ALEXA 65: mission accomplished
The first production to make use of the ALEXA 65 large format camera system has hit theaters: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- ROGUE NATION was shot primarily with Panavision 35 mm film cameras by Robert Elswit ASC, but a major underwater sequence was captured with prototype ALEXA 65 cameras in special HydroFlex housings by Pete Romano ASC, in order to maximize image quality for the heavy visual effects. Elswit, Romano and crew spent a month shooting the sequence in a water tank at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden earlier this year, and Romano speaks here about his experiences.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- ROGUE NATION was the first production to make use of the ALEXA 65 large format camera system. It was shot primarily with 35 mm film cameras by Robert Elswit ASC, but a major underwater sequence was captured with prototype ALEXA 65 cameras in special HydroFlex housings by Pete Romano ASC.
What made ALEXA 65 seem an interesting option for this sequence?
The sequence was done almost entirely with a virtual background, so it was important to get the best resolution for the best look. Dneg were already involved and they were very keen to get that much information in every frame. But I think part of the appeal was being at the forefront of this technology; I'm always interested in working with new cameras and my association with ARRI goes back many years. For me it was quite a coup, being the first to use the ALEXA 65.
Which of the Prime 65 lenses were you working with?
We decided that it would be best for the VFX team if we shot consistently with the 28 mm. I did do some handheld stuff working one-on-one with Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson, so when we needed to get a little closer I went to the 35 mm. We were shooting pretty much wide open and the Prime 65s are just so sharp -- you can see everything and they were perfect for what we were doing. I'm not overly technical with lenses but for me, looking at the quality on the screen when we were testing and shooting, it was quite amazing -- there was a lot of information in the image.
What were the challenges of creating the ALEXA 65 HydroFlex housing?
Due to ARRI's tight manufacturing schedule I was not able to work with a real camera. Instead I had 3D drawings from which I got a 3D model printed that could be placed in the housing to work out clearances, as we were fitting a slightly larger camera into the same size enclosure as the ALEAX XT. I was in touch with ARRI in Munich and also John Duclos in London, who was a wealth of knowledge about connectors, cables and power distribution. To take advantage of the ALEXA 65's resolution I approached Ryan Canon of Nauticam USA to provide the dome ports. Eventually the first prototype camera arrived at HydroFlex in mid-November; we got it on a Tuesday and within two days we had to ship it to Leavesden, along with our entire kit, to begin prep the following week. Fortunately everything fit well and all the cables and connectors were spot-on, so we made the deadline.
Did the housing require specialist heat management?
Of course I was concerned about potential heat because of how much data was being generated and I had two solutions. Firstly I placed proprietary heat sinks right over the fans at the front by the sensor and also at the back by the processor. But not having an actual camera to test with, I was still worried about overheating, so I also built an air exchange system to get hot air out of the housing and up to the surface. The first day we had the ALEXA 65 on set I ran it in the housing for two hours straight and the camera did not overheat. This was out of the water and without my air system running, so to this day that system still sits in a box, unused.
How were the two ALEXA 65 cameras used to film the sequence?
There were three modes of operation: one was handheld, which was used the least, and the second was using two circular tracks. In visual effects it's often much easier to move the camera than the subject; Robert and I used this technique to give the illusion of Tom spinning around in our big underwater chamber, which we couldn't do for real. The inner track held Tom in place and the outer track held the camera on a HydroHead, inverted. When we sped backwards along the track it created the illusion of Tom receding into the chamber. The third mode was with the HydroHead on a crane, for when we were using our one piece of stage scenery as a background rather than greenscreen. These shots required precision matching of parts so the sequence could be extended.
Did you find it similar to working with ALEXA XT?
Going from the ALEXA XT to the ALEXA 65 was seamless, more like working with the big brother of an existing camera than starting with a brand new one. We ran an Ethernet cable from the camera to the surface, allowing us to observe all of the camera functions and heat sensors in exactly the same way as with the ALEXA XT. It gives the camera assistants the ability to change frame rates and access other camera settings from the surface, without wasting production time. Everybody was excited to see the ALEXA 65 images and they were doing pre-comps and line-ups right there on stage as we were shooting, so they could make sure we were getting everything they needed.
Were you happy with the overall experience of working with ALEXA 65?
ARRI has hit it out of the park and what I've really appreciated from working with these first two cameras is how dedicated ARRI and its technicians have been to making sure that the transition from R&D lab to the craziness of a real movie set was as seamless as possible. In particular Neil Fanthom was instrumental in providing the information and support to help us through the design and manufacturing process. The attention to detail was amazing; we had ARRI Rental representatives with us almost every day and out of 400 hours working with those cameras, we never had one problem. They just kept going, hour after hour.
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