PARIS – "Silence on the set," ordered movie director Xavier Mussel as he grabbed his cell phone — not to make a call but to film another scene for his short film.
Cheap, easy and accessible, mobiles-as-movie cameras are breaking the motion picture mold, putting a touch of Hollywood into amateur filmmakers' hands. How-to workshops have sprung up from Boston to Abu Dhabi to Rio de Janeiro, and Paris just held its second film festival devoted exclusively to movies shot with cells.
Some 8,500 visitors attended screenings at the recent three-day Pocket Films Festival at Paris' Pompidou modern-art museum. In addition to nearly 100 shorts, the fare included three feature-length films — all shot on cells.
"What we're seeing is the democratization of filmmaking," said festival director Laurence Herszberg. "Now, you don't need expensive equipment and years of training to make a movie. All you need is your phone, that little object you carry around in your pocket all day."
Purists complain that poor image quality makes such films virtually unwatchable, but cell filmmakers insist the advantages of shooting on mobiles far outweigh the drawbacks.
"First and foremost, it's a matter of cost," said Leonard Bourgois-Beaulieu, whose short, "Busy," won Pocket Films' audience-choice award for best film.
"You save on the camera, which can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of euros and you also save on all the trappings that go with an expensive camera, from operators to lighting designers to makeup artists," said the 23-year-old director, who wrote, shot and acted in his lighthearted comedy about harried twentysomethings.
"Busy" took less than a week to shoot, Bourgois-Beaulieu said, for the cost of a Metro ticket and two coffees (one scene takes place in a cafe).
He acknowledged that cell cameras can't match their conventional digital counterparts for image quality — particularly when blown up to fill a full-size movie screen. While close-ups and still shots in "Busy" were remarkably sharp, sudden movement and traveling shots reduced the image to a pixelated fog.
Still, Bourgois-Beaulieu said, there is an upside to the graininess. It allowed him to play multiple roles in the movie.
"With the pixels distorting my face, you can't tell it's me," he said with an impish grin.
Brazilian-born director Louise Botkay-Courcier, whose poetic silent film "Mammah" is set in a Turkish bath, also said she liked cell cameras' low definition.
"Just like in painting, in film there are different styles," said Botkay-Courcier, 28, who added that she was inspired by the fluid, blotchy style of the Impressionists. "Not everything is about hyper-realism."
Festival-goer Stephanie Woldenberg agreed.
"I was expecting the grainy images to drive me crazy," said the lawyer from Switzerland. "But in a lot of the films, it added something mysterious, almost beautiful."
Cell-phone cameras have been around for nearly five years. Nokia, the world's No. 1 cell-phone maker, was first to integrate a camera in 2001, said Nokia France spokesman Xavier des Horts. That initial model took only stills, but built-in video soon followed and is now near-standard.
Though cell films are easier to shoot than conventional movies, they can be harder to edit, said Pocket Films' artistic director, Benoit Labourdette.
Uploading footage from phone to computer can be tedious, as editing programs often have to convert the format. The process can take hours, even days, depending on the amount of footage.
"Once you upload the footage, you go through exactly the same editing process as with any other digital movie," Labourdette said.
Films screened at the festival were edited on Vegas, a video and audio production program by Sony or on I-Movie, software that is standard on new Apple computers.
Most free Internet-based editing software is still not equipped to recognize cell phone footage, Labourdette said.
Because built-in microphones in cell phones pick up background noise, most dialogue must be added in post-production.
"It's a real pain in the neck," said director Bourgois-Beaulieu, who spent weeks re-recording and re-synching all the dialogue in his chatty, 10-minute-long film.
While cell-phone cameras have radically simplified shooting movies, the crux of filmmaking — finding the right story — remains as complicated as ever, he said.
"Just because everyone has a cell phone in our pockets doesn't make us all Spielbergs," said Bourgois-Beaulieu, who is hard at work on his second cell movie. "You've still got to have an artistic vision, or else it's just so much dumb footage."