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At NAB, the ARRI ALEXA Quietly Continues its Takeover of the Film and Television Industries

04.18.12 @ 4:48PM Tags : , , , ,

For all of the stellar spec sheets and newfangled doodads coming out of the RED camp at NAB this year, one look at the active production landscape will show you that one camera is absolutely everywhere: the ARRI ALEXA. From feature films like Drive to TV shows like Game of Thrones to seemingly every TV commercial in existence — seriously, almost every commercial is shot on an ALEXA these days — the camera is as ubiquitous on high-end productions as HDSLRs are for low-end shoots (though the latter is changing with the advent of “real” large-sensor video cameras). Why is the ALEXA everywhere? Because of its stellar imagery, ease of use, established workflow, and fast turnaround time. It is not a stretch to say the ARRI ALEXA is the camera that killed film, not anything from RED (or anyone else for that matter).


This is not to disparage the offerings from RED or Canon or Sony; I’m simply stating that ARRI has done a terrific job of making a camera that fits into existing workflows, one that DPs and ACs and DITs are comfortable with, and one that has been widely adopted very rapidly. All of this had a lot do with the fact that everyone stopped making film cameras this past year. To my eye, its imagery also looks better than anyone else’s — which, quite frankly, is more important than which spec sheet looks best. I’m surprised they’ve shipped “only” 2,500 of them, but then again the film industry is actually fairly small, and these are rental-only cameras.

Of course, the ALEXA also has a price to match its image quality: high. At roughly $90k for a camera package, the ALEXA is not meant for indies (which is why we don’t cover it as much as other cameras on this site), since its high price tag brings with it higher rental dayrates. But since we’re covering all sorts of new cameras at NAB this year (have you seen the $3,000 RAW BlackMagic Design Cinema Camera?), it’s worth a look at ARRI’s latest developments. There’s nothing earth-shatteringly new at NAB, as most of ARRI’s yet-to-ship products were announced previously, but they have a number of new things on the way or shipping, like optical viewfinders, 4:3 sensors (for anamorphic lenses), new ProRes and DNxHD codecs, and a new Debayer algorithm promising “even cleaner, sharper-looking images, especially on high contrast edges and in areas with fine detail.”

Next month, they’ll also be shipping a new version of their ARRIRAW Converter software compatible with Macs.

Alexa M

In May ARRI’s ALEXA M will ship, which is only partially pictured above — it’s actually a two-part camera that separates the head from the body:

Note that this picture is taken from a perspective that makes the tethered body look much smaller than it is. Via reader Stefan, here’s the new ALEXA M promo short, which shows the kinds of situations ARRI has designed it for:

Besides these tight spaces and specialized applications, the big reason ARRI is making a smaller camera (head): 3D. RED has dominated big blockbuster 3D films (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Prometheus, The Hobbit) until now because of the small size of their DSMC, which makes it an obvious choice for rigs that need two of every camera. But the ALEXA M will start shipping next month, and that means eighteen months from now you’re going to see a lot more ALEXA-shot 3D blockbusters in theaters.

I’m not a cinematographer, though I do like keeping tabs on these things. So before we go let’s take a look back at some Roger Deakins quotes:

[The ALEXA] is the first camera I’ve worked with that I’ve felt gives me something I can’t get on film. Whether I’ll shoot on film again, I don’t know.

And:

The Arri specs on the Alexa seem totally honest and accurate.

I’ve heard from DPs who don’t believe RED’s 13.5 stop specification for the EPIC/SCARLET, which also calls into question whether the Dragon will really get 15+ stops (it’s no coincidence that this spec is just above the ALEXA’s dynamic range). But the RED remains a good choice for indies because it is much cheaper (especially the SCARLET) and smaller than the ALEXA. And there have been a lot of great films shot on RED — some of my favorites include Beginners, Margin Call, Blue Valentine (RED and film), Winter’s Bone, Che, El Secreto de Sus Ojos, and Contagion — good company to keep regardless of what you end up shooting on.

Arri’s business model is built around long product cycles of expensive, robust solutions, and I doubt they have any interest in mixing it up on the lower end with RED, Canon, and Sony. Hit the links below for more if you’re interested in more about the ALEXA.

Links: Mike Curtis’ ARRI NAB Booth Notes, ARRI PR1, ARRI PR2

Related Posts

  1. Master Cinematographer Roger Deakins on Shooting with ARRI ALEXA: 'Film Had a Good Run'
  2. NAB Video: Sony F65 >4K Camera and New ARRI ALEXA Models

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  • As an owner of an Epic and user of Alexa’s, I love both systems. They have their pros/cons. I like that Epic shoots RAW without a Codex box and is a 1/3 the size of an Alexa. I hate that I need to transcode or attach another box to get proxy files. I hate that you can’t run the EVF and touchscreen simultaneously, unless you by another box from RED that begins to bring it up to Alexa size. And then there are RED’s accessories – mostly over engineered and cumbersome rigs. An Alexa balances on my shoulder with just one rosette hand grip while my Epic requires going into handheld rig mode. That sums up the tech for me. I could really care less about 4k (I frame nicely the first time round). 2k films look plenty sharp enough to me and if that affords more sensitivity and range, then that’s a no brainer. Unlike Red pixel counting fanboys, I believe most other people feel the same. No one complained Hugo looked soft.

    But what I believe is the real Achilles heel to Red is its professionalism. I can go on to an Alexa blog and make design criticisms of their product and get intelligent answers back. I did this on Red User to cite how the yet to be wide released Epic had a serious design issue in both its touch screen yoke and inability to run EVF and touchscreen at the same time. Not only did the Fan Boys flameout but the Wizard himself, Jim Jannard, chimed into say he’d never sell an Epic to me. Then Red User banned me for life. It’s these kind of amatuer theatrics that scare many a pro from making an investment in Red. Great product – horrible PR. And don’t get me started on their Red Store customer service – it’s definitely well below what their price tags warrant.

    So that what it comes down to. Red have an excellent product, soon to be improved with the Dragon. But are saddled with a “Raw or nothing” attitude that actually makes it a more expensive proposition for producers who demand “Proxies or no business”. Then exacerbated by fragile egos of the Red Army and its leader, I have doubts about their long term viability once Sony, Canon and Panasonic begin to kick it high gear.

    I await Janard’s assasins.

    • Watch your back Tim!!

      Seriously though, even for someone who believes in 4K (me), there’s a lot of credence to what you’re saying. One thing I will say though is that RED has a history of laughing at reasonable requests and telling you you don’t need a feature (or banning you from their forum), and then a year or two later that feature magically shows up. As far as long term viability goes, that’s one area where I’m GLAD Jannard is a driven, hyper-competitive guy — I can’t see him throwing in the towel. But look no further than the way Blackmagic has been dealing with their unexpected delays to see a case of a CEO garnering customer support with a humble, levelheaded approach. A good attitude goes a long way.

      I’ve had good experiences with RED’s customer service — I think about a year ago they staffed up and re-did the configuration of that particular wing of their business. Then again I haven’t had any real issues with my camera.

      For people who want to talk about RED but are banned from REDUSER or don’t like the vibe, feel free to voice your opinions here! Our community features will be greatly improving in the months to come.

      • Just finished shooting back to back commercial campaigns with both the Alexa on one and then the Epic on the other. The extra money for the Alexa body is minimized in the light of full lens packages and accessories. But in terms of time lost to both the peculiarities of operating an Epic and transcoding, the Alexa ends up costing production less. If you calculate the re-boots, black balance and random glitches as the hourly rate of people waiting, the Alexa price difference is made up by lunch or sooner. We had great full union crews, but at the end, we all agreed the Alexa was just simpler and faster to use, not to mention the extra stops of highlights also saved us time and money in lighting.

        I will still use the Epic for high speed, 3D or small body requirements but in the end, after having such direct comparisons on similar campaigns with the same crew in the field, my company has decided to unload all of our Red gear. In the last six months, the number of Alexa jobs to Epic for us is perhaps five to one and getting higher. For high end work you have to go with what gets the best images as well as the most practical to use. It’s definitely an end of an era and I thank Red for making great images affordable but the playing field has changed and will soon take another shift with Sony’s new cameras. I’m also a believer in a world of 1080p TV’s, 4k is way over sold, virtually unnecessary and definitely not worth paying the price in color space and latitude.

        I feel the future for Red will be tough as unlike the big three, they don’t manufacture their own LCD’s or chips. This puts them at a serious disadvantage. It’s almost like Arri, Canon, Sony and Panasonic let Red do the market research for them and now their bringing their experience and economies of scale to bear. Also Red’s reliance on touchscreen instead of dedicated knobs (F55, Alexa, C300) for many pros is a deal breaker. As more cameramen prefer dedicated ISO, FPS, Internal ND’s, White Balance along with better integrated I/O’s (SDI, EVF, etc), Red will have to re-design their system or lower their price. I personally love the Epic touchscreen for settings but hate having another monitor on board. If it were practical for focus that wouldn’t be the case. Also, not having a lock, makes inadvertent setting changes rife. Red’s answer: The introduced an 11″ touchscreen. Big and unwieldy, again, it seems a solution borne in theory not from practice.

        I’ll wrap it up by saying it’s good to see other companies set new standards and offer better choices.

        • Jau finished watching Gang squad. Had no idea what camera they used but i guessed near the end it started to give very video feel near the fast whipp panning fight sequences. Same feel i got in avengers 1 but nothing in sky fall so i looked up on net and i was right Alexa ! So im a bit jittery now that I ve ordered Alexa studio. Red gives the same field feel at 100 fops. Cheap video feel.

      • Im here to say this much that red epics r fantastic but it needs some improvements for sure. And red user group is a bumped up dvx user group. And when is aid that shouldn’t treat Jim is as some god well guess what I was banned for life. Need name change blah blah. Very red neck bully approach.

  • I’m An Owner Of Just About Every Canon DSLR There Is! Lol But I Have Been Contemplating On Stepping Up To Either The Scarlet Or The Epic. To Me The Arri Alexa, Just Looks A Bit Mushy For My Taste! I Have Been On This Site For 3 days ” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_shot_in_digital ” Just Check Out What Movie Was Shot With What Camera, Then I Would Head Over To Youtube And Play All The Trailers In 1080P and The EPIC Would Always Be Sharp as a Tact! The RED ONE Was In Between The Arri Alexa And the Epic as Far As Sharpness Goes. Maybe I’m Being A Bit Too Anal, I Wonder Do Regular Viewers Even Care About All Of This Sharpness Stuff. May I Should Just Use All Of My DSLR’s To Shoot My Upcoming Feature Film? What Do You Guys Think?

    P.S I Do Like The Look Of The New Black Magic Camera Too!
    Here Are The DSLR’s I Have Already (Canon 5d Mark ii – Canon 5d Mark iii – (2) Canon 60ds – Canon 7d – and Canon T3i)

  • Andrew Turner on 11.5.12 @ 12:03PM

    I had a look at the promo for the Alexa M and what a dissapointment!
    Sure it is sharp and clear, but it looks like news footage. Motion depiction is pure video look.
    Wake up and use film while you still have the chance and leave the new fangled toys to the kids.

    • I feel you on that film request. Just finished color correcting a movie I shot on film over the Summer. I still love film but now that Fuji is getting out of the game and Kodak is on the brink, it’s days are certainly numbered.

  • An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a co-worker who had been doing a little homework on this.

    And he in fact bought me lunch simply because I stumbled upon it for him.

    .. lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!

    ! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about
    this subject here on your site.

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