ALEXA brings new creative freedom to filmmakers. A compact, lightweight and affordable digital camera, ALEXA redefines the limits of motion picture capture with ultra-fast workflows and image quality akin to 35 mm film. From major motion pictures and high-end dramas to commercials, music videos and mainstream TV, ALEXA suits a wide variety of applications and budgets.
More than just a camera, ALEXA represents an entire image pipeline. By combining proprietary ARRI technology with ubiquitous tools from industry-leading partners, ALEXA stands alone as the most complete and powerful digital production system ever built.
1. What was the main motivation behind developing such a high spec camera at such a low price?
The main motivation was simply a strong desire to meet customers’ needs and expectations, or to put it in business jargon - to satisfy market demand. Our starting point was to conceive a creative tool that would suit contemporary production requirements; in other words a camera that produces great-looking pictures within tight schedules and ever-decreasing budgets.
With regard to picture quality, our main goal was to achieve a very cinematic look that transcends the typical HD video look and that of digital stills photography. This meant a large Super 35 mm sensor with very high sensitivity (to allow shooting in almost any lighting conditions); exceptional dynamic range or latitude (to prevent highlights from burning out); amazingly wide colour gamut (for the best possible starting point in the grading suite); and naturally sharp, organic-looking images (so you can easily pull your mattes when shooting greenscreen plates).
We’re also very familiar with the conditions that crews and productions have to work under, so we wanted to build a camera that can be easily, effectively and reliably operated in any shooting environment. Whether it’s the middle of a rainy night, in a blazing desert, a humid jungle or any other place where our film cameras have excelled for so many years, the ALEXA had to do the same. And it seems, given the reaction of all those who’ve had a chance to lay their hands on ALEXA, that we got it right.
One of the key things with any digital camera is its menu structure and we put a lot of emphasis on making ALEXA’s simple, easy to use and above all – very intuitive. At NAB one visitor commented - when I offered to explain ALEXA’s menu structure - “I shouldn’t need your explanation if you’ve done your job right!” And indeed he figured everything out himself, unprompted.
Of course there’s no point in any of these wonderful features if productions can’t afford the camera, so we made the decision to price ALEXA at just €50,000 – offering quite exceptional production value at a very affordable cost. Judging by the hundreds of orders we received during and after NAB, it would seem that we got that right as well.
2. The price point is still significantly higher than its obvious competitor - why?
We truly wanted to make camera that stands out in a seemingly oversaturated market; hence we were more focused on the needs of industry professionals than on any possible competition. We have been asked, time and time again, by many cinematographers, operators, directors and producers, to come up with a digital film-style camera that would ultimately meet all their diverse professional needs. And to do that we had to make ALEXA the way we did - making sure it can deal with upcoming technological developments in order to provide a safe, long-term investment for rental companies.
We also know for a fact that many productions want to do things in-camera; many of them want to know that what they are seeing on the set is what they are going to get in post, so we decided to give ALEXA unparalleled in-camera capabilities. A very powerful signal processing engine is closely coupled with the dual readout imaging sensor as well as an amazingly fast workflow - something that doesn’t come cheap but provides enormous value to any production. What is the point in having a cheap camera if your workflow is laborious, slow and expensive?
So from the competitive perspective, I can only say that ALEXA represents the best possible value we could offer for a professional, reliable and genuinely innovative camera. And the market has clearly responded to this product at this price point; the orders for ALEXA have been staggering.
3. As a camera rental company, why should I invest in ALEXA only to compete with ARRI’s own rental business?
ALEXA is going to irrevocably change the production process and anyone who is seriously thinking of staying in this fast-evolving business should give it a closer look.
All major camera rental companies own ARRI film cameras and are successfully competing with ARRI’s rental operations. When the tools become ubiquitous and recognized worldwide as being the best available, then rental houses can’t afford but to offer them – look at the ARRICAM 35 mm camera system or 416. It is nothing new that ARRI’s biggest sales customers can become its biggest rental competitors and it’s a very healthy thing for the industry. Rental companies can differentiate themselves by more than what is on their shelves - some provide more customer-focused services, some add different values to their offerings and some simply compete on different merits.
The close link with industry professionals is essential to the success of ARRI’s products and this is where ARRI’s own rental companies come in, providing indispensable industry insight (something ARRI’s manufacturing competitors could only be envy of). Without that link ALEXA might have looked very different.
Some broadcast equipment manufacturers own movie studios, record companies and satellite networks, and no one is bothered about that; ARRI is making better products as a consequence of having its own rental network, which benefits the whole industry.
4. Are there any productions already using ALEXA?
ALEXA has recently been used to shoot Anonymous, which just wrapped up principle photography in Berlin. Anonymous is a political thriller about who actually wrote the plays of William Shakespeare and is directed by Roland Emmerich. Director of Photography Anna Foerster had never before shot a complete movie digitally, but she was intrigued by the subject. For someone coming straight from the ‘celluloid world’, there were two issues of fundamental importance to her: dynamic range and colour reproduction.
Most of the film was shot in low-light settings and many scenes were filmed in front of blue or greenscreens, “so we knew that we needed a low-grain, high-sensitivity solution”, comments Marc Weigert, the movie’s VFX Supervisor. The decision to use ALEXA was based on extensive tests of a prototype that produced virtually noise-free pictures at 800 ISO, however, the production found that ALEXA could be pushed further – even at four stops underexposed (the equivalent of 12,800 ISO) it was “usable for certain types of shots,” continues Weigert. “Basically, I was absolutely blown away that we even saw anything on the footage.”
[NB: Marc Weigert is an Emmy Award-winning visual effects supervisor and producer. He is the CEO of Uncharted Territory in Los Angeles, founded in 1999 with business partner Volker Engel. Under the Uncharted banner he has produced and co-produced several TV movies, mini-series and feature films, most notably Roland Emmerich’s 2012 and Dean Devlin and Bryan Singer’s The Triangle.]
5. What workflow options does ALEXA offer?
To meet diverse production and budgetary needs, ALEXA offers an exceptional range of workflow options. ARRI has chosen Apple’s ProRes 422 (HQ) and ProRes 4444 codecs, recording onto PCI EX memory cards (i.e. Sony’s SxS PRO cards) as the primary on-board recording solution. In parallel, ALEXA can also output uncompressed HD and uncompressed ARRIRAW data. The combination of the most popular and widespread codec with probably the fastest recording medium currently available sets ALEXA apart from anything else. The ProRes XML files (including metadata) are instantly available for use in Final Cut Pro with no need to transcode, avoiding any associated delays and quality losses.
For the most part the non-linear editing world is either based on Apple’s ProRes or Avid’s DnxHD and we went for the most popular codec, with at least two million Final Cut Pro users worldwide. On top of this, Avid announced full support of native ProRes with their Media Composer 5 at NAB 2010, making ALEXA-shot footage instantly accessible on a massive scale.
The SxS PRO cards plug straight into the PCI Express slots of most MacBook Pros, making ALEXA files immediately available for postproduction. There they can instantly be viewed in full HD resolution, moved around faster than real-time or put straight on the timeline for on-line editing, since ProRes is widely used for finishing in HD. To put it simply - the fastest workflow on the planet!
A 32GB card will record about 15 minutes at 4:4:4 or 20 minutes at 4:2:2, with two hot-swappable cards in the camera allowing longer recording times. ALEXA also has two 3G HD-SDI outputs for those who wish to opt for uncompressed HD, tape-based HD or uncompressed ARRIRAW.
6. What postproduction kit supports your formats?
For the ProRes workflows, any MacBook Pro with a PCI EX slot will do (i.e. most); for the rest of the workflow there are no special requirements.
For uncompressed HD or ARRIRAW, one would need an infrastructure based on ARRI’s partnership programme, as specified at www.arridigital.com - with Codex and S-two being the leading supporters.
For tape-based HD such as HDCAM SR one would need the usual HDCAM SR recording/playback infrastructure commonly available throughout the industry.
But the beauty of ALEXA’s solution is the ability to accommodate all these workflow options in parallel.
7. What are ARRI’s future plans for the camera?
ALEXA’s future is in the hands of the filmmakers who will push her to the limits creating amazing pictures and tell us how to keep her ahead of the pack for a long time to come.