ARRI News: Why did you get into natural history cinematography?
Rolf Steinmann: Escapism! As a teenager I wanted to get away from the human world and experience wild places where nature was still intact, so I started to travel to Scandinavia. Back in Germany I always watched tons of wildlife films to feed my longing for nature, and soon got addicted to them. Then in my early twenties I came to the irrational idea of working on wildlife films myself.
AN: What made you decide to invest in your own ALEXA?
RS: Wildlife films are traditionally very focused on aesthetic photography and for decades were shot on 16 mm. Since the introduction of the VariCam and HDCAM formats wildlife cameramen have tried to imitate the look of 16 mm with digital video cameras, but this never really worked for me. I realized that the magic in the photography of even my favorite cameramen wasn't there anymore when they filmed on 2/3" and I came to the conclusion that this format could never achieve an organic film look. There was not enough dynamic range or detail in the highlights; the transition from overexposed areas into colors was not fluent; the color depth was too limited; the bokeh of ENG lenses wasn't aesthetic and the lenses generally produced an image that I would call the opposite of organic.
Thus I started to dream of something like a digital ARRI SR III. With the introduction of the ALEXA it was immediately clear that for the first time in history 35 mm had become accessible to wildlife cameramen like me. The ALEXA offered so much that I had dreamed of: the aesthetics of a 35 mm sensor; the dynamic range of film; an easy and non-cryptic camera menu; a super-robust housing; a better viewfinder; high speed frame rates and - last but not least - a PL mount that made it possible to leave ENG lenses behind.
AN: What advantages does the ALEXA system offer to natural history cinematographers who are likely to spend many months in the field each year?
RS: I think not everybody will share my answer to this question. Admittedly the ALEXA is much heavier than 2/3" cameras and the lenses are heavier, too. You need a matte box all the time and you have to carry a lot of batteries - so what's actually the advantage? It's the creative freedom! With an ALEXA I can create a new aesthetic that has never been there in wildlife films. I don't try to imitate the look of the 16 mm films I grew up with; I can create something new. Moreover, if you have months-long shoots you have to rely on your gear. The ALEXA is totally reliable and can easily cope with even the harshest conditions. Last year, for example, I spent nine months non-stop in the field and the camera never needed a service.
With an ALEXA I can create a new aesthetic that has never been there in wildlife films.
AN: You've been to some very cold environments with your ALEXA; what issues did this present for both yourself and the equipment?
RS: I have taken the ALEXA to a lot of very different habitats, with temperatures of between -40° and +40°C. So far my coldest shoot was in Alberta's winter: six weeks in deep snow and very icy conditions, with the wind chill taking the temperature down to below -40°C. When I filmed in these conditions my fingers got frozen immediately because I had to work with free finger tips to pull focus. That was quite tough.
My best test for the ALEXA was a four-day hide shoot where it was -25°C during the day and even colder at night. I left the camera in there the whole time and when I entered the hide before dawn the ALEXA had a layer of ice on it, but when I switched it on it worked perfectly, as did the viewfinder. I think the 13-hour sessions in these conditions where much harder for me than for the ALEXA. In fact I doubt there is any temperature where a human can still work that would prove a problem for the ALEXA. However, I'll definitely need a viewfinder heater in the future because in icy conditions the viewfinder fogs up when you put your eye to the eyepiece, and the moisture on the glass can freeze.
AN: Where was it that you tried the ALEXA with ARRI/FUJINON Alura Zooms?
RS: I worked with the 18-85 and the 45-250 on a shoot on the Arabian Peninsula. We filmed the endemic Oryx antelopes and tried to capture the animals and their habitat in all its beauty. For me the 45-250 is exactly the range that I need for shots of animals in the landscape; it's heavy for hiking shoots and not long enough for proper behavioral work, but perfect for filming a group of Oryx migrating across endless dunes. I used the 18-85 for wide-angle landscapes when it was not about the animals, but I think this lens is designed more for drama.
I was really impressed by the overall look of both lenses. They were contrasty, crisp, delivered saturated colors and performed great in backlight. It sounds stupid but sometimes they were almost too good. I remember one session where we tried to express the heat and barrenness of the Oryx's habitat by shooting in the early-afternoon sun. We wanted strong lens flares but the Aluras suppressed the flares so efficiently that we had to give up!
AN: Do you think the new lightweight Alura Zooms might be useful for the kind of work you do?
RS: In my opinion the lightweight Alura 15.5-45 is the perfect zoom for landscapes and it's light enough to use with the ALEXA on jib-arms and cable-dollies; you couldn't do this with the 18-85. The 30-80 is less relevant to wildlife work; for me it's more important to have a midrange zoom in the range of 50-250.
For wildlife films you have to find a compromise between focal range and weight. In the classic cameraman/assistant team there is only room for one heavy lens, and this is traditionally the long-lens zoom. The mid-range zoom has to be lightweight otherwise a second assistant is needed; I personally dream of a PL mount, T2.8 80-240 zoom weighing less than 3.5 kg.
AN: On the BBC's WILD ARABIA series you worked in a desert environment; what challenges did you face and how did ALEXA perform?
RS: I worked in desert and mountain environments on two sequences for WILD ARABIA. One was about the age-old relationship between Oryx antelopes and the Bedouin people; the other was about wolves and goatherds. Unfortunately I was stupid enough to destroy the glass filter in front of the ALEXA sensor with sand and then had to shoot everything with an open aperture to avoid seeing the spots in the image. Hopefully that will never happen to me again, but it was my fault. I think sand got into my blower and when there was dust on the filter I shot sand onto the filter glass. I carry my blower super-isolated now.
Apart from the filter glass problem there were no technical issues and both shoots were a dream with the ALEXA. We did a lot of extreme off-road dune driving where the kit was thrown about in the car, but the ALEXA survived it easily. I loved shooting scenes with the Bedouins and the goatherds, and it was just unbelievable how well the ALEXA dealt with all the different backlight situations. We often had the sun in the image because the sun is such an integral part of the desert. I really think the ALEXA is the perfect tool for available light photography; it deals with backlight and the sun like no digital camera I have ever used.
AN: What was the rainforest shoot where you used ALEXA on a cable dolly?
RS: I used the ALEXA for two weeks on a cable dolly in the temperate rainforests of Washington state and British Columbia. We filmed the lush forests for the FOREST program of Wild Horizon's NORTH AMERICA series. It was incredible how the ALEXA performed in these dark forests, especially when the evening sun hit the bark of the trees. In the viewfinder, where I see the 709 gamma, the bark was overexposed if I also wanted detail in the blacks. But in the final image with the Log C gamma the highlights and blacks were full of detail. Stunning!
AN: Was that a very humid environment? Did it cause problems?
RS: I had already worked in quite a few very humid environments. In Costa Rica it was pouring with rain for two weeks and everything was flooded - no problem for the ALEXA. The biggest issue in very humid environments is that, like in icy conditions, the viewfinder fogs up immediately when you start looking into the eyepiece.
Humidity aside, the camera can deal with rain better than any other camera I know because all the electronics are sealed. On the remote and protected bird colony of Funk Island in the Atlantic Ocean I was only allowed to shoot for one afternoon. We did a jib-arm shot while it was raining, moments before having to leave due to heavy swell. There was no time to use a rain cover and the ALEXA got soaked, but it continued to function perfectly. As soon as we finished we had to jump onto the boats from a cliff and it was insanely wet. After this exciting day I still had three non-stop months in the field, and the camera didn't have any problems.
AN: How will the upcoming ALEXA 'post trigger' feature (whereby you get a few seconds of footage prior to hitting the record button) be useful in your line of work?
RS: It will be extremely useful because at the moment the ALEXA doesn't record immediately after pushing the record button; there is always a slight delay. I would say that for wildlife cameramen the pre-record function is a vital and state-of-the-art feature. Sometimes it's extremely difficult to predict when wild animals will show up or demonstrate behavior. A pre-record function certainly helps avoid losing decisive moments.
AN: What is your perspective on the changes taking place in the natural history industry?
RS: With big 16:9 TV-screens now commonplace, the audience's expectations have changed and I think TV photography will more and more approach a cinematic quality. When I started in the business seven years ago people were becoming increasingly interested in camera movements, extreme high speed and gyro-stabilized aerial filming, all of which came from the cinema and commercial industries. I think 35 mm, with its shallow depth of field, brings higher production value and is the next logical step on the way to a more cinematic TV experience. For me as a cameraman, the ALEXA captures the magic that I haven't seen in wildlife films since the days of 16 mm. Now we can create a new aesthetic in wildlife documentaries, rather than just imitating and copying. It's a really exciting time!