Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC Cinematographer with Light Meter

Roger Deakins on Digital Cinema and Arri Alexa: “Images are of a quality comparable to film”

Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC BSC has been shooting with the Arri Alexa recently and posting about it on his web forum. Deakins seems to be quite fond of the camera and defends it from those who decry the digital revolution by stating that digital cinema workflows "seem to me to have tipped the equation."

On his website, Deakins Online, the director of photography has been sharing his opinion on Arri’s flagship digital camera across a variety of boards. Deakins’ opinion is valuable and holds some weight because of the respect his work (The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, and The Reader – to name a few) has earned and it seems he is excited about what digital has to offer:

If I were starting out, quite frankly, I would concentrate on digital capture. The possibilities now on offer and the new work flows that are available seem to me to have tipped the equation. I have yet to shoot a film digitally but I am seriously beginning to doubt that I will shoot film again – other than on my Leica M6 that is. On the one hand I find that a little sad, just as I find it sad that Du Art in New York has processed it’s last roll of film, but on the other hand I am really excited by all the creative opportunities that digital capture can offer and which will only expand to ‘who knows where’ in the future.
on Tue Aug 17, 2010 6:29 pm

And while Deakins says in that post he has yet to shoot a film digitally, later on he exposes his intention to shoot with the Alexa on his next project:

I suppose you could call the film I am about to shoot a film is a futuristic thriller in which has a lot of night work and a very tough schedule. I have done quite extensive tests with the Alexa and I do feel it produces the first digital images I have seen that are of a quality comparable to film with what I feel is a greater dynamic range. The images the camera produces seem to fit with the ‘look’ I am after.
on Fri Sep 24, 2010 2:59 pm

That ‘look’ includes “adding a selective amount of grain” for “certain sequences” but Deakins is quick to point out that that “choice is one of personal aesthetics and not because I feel the image from the Alexa looks too sharp or ‘electronic’.”

It seems Deakins biggest complaint about Alexa is the lack of an optical viewfinder to which he justifies by saying “the advantages of shooting with the Alexa outweigh the disadvantages.”

Where Deakins is really on point, however, is when he qualms debates about resolution and image quality by pointing out that cameras are merely tools to serve a story. When asked about the RED Epic’s specifications, Deakins seems to get a little bothered by those obsessed with numbers:

Again, to talk of 5K resolution is somewhat misleading. Even if the camera were a true 5K and a true 2000 ASA that does not negate the reason why a cinematographer uses super speed lenses any more than it negates a use for artificial light. The speed of a stock, chip or a lens may be advantageous but it is not the be all and end all of a cinematographer’s craft.

A lens that can open to an aperture of 1.4 and provide a sharp image at that aperture will, most often, provide an even higher degree of image resolution at 2.0 and higher again at 2.8. The fact that a lens will open to a 1.4 does not necessarily mean that the cinematographer will use it wide open although doing so may produce a ‘look’ that suits a particular shot, scene or film.
on Wed Jun 16, 2010 9:02 am

I get very confused and, frankly, irritated by all the pronouncements about ‘K’, bit depth, latitude etc.. In the past it was often stated to me by visual effects supervisors that there was no noticeable difference between a 2K scan and a 4K scan of the same negative. Does film really have a dynamic range of more than 13 stops? What film stock would that be and under what conditions? I don’t see it.

In the final analysis you can only judge picture quality by eye and make a personal decision as to what you like and what you don’t like. Perhaps some people really can not see a difference between a 2K scan and a 4K scan of the same negative and I am sure some people really do prefer the look of an image produced by the Red Camera to one shot on film. The choice of a camera system is no different than the choice of a lens set, a camera position or where to put a lamp.
on Sun Jul 04, 2010 4:30 am

Many of the discussions end up turning the debate towards digital vs. film to which Deakins also takes exception:

A digital camera does not light the shot any more than it can tell you where to put the camera or how to frame the image. And the idea that a shot can be ‘fixed’ in post is absurd.
Now, it is possible to do a lot in CG, almost anything, if you have the time and money. The image can be completely replaced and formed anew just as if it were motion capture material for an animated film. But this is all quite different from supposing that the Red Camera or the Alexa can shoot the film for you. Perhaps I am old fashioned but I still believe that shooting a film which resonates with the viewer requires a human component!

Greg Toland was a master at manipulation of the image using glass shots, split screen etc. etc. but imagine what he might have done with digital tools! The question whether digital is ‘better’ than film is not of primary importance and, besides that, I believe it to have been answered. What is important now is to discuss how these new tools can be used to make more interesting and visually stimulating ‘films’.

As to film’s ‘unique look’. I believe that to be bogus too. I am certain that it is entirely possible to manipulate an image captured by the Alexa that would pass as one taken from a film negative. All that is required is some slight defocusing, a constriction of the colour space and the addition of digital grain. By suggesting that the ‘unique look’ of film owes more to the properties of film emulsion than to the cinematographers who created the imagery does a great disservice.
on Wed Nov 17, 2010 2:43 pm

Ultimately the veteran cinematographer’s thoughts can be summed up by two separate posts that fit quite nicely together.  Deakins says in the first, “I think you are forgetting that there have always been plenty of ugly looking films out there,” and about a month later muses “…a camera is a camera, whether it’s a Red or a 535, until a human being breathes life into it.”

UPDATE (1/22/2011): Deakins has recently added more to his thoughts on the Arri Alexa after having some time to shoot with the camera:

There has been a lot of ‘banter’ about the two camera systems and sometimes it becomes quite partisan. Much of what I read is not the same as the information I am being given by experienced camera technicians in whom I have absolute trust.

I am told that the Red and Alexa have exactly the same sensor but each uses it to gather data in a different way. The Red team has biased their camera for optimum resolution by using an array of smaller pixels, whereas Arri has biased their camera towards optimum colour depth and latitude through a use of slightly larger ‘more sensitive’ pixels. Apparently, it is not possible to do both at this time and with this same sensor.

From the images I have seen I believe that the Alexa does indeed have better colour rendition and greater image detail in the highlights and shadows. On the other hand I wouldn’t say the image it produces appears any less sharp than that of the Red even though it does in theory deliver an image with less resolution. The falloff from a highlight into a shadow area would seem superior to me.

I am not experienced with the Red at all so I only say this in respect of the films I have seen that were shot on that camera. I have seen the Red viewfinder and I wouldn’t say it was any better than the electronic viewfinder on the Alexa. Neither is a substitute for an optical finder. As for as the camera system itself, I would say that the Alexa is a better design. It looks and feels like a film camera but one that is both simple to use and lightweight. For me, there did not seem a large learning curve from using a 535B to using the Alexa.

I have been a user of Arri cameras all my career so I must also admit to being somewhat partisan. However, I have now been shooting with the Alexa for some months and I have only been impressed by the camera’s capabilities.

I’m sure I will be shot down for writing this post. I am not a technical person and I, frankly, don’t understand the technology as well as most of the people who post on this site. In the same way that some cameramen prefer Panavision to Arri cameras or Fuji to Kodak emulsion, some will prefer the Red over the Alexa. That’s not the same as saying one is actually ‘better’ than another. However, I do know what my eye tells me.

on Tues, Jan 18, 2011 at 7:27 pm

NOTE: Please remember that these remarks are not a continuous debate or conversation but a collection of Roger Deakins’ comments taken from various contexts often days, weeks and months apart. While I tried to place them in a coherent order, for readability and flow, they can and may be interpreted more accurately when considered within the larger conversation, which is why they are all linked. I merely ask that this is considered before these remarks are taken without the proper context.