Several years in the making, ARRI finally released its much anticipated ALEXA camera at NAB 2010, and it has become a huge hit in only a few months. Even those who thought that the ALEXA was “just another version of a D-21” quickly changed their minds. For the makers of features, television projects, commercials, music videos—and even 3D productions—the demand to shoot with ALEXA was high mostly due to the fact that it can capture a great picture at 800 ASA. Here, three shooters in three different venues give their real-world experience on this new star in the digital frontier.
ANNA FOERSTER: SHOOTING THE FIRST ALEXA FEATURE ANONYMOUS
Anonymous is an Elizabethan thriller set in London’s shadowy theatrical and royal circles around the turn of the 17th century. The film pushes the envelope, exploring the true authorship of the writing attributed to William Shakespeare. Pairing with director Roland Emmerich (2012, 10,000 BC), cinematographer Anna Foerster jumped in head-first with her first digital feature by shooting with ALEXA.
“Of course, I was nervous about the whole process,” she admits, “but I decided that if I started thinking that this was all completely new, then it would just get too confusing. So I basically approached it as a new kind of film stock and set about discovering its limits. I determined what ASA ratings I wanted to shoot at in each situation and what its limits are at each end and then played within that safe area. I had never experienced anything so capable of pushing the limits as this camera. I wouldn’t have had the courage to try the same extreme lighting with any film stock—things like having just one HMI beam and using the spill light and the bounce light from it as your main source.
“We did light a lot of scenes with candles and fire, but they were almost always augmented with other sources,” adds Foerster. “The exciting part was that the candle or fire actually affected the environment. For example, we put a candelabrum against a wood-paneled wall and you actually got sheen off that wall because we were shooting at 1280 ASA at that point. It’s a bit of an illusion to think that you can put a candle on a table and you’re lit, but at such a high ASA rating, the additional light can be very gentle and doesn’t overpower the visible effects of the real flame on its surroundings. That was incredibly exciting, and I seriously don’t think that’s been possible before. You wouldn’t push a film stock to that ASA because of the amount of grain.”
More than two-thirds of the movie was shot at 800 ASA for both interiors and exteriors. “I don’t believe in changing the ASA below 800,” says Foerster. “I don’t think that’s the right approach with this camera, so we were using ND filters for daytime exteriors. Then there were specific light situations where we shot at 1280 ASA. Don’t ask me why we ended up with this number, but that was the level for situations where we had a lot of candles.”
Foerster had several shooting environments where cinematographers might be reluctant to use digital traditionally. “We had a lot of heavy rain and humidity and we didn’t have any problems with that,” she says. “It was the kind of situation where one would traditionally think a film camera to be the best option. Yes, there was a certain level of nervousness because we were shooting with ALEXA prototypes and, of course, you worry about losing material that you’ve shot, but I have to say that, overall, it went very well and there were very few mishaps—nothing you wouldn’t have on a film set!”