ARRI Alexa: Love at First Sight!
COW Library : Cinematography : Gary Adcock : ARRI Alexa: Love at First Sight!
I am not different from anyone else here on the Cow, so when there is a new toy in town, I am really glad when I get to be one of the first in line. Stay tuned while I share my thoughts on the new ARRI Alexa camera, which I now firmly believe is as much of a game changer as either the launch of the RED One or the revolution with the DSLR has been.
OMG! I AM IN LOVE.
Alexa is being released in limited numbers, and there are only a very few of these cameras even available. My guess is that there are possibly a couple of dozen worldwide at this writing, and I expect that the camera will remain in fairly limited release for the time being. This is mainly because ARRI is being the careful and cautious company resulting from 90+ years in film. To that end there are a number of functions not yet enabled, but I will get to those that I am able to talk about later.
This is a camera designed for production. Real Production. It shoots Raw and it has a full quality video out. It’s got rock solid construction with thoughtful placement of controls and connectivity, with a surprising number of subtle guides that allow an experienced hand to operate most functions blindly. It also has far and away the easiest menu navigation I have ever run across on any camera geared for pros.
That also means that it costs more than my German-made automobile, but considerably less than Sony’s Digital Cinema offering of either the F23 or F35.
Alexa has a variety of outputs. I can currently record 1920x1080 ProRes internally -- including ProRes 4444, in up to 12 bit color depth. Alexa also offers multiple connections that allow up to Dual Link Baseband video as Uncompressed in either 422 Varispeed or 444 RGB, or output of the cameras native ARRIRaw format -- 2880x1620 when captured to an externally tethered recorder. So unlike RED, you are not forced into using the camera’s raw signal output prior to getting easily editable content into post.
This is a huge leap. Since Avid announced that Media Composer 5 will now directly support ProRes material for ingest via the Avid Media Encoder (again, no transcoding or re-wrapping) ARRI has proclaimed that ProRes should no longer be seen as simply an offline codec. By including ProRes 4444 for acquisition, ARRI has confirmed once and for all that ProRes is viable as an acquisition codec that can -- and will -- be used throughout the production process for film-style digital workflows.
To me, this is a major change in the RAW mindset. No longer will you be forced into converting your RAW video content before being able to expediently edit your content. Now you can start editing immediately with the camera-captured ProRes content, while still having the ability to go back to the ARRIRAW format for the final conform if you choose to record that format also. Granted, that can only be done currently with expensive additional 3rd party hardware, but when speed and quality are both needed, this will be the workflow of the future: capture internally and externally for Direct to Edit (DTE) workflow and highest-quality final finish.
From the start, you can use the internally-captured ProRes content in directly in Apple and Adobe’s NLE’s and with the Media Composer 5 upgrade to Avid Media Access, even Avid now supports ProRes in its native QuickTime form. Adding DPX and ARRIRaw support in these NLE’s is supported by Gluetools on the Mac side and with PomFort on windows for native ARRIRaw codec handling, there are already a variety of workflow possibilities no matter what platform or editor you choose to use.
The camera I am working with has been configured so that I am able to test some features that have been announced, but not yet fully tested and ready to be released. These include the ability to capture all 5 flavors of ProRes internally, and to externally test capturing the 2880 x1620 raster that is uncompressed, or, soon, Alexa’s update to ARRIRaw.
Alexa has a base ASA of 800, with what appears to be 13+ stops of useable exposure latitude at that setting, but with an overall ASA range from 160-1600 in the menu. So there is a lot going on under the hood with this camera.
The fan is so quiet that you have look to be sure that the camera is actually is turned on, but that is easily accomplished by the bright and clear LCD on the side of the camera (that changes to green when recording) and lit buttons on both sides of the camera.
TAPELESS WITH LESS TRAGEDY
With any tapeless recording system, from the first time I get my hands on it, I spend a good deal of time trying to break the workflow. Many of you have lost files, corrupted the media or just plain forgot to properly copy all of the media needed to open your files in post. I do not care whether you work with P2, SxS or CF cards, data corruption is a way of life with tapeless production, just as a “hair in the gate” was disastrous when shooting film.
With Alexa, the only way I have been able to corrupt a file on this camera was to physically remove the SxS card during a live capture. Running the card until it was overflowing with data was handled internally by the camera and I was able to open and edit without issues. Not only that, on every one of the 15 times I tried (5 flavors of ProRes multiplied by 3 different frame rates), I was not able to get a single card or file to be corrupted.
Even when pulling the battery off the camera, certain death should ensue, yet the internal conversion system that the camera uses to convert from 12v battery power to the 24v needed to run the camera and accessories, seemingly has enough reserve to close out the file properly before the camera falls silent.
BUT WHAT ABOUT…?
Since this is a released but still “beta” camera in many respects, there are a number of features that have yet to be activated, but are placeholders set in the menu structure, and embedded in the file handling that have markers leading to the future.
Interestingly enough in that vein, Alexa hands off a standard XML 2.0 data file on every card, making your post workflow much simpler. In ARRI’s version of the ProRes workflow, you get an XML file with every recording that will support all of the captured clips along with camera metadata. When that XML file is dropped into an NLE like Final Cut Pro or any other XML aware editor, it initiates the ingest process direct from the media, bypassing the transfer process and importing the media directly with the metadata intact.
What about other kinds of metadata in regards to that same XML file then? Since ARRI is one of the first companies that supported active camera and lens metadata protocols using their LDS (Lens Data System), and while it is closed data tracking system, ARRI was one of the first camera manufacturers that started adding the electrical contacts to both the camera bodies and the lenses to handle data intelligence in production and post.
Below: Alexa with an Stwo OB1 onboard recorder set for dual link capture of a DCS Combi chart.
To that end there are within the XML structure multiple places to allow virtually any type or kind information to be written and handled by standard XML. Everything from the ASC CDL (American Society of Cinematographer’s Color Decision List) -- a universal format for exchanging of primary color information between production and post -- to the serial number of your lens, aperture and zoom settings down to GPS, and most likely even Facebook friends could be added to the metadata mix. I hope that with Alexa, ARRI looks toward opening up their access to also allow for the iData system, a standard that is supported by Angenieux and Cooke Optics.
The issue I currently have is the file naming structure. It has 24 characters, all place holders padded to 4 digits, and it cannot currently be modified beyond camera reel and take. Because ARRI uses the UDF, or universal disk format, there is not currently a way to properly name individual cards when using the internally recorded ProRes on SxS cards. That would make every card you shoot named as “ARRI UDF” without the ability to add numbers or letters to the card, something that can and will cause confusion. I would assume that this is one of the main reasons that working with ProRes is not fully authorized or accepted by ARRI for production at this time, because I cannot find any serious issues otherwise.
In closing, this has just been my very first week with the camera, one of the first in the US. I am incredibly grateful to Tom Fletcher and the entire crew at Fletcher Camera in Chicago, Michael Bravin and the entire team at ARRI in both the US and in Germany for allowing me access to a ‘special” release of their camera.
Below: ARRI's Mike Bravin discusses the Alexa in action with Gary Adcock
There will be more to come on Alexa, much more, as I still have to wait to test the capture capabilities of the ARRIRaw vs. ProRes vs. Tape/ DPX workflows that will soon be available. Those tests I hope to complete in the near future with assistance from some of my good friends so that we can show users what this camera might be capable of.
So far, this camera, the one in my hands, is already everything that one would want from a digital cinema system and it is my guess that it is only about 50% of what has planned for "under the hood". ARRI has, without a doubt, learned from the others mistakes on how to handle a camera’s tapeless workflow, yet also understands the needs and wants of the mainstream production market, as well as those highly specialized markets geared towards episodic television or digital cinema. I personally cannot wait to see some of the camera features that have been discussed semi-privately in regards to the exposure and LUT controls and especially some of the innovation for 3D Stereoscopic work, one of the areas I believe that this camera will really shine, as it was built from the ground up with 3Ds production in mind.
You can find him hosting Creative COW Forums for Stereoscopic 3D, RED, HD High End, Panasonic Varicam, Apple iPad, and many more.
Follow his ongoing coverage of the ARRI Alexa at Gary's Creative COW Blog.