ALEXA cracks THE CHICAGO CODE
Two hours into his first test day with the ALEXA camera, cinematographer Rohn Schmidt had his epiphany. "We went out in the Chicago streets to see what we could get in available light at night," says Schmidt, who was prepping for the one-hour TV drama THE CHICAGO CODE. "We put it on the front seat of the car and drove into downtown Chicago; we pulled up to a red light and I handed the camera to my assistant in the backseat. He changed the ISO and color temperature and handed it back to me before the light changed to green, and we were rolling.
"Using the ALEXA was very intuitive," continues Schmidt. "It takes all the things we know and love about film cameras and adds all the knowledge we've learned over the last ten years in digital acquisition. And it's simple, simple, simple."
That assessment was a 180-degree turn-around for Schmidt, who most recently shot the acclaimed series THE SHIELD in Super 16 mm. When he first got the job to shoot THE CHICAGO CODE, a cop-and-politics drama produced by Fox TV for broadcast on the Fox network this month, he had no intention of using the new ARRI ALEXA camera.
"It's generally not a wise thing to start a first-year series with a brand-new camera," he says. "It's difficult to get a first-year series going, and you want one less thing to worry about, so the ALEXA wasn't my choice." In fact, Schmidt was nervous that the camera would even be ready for the first shoot day, in July last year. "I visited the camera house a few days before we started and asked if they were really going to have the two ALEXA cameras in time." Fletcher Camera did indeed have the ALEXAs ready for the shoot and Schmidt points out that the Chicago-based rental house did a very good job of supporting the show.
What he didn't expect was for the ARRI ALEXA to be a breeze to learn and an advantage to the production in ways he hadn't anticipated. "I can truthfully say that the ALEXA has been absolutely no problem on any account," he says.
Most important in those one or two test days before production began was the amount of time it took Schmidt and his crew to get adjusted to the new camera: none at all. "We picked it up and went to work," says Schmidt. "The learning curve was unbelievably easy. I'm not a tech person in any way, so I love a camera that I can just pick up and use."
On set, Schmidt was able to consult a Cine-tal monitor to see exactly what the sensor was recording, in addition to what the images looked like with a LUT applied to them. The cinematographer remembers his first, very surprised reaction: "We saw well into the shadows, which HD is known for," he says. "But what made this different is that we also had details in the highlights - you have to go crazy to get it to clip." Schmidt cites being able to see so much detail in the highlights as a great advantage. "[The camera] gives an astounding range," he says.
"Heightened naturalism" is how Schmidt describes the look he was going for. "It's not terribly stylized," he says. "We're trying to deliver stories that are plausible; we're not trying to make fantasy, but rather ground it in reality. But that doesn't mean the images are ugly or the actors are ugly. I think of the beautiful photography you might find in National Geographic: really glorious, dramatic images that are recording real life."
The ARRI ALEXA has proved itself the ideal tool with which to achieve this creative vision. Shooting an 8-day episode, with four or five of those days on location, Schmidt says the camera has "been good at responding to all the colors without spiking uncontrollably." He notes, "It is quietly recording what's there; it doesn't embellish and I appreciate that." Lighting conditions have ranged from bright, bare sunlight to the shadows of steep canyons and city streets, with "a modest amount" of night work utilizing available light.
"What I try to do is take those lighting extremes and bring them back to our stage set, so it doesn't suddenly feel perfect," says Schmidt. He explains that they used HMIs for the day scenes on stage, which provided a beautiful color mix. "I could then turn on a practical light or a tungsten light and it made the stage so much more real," he says. "You have bright daylight coming through and on the desk we have a regular tungsten-balanced lamp. I love all the color contrast we're getting in this show and it's been very satisfying."
Schmidt points out a feature of the ALEXA that has helped him considerably: "You can easily change the base color temperature on the camera," he says. "At night, I would turn the color temperature on the camera down to 3200; outside during the day I would set it to 5600 or even 6000; and on stage I ran at 4700. It's really handy.
"Another thing that has been exciting and pleasurable is that it's a real 800 ISO," he continues. "It's a stop faster than any other camera. Out on the streets at night, I can use the Angenieux 12:1 zoom; I can carry focus easier or carry two actors in focus. It gives it some snap with very little light, and we can scale down the size of the lights. It really does see in the dark; you have to be careful [with what's in the frame] because what would previously have fallen off is there."
At the time of this interview, the production was recording to HDCAM SR tape with SRW-1 decks. Schmidt would have preferred to record to hard drives, but the SRW-1 deck was what worked with the budget. The disadvantage is that it's a big deck for a modestly sized camera, while the upside is that everyone knows how to handle HDCAM SR tape, making recording and handling of the media a no-brainer. "It's not as convenient," admits Schmidt. "But in keeping things simple, that's a concession we made."
For a cinematographer who wants to get up to speed quickly and shoot in as many different lighting conditions as possible, the ARRI ALEXA has ended up being the best possible choice. "We picked it up and went to work," says Schmidt. "That is what was genius about the ALEXA; it took all the knowledge of people manufacturing HD cameras for ten years and framed it in ARRI's experience with film cameras and being on set."
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