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

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 likeGame 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 everyonestopped 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 includeBeginners, Margin Call, Blue Valentine (RED and film), Winter’s Bone, CheEl 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.

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