By Phil Dzikiy
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
The camera on the iPhone 4 can record HD video at 30 frames per second. Impressive for a phone. But is it enough for a feature film?
Apparently, the answer is yes. The movie “Rideshare” will be screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival on Tuesday, and it’s being billed as “the world’s first full-length feature film shot entirely with the HD iPhone4.” Not only that, but one of the movie’s main creative forces, producer Margot McDonough, is a Lockport native.
The idea for the film came about when the first iPhone was released. McDonough describes herself and her husband, Donovan Cook, as “Apple geeks.” According to McDonough, Cook — the writer and director of “Rideshare” — “had a spark in his head.”
McDonough and Cook aren’t just two curious iPhone fans, however. They’ve both had long careers in the entertainment industry. Cook has worked on numerous animated TV series, including “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Duckman,” and the 1990s cartoon “2 Stupid Dogs,” which he created. McDonough has production credits on animated shows like “The Pirates of Dark Water,” “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” and “The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest,” in addition to serving as a program executive on Cook’s “Dogs.”
With most of their background in animation, “Rideshare” represents a new direction for the couple.
“Part of the experience was that I just wanted to tell a story,” Cook said. “One of the things I love about animation is you can really be a perfectionist. I wanted to do it the other way, where the energy of production came as much from the act of making it as from people’s creative muses.”
“(Cook is) a movie fanatic and has always been wanting to make lots of different kinds of films and has always been pursuing that in his professional life,” McDonough said. “It’s a little bit of a tricky transition.”
Cook was intent on making a movie with the iPhone, but he was well aware of how filming with a cell phone could be dismissed as a gimmick. So he found a way to incorporate the phone into the film’s plot.
“He wanted to find a way to use (the phone) so it made sense,” McDonough said.
In “Rideshare,” three “down-and-out” strangers answer an Internet ad to drive a car from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Along the way, the characters record their adventure, using their iPhones.
“The actors are filming themselves,” McDonough said. “So the actual shooting is part of the story. The actors got camera operator credits.”
The dialogue of the film was mostly improvised. Cook gave the actors an outline, but the actual words were up to them.
“I don’t think there was ever a full, specific line written in the outline,” Cook said. “(But) there were certain things that needed to be said.”
Considering the nature of the dialogue, and the quirks of filming an entire film with cell phones, there was a lot of post-production work to do on “Rideshare.”
“It wasn’t until we finished shooting that I really got a good look at it,” Cook said. “Discovering it was the fun part ... every take has different story content. So cutting the film was a whole other layer of writing the film.
“The fun and the challenge was looking at what (the actors) actually said, to get the story to build to where I needed it to go.”
The phones presented their own technical challenges.
“There were a few little tools that we found along the way,” Cook said. “We had a lot of trial and error. We had to come up with a lot of little ways to prop up the camera. The characters are supposedly shooting the picture themselves. There’s a little bit of movement because it is all handheld. Once you get into the story and you realize what’s going on, you overcome that.”
Video was tricky, but in the end, McDonough was happy with the outcome. Getting the film’s audio to work properly, however, was even tougher.
“All the actors were mic’d,” she said. “We used all those tracks or (dubbed audio).”
Though there were limitations, the filmmakers also found freedom in using the phones, because “Rideshare” didn’t cost much to make — only $34,000.
Cook said he’s always been inspired by directors such as Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith, “guys who went out and made a movie with whatever resources they had.”
“For years I’d been writing stories I could release with a limited budget,” Cook said, noting that he’s made two live-action short films. The iPhone4 gave him the angle — and technology — he needed to take a story to feature length. “Hopefully what people take away from ‘Rideshare’ is the story, but come on ... we made a movie with equipment that was literally in our pockets.”
As for the differences between working in animation and with live actors: “Now I kind of have to say I love them both,” Cook said. “I really do love animation, I’m in no way tired of it. I love it and I want to keep doing it. But ... in animation the actors only bring in a piece of the character’s performance. In live action, they become that character. I’m thrilled to experience that level of collaboration.”
Neither Cook nor McDonough believes that filmmaking on phones — or any kind of budget camera — will outright replace traditional filmmaking. But it’s certainly here to stay.
“People are hopefully going to write great stories and great characters,” Cook said. “But the barrier for making stuff is, I would say at this point, gone.”
You can watch “Rideshare,” starring Narisa Suzuki, Ryan Fox and Susan Isaacs, 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Market Arcade Theater, 639 Main St., Buffalo, as part of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. McDonough and Cook will both be attending, and there will be a Q&A after the film.