The Arri Alexa is regularly the camera of choice for Oscar-nominated films and indie Sundance projects alike. Arri cameras and in specific the digital cinema Arri Alexa line truly occupies a special spot in the film industry. If you are shopping for an online camera rental you have almost definitely run across a an overwhelming array of options. We break down the history of the Arri cameras, why they are so beloved, and how the models differ.
History of Arri cameras and the Arri Alexa
Arri achieved dominance with the Alexa by being patient and doing a tremendous amount of research before launching into the industry. While other manufacturers were trying to conquer the digital cinema market with untested prototypes released as if they were final products, Arri designed their system in-house, taking advantage of their decades of knowledge. Before the Arri Alexa, they had the Arri D20 & Arri D21, cameras that were available only as camera rental bodies from trusted Arri vendors.
Interestingly, at that time Arri required those renting the D21 to do a pre and post interview with Arri and to bring an Arri tech to set. This wasn’t about Arri restricting who got to use it; it was about Arri wanting to have a very clear sense of what working DPs were expecting from a camera, and getting feedback throughout the process.
That incredibly thorough research led to the release of the original Arri Alexa in 2010. At launch, the camera was capable of either internal ProRes recording, or RAW recording to an external Codex recorder. It was an immediate hit in the marketplace, despite being limited to only 2.5K resolution. In reality, major competitors of the time such as the RED ONE camera, which shot 4k, had roughly equivalent actual visible resolution to the 2.5K you got from the Alexa, since RED recorded undebayered raw footage, and the footage from the Alexa had already been debayered. Many initial users found they felt that from a resolution standpoint, Alexa delivered plenty from the start—even for cinema-finished projects.
The Arri Alexa Image
The standout feature of the Alexa was it’s image quality, especially color reproduction and grain texture. While many cameras produced an image that felt overly “clean,” “sharp” or “digital,” the Alexa was engineered to have a more flattering, textured, softer image. This took some of the edge off the fact that it was digitally captured. And it was combined with an intense focus on color science, so that from the earliest days Alexa offered pleasing skintones and a great flesh-to-neutral relationship.
The Alexa also offered “lookaround,” where in it’s default mode it doesn’t record the entire image on the sensor, but gives you some room around the edges of the image that won’t be recorded. For operators who are used to this feature from film cameras this is tremendously useful, since you get a little warning before an object enters frame, which can help your operating tremendously.
All One Sensor
One of the most important things to understand when picking an Alexa body is that they all have the same sensor. All of them. From the original Alexa release a decade ago, up through the Alexa 65 and LF today, they are all made from the same sensor. The LF is just 2 of those sensors smooshed together, and the Alexa 65 is just three of them smooshed together.
In an era when camera sensors are constantly getting upgraded, often at aftermarket cost to the filmmaker, this is clearly a very deliberate choice on Arri’s part. This choice boils down to two main factors—one financial, and the other artistic. On the one level, Arri saves a lot of money, since hardware for physically creating the sensor (the foundry) is very expensive. By spreading that cost out over time (a decade, at this point), Arri is getting its monies worth for the R&D and hardware they put into the original design and fabrication components.
But the bigger part of the decision seems to be an artistic statement by Arri that they feel that the sensor they created is holding up. That if you design it correctly to begin with, you don’t need to upgrade it every other year.
For the end user, this means that you can rent pretty much any Arri Alexa and be confident that the imagery it creates will be of the high standard we expect from Alexa. It should be able to intercut seamlessly with other footage from Alexa and Amira cameras.The primary benefit you get from different Alexa choices is camera functions (other than the big sensor LF & 65), since they are all primarily built around that same sensor design. Bodies get lighter, offer different capture formats, and different viewfinding systems. But in the end, they are all built around that sensor.
These are the currently produced models; there are a few more in the “legacy” arena that you might see advertised, though Arri has been generous with the upgrade path and many owners upgrade their original camera bodies to be the more modern version when possible.
Alexa LF & Arri Alexa 65
These top of the line cameras offer some of the most distinct images in the Alexa lineup. The Alexa LF came out this year, and the Alexa 65 is rental only, but if you can get your hands on them, they use larger sensors in order to create images with less noise even in low light, and a signfiigantly different field of view due to the larger sensor size.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Arri Alexa Mini, which is hugely popular with independent filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, and music video teams. With a swappable lens mount, internal upscaling to UHD/4K, CFast card recording, and a lighter weight body (the carbon fiber body only weighs 5lbs), it is great on a gimbal or a drone, though you’ll also see it as an A-camera on smaller productions.
While it does have internal NDs and lens motor control, the smaller body isn’t as robust with accessories as other Alexa units and isn’t the ideal A-camera if you have budget for a bigger camera. The bigger bodies offer more power outputs (there is only one power out on the Mini) for accessories, higher framerates, and more recording format options that make it a better choice if you can keep a Mini as your C camera. But make no mistake, you can, and many do, shoot a full project on a mini.
Alexa Classic EV
This original generation for Alexa remains popular with indie filmmakers who can do an “Indie Alexa” project, shooting straight to ProRes—the way they would have in 2011/2012 when renting the Codex recorders and their extra workflow wasn’t typically an option, especially for lower budgets. With a natively 16:9 Super35mm sensor (except in the 4:3 model), it’s better for spherical projects and don’t always fit well in an Anamorphic workflow.
The SXT EV is currently top of the “full sized Super35mm” line without optical viewfinding. These feature internal ProRes 4k upscaling, internal RAW to the SXR module, and the ability to capture in the expanded Rec. 2020 color space.
Whenever you see Studio in the name of an Alexa, it means only one thing. It was never a huge hit, but it is beloved for it’s optical viewfinding path. With a spinning mirror in front of the shutter, like an old school film camera, you can use a full optical image to the viewfinder. This lets you see the image even when the camera is off, and for many operators, especially ones who started on film, having the optical viewfinder is a huge benefit. Digital viewfinders are getting to be pretty amazing, but an all glass path just has a certain flavor.
The Arri Amira is the little buddy of the Alexa, with a very similar sensor that is smaller, giving a bigger depth of field. Targeted largely at documentary filmmakers who like a slightly larger depth of field, it also shows up on some narrative projects. The Amira line produces beautiful imagery and has also been something of a test bed for Arri’s camera equipment, with features like internal up-resing to 4k and internal 3D LUT support appearing first for the Amira before rolling out to other cameras.
Despite all the love for the image quality, the Alexa line does lack some features (especially super high frame rates) that mean that many productions end up mixing and matching. For example, some productions use Alexa for A camera then bringing out a RED Camera for C-camera in order to have higher framerates for slow motion. And while it takes time and finesse in post, it is possible to match the two cameras. It’s preferable to shoot all the same camera when you can, but if you need footage from a RED camera that you can’t get with an Alexa, you’ll find a way to bring it all together in the end.
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