Sven Dreesbach's Short Film 'Willow Creek' Is a Haunting Cinematic Surf Video - Shot on an iPhone 5s

Willow Creek is what Sven Dreesbach calls a “proof of concept and workflow” for an eventual surf film he’d like to make – but, as it stands, it’s a short film that achieves a lot in its own right. Shot with an iPhone 5s and color-graded using Davinci Resolve, Dreesbach produced a very moving piece of cinema that has an erie but mystical vibe to it - thanks in part to the Ry X track Shortline accompanying the film. Sven was gracious enough to talk with Fstoppers a bit about the hows and whys behind crafting this stunning short film.

Dreesbach is a freelance digital compositor and colorist, but he has recently turned his talents toward photography, filmmaking, and directing in particular. From his website bio: “His experience as vfx artist in the movie and broadcast industry includes working with high profile directors like David Fincher, Joseph Kosinski, Michael Bay or Carl Eric Rinsch on their commercials and films such as The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, where he was part of the Academy Award winning visual effects team. His credit list as visual effects artist also includes award winning TV commercials for the top international ad agencies and their clients such as Mercedes, Heineken, Sony and more recently, Apple to name a few.”

I asked him to explain a bit about why he created Willow Creek and here's what he had to say:

When I first set foot into the Pacific with a surfboard under my arm, a whole new world opened up to me. Not only was I immediately fascinated by a sport that compared to little else, it also had a huge effect on me as a photographer.

For the night owl that I am, it's not easy to get up before sunrise and throw myself into the cold ocean. But once I’m out there, it's magical.

Imagine paddling out to the lineup in the twilight, while a gentle off-shore breeze shapes perfect waves, and watching the darkness slowly fade away. And as soon as the sun comes out, the break turns into this spectacular play of the elements: the wind picks up, the water glistens in the early light, and the ocean spray turns every wave that is slowly rolling towards shore into a sight that often enough makes me think of chariots of fire.

And of course, all this happens during those early hours that are so interesting to us as photographers.

But there's another side to surfing: one that's perhaps less idealized… less romanticized. With Willow Creek, I wanted to show the darker, more mystical side of the force of the ocean, and how a few passionate souls still achieve to embrace these forces despite the chilling circumstances. Willow Creek was a good first step in capturing this eerie side of surfing, and I am already working on other ways to drag the viewer into the water with me.

When it came to the technical side of creating Willow Creek, budget constraints were an obvious first motivating factor in choosing to shoot with the iPhone 5s, but the fact that it could shoot slow motion HD video was a key decision for Dreesbach. He also found a solid underwater housing for it which was very beneficial as well. “The iPhone housing obviously costs a fraction of what [an underwater] housing for professional cameras go for, and for me it just turned out to be a fun way to shoot slow motion footage as an experiment and create a short film,” he told me, continuing, “besides its quality and handling, the housing comes with a wide angle lens, which is essential for action sports photography.”

Sven also explained why he didn’t just use a GoPro camera – the greatest reasons being the GoPro’s size, shape, usability, lack of screen (on his GoPro3), and low battery life compared to the iPhone’s shallow DOF and focus-lock feature were a no-brainer for him to just use the iPhone with an underwater housing by Watershot. He prefers using the GoPro as an “attachable” for views from his surf board or snowboard helmet. “That's what the GoPro is just perfect for,” he told me. Sven was in the water for around 90 minutes and got all the footage in about four hours due to shooting in slow motion. He plans on shooting a few music videos and commercials combined with a lot of lifestyle elements in the near future.

Film Specs

Camera: iPhone 5s
Undertwater Housing: Watershot
Editing & Color Grading: Davinci Resolve

Have any experience yourself with filming in the ocean using your phone's camera? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Be sure to check out his portfolio at his website and follow Sven on Instagram and on Twitter.

Aaron Brown's picture

Aaron Brown is a Northwest Indiana wedding & portrait photographer. In his off time, he enjoys grooming his beard, consuming assorted meats and craft beers, and battling friends and foes alike in blitz chess. Follow him below, and feel free to drop him a line anytime.

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Yeah, Jason - I thought so too! It actually sparked some ideas and I might take a look back at making short films again myself! Cheers

This is great.

I find these kinds of videos mystifying. I have no idea what I'm doing wrong with my iPhone 5s...I can barely get decent imagery in normal indoor lighting situations, let alone in the half-light that he seems to have been shooting in. I know Resolve probably helps a lot...but the contrast and clarity here. I had given up on this kind of output from a camera everyone else seems to rave about, but I find fuzzy and difficult to control.

I think the focus lock and exposure lock in the new release of the iPhone's Camera app really help a lot, Tony. I imagine there's a decent amount of work going on in post, so if you can get nice flatly lit images or video clips, you can really bring out a lot from there.

I've tried Filmic, which has focus lock and exposure lock. But I don't think I knew there was an update to the phone program. Is that from a new version of the OS or something?

Hi Tony, thanks for liking Willow Creek. What definitely helped a lot in regards to overall image quality was the fact that due to the overcast weather, the images came out pretty flat and didn't rip through the whole (little) range the h264 compression has. If it would have been a sunny day with way more resulting contrast and highlights, it would have been a different situation and film.

A movie made on an iPhone. That's so cool man. You know, iPhone dude, really cool.

This schtick is so old it reeks...

I am not sure what your deal is, but I enjoyed the short, no matter what it was shot with. The fact that the camera used can also call people is pretty impressive.

Because this article is not about the video, it's just another propaganda "shot on an iPhone" story, which has gotten really old. If this story was really about the subject, what it was shot with would be of total insignificance, because it could easily be done with any number of available cameras.

You should try reading the articles around here sometime. If you did, you could learn a few things and we all wouldn't lol at your comments as much. It just so happens that Sven approached us with this video, specifically siting the fact that he utilized his phone to create it. So that's what the story of this article is about, no matter how much you don't want it to be. Don't want to read about how a film was shot with an iPhone? Don't... and give the rest of us a break from laughing at your outlandish outrage. :D

Yes Aaron, believe it or not, I read your article, but "the song remains the same". This video is a product of the talent behind it, not the gear. You'll have to excuse me but I've seen one too many "made on an iPhone" stories where that fact was totally irrelevant to the talent behind the productions. It's gotten really old.

Youre right, the video is a product of the talent. Even more so that he did it with an iPhone.

Your schtick is so old, it double reeks. #boom

Hahaha, sorry that hashtag boom killed me

would you be so negative if the article said it was shot on Android/Windows Phone etc? The point of this article is that this film was shot using a mobile phone. And it would be stupid not to explain what phone specifically, due to the readership of this site who are interested in equipment etc.

When you see a trailer for a movie, do you see it say "shot with X camera? No, because nobody gives a crap about that. Even Dreesbach himself did not do that on his trailer.

This film is a product of the talent involved, and a good piece of work it is. That's what really made it, not that fact that it was shot on a an iPhone.

Hey man, i really didn't intend to do any advertising for Apple and you are right, it doesn't really matter what exactly this film was shot with. But in the end this is a photo tech site and people might just be interested in the tech part behind the film.

That's really good. Captures the mood of a place I know very well,

looks awesome!

Love this! We need more post like this; all about the visions, not the gears.

Well, photography has always been about the gear too. After all, it has always been a very technology based craft.

Sick. Great article and thanks for posting - I couldn't shoot something this nice on an Epic Dragon (though I wouldn't mind trying ;) )

Let me know if you do try. I will happily assist. ;-)

I started surfing 3 years ago in Dubai. It has changed my life as well. I really connected with your film. Excellent job. Pretty impressive you did it on an iPhone. You've inspired me to try to capture a dawn patrol session here.

Great article! It's hard for many to get past the idea that they need better, more expensive gear in order to create something as outstanding as this short film. I totally get why including what it was filmed with is important both to the film and the article; it's sending a message encouraging others to work harder to create something beautiful, rather than holding themselves back by believing that they need better gear in order to be making better art.

Exactly. Thanks bud.