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My Love Affair with Alexa

When the camera sees more than my light meter does, it's time to acknowledge that the game has truly changed.

By Art Adams | August 20, 2010

My dream HD camera records footage with log-encoded gamma to ProRes for a fast, easy and accessible post workflow and cost-effective color grading. It has the simplest control interface ever. It sees in the dark. And it's built by a company whose gear I learned to trust early in my career when I started out as a camera assistant. The company is ARRI, and the camera is Alexa.

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to shoot with an Alexa prototype to produce demo footage for a recent meeting of the Northern California chapter of the Digital Cinema Society. Chapter president Simon Sommerfeld invited ARRI's Michael Bravin to present Alexa at the meeting, and Michael suggested shooting some scenics around San Francisco as a way of showing local folks how well the Alexa does under low light conditions. It fell to me to produce and shoot this content, and as I'm always looking for an opportunity to advance my reel I contacted director Ian McCamey, with whom I've shot numerous projects including Pink Martini, California State Fair and WEAVE, and asked him if he had any ideas as to how we could do more than just shoot pretty pictures.

As it turned out, he had a cunning plan. You'll see more of that later after some additional editing and the creation of some visual effects. The important bit, though, was to be able to shoot on the night of Monday, August 3rd, and show an edited and graded montage Tuesday, August 4th, at the DCS meeting. Thanks to Alexa's ProRes workflow we were able to do exactly that-and quite easily.

Joining Michael Bravin was Lucas Wilson of Assimilate, who gave probably the best Scratch demo possible: while Michael gave his Alexa introductory speech during the first half of the meeting, Lucas asked colorist Shane Mario Ruggieri to grade our LogC-encoded footage. By the dinner break we'd completely graded two minutes of LogC footage. Ian had cut the presentation on his laptop, which required him to downsample our recorded ProRes4444 to ProRes422 in order to play back the timeline at full speed. From Ian's EDL Lucas linked back to the original LogC footage for the grade, Shane Mario worked his magic, and the graded footage was quickly married to the soundtrack for projected playback. We watched the finished and graded montage during the second half of the meeting.

Here it is:

But this story isn't really about the meeting, but rather about the adventure leading up to the meeting. I gathered an intrepid band of regular DCS contributors, along with some of my regular crew, and we had some playtime with the camera along a scenic stretch of the San Francisco Bay. And along the way we learned quite a lot about the marvel that is Alexa. Turn the page for more...

All behind-the-scenes photographs are ©2010 by Adam Wilt. They are used by permission.

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Art Adams: | August, 20, 2010

Thanks, Steven. Yup, typical San Francisco summer evening: cold and drizzly. smile

Dennis Kane: | August, 20, 2010

Thank you Art for taking the time to explain the details of each scene. This montage was even more impressive when projected on the big screen at the DCS meeting. Very impressive

Art Adams: | August, 21, 2010

Thanks, Dennis! It was very good to meet you at the DCS meeting. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. As I watched the montage projected I thought to myself, “Enjoy this, it’ll never look this nice again…” smile

cineshashank: | August, 21, 2010

Hey Art
A real nice write up on ARRI’s new offering to us ALEXA. I am just a bit confused here about a fact may be I have no knowledge about. When you are referring to grading here is it digital grading done on computer software or optical grading done in lab. Please throw some light.

Scott Simmons: | August, 21, 2010

Great piece Art. Let’s hope that Arri’s inclusion of ProRes in the camera means they know something that we don’t about Apple’s longterm commitment to ProRes and the Pro Apps in general.

Art Adams: | August, 21, 2010

Hi Cineshashank- it was digitally graded via Scratch, a DI tool from Assimilate. Lucas Wilson of Assimilate brought a Scratch system with him on a PC and we sat in a corner and graded the footage during Michael Bravin’s Alexa presentation.

Scott- Amen to that. Apple has done this industry a world of good, but our industry also hates unpredictability.

evandroc: | August, 21, 2010

great article!
thanks Art! maybe by now I don’t have enough money to get it… but now I know exactly where I wanna go…
Evandro Cruz/DP/Brazil

watcher_skys: | August, 24, 2010

very impressive but I want to see what it looks like on a TV or projected because the clip, as posted, looks much more like video to me.

IEBA: | August, 24, 2010

All I get is a “Waiting for Video” in a black box.
is the video clip posted?

Art Adams: | August, 24, 2010

It is, and it works for me. I’ve noticed that Chrome has trouble with Quicktime movies-it doesn’t buffer them but waits for the entire thing to download-so it might be worth trying other browsers if that’s the one you’re using.

Allan: | August, 25, 2010

A local rental company has them in and available for rent. Problem, $5K per day. I think that was for a package, at least I hope so but that ended the conversation. I can get a RED Package easily for $1500. $2000 if I want to splurge on on Master Primes (4 - 5 Lenses). Regardless of marketing bullshit from both RED and Arri and various tech benefits to one or the other, that is a $3K price difference. $9K on a 3 day week. Might not matter on a $50M+ budget but on $100,000 commercial day, 3% of the total budget just for the ‘privilege’ of using and Alexia doesn’t make any sense to me. As a producer/pm Alexia has to cost the same, a competent DP is going to make either one shine. Hell I can shoot 35mm for less than price difference.

Art Adams: | August, 25, 2010

Sorry, I’m calling “bull” on that. There’s no way an Alexa costs $5k per day. That’s as much, and slightly more, than a Phantom HD Gold would cost, and there are a lot more Alexas around than there are HD Gold’s. An HD Gold is a quarter million dollar package; an Alexa is $70k.

Alexas will rent for about the same price as an F900 did when it first came out because they cost about the same new. The Alexa will be more than a RED on a daily basis, because it costs more to buy, but there’ll be a significant savings in post due to the lack of need to transcode.

If you’re going to make up stuff like that here you’ll have to be a lot more convincing. You’ve either not done your homework or you’re just outright lying-and not very well.

Misha Mazor: | August, 25, 2012

Why did you change the shutter speed on some of the shots?

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