to the fully compressed digital video with innovations lead by Sony, Panasonic and JVC. Yet throughout these innovations, the recording camera was either expensive, bulky or heavy and were not ripe for digital filmmaking.

In 2000, Sony developed a format which supported high-definition video recording, a huge breakthrough in video camera technology followed by a mini-tape format that record even higher-definition videos.

The RED one, the first 4k-resolution digital camera, revolutionizes digital filmmaking were released in 2007. This ushered in the next wave of digital filmmaking with Arri, Panasonic and Sony all successfully used to shoot full featured films like The Social Network (Red One MX), Transformer: Dark of The Moon (Sony CineAlta F35), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Arri Alexa M) with the full list can be found here. The set back to these cameras weren’t much different in terms of size and affordability if one were to include the set of lenses and equipment to fully appreciate their strengths.

It was the Digital Single-Lens Reflex movement pioneered by Canon that really made all the difference offering a full-frame CMOS sensor which finally enabled full cinema-quality picture for a fraction of the cost. Big budget films like Black Swan (2010), Drive (2011), Elysium (2013) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), used Canon EOS 5D line within their production. As the DSLR is much more affordable, lighter and easier to shoot with, plus with an almost inexhaustible lists of magnificent lenses in the market, it’s a hard case not to stay on it.

The 5D exploded into popularity and others followed suit with Panasonic’s GH series, the Nikon’s D series, and the Pentax K-1. Today Canon 5D Mark III, Sony Alpha a7SII and Nikon D8100 making their marks in the production of commercial and documentary videos with brands like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, B&O, Lebron James and Ducati as the list continues to grow.

The ‘X’ story and the future of video
According to Tor Myhren, Apple’s vice president of marketing communications, the iPhone X allowed the team to shoot nimble and moved easily floating in and out of the moving train, shuffling through the crowded station. They could easily create other interesting angles within the packed train as well as from the boy’s eye-level and “… the quality of the iPhone X camera makes the film feel quite huge and cinematic.”

Chan had never shot a film on iPhone but managed with ease with the new tool resulting in a deep sense of belonging, love and aspiration in his short film. According to him, the camera not only represents the director’s point of view but also the perspective of the movie characters. “We asked Ding Ding (boy actor) to hold the iPhone and let him shoot as he is looking for his mother,” says Peter, “his angle and movement lets you see what a child would really see.” Besides “Three Minute” the filmmaker also made five behind the scene  “How to Shoot on iPhone X” covering subjects from camera movement, portrait lighting, slo-mo, unique perspectives and time-lapse, indirectly soft selling the phone that have 9 million views combined. To me, it’s more of a “How to Shoot with Peter Chan” as the filmmaker described more sensibility than an actual “How to” but hey who cares right?

Shooting on location is all about picture quality, flexibility and ease-of-use of the camera. We like to think that this is going to be the beginning of another trend moving forward for iPhone X starting with “Three Minute”; and possibly for the industry at large. Video shot on iPhone for storytelling is still in its infancy but this baby is gonna grow up much faster than we would imagine. Supervideo will be trying out iPhone X at some point in our future projects and will share the work whenever we could.

Groundbreaking Point
Coming back to our point on the iPhone X and its place in the milestones of digital filmmaking, with great acknowledgements to Peter Chan’s “Three Minutes”—the new era has begun for video/film production industry. The time is now ripe in storytelling through the beauty of motion and emotion shooting high-quality film for video commercial, documentary and short film for mobile and internet consumption, right at the time where the expected growth of video is projected at 80% of all web traffic by 2019 and video ads now already account for more than 35% of all ad spending online.

This could really spur a whole new competitive range of phone cameras well equipped to shoot commercial videos or short films similar to Chan’s work. While I do not think the mobile phone camera could replace the full frame DSLR anytime soon (I stand to be corrected) simply among many other reasons, for its lack of ability to fully utilize the interchangeable and high-quality lens available for the DSLR.

None-the-less, this is a very significant tectonic shift I am seeing as the iPhone X could breed a whole fleet of fans who enjoy the quality and strength along with all its shortcomings, shooting with one. We at Supervideo is definitely eager to explore this tool and we hope to be able to share some results within these pages in the near future. Click here for the “Three Minutes” by Peter Chan.