Arri ALEXA Observations

For better or worse (and we’ll soon see), I wound up shooting gone Elvis myself; and there is no way I would have come close to getting the look I wanted without the ALEXA, graciously loaned to the project by Tamberelli Digital in NYC. Leading up to the shoot, though, I did a fair bit of prep, practice, and refresher work because ALEXA is a film-style camera, and I’d been shooting video for a long time. Light meter?  Measuring tape?  Oh, yeah.

As promised, the ALEXA has 14 stops of latitude, and our need to film an actress driving a car is a good test of this capability because the exterior is several stops hotter than the interior — plus our actress is African American, so the contrast is even greater.  Without gelling windows or lighting up the car’s interior, I mostly got away with it.  A couple of times, I put a LitePanel in the car on Carla, but overall, ALEXA’s claim to hold these radically different levels within acceptable parameters proved true.  In one scene, where she pauses next to a cornfield, the contrast was particularly high, and I do have a choice between a white sky or letting her go a little more silhouette, but the scene has much more film-like fall off from light to dark  than I would have achieved with any other camera I’ve ever used.

The price for the latitude in this case was weight.  The ALEXA weighs over 20lbs with lens and battery on it, so rigging it to a car would have required some pretty heavy duty gear and likely a crew member we couldn’t afford.  Hence, all the car interiors are filmed hand-held, mostly from the passenger seat, using a Zacuto rig.  You can certainly see me breathing but at least a heavy camera is a lot easier to hold steady than a light one.

Weight was also a factor in how little the camera ends up moving throughout the film.  With a compressed schedule, light crew, and heavy camera body, I had to shed jib shots even though we had a Seven Jib with us, and I did have notions of using it in a few cases.  Our first day of shooting became a litmus test for how quickly we could function, and I worried that setup and breakdown time for the jib would kill us.  Had I used a Canon 5D or 7D, moving the camera would obviously have been a lot easier, but those cameras don’t have the T-Stop latitude of the ALEXA, and I didn’t want to trade lighting flexibility for ease of movement.

Several scenes in gone Elvis are shot with available light or minimal light.  I had an HMI Joker 400 Watt I used exactly once and made much more use of the inkies, 650 fresnels, and Kino-Flo Diva light we carried.  One really nice feature of the ALEXA is that you dial in color instead of white balancing.  You choose a base temperature and then adjust according to condidtions.  Ideally, this should be done with a calibrated monitor and LUTs (and assistants!), but in our guerilla mode, I had to shoot really old school and make best estimates about settings based on what I could see in the eyepiece and what I could deduce from the numbers.  I shot in the Log-C color matrix with the notion that, perhaps down the road, we’d have money and reason to get a professional grader and print to film.

The best stuff we shot was a night scene in which our character is stopped in her car by a police officer.  It rained, so filming reverses from outside the car and setting up any lights was out of the question.  We had to shoot the whole thing from inside the hero car and with available light.  At 1600 ISO, the added noise looks like film grain, and the levels and colors are stunning.  The streetlights, flashsing red cop car light, and officer’s flashlight are the only illumination other than a small LitePanel to keep Carla’s face from going completely silhouette.  I wouldn’t trade the look for anything and am glad it rained because that was the right way to shoot that scene.  In fact, I was shooting with SuperSpeeds but wasn’t even open all the way to T1.3.  Focus was critical but not impossible, even crammed into the passenger seat of a Cutlass and sweating my head off.  No other camera that I know could have achieved the look.

Without a doubt, ALEXA’s Achilles’ Heel is power consumption.  It is a battery glutton, and on a fast-paced shoot, moving from location to location, this can be a serious challenge.  The weakest scene in the film was hampered by a few things, but among these was the fact that I was rushing to avoid losing power.  By the time I’d framed up and blocked part of the scene, two bricks were already down.  Two things that might have saved me in this case would have been a quiet, lunchbox generator or a director’s viewfinder or both.  The viewfinder would have helped block the action without turning the camera on, and of course the generator would have obviated the need for batteries.

With the imminent release of gone Elvis the short, we have begun discussions about expanding the film into a larger project, either as a feature or for television.  Given my experience with the ALEXA, I would certainly want to shoot a more expansive and better budgeted version of this story with this camera.  I believe it really is digital’s only serious competitor with film thus far.

NOTE:  Since the original post of this article, gone Elvis has been released.  Information available at www.goneelvis.com

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2 thoughts on “Arri ALEXA Observations

  1. Thanks David for your very well written and informative article. As a Director DP I find it very helpful, you cut through all the usual razzmatazz and got down to real film making. I’m also drawn in to your story and loved the trailer. You have the potential for a gem of a full length film.
    Good and thanks again.

    Robert Maya

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