Producer Babak Amini of Eclipse Production recently had the opportunity to test the ARRI ALEXA camera. He gives us the lowdown. When the ARRI ALEXA camera was introduced into the market, many wondered if ARRIs entree into the digital world was perhaps symbolic of film cameras being abandoned in favour of digital formats. While we […]
Producer Babak Amini of Eclipse Production recently had the opportunity to test the ARRI ALEXA camera. He gives us the lowdown.
When the ARRI ALEXA camera was introduced into the market, many wondered if ARRIs entree into the digital world was perhaps symbolic of film cameras being abandoned in favour of digital formats. While we dont think film has run its course just yet, the ARRI ALEXA has impressed many end users in the industry, including Babak Amini, producer at Dubai-based Eclipse Production.
For me, cameras are like brushes, says Amini.
A painter uses different ones for different projects, and the same is true for filmmaking,
Amini recently had the opportunity to test the prowess of the ALEXA while producing a TVC for Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). The film is the fifth instalment in a series that Eclipse has produced exclusively for DTCM.
Two versions of the film with different time durations were created by Eclipse. A five-minute version will be used to promote the emirate of Dubai at various exhibitions while a 60-second version will be broadcast extensively on international networks.
While most parts of the film were shot with the ALEXA, Amini also relied heavily on his Canon 5D MKII to shoot some scenes.
The ALEXA, however, was the highlight of this production and was used to shoot all of the establishing shots.
ALEXA was perhaps ARRIs answer to the RED ONE. Compact and supposedly lightweight at about 10 kgs, ARRI claims ALEXA will redefine the limits of motion picture capture with ultra-fast workflows and image quality akin to 35mm film.
The camera is designed to cater to a wide variety of applications including TVCs, motion picture film, high-end dramas and even sport.
It features an advanced electronic viewfinder, PL mount lenses, and a 35mm-width CMOS sensor shooting up to 2.88k resolution. New features include recording to the digital intermediate codec ProRes 4444 and ProRes 422 in camera, simplifying the post production workflow.
Amini says the camera is surprisingly simple to use and has a user friendly and intuitive menu. The menu screen is also appropriately placed on the right side of the camera making it easily accessible to the camera assistant.
It comes very obviously from the film world. You can see they have migrated their simple philosophy of film into the digital camera so that is very good news. The camera has no sub menus or hidden features so you sort of feel at home with the ALEXA. The camera feeds work exactly like a film camera. All the buttons are exactly the same and you dont fumble with anything, adds Amini.
The ALEXA offers three recording options: in camera to SxS cards, via de HDSDI output and ARRI RAW output although the last option is still being researched to be made more affordable.
When using the SxS cards, the camera records to Apple ProRes and this is the option Amini used for this shoot.
Here again, the operator can choose between 4444 and 422 Proxy.
The camera also features two slots that allows the operator to record to both, thereby, providing instant back up.
There are two gamma options for recording including Linear and LogC. The former shows what the image can look like while the latter provides a flat image but preserves all the elements giving you greater flexibility in post.
Via HDSDI, the user can record to a higher standard than ProRes if desired. In a typical field setup, a user will record REC.709 to one option for the dailies, and LogC to the second for post.
Eclipse used the SxS option, with the camera recording to ProRes.
The native format as we were shooting it in camera is ProRes. The amazing thing about ProRes is not only being full HD all the time but it doesnt take a huge amount of space. That was a pleasant surprise, adds Amini.
The LogC, which is a recent introduction, is fantastic. It does a sort of compression but within the ProRes domain. We liked what we got with LogC. Once you put the LUTs onto the timeline, you see the image gain huge depth and dimension, and the editor can start to work from there on and add his own grading above those shots. It gives you huge latitude to express yourself on a shot and turn it into something totally different. That can have a huge impact on your storytelling. With so much latitude, you can change the plastics and the foundations of the visual so much and change it into a different storyline and give it new meaning. It opens a whole new and different dimension, explains Amini.
Having shot in extreme desert conditions, Amini also testifies that the camera is both robust and portable.
Its a very robust camera. We did not even cover the cameras; we were basically exposing them to the elements and still, it never ever stopped or let us down. Also, it is not too heavy so you can handle the camera easily. You can go on the shoulder and straight away put it on different tracks or move the camera, he says.
Compact prime lenses from Zeiss were used for this shoot and, according to Amini, the images were fantastic.
An interesting part of the shoot was filming a moving boat from another boat.
Luckily, we didnt drown, jokes Amini. We used the ALEXA with a steady cam and other accessories on a moving boat shooting another boat on the waves. The footage has come out beautifully.
The ALEXA is also extremely sensitive. In fact, a night shot at Al Maha was captured using minimal lighting. This was a good test to do as it enables us to compare the camera directly to the human eye and see how well it can capture an image in low lighting. Alexa passed the test handsomely.
It was a romantic scene on the dunes with a couple and a few torch lights and we were tracking in. We lit the whole space using only two small Dedo lights; just the backlights and the faces. The rest was illuminated beautifully with the torch lights. We did not need anything more than the camera.
Babak did not really see a downside to the camera after testing it for 10 to 12 days.
I cannot remember a moment where I said, I wish I had something else, he says, although he recommends certain modifications to take it to the next level.
For one, although the ALEXA goes up to 60 frames per second and allows for immediate review of shots without buffering, Babak feels it should be able to go up to 120fps.
I wish it could have gone a little bit more like 120fps. 60 is great but there are certain shots where you want to use slo mo because that is part of your narrative and will give you the edge. So 120 would put that camera into a different league. Also, it would allow us to create different looks and effects for TVCs.
Secondly, Babak feels the 444 output is expensive.
It costs almost as much as the camera itself to have an interface with the 444 output. Apparently, they are very expensive but they are working in their labs to make it more affordable because right now, its as expensive as the camera if you want to connect it, Amini adds.
As Amini stated at the beginning, however, different cameras serve different purposes for him. Owing to ALEXA being a much more expensive camera and larger, he employed the Canon 5D MKII for underwater shots and some risky desert shots.
When we were doing underwater shots, we used the Canon 5D MKII with the latest underwater housing, which we acquired from the US. We took it down and got the exact shot we needed based on the story board. Now, if I had to use the ALEXA, I would have required bigger housing and two assistants to handle it and keep it steady. The whole dynamics change. The Canon 5D MKII was a cheaper and easier option, explains Babak.
Likewise, rigging the ALEXA on a dune buggy with a super duper charged engine and a professional driver going at top speed through the dunes was not exactly advisable.
If I had to do that with the ALEXA, Id have to take a proper insurance policy. I used my Canon 5D. I rigged it properly with fish eye lenses and got the exact same shot. I always use a camera that delivers to me for that situation. Different brushes, different strokes, shrugs Amini.