For Missing, the new thriller that unveils entirely on screens, director of photographer Steven Holleran took the creative leap of often letting actors film themselves. In the following piece, Hollleran — whose work also includes Max’s The Climb and the upcoming Sympathy for the Devil — writes about being hands-on and hands-off at the same time.
It’s 3 a.m., 16 hours deep in shoot Day 13 on Missing. I’m strapping an iPhone to the wrist of lead actress Storm Reid, and preparing to do the unthinkable for any cinematographer: Sending her off into the set to shoot a scene without me.
This is just a day in the life of making Missing, the most advanced screenlife movie shot to date.
What Is a Screenlife? Missing DP Steven Holleran Explains
A screenlife movie is one that takes place entirely on screens — and if you’ve seen Searching, of which Missing is the sequel, then you know movies like these live in the details of real-time reality. A screenlife film is a tech labyrinth where authenticity rules over beauty, functionality over form, storytelling over subjectivity. It’s a world of laptops, vertical cell-phone setups, green screens, news rooms and press conferences, vlogging scenes, doorbell cams, dash cams, backup feeds, infrared and on and on.
In the world of screenlife, you’re often inventing as you go. You can’t turn to the generation of cinematography masters who’ve come before for references or guidance. In fact, even some of the rules of screenlife may be in flux.
Timur Bekmambetov, the filmmaker best known for Unfriended who produced a slew of other movies, including Missing and Searching, has said that a screenlife film should take place on one screen, and in real time, among other rules. Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian, and Natalie Qasabian, who produced Missing and Searching, prefer to call them “screen thrillers” because they don’t follow all of these rules.
The Searching team wanted Missing to be bigger, faster and more mobile. The film follows June (Reid) as she searches for her mother (Nia Long) who goes missing after she leaves on a Colombian vacation with her mysterious new boyfriend (Ken Leung).
In one scene, June hunts for clues in an office at night. It’s written to be seen from the perspective of her wristwatch, which meant she had to be able to wear a camera on her wrist — and be able to film herself, too — in a realistic, seamless, weightless way, as you would from a smartwatch.
At the same time, we had to be able to control the camera on her wrist, while remotely recording, focusing, and monitoring her shots. Few cameras can achieve such things at the small size of a wristwatch, and look good when projected in theaters.
I turned to an iPhone for the task. We wrapped it into an exercise sleeve on her wrist, and tethered it to a backpack Storm wore that housed all the additional power and wireless transmitters we needed to keep the phone functioning and watchable.
What transpired over the next few hours was a filmmaking experiment of grand proportions – we had to light the scene, then put the iPhone on Storm’s wrist, then send her off into a set to shoot a two- to three-minute oner, all by herself.
Experimentation with iPhones and prosumer cameras isn’t completely unfamiliar to me: In 2016, I used iPhones on the Sundance film The Land. In 2018 I shot another Sundance film — A Boy. A Girl. A Dream — that was a 90-minute oner, and enlisted Sony’s mirrorless A7SIII. For most of Missing I turned to the same two cameras. They’re both small and could be rigged to a laptop. Also importantly, the Sony can nearly see in the dark.
We also had to embrace mobility — our actors were holding, adjusting, balancing, lapping and operating cameras in real-time in ways that needed to feel true to life. Our technical task quickly became the opposite of that on a traditional movie.
We had to be honest to how each real-capture device saw the world, and then reproduce every flaw, quirk, and characteristic, using a lightweight, trustworthy camera system that could function in a production pipeline.
I rarely picked up a rig, and instead coached the actors on how to frame themselves in real time. I also suggested ways they could get comfortable staring at their own faces during takes, and different techniques to build physical stamina.
For many of our actors, it was their first time seeing themselves mid-scene or holding a device — which added a whole new level of expectations for them, on top of acting. For me, it was a new journey into communication and ultimately directing. Thoughtful, purposeful, and simple explanations were key.
Which is how I ended up at three in the morning with Storm, giving up more control than I ever had on a film, and finding a whole new way of filmmaking.
Main image: Storm Reid on the set of Missing.
Missing is now streaming on Netflix.