Documentary shooting with ALEXA

I got a call to do a documentary -- commonplace for me years ago, but less so these days as most of the time I shoot TV drama in the UK. It sounded interesting: Victoria Wood discovering the history of tea whilst travelling through China, India, New York, Boston and the UK. "Sounds great, what are you thinking of shooting it on?" I asked. "Whatever you want," they replied. "OK," I said. "What about the ALEXA?" 

Shooting Log C meant I could get a decent exposure in and outside the cars, with no lights.

Keo Films, a successful documentary company, had not used the ALEXA before, but they were blown away by the results and so was I, using it for the first time as a documentary camera. I treated the shoot as if it was a Super 16 documentary -- memory cards instead of magazines; MacBook Pro and drives instead of film stock; the necessary batteries; zoom lens; a set of primes and a very small lighting kit. Oh, and an assistant in the guise of my regular 1st AC, Dan Edwards.


Travel is the unseen arduous part of documentary work. Endless security checks, baggage transfers, checking into hotels and airport delays. On one leg from north-east India to Shanghai we counted 14 security checks alone. The ALEXA body travelled with me in a small carry-on bag, together with half of our lithium-ion battery complement, neatly unpacked for inspection. Lenses, lights and legs went in the hold.  Dan carried the MacBook Pro and drives, and the other batteries -- it couldn't have been simpler.

Keo Films couldn't stretch to hiring in two lightweight zooms and actually they don't have the range of the old 10-120 Zeiss zooms I used to have on film documentaries, so I invested in a B4-to-PL mount from MTF in London and used an HD zoom. We took the handle off so it was cine-style and away we went. Admittedly you lose a couple of stops, but on bright exteriors that was a plus. 

For interiors I committed to using primes, which was restricting sometimes, but did I get better images because of it? Yes. Did I think quicker and place myself where the composition and light was better? Yes. I used Super 16 Zeiss Super Speeds, shooting T1.3 at 800 ISO with creamy depth of field on great faces. It was like having my old Leica stills camera in my hand again -- pure photography.

We shot through the Indian monsoon season in Assam, in the shadow of the Himalayas. On one of the days there Victoria took tea in an opium den, inside a bamboo hut lit just by a small fire in the center of the room. On another evening in Kolkata I filmed a beautiful sequence of workers crafting the earthenware pots that everyone drinks tea from in the streets. Toiling in between kilns they were lit by just the few bare bulbs that were there. It was the hottest and most humid environment I've ever filmed in. The perspiration was dripping off me and the ALEXA was in tropical mode, but never faltered -- unlike me, longing for a cold drink and a return to the air-conditioned hotel. "You've been spoiled by too much drama lately," said Andy Boag, our recordist.

In China we filmed on the spectacular river gorges of Wuyi. We filmed boat-to-boat on bamboo rafts down the small rapids. We filmed monks in a Buddhist monastery in the hills of Wuyi. Andy was weaving in and out of the chanting monks, recording separate sound and wirelessly sending a guide to the ALEXA.

The perspiration was dripping off me and the ALEXA was in tropical mode, but never faltered.

We were on the road quite a lot and filmed car and taxi interiors wherever we went -- easy enough with a small prime lens on the front and an on-board battery. I thought before the trip that I would use my Canon 5D Mk III for this part of the shoot, but actually it was just as easy to do it with the ALEXA. We shot 422 in order to get more data from the cards and to cut down on laptop downloading, but when we returned to the UK we found a quicker and more efficient method of data wrangling with bus-powered thunderbolt drives and a bus-powered card reader, so we could have gone all day shooting 422 (HQ) and downloading without mains power, had we known. Next time! We also shot Log C, which the editor and colorist loved. Shooting Log C meant I could get a decent exposure in and outside the cars, with no lights.


The best-lit shots of the films were down to the lighting designer of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. He was responsible for an amazing theatrical event in Wuyi where hundreds of dancers, horses, boats on the river and the surrounding hills were lit with extraordinary verve and imagination, while the audience slowly revolved, taking in the history of tea in China.  Meanwhile, I lit pieces to camera from Victoria in the audience with my iPhone bounced off a light-colored bag. Now there's ingenuity.

It was good to get back into documentary again, albeit for only a few weeks. Great opportunities all fearlessly captured with the ALEXA and images that will be an inspiration for my forthcoming drama work. It was the first time on a documentary that I could say, "They used this camera on the last James Bond film, you know..."

Tony Coldwell