ALEXA and The Mob

ALEXA and The Mob

Robert Payton is a director and DoP with Grinder Films in Cape Town. Shortly after shooting a series of commercials for a UK supermarket chain with ALEXA cameras, he wrote a report on his experience that evaluates the performance of ALEXA and its probable impact on the industry.

As the season gets underway, all the buzz seems to revolve around the new ARRI ALEXA. Many international clients are specifically asking for the ALEXA and last month I was lucky enough to use two of them on an eight-day shoot.

When the job for supermarket chain Iceland with Sarah O'Gorman at The Mob in Manchester came up, I was offered the chance to use ALEXA and grabbed it. The test results I had seen for the camera were fantastic and there were so many different scenarios in the scripts we were shooting that it was a perfect opportunity to experiment.

Iceland commercials, shot with ALEXA

A series of commercial spots promoting the UK supermarket chain Iceland, shot with ALEXA cameras by cinematographer Rob Payton for The Mob Film Company.

So here's some early feedback: the two cameras were brand new and they felt like ARRIFLEX straight out the box. Aesthetically I was impressed by the size, the layout of the controls and the fact that the camera stays compatible with all ARRI lenses and accessories.

 

The first thing to say is that the camera shoots beautiful pictures, which have almost a silky quality to them. The shoot encompassed interior, exterior, day, night, people and food, so the cameras got a serious workout. It is the first digital camera I have used that replicates - in fact flatters - skin tones. I used very little filtration, which I normally apply to other digital cameras; I guess it has just got a very filmic sensor.

It is sticking my neck out, but I think the ALEXA is set to become the new workhorse of the commercials industry.

For a DoP it is just a joy to use, with buttons in familiar places and intuitive menus. It's also really handy to be able to record to Log C, yet still output the client and agency monitors with the richer and more viewable Rec 709 images direct from camera. The two ALEXAs matched perfectly, which has been an issue in the past when shooting multi-camera digital. Having such a high exposure index (ASA rating) is fantastic news, but it does take a bit of getting used to. 

 

I was a bit skeptical about using a non-optical viewfinder after bad experiences with the RED and 900 cameras, but in reality the viewfinder had great resolution and, like a film ground glass, it has a true overscan so I could keep an eye out for lighting stands, mikes and unwanted crewmembers before they appeared on the rushes!

 

From a directing perspective the Shoot > Edit feature, courtesy of the Apple ProRes codec, is fantastic. It's possible to be editing immediately post shoot; no transfer costs or waiting time.

 

On the subject of workflow, we had anticipated shooting to separate recorders, but the day before the shoot began, ARRI and Apple agreed the licensing issues and we were probably among the first to use the SxS onboard memory (data) card system. Dual cards slot into the back of the camera and the 11-minute running time makes reloading akin to a film changeover - only quicker. This is a real timesaver; we shot all 39 scripts without a hitch.

 

We recorded to 422 ProRes, which simultaneously generated ProRes LT for us. This dropped straight into Final Cut and I was able to establish some grading looks (LUTs) in Apple Color on set. It couldn't have been easier. There are still a couple of issues using older Avids, but I am sure that the ARRI plug-ins will be ALEXA-compatible soon enough. Some Avid editors are still doing DNX conversions to solve this issue. It worked in FCP perfectly for us though.

From a producer's perspective the camera offers amazing quality for the price and the fact that it is compatible with all film accessories will make it easy for producers to bid and quote with. The increased sensitivity should ultimately result in lower lighting requirements, but I think that will be gradual. As I get used to the increased shadow detail and higher exposure index my lighting lists will get a little shorter! With no data transfer costs, it's a very economical workflow.

Thinking of how it stacks up against the competition, we were shooting alongside a RED as we needed to record a few shots at 75 fps (The ALEXA currently records 30 fps to SxS cards, but a software update should bring that frame rate up to 60 fps). The images off the ALEXA were just more filmic and attractive to my eye than those generated by the RED Mysterium - same lenses, same lighting setups, so I was able to do a direct comparison. I can only take a snapshot in time as technology moves so fast, but today I think the ALEXA heads the field.

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The camera boasts a 14-stop range; because of the variable EI it's hard to tell whether this is true or not, but across 250 slates I had no issues with clipped highlights or noisy shadows. I treated the camera just like film, and was not disappointed.

 

It is sticking my neck out, but I think the ALEXA is set to become the new workhorse of the commercials industry here. I have seen my workload shift from 30% digital in 2009, to 60% in 2010. With the arrival of the ALEXA in South Africa, 2011 will see film origination fall off even more. There are too many formats at the moment and the industry needs to consolidate; based on my first impressions, and ARRI's pedigree, the ALEXA looks like the best bet moving forward.