ALEXA connects the generations

ALEXA connects the generations

Cinematographer Zubin Mistry details his experience with ALEXA on Relationships, a commercial spot for healthcare provider Humana, featuring a kaleidoscope of young and elderly actors with varying skin tones. It was the perfect opportunity to evaluate the image quality of the ALEXA cameras, which were provided by The Camera House. Here, Mistry relates his thoughts and reflections in his own words.

The ALEXA from ARRI has had a lot of us hanging in anticipation.

Backyard Productions in Los Angeles was one of the first to put the ALEXA through its paces, on a Humana spot for agency RAPP that was directed by Chace Strickland. The commercial is about the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, and was shot in various locations and lighting situations in LA this August, which proved to be a great test for ARRI’s latest offering to the digital world. Having shot with every form of digital format, my anticipation was immense.

I must admit I don’t normally go to prep days, but this one was not to be missed. We had two cameras, both armed with Angenieux 24-290 mm zooms. The ALEXA offers various recording formats, but based on the D-21’s amazing resolution on the Log C files it was only obvious to go down the same route, so we went straight into S.two decks capturing Log C and additionally captured ProRes 4444 on SxS cards on one of the cameras.

The camera has a high sensitivity of 800 ASA, so I decided to use a combination of Tiffen ND 2.1 and 1.2 filters. This allowed me to shoot as wide open as possible and minimize depth of field, which is a rule of thumb in the digital world. We then opted to view the Monitor Out in Rec 709.

The camera is very user-friendly; all the controls are intuitive, so for film people it’s great. It took me only an hour to figure out everything I needed to. The menus do not lead you down a rabbit hole; they give you enough options to do what you need. It really is designed for film people.

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The Log C files went off to the editor while I kept the ProRes files to download myself. On the first evening I downloaded the rushes from the SxS cards onto my laptop and ingested them into Final Cut Pro and then Color.

I was surprised. ARRI had been boasting about how good these were but I didn’t expect anything like this. In appearance they looked very much like cinema DPX files (flat). After a tweak in Color I was really blown away by the dynamic range.

Humana commercial, shot with ALEXA

Relationships, a commercial spot for healthcare provider Humana, shot with ALEXA cameras by cinematographer Zubin Mistry

One of the locations we shot was outside a concert hall in downtown LA, with a backlit water fountain that was atomizing the water. The contrast level was so high that it even hurt to look at with the naked eye, but what the ALEXA captured on ProRes was so good that I could push the highlights even more if I needed to. I’m sure I was getting more than 13.5 stops latitude on ProRes, let alone Log C.

Although I have embraced HD technology, at heart I am still a film purist. But to make film look this good I would need to do a 4K scan and grade it very precisely on a Baselight with an amazing colorist. Here, I was doing it myself on my MacBook Pro in FCP and Color, after wrap. Finally, as a DoP, I have total control over my images in a Mac-friendly format. So really there is no math to do as far as I’m concerned; it’s always been about controlling the image for me. We have come a long way from the days when we’d send Polaroids in to the colorist to match color. Now I can virtually finish off the color grading on my MacBook Pro.

Just to see this through all the way, we also put the ALEXA through its paces at [post house] The Mill in London with some vigorous testing. When [colorist] Adam Scott got to grips with the footage on Baselight we found very little visual difference between the Log C and ProRes. The ProRes had everything he needed to get a look going, though with the Log C we could obviously push it a bit deeper.

The bottom line is that I would use ProRes 4444 for most of my commercial work, saving the Log C only for VFX greenscreen-type jobs. The raw files are yet to be tested.

The workflow I would recommend is real simple and very production friendly. The ProRes files can either be ingested into FCP or Avid Media Composer 5 without any transcoding. For DoPs who want total control over the image in a DIY format, I would recommend Color as a grading platform, which can be directly accessed from FCP. A 17” MacBook Pro or new 27” iMac is adequate enough for most commercial applications.