The Most Expensive Camera I’ve Ever Touched.

// March 17th, 2014 // Education, Video

I like learning new things which is lucky because I have to constantly.

Over the last three days I’ve been taking part in a short cinematography course run by University of South Wales’ film school. The course is run in association with Skillset and partly funded by Academi+. For me this was a chance to talk to people who know as much as anyone about a bunch of extremely technical things, and get to play with a very nice camera.

One of the things we did over the weekend was set up the camera and I thought this might be a fun thing to write about as part of the weekly Red Matter challenge.

At the very high end of any industry it gets harder and harder to eke out the last ounce of quality. The gap between “good” and “excellent” is much harder to cross than the one between “average” and “good”.

The picture on your phone camera is pretty good nowadays, and all you have to do is pull it out of your pocket and hit a couple of buttons. Every single film nominated this year for an Oscar for best cinematography, best director or best film was shot on an Arri camera, most on a version of the Alexa. Here’s how you take an Alexa out of the box and turn it on – in 37 easy steps.

Here’s the Alexa in its box, on hire from Films@59. This is the original version of the camera, and now the cheapest in the range at about $80,000 Very few people or even production companies would buy this camera outright, instead it gets rented for a specific shoot.
You can download the manual here.

Although there are a lot of steps in this setup they’re all guided buy a few straightforward principles.
The camera needs to be well supported so it’s stable and can move smoothly. Everything needs to be done in a systemtaic, standard, repeatable way so a team of people can work together efficiently and quickly every time.

Like most movie cameras the Alexa comes in bits and can be set up in various configurations to suit the production.

Here’s the lens we’ll be using, a$35,000 Arri Alura Zoom. The T2.6 in the lens name indicates it has a T-stop of 2.6. In still photography f-stops are used to indicate aperture, the f-stop being a measure of the size of the hole that lets in light relative to the focal length.
The size of the hole largely determines how much light gets through the lens, but the that’s also affected by the optical elements which will absorb some of the light on the way through. T-stops take this into account. The maximum T-stop of a lens is always a larger number than its f-stop, because the glass will always absorb some light. T stands for transmission.

Before the camera comes out start to set up the tripod and attach the head. This is an Occonnor with a non-bowl head. Very sturdy and very heavy.

Line up the three notches and bolt it in place. There’s no bowl so any adjustments to get the top of the legs level require moving the individual legs up and down.

Add the arm in one of four positions, usually at the right rear.

Here’s the large plate for the Occonor, with the camera plate clipped in. A camera could be attached directly to this plate but our setup will be a bit more complicated.

Take out the camera plate and attach it to a further grooved plate.

This plate allows the camera to slide front and back to allow its weight to be balanced evenly.

There’s one more plate to a attach, this one directly to the camera.

And the camera finally goes on. All the plates that aren’t bolted down have a retention system which means a button needs to be held down before the plate will come back off – helping prevent accidents.
The holes either side of the films@59 sticker will receive metal bars called ‘rails’ which allow mounting of more accessories – we’ll add a lens support, matte box and follow focus shortly.

Time for the lens. While in its box it should have both lens caps on, be set to wide open aperture, focussed on infinity and zoomed to the widest angle. With equipment this expensive, which has to operate within critical tolerances, there’s even a special procedure for taking the lens out of the box – crouch down, take the len weight in both hands then stand.

The sensor is the most delicate part of the whole system so only remove the lens cap just before we’re ready to fit the lens. Even a tiny speck of dust could be visible in a shot, particularly at narrow apertures, and cleaning is a delciate procedure and best not done in the field. (You can see the silver metal rails in place here).

These lenses and the camera body are ‘PL’ mount, PL stands for “positive lock”. Twist the two tabs counter clockwise (looking from the front) to release.

Slide the lens straight in. There’s a knack to it.

The lens is very heavy, so to prevent damage to the mount support the weight of the lens at the front while the lens support is slid into place on the rails and bolted into position.

Matte box goes on. The matte box helps shade the lens from light hitting it at extreme angles, degrading the picture. This so called NIL or Non-Imaging Light can wash out the image and reduce contrast and cause flares. The matte box also acts as a filter holder. Filters are less important than they once were now that we have greater control of the image after we’ve captured it, but some are still necessary. For example, ND filters are often used. The Alexa sensor performs best all around when set at 800ISO, if we’re filming somewhere too bright to shoot at that speed at the f-stop and shutter speed we want we might add an ND filter to reduce exposure rather than reduce ISO. Polarisers and ND or tinted grad filters and some other specialised filters also have no direct equivalents in post-production so we might use a real one.

There’s a gap between the matte box and the lens. This could allow light coming from behind to bounce off the back of a filter (not yet fitted) and end up in the lens.

So we fit a “doughnut” to prevent that.

This doughnut looks suspiciously like a cut down mousemat! Maybe they ran out of money after buying the camera and lens…

Now the “follow focus”. A wheel that turns the focus ring of the lens through a gear. This makes focussing more ergonomic and allows us to mark focus points on a white strip.

The follow focus clips then screws down onto the rails.

With the lens set at infinity put the white focus mark and the silver mark on the focus knob pointing up, then lock everything down. This makes it easier to gauge where the wheel is putting focus relative to infinity, even without marking up the white track.

Another wheel goes on the other side of the camera so focus can be done from either side.

Flags clip on the edge of the matte box further shading the lens from unwanted light. They usually go on the sides and top as that’s the direction light is most likely to come from.

Add a magic arm to attach a small on-camera Marshall monitor.

The Marshall monitor is powered from a V-lock battery clipped to the back of the camera. The smaller grey block between the big V-lock and the Alexa is a D-tap adapter and it’s that which the monitor actually plugs into. Not seen in this shot is a larger battery connected by a cable to the camera. The Alexa can run from the large battery and when that’s nearly out switch automatically to the V-lock while the large battery is swapped out for a fresh one. This ‘hot swapping’ allows the camera to be on continuously.

The Alexa has lots of options for connectivity.

Wire up the the EVF or “Electronic View Finder” typically used by the camera operator themselves.

And check it’s working.

The camera is now pretty much set up physically.

So we can turn it on and start exploring the menus. The UI is reasonably clear and straightforward, with sturdy control wheel and buttons, some of which can be configured to allow quick access to the functions the crew want.
You can play with a simulator of the menus on the Arri website.

Different versions of the Alexa can shoot in various different formats. We’re shooting onto SxS (pronounced “ess by ess”) cards in some variant of ProRes at 1080p.

There are two slots for redundancy or hot swapping media but we’re only using one.

And this is the #1 (first) card of the day.

As well as the the on-camera Marshall we’re using a large external Sony OLED display.

Set that up and let’s shoot some test charts.

Me, a $100,000+ camera setup and a grin 😉


University of South Wales