Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC, embraces ALEXA

Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC, embraces ALEXA

Having shot two commercials and a promotional film with ALEXA, cinematographer Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC, has used ARRI's latest digital camera in a number of different environments. All three productions were designed to be viewed on both the small and the big screen; the promotional film was a 3D project for Mercedes while the commercials were a Dior spot directed by Jean Jacques Annaud and a Gautier spot directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Visuals of exceptional quality were required for all three of these high profile productions and ALEXA delivered, though the shooting conditions were varied and demanding. Khondji is now considering ALEXA for an upcoming feature and recently spoke to ARRI about his experiences with the camera so far.

ARRI News: Did the different shoots challenge ALEXA in different ways?

Darius Khondji: My first ALEXA shoot was the little 3D job for Mercedes and that was all daylight exteriors. It was a film to show the new generation of Mercedes cars that are coming - electric, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles - and it was shot in Paris; they wanted a 3D film to show on a big screen at the Champs-Élysées before the Paris Motor Show, which took place in October. The ALEXA handled the daylight exteriors and the 3D shooting very well; we had no real problems.

The Dior commercial was a J'adore spot starring Charlize Theron; it won't come out until sometime next year because there's a lot of heavy postproduction to be done. That was a very interesting job to do with the ALEXA because the first day of the shoot - it was a day-for-night shoot - was in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, which was only lit by very dim electric candelabras. We weren't able to light the hall so we had to rely on very little light; we did tests with different digital cameras and decided to go with ALEXA because it was the most sensitive and delivered the nicest, softest look. 

AN: Did you shoot at the base sensitivity of 800 ASA at Versailles?

DK: I did shoot at 800 ASA and that was more than enough. When I read the light meter in this very dim light - just like I would do for film - I was reading T0.7 at 800 ASA, which is hardly any light, but when we looked at the monitor, a stop of T1.4 on the lenses was actually overexposed, so we stopped down to T2.8. The ALEXA sensor is very sensitive and at times your light meter can be almost useless, so you just have to trust your eyes. In the end, though, it is better to use your meter and light the way you would if you were shooting film.

AN: What was your experience of the latitude of the sensor?

DK: The dynamic range is very good. I'm sure it could still be improved, but it's really far better than any other digital camera I've worked with. I just didn't feel any restriction with ALEXA, whereas normally with digital cameras you might have to dim down things like bright practicals a little bit to protect the highlights. 

AN: What recording systems did you use for these shoots?

DK: I work with a very good DIT called Christophe Hustache Marmon; we haven't used the raw data mode yet, but we have used the onboard SxS card recording, as well as HDCAM SR. On the Gautier shoot we used the SxS cards and editing was happening on the set, which was fantastic. That's the way Jean-Baptiste likes to work.

AN: How do you find the camera to work with?

DK: I like the ALEXA very much; I feel closer to this camera than I have to any other digital camera. I don't know if it's because of the fact that it's an ARRI - obviously that helps - but when you're on set with it you just feel that ARRI has made the effort to deliver what directors and cinematographers actually want, and to make it more like a film camera. The ALEXA is smaller and it's silent, which is so important; it can be handheld or put on a Steadicam; it doesn't heat up too much and of course its sensitivity gives us a lot of freedom. 

AN: What are your thoughts on the look and feel of ALEXA images?

DK: I think one of the things that makes me very happy with this camera is how soft and nice the curve is and how much you can play with the material; you can really mould it like a sculpture to make it softer or more contrasty - like using different negatives - and I really appreciate that. It allows you create the look that you want, without anything being blocked from the beginning, so it's nice to have that freedom.

It's a very sensuous camera to play with; of course there will be improvements, but it's the first time that I feel digital has turned a page. When I first used ALEXA the nostalgic part of me was a bit sad, in a way, because I'm one of the biggest defenders of film - and I will continue to shoot features on film - but for my next feature I think ALEXA might be a good choice. I feel that ARRI has gone beyond simply trying to imitate film and - starting now - digital has moved into a new era.

AN: So you'd be happy to use ALEXA for a feature film?

DK: Yes I would, although it will also be really great when ARRI develops the 4:3 sensor model and also an optical viewfinder, because that will feel even more like a film camera. Being able to use that full sensor to shoot anamorphic or 1.33:1 will be fantastic.