Tangerine: The Indie darling shot on iPhone that showed the world Apple’s mobile is more than just a smartphone, it’s a great camera

Tangerine 2015 screenshot
(Image credit: Magnolia Pictures)
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There’s a healthy amount of skepticism to the term ‘Shot on iPhone.' Like last year’s “Get Him Back” from Olivia Rodrigo, this not only meant it was filmed on an iPhone 15 Pro Max but post-treated by a professional and edited in complex ways. Though it’s an impressive showcase of what the iPhone can do, one of the best uses of an iPhone camera in a more lifelike way is a small indie film named Tangerine which released almost a decade ago. 

Unlike the music video above, which has multiple versions of Olivia Rodrigo set upon a green screen with special effects, Tangerine attempts to frame its story through a very human lens with realistic coloring and movement and nails it as a result 

A quick Google search will show that Tangerine is not the first full-length film to be shot on iPhone, but previous attempts like 2013’s Hooked Up and To Jennifer are both found footage flicks that rely on poorer quality video and sound to produce a scare. Tangerine feels different in its sincerity to the form. It is supposed to function and look like a traditional movie. 

With small or unheard-of actors, a budding director, and a small budget, it is entirely shot with just three iPhone 5S smartphones and post-produced with Final Cut Pro and Davinci Resolve. In line, it has a heart to it that could only be achieved with the almost intimate lens of an iPhone. Too high a production value, and Tangerine wouldn’t quite be the same. 

What is Tangerine?


(Image credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Funded by Mark Duplass, who is known for his lead roles in Creep and Creep 2, Sean Baker, Tangerine’s director, worked off a $100,000 budget to direct, produce, and release Tangerine. It tells the story of Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker who gets out of prison to discover her pimp, Chester, has been cheating on her. Spurned on by the betrayal and the knowledge that this woman is Cisgender, she and her friend Alexandra go on a trip around Hollywood looking for both Chester and this mystery woman. 

Starting out in a donut shop, the story tells the tale of a handful of people around Hollywood, all of whom link to each other in some way. Set on Christmas Eve, Tangerine references Chrismas itself very little, likely to drive home the fact that it’s more or less irrelevant to Sin-Dee right now. The intimacy of the entire movie is something you notice within minutes, thanks to the distinctive lens of an iPhone 5S. 

Why does it work so well?


(Image credit: Magnolia Pictures)

The camera is very close up in the movie's opening segment, opting to flit back and forth between both characters rather than have one wide shot with both of them in it. You don’t see the two main characters in the same frame until after the main plot point is revealed, where they are then set on the same path. Tangerine, at almost every moment, is close up to the main cast, which helps make the movie feel more personal.

It’s important to note that the iPhone 5S’ camera is not massively impressive, in comparison to that found in the iPhone 15 Pro Max, and this definitely shows in the raw shots in Tangerine. There’s occasionally a lack of clarity that more expensive cameras will give, but Baker gets a lot out of all 8 megapixels on offer. Video recording on the iPhone 5S gives a max of 1080p HD at 30 fps and only has 3x zoom. This is part of why the movie tends to feel so personal. The limitations of the iPhone are not just something it works around but something it thrives in. It also helps to cement the humor as Tangerine’s funnier moments have all the charm of an online video sketch with a little more intent. 

Near the end, as tensions rise and plot points start to come together, it almost feels like an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Actors often intentionally shout over each other, and there’s a certain chaos that iPhones are just so wonderful at capturing. At its more sincere moments, like a scene in a club where Sin-Dee is connecting with the girl who her pimp cheated on her with, it starts to feel like a more “traditional” movie. However, it is the raw feel of the captures that allows these to shine. 

A wonderful legacy


(Image credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Tangerine was not Sean Baker’s first full-length movie, but its near-unanimous acclaim and nominations pushed him into the spotlight. It currently has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes with 86 on Metacritic, suggesting universal praise. Despite its small $100,000 budget, it managed to pull in almost $1 million at the box office alone. This helped raise the appeal of not only the actors but Baker himself. 

Just two years later, he would go on to direct The Florida Project with William Dafoe, which had a budget of $2 million and made over $11 million at the box office. Sean Baker has made a habit of casting relatively unknown actors and throwing them into the spotlight and did so once more four years after this with Red Rocket in 2021. 

Red Rocket was distributed by A24 and had a budget of over $1 million, ten times that of Tangerine. Sean Baker has only gone up in scale from Tangerine, but it remains one of his most important works, partially down to how intimate and raw that plot, cinematography, and performers felt. 

Tangerine helped prove just how versatile an iPhone camera can be and that “Shot on iPhone” doesn’t just mean music videos or adverts. 

This feature is part of iPhone Photography Week 2024. Expect new posts to appear daily, focused on making your photos shot with iPhone better than ever before.

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James Bentley

James is a staff writer and general Jack of all trades at iMore. With news, features, reviews, and guides under his belt, he has always liked Apple for its unique branding and distinctive style. Originally buying a Macbook for music and video production, he has since gone on to join the Apple ecosystem with as many devices as he can fit on his person. 

With a degree in Law and Media and being a little too young to move onto the next step of his law career, James started writing from his bedroom about games, movies, tech, and anything else he could think of. Within months, this turned into a fully-fledged career as a freelance journalist. Before joining iMore, he was a staff writer at Gfinity and saw himself published at sites like TechRadar, NME, and Eurogamer. 

As his extensive portfolio implies, James was predominantly a games journalist before joining iMore and brings with him a unique perspective on Apple itself. When not working, he is trying to catch up with the movies and albums of the year, as well as finally finishing the Yakuza series. If you like Midwest emo music or pretentious indie games that will make you cry, he’ll talk your ear off.