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Shooting with the Arri Alexa

I had the privilege of shooting with the Arri Alexa this past weekend for an upcoming web series that I am producing with some former Rule Boston Camera interns, entitled “Welcome to the World.” We were lucky enough to get the Alexa for the weekend and we were able to see what this new camera can really do. For those of you who don’t know, the Alexa is already receiving quite the hype. Martin Scorsese is shooting his next feature with it and Roger Deakins has been recently discussing his affinity towards the camera–and they’re not alone. The Alexa achieves about 13.5 stops of latitude (in LogC), is natively rated to ISO800 and is insanely easy to use. While it does not sport the 4K resolution that the RED does, its image clarity and post workflow are just some of the advantages to using Arri’s new flagship product. This was my first large-scale digital production. I come from a Super16 background, and almost all of my larger projects have been shot on Arri 16mm film cameras. I obviously have shot digital before (Canon DSLR’s, primarily, with some experience with the RED One), but never on this scale. We went into the project thinking it would be just something to do for fun, but it became a serious production with a sizable crew and an apartment packed with extras. I’m convinced that as much as I love shooting film, we could not have accomplished what we did (15-page script in 2.5 days!) with anything but digital—and more importantly, without the Alexa. This is a bold statement, I know, but I will explain. One of Arri’s primary competitors to the Alexa, it seems, is the RED One. The RED is a cheaper option (for the body only, at least), and offers 4K resolution, not just 2K/1080p.  However, in my opinion, the complications that arise from shooting such high resolution far outweigh the benefits. In my subjective opinion, the RED certainly looks nice, but has a tendency to look “too real” or electronically sharpened. This is a side effect that I think many digital cameras suffer from, one that has long been an arguing point for the superiority of film. The Alexa, on the other hand, shoots a very clear image, but it doesn’t look overly sharp or introduce any artifacts. The Alexa paired with a set of Cooke S4 primes, like we had, yields an astounding picture, but in my opinion, doesn’t look hyper-real. There is still texture in the image and it’s not unnaturally clean. We chose not to shoot LogC (I’m no professional colorist!), which provides an even greater dynamic range and more flexibility in post. We shot Rec709 and still got amazing images straight out of the camera. The Alexa was also instrumental in our production because of its ease of use both physically and in software (ever seen the menu system on the RED??). We had several shots that required challenging camera moves, and almost everything was handheld. Sure, the camera is heavy compared to a Sony EX3 or even the new F3, but it’s lighter than a fully-built RED rig and is certainly more ergonomic. Having a large, accessible handle on top, built-in shoulder pad and rod support and an all-in-one body design made our handheld shots extremely easy. While the modular design of the RED affords it a considerable amount of flexibility, it can become dauntingly large for handheld shots, especially. We had one particularly challenging shot that started upside down, pointed into a trash can. It then spun around and up onto the DP’s shoulder, where he then walked backward to reveal the room we were in. We stripped the camera to its bare essentials—the body, lens and rods both for a handgrip and to support a Bartech remote follow focus. We had one person holding a Panasonic BT-LH900 so we could remove the viewfinder, another person spotting the DP and another wrangling power and HD-SDI so we could eliminate the onboard battery and so I could pull focus from another monitor in the adjacent room. Even if we stripped the RED down, I believe it would still have more difficult to successfully accomplish the shot with that camera. Since this was a still a relatively small shoot and I will be editing the project, I was also in charge of media management on set. It could not have been easier. The Alexa records to Apple ProRes on Sony SxS media, so loading your footage is as easy as popping the card into an external reader, or in my case, my MacBook Pro’s ExpressCard slot (NOTE: My laptop is 2 years old and NOT the unibody design, so I still have the card slot on the 15” model. The new 15” unibody design does NOT include ExpressCard, but the 17” does). Once the card was in, we could instantly watch the footage directly from the Mac OS X Finder or QuickTime. I went the easy route and made disk images of each card using the Disk Utility application that comes pre-loaded on every Mac. Just for safety/ease, I also just dragged-and-dropped the individual .mov files onto my external RAID 1 drive (ideally, we would have used something like ShotPut Pro to copy the data). As with any large digital production, I would highly recommend having a dedicated Digital Imaging Technician on set to handle media and all additional imaging needs. But in our case, since we could not get a proper DIT and because the Alexa was so easy to use, we were willing to take the risk of not having a DIT. This is not something you could reasonably do when dealing with 4K footage out of the RED. And now that we’re in post-production, I can either load those files directly into Final Cut for editing, or even use Avid Media Access to edit the ProRes footage natively in Avid Media Composer 5. Easy as pie. Now let me be clear: while I’m comparing the RED and the Alexa, they are both very different products with different markets in mind. If you need to shoot RAW and get 4K imaging, the RED will obviously be the way to go. It’s also a slightly more cost-effective solution for some situations. But if you want something that you can get beautiful images with right off the bat in a lightweight, ergonomic package with a streamlined post-production workflow, then you should absolutely consider the Arri Alexa. It’s a wonderful piece of hardware and as far as I’m concerned, my new favorite camera. Peter Brunet, Engineering Technician