As the heir to Arri’s previous effort, the D21, Alexa is seeking to upend RED’s offerings that took production by storm not too long ago while also staving off the impending DSLR doomsday. Does it live up to the hype and the Arri namesake?
For the purposes of this post, I will mostly be comparing the Alexa to the RED one, the camera that Arri is likely targeting with this latest effort. It’s also an easy comparison for me to make because we had a Mysterium-X equipped RED as a second camera on set. With that said, the first notable difference between the two cameras are the aesthetics: where RED looks utilitarian and like a laser gun, the Alexa looks sleek and sexy. It’s smaller, it’s lightweight and it’s color scheme, despite consisting of much grey, is much more pleasing than RED’s macho black.
The weight ends up being a huge improvement for those who are used to shouldering a RED for handheld. And though we didn’t have proper grips for a handheld rig, the Alexa has a built in shoulder curve complete with a Velcro padding that fits perfectly. Our DP was able to comfortably hand hold the camera using only this curvature and grabbing the rods out in front of him.
I also cannot state how crisp the display on the dumb side of the camera is. It is very sharp and can get very bright. Even in daylight, the screen lights up and is noticeable without having to squint as well as the buttons on the camera – all which light up. It is also easy to dim these settings in low-light conditions. The button system and display work great together and make the camera easy to operate. Couple this with Alexa’s intuitive menu system (more on the later) and it’s one of the major pro’s of this camera over Red’s clunky interface.
The buttons for the operator are accessible and easy to change. My favorite, however, were the customizable user buttons on the dumb side of the camera that popped up on the display. The only bad part of the placement of the user controls is that some of the buttons are redundant or repetitive. But I’d much rather have redundancy than the inability to access it or having to jump through hoops to get to options.
There are also smart little details that the people at Arri have implemented into the camera. Simple thoughts like having the EVF lemo cable plug in with the right angle heading upwards instead of awkwardly out or to the side like the RED currently has. Arri was also smart to put the displays and buttons where they are and the battery on the back, allowing a proper weight balance.
The accessories are also similarly designed well. The EVF is small and lightweight, not any bigger than it needs to be. It has a few buttons that allow the operator to change settings in the camera as well as pixel-to-pixel zoom and to change specific EVF settings.
Overall, the Alexa has a lot of thought put behind it from lessons learned from the company’s experience with film production. The camera, while it certainly could use improvements, is miles ahead of the RED in terms of it’s design usability and aesthetic. There were no major qualms I had with any of the design of the camera. It felt great to handle.
Like I mentioned above, the Alexa has buttons all over the place that are easily reached. But what is the point of accessibility if the buttons are used to operate a clunky menu? Think RED one. It’s menu is all over the place, sometimes smart, sometimes useless, sometimes confusing. Alexa, however, is very straightforward. The menu is easy to navigate and easy to manipulate.
The display on the side has three buttons on top and three on bottom that change function depending on the screen you are accessing. The “Home” screen allows you to change ASA, Color Temperature, Shutter, and FPS timebase with a click of the button and a spin of the dial. You can also add custom values for each of these settings.
Unfortunately, because the camera was so new and it’s still beta testing new firmware, a lot of features were not able to be activated by us. This included the ability to record to SxS cards. In fact, it was activated, but the guys at Handheld Films (the rental house) had tested it fairly extensively and warned us it was very buggy and not at all reliable. We sided with them and decided not to use it. As they explained to us, Gunther and Franz from Arri stopped by to activate the beta firmware but were wary.
“It veel not vork,” Gunther warned, “I mean, it veel vork, but not very well.”
To heed Gunther’s warning and still manage to shoot from this camera, we obtained an AJA KiPro deck. The deck takes many inputs, including HD-SDI, and records into Apple ProRes 4:2:2. The cinematographer decided to go with this deck because it allowed the easiest possible workflow after production, though it sacrificed recording with ARRIRAW. No worries, however, as our shoot was mainly a short 10 minute clip for investors to be interested in a much larger and ambitious project. If that were to come to fruition, the Alexa’s practicality and workflow would certainly be an important question for the filmmakers to evaluate. At this point in it’s timeline, the Arri Alexa’s workflow leaves something to be desired. For this project, however, the KiPro was a simple and efficient solution.
Using the KiPro we were able to record to Apple ProRes from HD-SDI REC Out on the camera. The downside of this was, of course, that I had to reach far enough to press record or somebody else had to fill those shoes. It also, however, exposed us to a great feature of the Alexa over the RED. The Alexa has two gamma formats it can display in: REC709 for more saturation and contrast and a more film-like Log-C that really showcases the Alexa’s dynamic range and provides greater flexibility for color in post. Not to mention we could Record Out with Log-C, provide the director with REC709 on his Monitor Out and then the operator could choose between either on his EVF – all without affecting any of the other options. This goes counter to RED which requires everybody on every viewing system to see the same colorspace.
Below I’ve embedded a test clip we shot in the hotel with some crew eating that demonstrates the Arri Alexa’s Log-C gamma range. The camera was mounted with Ultra Prime lenses. Also, it should be noted that all of this was shot with natural light within the hotel room:
As you can see, the Alexa really handles it’s dynamic range beautifully allowing details in the blacks to stay and not clipping on highlights either. The amount of information this keeps for a colorist is truly where the Alexa trumps RED despite it’s 4K resolution over the Alexa’s 2K. Here is the same clip but done with a little bit of color work by my 2nd AC:
The colors pop so much more, obviously, but part of that was the manipulation provided in post by the Log-C range. I don’t have any clips of the REC709 since we never recorded in it, but I can say that toggling between the two really showed off the amount of info you lose going from one to the other.
The difference you see above is by far the best feature of the Alexa, and the most important. Because in the end, the design, the usability, it doesn’t matter if the image is handled poorly. Compared to RED’s sharp and harsh handling of colors and data, the Alexa provides a creamier soft image that isn’t perfectly like film, but is one step closer. Even our director, an adamant proponent of film who deplored the idea of shooting digital, was won over by the Alexa’s image (though he and Peter Jackson probably wouldn’t get along).
When it comes down to it, the Arri Alexa is a great camera that can capture light impeccably well and display it into a format that provides flexibility in post. From an AC standpoint, the camera opens itself up to use without much confusion. The menus provide simple navigation and quick access as well as high customization. Before you know it, you’re able to hit the ground running without the technology of Alexa standing in your way. It was a pleasure to be able to use a camera that felt highly intuitive compared to RED. The Alexa also has a certain aesthetic and feel to it that is nice yet rugged and for it’s price it should be challenging the market that RED has cornered and DSLR seeks to cannabalize.
I’ll be highly interested to see some of the footage of the finished product once it’s gone through the post pipeline. Combined with the Ultra Primes, the Alexa gave us some really great looking images that have the potential to look both crisp and creamy, muted and powerful, as well as simply pleasing. Arri is certainly sending a message to RED to step up it’s game and Epic will reveal whether Jannard is listening. Until now, I’d take the usability and quality of Alexa over the Red One any day.