ALEXA goes global on commercials

Director/editor Charles Jensen of Go Film and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Pablo Berron, have worked extensively in recent months with ALEXA cameras on a number of exciting and innovative commercials for Motorola's Razr phones, American Express's Delta Sky Miles Card and Visa's Olympic-themed "Go World" campaign. "It's my favorite electronic camera," Berron reports. "I like the dynamic range and it feels like a film camera from an operating standpoint. The settings are intuitive. And there's a quality to the images that we subjectively love." 

By the time the two were brought on to do the "Go World" Visa campaign for TBWA Chiat Day, the duo had gotten very comfortable with the ALEXA but they also had to incorporate another camera because the ALEXA couldn't yet do any of the high-speed photography that would be required to capture the athletes in action. But Jensen explains where the ALEXA shone. "We went around the world documenting a day in the life with different Olympic athletes, including swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Nastia Liukin. We had no lights and a very small crew and we just followed the people around. The camera was perfect for that. We just put on Ultra Primes, including the [very wide angle] 8R, and we could go anywhere. We followed [New Zealand shot-put medalist] Valerie Adams on the Metro in Paris and the camera was simple and compact enough that it worked very nicely. It's not intimidating so that [non-professional performers] just freeze up." 

Shot earlier this spring, ARRI's high-speed firmware became available just in time to let the team shoot at up to 120fps. "I love the super over-cranked look and when that went into the ARRI toolkit, that was great," Jensen says. "And even at that speed," Berron adds, "it's full resolution, full color sampling. You don't have to compromise picture quality for frame rate." As soon as they got that functionality, Berron reports, they were able to do their scheduled shoot of Michael Phelps underwater in slow motion and retire the other camera they had been using to B-camera status. 

The American Express Delta Sky Miles Card campaign for Digitas, NY involved an intrigue-laced mini-film in a style reminiscent of the OCEANS 11 series, though with the additional stylistic touch of being black and white. "We shot extensively in the Atlanta airport," Jensen says. "The concept was to show how easy it is to get in the front of the line if you have this special American Express card. The shoot involved a lot of high-end cranes and support gear to help keep up a breathless pace.”

 

But for a nighttime sequence shot on an Atlanta rooftop, Berron made use of the ALEXA's low-light capability to allow for shooting with a very small lighting package. "Depending on the project," the DP explains, "I usually rate the ALEXA at either 400 ISO or at the native 800. For the Atlanta rooftop scene on this American Express spot, we really wanted to soak in as much of the nighttime city lights in the background as possible, so I opted for shooting this scene at 1600. 

"We shot wide open with just some China balls and ring light on the lens," Berron adds. "I usually shoot at the native ISO 800 but we shot some of this at 1600 and really picked up the atmosphere of the city and the lights downtown. Even at 1600, we still had very little noise. Even if there was a very small amount of noise the shadows, it's a very nice-looking kind of noise that looks a lot like film grain. Sometimes, on other spots I've shot at 1600 just to get a little of that [texture] into the image." 

The Motorola Razr campaign for Draft CB, Chicago, was conceived as a series of person-on-the street interviews. "I asked people what they hate about their phones," the director says. "We got great responses. Everybody has something they hate about their phones and most times it was the battery. This new phone has an exceptionally long-lasting battery so we got them to talk about how their lives would be different if they didn't have to charge their phone all the time." 

Shot in downtown Los Angeles, Jensen interviewed dozens of people with Berron coordinating the shoot with two ALEXAs and Master Prime glass --one 50mm and 100mm-- opened up all the way to T1.3 with some black diffusion in front of the lens, which was stacked with optical ND filters when the natural light was bright. Berron also cranked the ISO down to 400 too. 

Jensen has made something of a specialty of the interview style of commercial because of his natural talent for eliciting the perfect type of response and also because as an editor, he has a particularly refined sense of how all the material can cut together most effectively.

From a technical standpoint, he likes to shoot to the internal cards in ProRes 4:4:4 mode wherever possible. "It's very easy to pull files right into Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere and start cutting," he says. "And I have the option of cranking down to the 4:2:2 to get more out of the card if I'm doing really long interviews or to go up to the ARRIRAW format if I felt I needed it." As Jensen sums up his and Berron's experience with the ALEXA so far, "We see it as a filmmaking tool, not an engineering tool."