Famed for its stunning shots of stark landscapes, “The Revenant” showed the dynamic vision of the filmmakers behind it. Those shots also revealed the incredible capabilities of the camera used to film many of those sequences — the Arri Alexa 65.
Designed initially to capture a tremendous amount of detail without distortion, the camera was made to work mostly with visual effects shots. Once the world’s premiere helmers and cinematographers viewed the results, it was quickly integrated into many production pipelines and used in ways that not even the manufacturer could have expected.
Director Alejandro G. Innaritu raved about the Alexa 65’s performance at an early screening of “The Revenant” and by then the secret was out. The camera was introduced just over a year ago and by January it had already been used on at least 18 feature films including “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” “The Revenant,” and even comedies like “How to Be Single.” In the coming year films like “Star Wars: Rogue One” will also be shot using it.
At the time of its release, Arri made 20 Alexa 65s available for rental, but quickly realized the demand was outstripping the supply. This year Arri will more than double the number of Alexa 65s in its warehouses in an attempt to meet filmmakers’ needs.
Neil Fanthom, a group technical marketing executive for Arri acknowledges company execs were cautious when they introduced the camera because of the price. Though the company will not say how much it costs to make one, the amount needed to make that first run of 20 is described as being enough to make you “break out in a cold sweat.”
Imax execs were also so impressed with the camera they entered a joint development effort with Arri to customize the Alexa 65 for use on Imax productions. Neither company is willing to reveal the specifics, but Imax intends to add its own secret sauce to the camera to maximize results for filmmakers working on Imax-friendly films, according to Greg Foster, senior executive vice president, Imax Corp. and CEO of Imax Entertainment.
“It’s not a coincidence that some of the biggest filmmakers have quickly gravitated to this camera and they’re also gravitating to our partnership with the camera,” Foster says.
Florian Ballhaus, shot parts of “The Divergent Series: Allegiant,” which opens in March, on the Alexa 65 and found the camera allowed him to capture landscapes in great detail while still remaining user friendly and maintaining workflow. The cinematographer also liked that it made 8K resolution available if he wanted it, while he still had the opportunity to reduce the file size.
“I don’t know if people who watch this movie on their phones will notice but on the big screen you can definitely see this camera renders faces beautifully so you can shoot people in front of landscapes in a way that you catch every detail but you have a nice focus fall off,” Ballhaus says.
Though Ballhaus did find he needed a bit more light to shoot with the Alexa 65 and that you need to plan for large digital files, he only felt limited by the narrow range of lenses available for the camera at this point. There are no zooms available, for example. But the dp believes this will change over time and that there are still tremendous advantages to working with the camera.
Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar as the dp on “There Will Be Blood,” shot the underwater sequences in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” using the Alexa 65 and loved the results, though he still tends to prefer working with film.
“There’s a fineness of detail you get with this camera and you get it without things being overly sharp or overly crisp,” says Elswit. “The problem has been in the past that you either can’t get the detail or if you do it’s painful and unpleasant to see.”
After working with the camera, Ballhaus believes it will have a significant impact on the look of movies because of the options it affords filmmakers. He also thinks with this camera now available — as well as other high performance digital cameras — digital cameras can now truly compete with film cameras in performance and image capture.
“When Christian Ditter, the director of “How to Be Single,” saw the rushes, he called me in Germany because he was so excited about the footage we shot,” writes Christian Rein, dp for the film, in an email to Variety. “He said that he never ever again wants to shoot on an ordinary 35mm sensor digital camera. “
Ballhaus puts it simply: “It’s the most beautiful image you can capture digitally right now — hands down.”