The ARRI Alexa: Bridging Past and Future
Originally published in the Fall 2010 issue.
The time frame needed to produce an independent feature these days can seem longer than the lifespan of its underlying technology. Cheap HDSLRs challenge high-end camcorders that cost 50 times more. Even RED One, whose revolutionary bona fides were golden two years ago, suddenly feels status quo. And lurking around the corner — due at year’s end — is a vanguard of new, inexpensive large-sensor camcorders from all the usual suspects.
It’s been said that the geek shall inherit the earth, but this is getting ridiculous. How’s a producer to make sense of these exploding possibilities? Even d.p.’s and post mavens alert to the latest digital trends struggle to keep up.
It wasn’t always so. A few weeks ago I stood at the dry end of a DuArt processing machine as a roll of 35mm came off, a print of the long-suppressed Nazi war-crimes film, Nuremberg, restored by Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky and headed to the New York Film Festival. As the still-warm roll rattled in its film can, a button was pressed and the entire contraption of leader, spools, racks, tanks, motors and dry cabinets shut down for the very last time. Motion picture film developing at DuArt had come to an end after 88 years.
Five years prior to DuArt’s founding in 1922, two restless young actors cum cameramen, August Arnold and Robert Richter, opened a similar lab in Munich. Arnold and Richter shared a knack for invention and built early printing and processing machines before proceeding to motion picture lighting and camera designs in 1924.
Film, in other words, has had a good run, and it’s a testament to the basic efficacy of motion picture technology that labs like DuArt and Arnold & Richter — since shortened to ARRI — prospered for the better part of a century.
Only the naïve or credulous could believe that a century’s worth of such filmmaking know-how could simply evaporate at the drop of a digital hat, or should.
This was easily borne out at this year’s New York Film Festival — a crème de la crème of world cinema totaling 26 dramas, two docs and a host of special programs. Were any shot digitally? As I do annually, I tallied origination, aspect ratio and projection format of each selection.
Dramas, as usual, were shot mostly in 35mm negative and projected at the wide 2.40 aspect ratio. This includes the festival’s longest film at five and a half hours, Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, and its most beautiful, Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner Of Gods and Men (shot with Aaton’s Penelope), while 35mm prints were a different story. Both films were instead digitally projected from a Digital Cinema Package residing on a server or USB hard drive.
While film remains a viable and desirable origination medium — in perpetuity, I hope — printing of intermediate film elements by labs, and ultimately theatrical prints too, is doomed. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but inevitably.
I defy anyone to detect that the festival’s opening night film, David Fincher’s The Social Network, shot on a RED One upgraded to the latest Mysterium-X CMOS sensor and stunningly lensed by Jeff Cronenweth, was not shot or projected on film.
(The same can’t be said unfortunately for the DCP of the unsettling, must-see Black Venus by Abdellatif Kechiche, based on the case of the 19th-century “Hottentot Venus.” Shot with a Panavised Sony F900 in HDCAM — my educated guess — and noticeably over-sharpened, it delivers blown-out highlights and plasticky skin tones. A harsh video look from frame one. A DCP cannot mask questionable production and post decisions.)
All of which brings us to ARRI’s ALEXA (pictured above). A radically new era calls for nothing less than the reinvention of the motion picture camera, and who better than the oldest extant motion picture camera manufacturer, like DuArt still housed in its original building? The same shop where the first reflex camera with a spinning mirror shutter was created in 1937? (Türkenstrasse 85, if you care to visit.)
No need to overcome the DNA of prior ENG camcorder designs, or issue strident calls for a revolution, or cobble a motion picture camera à la Rube Goldberg from one designed to take stills.
In a nutshell, ALEXA is a PL-mount (another ARRI invention) digital cinema camera with a Super-35 sized CMOS Bayer-pattern sensor. Base sensitivity is 800 ISO, with frame rates from 1-60 fps. Output via HD-SDI or dual-link HD-SDI include uncompressed 1080p HD (4:4:4 or 4:4:2) and uncompressed RAW.
ALEXA’s breakthrough, however, is onboard recording to either Apple ProRes 4444 or ProRes 422 (HQ) compression using Sony SxS memory cards, which can occur simultaneously with uncompressed HD or RAW output. Eject an SxS card from the ALEXA, slide it into the ExpressCard/34 slot of a 17-inch MacBook Pro, double-click any new QuickTime clips, and scrutinize instant full-res dailies.
With ALEXA we’re going to need new language to designate what used to be called “dailies.” ARRI calls it Direct to Edit or DTE, implying use of Final Cut Pro or Avid Media Composer 5. Doesn’t have the same ring.
The eye of ALEXA is ARRI’s new ALEV III sensor, which ARRI describes as having a 3.5K pixel count. This refers not to total pixel count but pixels available to form each row of detail. This nomenclature derives from film scanning and is commonly used to designate digital cinema projector resolution, such as 2K and 4K. Alex’s ALEV III sensor therefore oversamples images intended for HD or 2K, which is a good thing. You can’t be too rich, too thin or capture too much initial resolution.
ALEV III in fact is slightly larger than a Super 35 frame, to permit ALEXA’s vivid 1280 x 720 F-LCOS color viewfinder to see 10 percent beyond the edges of the recorded frame. This capability, critical to framing the action and detecting unwanted boom mics, is common to optical viewfinders but unheard of in any type of electronic viewfinder until now.
ALEV III is a third-generation sensor because ARRI has dipped its toe into digital cinematography before. ALEXA’s forbears include, from 2005, the ARRI D-20, basically a modified Arriflex 435 with optical viewfinder, spinning mirror shutter and 6-megapixel Super 35-sized CMOS sensor; and frp, 2008, the D-21, with improvements to de-Bayering, downsampling and optical low-pass filter to enhance sharpness and color saturation. The D-21 also introduced the 12-bit ARRIRAW format featured in ALEXA.
Wisdom distilled from five years of field-testing these 35mm/digital hybrids informs ALEXA’s design in myriad ways. ALEXA’s modularity is total: its sides form electronic control modules that pop off the chassis for future upgrading; the front is removable too, to enable an eventual optical viewfinder version; even the PL mount forms part of an Exchangeable Lens Mount system that includes Panavision, Canon and Nikon mounts.
Camera control exists on both sides, although controls on the operator’s side are mostly placed inside the electronic viewfinder. I haven’t said much about ergonomics, but tipping the scales at 17 lbs. makes ALEXA a middle-weight, and it’s reassuring to find built-in 15mm rod mounts and rosettes for ARRI handgrips at the front. Rental houses will appreciate the usual robust ARRI build as well as ALEXA’s flexibility in accepting standard V-mount 12V batteries.
Field reports so far are glowing, including one remark that stuck in my memory: “the end of [highlight] clipping.” ARRI boasts a 13.5 stop dynamic range for ALEXA (direct competitors claim the same for their latest products). As always, the proof will be in the pudding.
While previous ARRI digital cinema cameras were not for sale, ARRI has listed ALEXA at 45,000 Euros for the bare body only. I notice at Abel Cine Tech’s site an MSRP of almost $80,000, including electronic viewfinder, SxS module and five 32GB SxS cards. To put in perspective, not far from what the first Digital Betacam cost in 1994 — and those were 1994 dollars. Street price will come down of course.
Too steep a price tag in a time of HDSLRs? For indie features, ALEXA will surely be a rental item, like ARRI 35mm cameras often are. A $1 million low-budget feature could easily absorb this cost however, while reaping the benefits and cost efficiencies described above. By all accounts, ALEXA’s learning curve, production and post, is nonexistent — not always true of the others.
For more information, visit ARRI’s website. Google can help locate in-depth reviews and analyses of ALEXA’s specs on the Internet. For the technically inclined, I recommend Art Adams’s tests at ProVideo Coalition and Gary Adcock’s blogs on Creative Cow.
ALEXA was announced but a year ago and deliveries commenced in June, so don’t be disappointed not to have encountered an ALEXA on location yet. As of this writing, ALEXA is seriously back-ordered.
A year from now, you’ll be tripping over them.