Whenever Apple shows off a new iPhone, the company always has a great deal to say about its camera. True to form, this year’s iPhone Xs and Xs Max—announced last week and available on Friday—have a camera that bests last year’s model and, as the first round of reviews indicates, does a notch better than almost every competing smartphone.
To test the new hardware, we gave an iPhone XS Max to the film director Jon M. Chu. The Crazy Rich Asians director shot a short film for WIRED, and the results are truly special.
“I had literally zero equipment,” says Chu. “I see a lot of samples of iPhone videos, and sometimes they use different lenses or professional lights. I didn’t have any of that.”
Chu shot the film—a view into dancer Luigi Rosado’s rehearsal space, titled Somewhere—in 4K using the iPhone’s native camera app. It was all shot handheld using the phone’s default stabilizing system. And while he edited the video on a computer, Chu didn’t apply any color correction or any post-production tricks. What you’re seeing is the default output of the iPhone’s camera.
Lights, Camera, Action
Shooting in a setting that wouldn’t guarantee great results—at nighttime in a small garage under fluorescent lights—was a challenge Chu gave himself. “I wanted to stretch it in a harsh environment,” he says.
He tried to test as many of the camera’s features as possible. There are a few moments in Somewhere when Chu drops into a slow-motion shot. He did that with the iPhone Camera app’s built-in slo-motion setting, which shoots at 240 frames per second.
“I knew those bright fluorescents were in there. When I’m pushing at 240, you can see the light noise,” he says. Indeed, the video slows down enough that you can see the lights cycling between yellow and white, something that’s barely perceptible to the naked eye in real time.
Chu says he was impressed by how well the iPhone handled his moving shots as he walked in circles around Rosado, closing in on him to better capture his kinetic fury up close. “I’m moving around a lot, and the focus was adjusting as I was moving, but it was finding the subject really well,” he says. “There’s a shot at the end where I’m rushing toward the garage—that’s using the built-in stabilizers. It’s pretty smooth.”
Something else Chu found notable was the iPhone’s color accuracy, especially in Rosado’s garage, with its grafitti-covered wall and stark lighting. “You can see the colors, they really pop. I did some shots in the daytime that didn’t make it into the movie, and the daylight images felt a little cooler. But shooting at night, the video warms up. You can adjust the colors however you want, but I was shooting with the defaults.”
There’s even one overhead shot of Rosado spinning around on one hand. Chu grabbed that one without a grip-stand or any other accessory, again emphasizing that he used no equipment other than the phone. “There was a hanging piece of wood on the ceiling, and I put the phone on it and angled it down. It was as raw as that.”
It’s also important to note that both the iPhone XS and the XS Max have the same camera, so the video and photo capabilities Chu tested for us are available in both devices.
One thing we haven’t gotten to yet: Luigi’s got some moves! The dancer is a giant in the B-Boy scene, and later this month, he’ll compete in the Red Bull BC One World Final B-Boy dance competition.
Chu says Luigi’s garage is the best-kept secret of the B-Boy scene in Los Angeles. “Luigi has this garage on 3rd street. It’s on a pretty busy street, but it’s set back. Some of the best B-Boys in the world come there to train. He turns his little garage into a hub. Every night, that garage is open and there are dancers in there working out.”
So which iPhone is Chu going to buy? “The XS Max. No question.”
“I was coming from the iPhone X,” he says. “The hardest part actually was going from an 8 Plus to a X, then getting used to the X’s size. I thought that getting the XS Max would be hard, since it would mean going back to another big phone. In fact, the XS is lighter than the 8 Plus, and doesn’t feel like a ‘plus’ phone. The weight, the density—it doesn’t feel like an inconvenience to hold it.”
Apple loaned the director a gray phone, but the person who gave it to him also showed him the gold version. “I’m definitely going to get the gold,” Chu says. “I’m not a gold type person, but that gold, they did a good job.”
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