ALEXA on ice

For a long time cinematographers preferred to rely on tried and tested film cameras rather than digital technology for shoots that involved travelling to far-flung locations and filming in extreme climatic conditions; with the arrival of ALEXA, which ARRI has manufactured to be as rugged and reliable as its film cameras, all this is changing. French DoP Damien Morisot recently selected ALEXA for a DHL commercial that involved a breakneck schedule and eclectic locations such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Iceland and New York City. He spoke with ARRI about the experience.

We decided to work with the ALEXA … because we needed instant access to the images.

ARRI News: This was certainly a very international shoot; what was the concept of the commercial?


Damien Morisot: The concept is simply to communicate the fact that DHL functions all over the world, so the agency and the director picked locations like China and India, as well as remote locations like an ice field in the middle of nowhere, which we shot in Iceland, and big cities like Paris and New York. Basically, the idea that DHL links all these different locations is expressed with a bright, yellowish light (matching the DHL color scheme) that rapidly moves across the landscapes and seems alive. This was mainly achieved in postproduction, but we had to create various opportunities of showing that speed of light idea, or speed of yellow as we called it! This was done with both static and tracking shots, many of which had to incorporate recognizable, iconic landmarks at the different locations, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The commercial was all about lots of locations in lots of countries.


AN: Did that present any specific challenges? 


DM: The main problem we had to deal with was time constraints. These days the decision to go ahead with a production comes later and later, which means that you're running late even from the first day of the shoot. One of the reasons we decided to work with the ALEXA was because we needed instant access to the images. With so many shots that would involve CG elements, we had to edit as we were shooting; there was no time to wait for our rushes because we were moving from country to country so quickly. We were travelling so light that we didn't even take the ALEXA with us. In each country we had two ALEXAs waiting for us and a set of lenses, because we couldn't afford any delays through customs. 

ALEXA shoots DHL commercial

ALEXA commercial for DHL, shot by Damien Morisot, that was filmed in a variety of different international locations and climatic conditions.

AN: What lenses were you using?


DM: We were working with the small Angenieux Optimo zoom, the 28-76 mm, as well as the 24-290 mm. At the beginning I also had some prime lenses because we shot a lot of stuff at dawn or dusk, to emphasise the light effect, and I thought I would need faster lenses. In fact, the ALEXA is so sensitive that it wasn't necessary and by the end I was only using the zooms. We had to use primes at the airport location, by night, where the light was very low indeed, but the camera is so effective at 800 ASA that a zoom was fine for almost everything else.


AN: Did ALEXA cope with the extreme conditions in places like Iceland?


DM: Actually it was almost as cold in China as it was in Iceland, because it was winter in Shanghai, but it's true that we nearly opted to shoot on film in Iceland, due to the cold. In the end we decided to go with ALEXA because we were confident it would perform. The main thing in the cold is to have good batteries, but that's the case with every camera. It got down to -10 or -15 degrees in Iceland and we didn't have any problems. At the other end of the spectrum was Mumbai, where it was fairly hot and extremely humid, but again, we had no problems; the camera was totally reliable.

AN: What recording format and workflow did you select?

DM: We were shooting to the on-board SxS cards and a DIT, who came with us from London, was in charge of transferring images into a laptop for editing and doing all the back-up procedures. Our editor was also travelling with us, although the advantage of the ALEXA workflow was not so much being able to actually edit on set, but to immediately see that we had the coverage we needed before leaving a location, and also allowing the visual effects team to start working on the images straight away, because the back-end schedule was so tight.

AN: Were there any particular situations where ALEXA's sensitivity and dynamic range proved helpful?

DM: There were moments in Iceland where we had sun and snow at the same time, which is never easy, but generally there was some cloud cover. Probably the most contrast we encountered was at a fashion show in Berlin, where we wanted a wall of very strong backlight behind the model, and it worked really well. Looking at the rushes, it was interesting to see how smooth the transition was between having detail in the whites and then no detail; that curve into overexposure is really soft and natural with ALEXA.


Project serviced by:

Berlin : FGV Schmidle GMBH in Munich 
Iceland : Panavision Alga in Paris
Shangai : CINERENT Limited in Shangai
Mumbai : Prime Focus in Mumbai