How ALEXA made it in America

HOW TO MAKE IT IN AMERICA is a comedy drama series from HBO that follows two enterprising twentysomethings as they try to make a name for themselves in New York City's competitive fashion scene. The first season was shot on 35 mm film with ARRICAM cameras supplied by ARRI CSC. For the second season, cinematographer Tim Ives returned to CSC, but this time chose to shoot with ALEXA, reflecting the rapid advance into high-end US television production that the ALEXA system has made over the last year.

ARRI News: What prompted the decision to go from 35 mm film to ALEXA for season two?

Tim Ives: Well first of all it wasn't a budgetary decision; it was my decision, backed up by the producers after I'd done some tests and talked to them about the camera. I've been waiting for digital to get to the point where I thought it was as good as film, or offered something that rivaled film, and this system certainly does that. I love the ALEXA; it's the first digital camera I've worked with that really feels like a cinematographer's tool, in the way that film does.

We had to move quickly and with the ALEXA we were able to do so.

AN: Was there a shift in visual approach?


TI: The pilot, which I didn't do, was shot on film and they gave it that classic New York gritty look, with the grain of a high ASA stock. I wanted to keep it gritty but I didn't want to see any grain; I wanted more of a VOGUE magazine feel, which I thought would be really strong for the coolness and youthfulness of the show. I felt the ALEXA added a modern look to the film aesthetic that we all know and love, which was exciting in the way it positioned our characters in the present. I'm not dismissing the idea of using film in my future work; it's just that for this show, which is about kids in their twenties, the ALEXA had a more immediate look. But we're still holding on to a film aesthetic; that was really important to us.


AN: Did the transition to ALEXA affect your lighting style?


TI: One of the main reasons I wanted to shoot with ALEXA was the ability to use it with minimal lighting at night. For night-time exterior work I used to have to light up entire city streets, but this year I cherry-picked it a bit more and wasn't so obsessed with that theatrical style of lighting. We found ourselves not necessarily using fewer lights, but exchanging them for lower wattage lights. With ALEXA's EI 800 sensitivity there was a bit of a learning curve in the first week or so and we quickly realized that we could hold back a little bit.

AN: Season one had a lot of handheld camerawork; did that continue into season two?

TI: Absolutely; we did a lot of handheld work and a little bit of Steadicam. Basically we did whatever felt right for each scene, but the general approach was handheld. My operators, Petr Hlinomaz and Jay Feather, were excellent and did a great job. We were recording straight to SxS cards, so we weren't tethered and the cameras were relatively lightweight; they were quite happy with it and didn't complain once. I operated the camera myself once in a while and found the ALEXA to be very ergonomic, more so than other cameras in the HD world.

AN: Were you generally shooting on location?

TI: Last year we had 70 locations and this year we had more than 130, so the schedule was massive. We had two stages over at Silvercup Studios for a total of eight days out of three months of shooting, but this was predominantly a location show. We had to move quickly and with the ALEXA we were able to do so; recording to SxS cards definitely helped with that. It also allowed me to pass the footage on to post closer to the way I imagined it, rather than giving them way too many options. You perhaps get a bit more detail recording to a drive rather than the cards, but the ProRes workflow and look were ideal for this production.

AN: Were others on the production convinced by your decision to go with ALEXA?

TI: Very much so. HBO were already on board with ALEXA because they shot GAME OF THRONES with it, but there was some convincing to do with my directors, and in particular with Julian Farino, our main director and producer. He and [executive producer] Stephen Levinson liked the tests, and then half way through the season I got notes from them congratulating me on my choice and saying how perfect it was for the show, which was really rewarding to hear.


"Our experience with the ALEXA and CSC was amazing. The first season was shot on film, but when ALEXA arrived on the scene Tim Ives wanted to take the show in a new direction. After doing some testing everyone came on board and started to believe in this new camera and technology. I spoke with John Clapp in the Rental Department at CSC and he was able to put the entire two-camera package together for us. I really appreciated his hard work and dedication to our job.

We were in production for about 10 weeks without a single problem. Philip Gosiewski, our Technical Liaison, and Stanley Fernandez, played a big part in our success. We were able to contact them at any time for technical support. CSC was always there for all of our needs when it came to ordering additional gear for the job.

I really have to say that it was a great experience from the beginning of the show until the end. I was also very happy to have the best gear and new accessories available to me and my crew. I've been coming to CSC for over 20 years for camera equipment and they have never let me down. I'm looking forward to the future and it's very exciting to see all of the new ALEXA Technology at CSC."