The Kinefinity Mavo LF is a fraction of the cost of its major competitor, the ARRI Alexa, but is it also a fraction of the quality?
When the Kinefinity Mavo LF was announced last year many people had the same reaction: disbelief.
How could this relatively unknown company from China produce a full-frame cinema camera with specifications that compete with the top manufacturers and sell it for less than half the cost of the nearest-priced competitor? Will they be able to actually ship the camera with these specs?
Kinefinity gave me the honor of creating the launch film for their newest marvel, the Mavo LF, a full-frame cinema camera capable of shooting 6K resolution with more than 14 stops of dynamic range. Their only requests were that I shoot with a small crew, show the camera’s low-light capabilities, and use a variety of skin tones. Game on.
- Full frame sensor – 36x24mm
- 14+ stops dynamic range
- 6k maximum resolution
- Dual-native ISO 800/5120
- 50fps maximum at full frame 6k
- Super-35 and MFT shooting modes with higher maximum FPS
- Non-proprietary SSD media
- ProRes and CinemaDNG internal codecs
- PL, EF, Nikon, E mounts available
- Price: $11,999 body-only
The big question when I pick up any camera is, "Can I make a movie on this thing?"
We shot Re/Connections over the winter in a mix of controlled environments and out in the elements. The big question when I pick up any camera is, "Can I make a movie on this thing?" One of my goals was to try it out in as many difficult lighting conditions as possible: scenes with high dynamic range, low light, saturated light.
Kinefinity claims that the Mavo LF has nearly the same sensor readout speed as the ARRI Alexa Classic, which is exciting given that a full-frame sensor is nearly twice the height of Super-35.
The third shot of the film effectively functions as a rolling-shutter test. We shot one of the phone calls in CinemaDNG to test the camera's RAW capabilities and the rest of the film in ProRes. We tried complicated camera rigs, gimbals, sliders, handheld—the works.
Each scene was highly scouted and shot-listed, many were storyboarded. Nearly every backdrop or location was chosen weeks or months in advance of the shoot.
One thing I found satisfying about working with this particular camera is the format options. We bumped the camera down to Super-35 mode for a couple of scenes when it would be better for framing or to give our focus puller a better chance. Mode switching is much faster on the Mavo LF than I've experienced with other brands, some of which require a full reboot to change such a setting.
Story-wise, there was no place we couldn't go. The sideways tilt at the 7-minute mark, for instance, would have been difficult to execute with a heavier camera unless I had a much heavier tripod. The small size and weight also meant we could shoot on the streets with a small footprint, allowing us to shoot without permits, to move quickly and improvise. We also stripped the camera down for the gimbal scenes.
Getting clean footage above 5000 ISO has traditionally been for specialty cameras like Sony's A7s series and Panasonic's Varicam. One big surprise of the Mavo LF was the quality of the higher of its native ISOs. All of the nighttime exteriors were shot at ISO 5120. No noise reduction was applied to the footage whatsoever.
We used Kinefinity’s Mavo prime lens set as well. The lenses are production versions of the Bokkelux cine primes that were featured here on No Film School in 2016 and 2017. I’ve written extensively about these lenses before actually using them and can report that they are well-made and incredibly sharp. So sharp, in fact, that we used filters to soften the image for a couple of scenes.
Why shoot full-frame?
One of the central levers that a filmmaker has at his or her disposal is the ability to control, by focusing the lens, where the audience puts its attention. A reason that people find small format sensors unappealing is the converse of this: too much of the frame appears to be in focus. But there are times when deep focus is good for story (Citizen Kane popularized this technique) and there are times when too shallow of a focus plane is distracting because nothing appears to be sharp.
Full-frame has been somewhat of a holy grail for camera manufacturers and cinematographers since the Canon 5D Mark II roiled the industry over a decade ago. Though the 5D was severely limited in terms of bit depth, resolution, dynamic range, and codec, it set a standard in terms of format and color science.
The full-frame cinema cameras that have since become available solved the technical limitations of the 5D, at a cost beyond the means of most owner-operators. While the Mavo LF has a price listed at $11,999, the next-cheapest full frame camera, the Sony Venice, sells for around $28k, and the prices go up from there with entries from Canon and RED until you reach the Alexa LF, which tips the scales at just south of $100K.
Having access to full-frame is like having another gear on your bike, or an extra octave on your keyboard. You don't need it for every situation and you can certainly get by without it, but when you commit to the format there is a richness to the images you could not get any other way.
The Mavo LF is a professional tool that produces a lovely image. There simply isn’t a production camera shipping at this price that can create images like this.
But format isn't everything; making captivating content is. People often ask me if the Mavo LF and Kinefinity's Terra 4K (which I reviewed here on No Film School) can cut together. Some people seem nervous to work with sub-Super-35 sensor cameras like the Terra 4K. Can the Terra produce a cinematic image, they ask. One of the scenes in Re/Connections intercuts the Mavo LF and the Terra. And one of the scenes was shot on the Terra 4K alone. Can you guess which one?
Real World Testing
I wanted to shoot one scene that was pure run-and-gun using the city and its people as characters. The tourist scene, which we filmed in Union Square, NYC, was designed to see how the camera held up in a situation where we'd be grabbing shots and changing settings on the fly. In pre-production, we identified a location and time where our character would be nicely backlit and where lots of people would cross the frame.
Right away people started asking our lead actor, Cameron Mason, for directions. He just looks like a friendly guy, I guess. Before he gave the directions I'd step in and ask if we could film the interaction and everyone I asked said yes. Working with real people was fun because they almost never hit the mark I asked them to walk to for the scene. We'd pan to new framings and follow the scene as it unfolded. The camera held up admirably of course.
I am one of the early adopters to Kinefinity products. By far the most common questions I get asked are about reliability and support. I experienced a hiccup with a pre-production model of the LF, but Kinefinity replaced the body the next day. I’ve been shooting on the production body for six months with no issues.
As for support, Kinefinity recently announced their first US-based service and sales facility, Origin Cine, in Burbank, CA, which should give potential customers in the US more confidence. After shooting with the Terra 4K for over a year and now and the Mavo LF for more than six months, I can report that the cameras are reliable. While in post for the launch film, I shot both cameras on the upcoming documentary Legacy Lives On, which airs on TVOne June 19th.
In all, this camera system delivers a mighty wallop and will be the centerpiece of my kit for years to come. In the case of the launch film, any of its limitations are my own as a director, the camera did not hold me back at all.