Cannes award for Le Mans film shot with ALEXA

Le Mans 2011: the 79th running of one of the most famous races in the world, where nearly 250,000 spectators watch 56 cars going crazy for 24 hours. We at ZIGGY mediahouse, a production company based in Munich, had the assignment to cover the race for Audi. Le Mans is of the utmost importance to the German car manufacturer and has always been a proving ground for its "Vorsprung durch Technik" claim. This year, they were running three of their new Audi R18 TDI cars.

ALEXA and Audi at Le Mans

13.854 SECONDS: a short film covering Audi's experiences at the 2011 Le Mans 24-hour race, produced by ZIGGY mediahouse and shot on ALEXA by DP Stefan Pfeil and his team.

Le Mans is an endurance race not only for men, cars, or even the film crew - it also tests the gear we use. 24 hours is just the race time; with all the action before and after the race we're talking about 35-40 hours of non-stop work. You'll be sitting on a quad bike two meters beside the race track; you'll be with the Audi pit crew during a pit stop, which is a dangerous situation for the operator; you'll be in a chopper trying to chase a race car going at 320 km/h; you'll be exposed to heavy rain, high humidity, and both low and high temperatures. Additionally, the famous Le Mans dust will cover your vocal chords, your clothes and your equipment. Knowing this, my 1st AC Emmanuel Suys, the director Alexander Gerlts and I always ask the same question every year: which camera system is really capable of fulfilling the requirements of the 24 hours of Le Mans?

In 35 hours of operating three ALEXA cameras nearly non-stop, we didn't have a single issue.

Cameras with a red dot on top wouldn't be reliable enough for such a time period and DSLRs aren't an option due to compression issues and the rolling shutter on fast-moving objects. This year, we wanted to lift the project to the next level. Ever since the ALEXA was released, we'd been dreaming about shooting with it, but Le Mans isn't like working on a feature film - we needed to use ALEXA in the rock'n'roll style: fast and flexible, with no second chances.


Take the starting grid as an example: at one of the most intense moments of the race you need not only maximum focal length, but at the same time an operable handheld camera. Emmanuel did an extremely quick lens change from the Optimo 24-290 mm to the ARRI LWZ 15.5-45 mm, right in the middle of thousands of people. We only had 20 minutes to get all the pictures and you have to fight for them. While one ALEXA was in a chopper hovering above, the other two were on the ground beside the drivers.


Manning our several camera units were operators Patrick Calderwood and Alexander Nabi, high-speed Weisscam operator Frank Pelak, and ACs Huba Barat and Nader Safari. Emmanuel was our technical director/coordinator and he figured out solutions like equipping the ALEXA with basic sound, which is standard on every ENG camera but a challenge on the ALEXA because you wouldn't normally need it and we didn't have a sound man with us. Emmanuel also brought together tons of equipment, carefully selected for the different needs of the camera crews - it was a tough job.

The best solution for getting around the track was three small quad bikes. At race time, they are not just the only accepted vehicles for carrying equipment, they're also the only way to get through traffic jams and keep moving. Just like accreditations, they are strictly limited, so our production logistics needed sophisticated planning of who goes where and when. Ordinarily, I wouldn't tell the rental company about how we moved around the Circuit de la Sarthe, but since it shows the circumstances the ALEXA was exposed to, I will. Our fully rigged ALEXA with the Optimo 24-290 (and the 150-600 stashed away in a box) went off-road sometimes, because the track is partially held on public roads and it's not easy to access from the outside. Sorry guys!

Coordinating with the postproduction team at ZIGGY mediahouse and the color correction facility at Scanwerk Munich, we decided to shoot Log C film matrix in 4:2:2 Apple ProRes. As well as being a DP, I have also worked as an editor since the first versions of AVID media composer in 1993, and I still love to edit my own projects. I've seen a lot of workflows over the last 18 years and AVID has not always been the most flexible option, but with the ALEXA ProRes files, it was just Shoot>Edit. And although this is a sentence ARRI uses in their ads, it's not common marketing gossip - it's true. With the AMA re-link option, we could start 'native' right away, without transcoding anything. This was essential for our project as we had a really tight schedule and even though we were editing footage right after we shot it, the stability of our workflow was incredible.

The ALEXA was especially surprising during the night. Without any external lights, far out in the forest, we shot some portraits of race marshals in the pitch black, illuminated only by the cars' headlights. We're talking about 3200 ASA settings here. The dynamic range in that particular situation was great, and even when the beam went over its peak, the sensor managed to show the image without artifacts. We had a similar situation with Leena Gade, chief engineer for the winning car, standing at the pit wall. Her face was only lit by the monitors in front of her. This was a 1600 ASA setup, and the smooth transitions between highlights and extreme black were already visible in the flat Log C file. Even without grading, it was such a moody, natural picture.

By the end of the shoot all of us on the film crew were truly exhausted, but euphoric and happy at the same time. In 35 hours of operating three ALEXA cameras nearly non-stop, we didn't have a single issue.

13.854 SECONDS won a Gold Award at the Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards on October 13th, 2011.