ALEXA Mini: nimble as a cat
Karl Walter Lindenlaub ASC, BVK gives his account of working with the ALEXA Mini on one of its first American movies, Barry Sonnenfeld's feline comedy NINE LIVES.
When I first read the script I immediately thought of the ALEXA Mini, which I'd heard was coming soon. We needed to shoot from the point-of-view of a cat, which is really low to the ground, and I thought we could try one of these new gimbals that everyone is using. I looked at all the small cameras that were available at the time, but they were not good enough to shoot visual effects and to be intercut with VFX footage shot at a higher resolution. Also I didn't want to intercut ALEXA footage from our main cameras with another camera, so after all our research the Mini was the best tool. It wasn't out yet but thankfully ARRI was able to get us a prototype just in time, which was later replaced with a production model from Clairmont Camera.
We put the Mini on a little skateboard rig that we could roll over the floor and then just lift the camera to convey the cat running and jumping; it was a great, simple method for quick shots. There's a scene in the kitchen where the cat approaches a young girl and she picks him up. I pushed our skateboard about 15 feet, looking at the on-board monitor, and then lifted the Mini into her arms at the right time. Her hands come right up to lens, as though she has grabbed the cat, and then she puts the camera on the table; it worked really well.
Of all the gimbal rigs we tried, we found the MōVI M15 to be the most responsive and subtle. We used it with the Mini for shots of the cat running down the hall and then looking backwards and forwards, as well as for a couple of other moments where we go into the cat's POV. We also mounted the Mini on a pole, like a monopod, which worked well.
The Mini was a great camera to get into tight spaces; for instance inside a car, right against the windshield or in a corner looking back at somebody. It's also a very easy camera for handheld, and as a shoulder rig it's effortless. Last year I did a whole movie with ALEXAs and AMIRAs in an Easyrig, and the Mini would have been ideal for that; it would have allowed me to move around all day and saved me a lot of pain. The Mini is a fantastic addition to the ALEXA family; actors and directors love it because they often feel restricted by the space a traditional camera department occupies. Nowadays people want to shoot more freely; a lot of directors want movement and freedom of movement.
We tended to use smaller lenses with the ALEXA Mini. We tried it on the MōVI with the Master Primes I had on the show, but that got a bit heavy -- the Ultra Primes worked well for really wide run-and-gun shots. Barry likes wide-angle lenses; there's a tendency now to shoot wider and closer, to be right in the action.
In the film there's quite a bit of live action with a real cat. Barry didn't particularly want to work with the cat because he's allergic, so our second unit did most of the cat scenes and they were very patient. It was sad for me because they had the Mini a lot of the time, in order to shoot those scenes.
There are plenty of fun moments in the film that the Mini really helped us with. If you want to shoot handheld for a whole movie, the Mini is perfect for that. This whole generation has grown up making movies with 5Ds, so for them it's an easy transition.