What's it like to own the original ARRI Alexa?

Written by Phil Rhodes

ArriIt's a dream camera for some, and now you can pick one up for a fraction of its original price. But is owning an Alexa Classic more trouble than it's worth?

The Alexa Classic, or EV, has reached legendary status. Ask any owner/operator which camera they'd love to own and you can bet your last coin that they'll say the ARRI Alexa. Now you can pick one up for a fraction of the original price what's it actually like to use on, ahem, YouTube videos? Let's find out.

Arri have been making Alexas for a long time by digital standards, and by 2018, prices on the earliest variant were already low enough for owner-operators owner-operators, even those owner-operating on other than the best-funded productions. Those early cameras are often called Alexa Classic, though ARRI might prefer the term Alexa EV, for the electronic viewfinder.

Max encourages the on-screen talent to write 'Free Tay-K' in eyeliner. Like you do for YouTube.JPEG

Max encourages the on-screen talent to write 'Free Tay-K' in eyeliner. Like you do for YouTube

So, they’re available, if long out of production. The question has always been what it’s really like to live with a camera that’s still very much built for the multi-crew environment of a feature film or TV drama. Someone who knows all about that is Max, the shadowy figure behind the SBN3 YouTube channel, who bought his Alexa with the intention of adding a touch of gloss to both online content and other things.

It’s not his first high-end-but-ageing camera. “My philosophy has always been waiting for the premier stuff to get cheap,” he says, “and then scraping it up and getting movie quality out of it for not that much money. The first time I did that was with an F900, with Digiprimes. I was getting into film festivals with it. I don't know if this is a blast from the past, but using F900 and Digiprimes goes to show the camera doesn't need to be new.”

There's a point of view that says - stop wanting it, and get it.JPG

There's a point of view that says - stop wanting it, and get it

Alexa had been an object of desire for a while, if hardly an uncommon desire. “I was watching Shane Hurlbut's videos and seeing his overexposure and underexposure tests. I wanted one, and I was waiting for a price. Once I saw one for $7000 when they were going for like $9000, but I couldn't transfer the funds fast enough so I lost out on that deal. So, I called up Alan Gordon, and they had one with 8000 hours on it for $6500.” Max was, he says, “hyped. It can do internal ProRes 4:4:4:4, the sensor is great. I got a 128GB SxS card – it came with three 32GB – and it gives you about as many minutes as a 400-foot roll of 16mm. It’s a very film workflow. With a lot of the talent, I’m not really working with experienced, veteran actors, so I’ll use that old phrase – money running through the camera!”

Post-millennial online content shoot.png

Post-millennial online content shoot

There is, of course, no perfect camera, and the downsides of such a thoroughbred piece of equipment are clear. “It's heavy… many many times I have to put down the camera, take a breath, that was happening a lot. Another drawback goes back to the audio. The port is in the wrong place, the noise floor is abysmal.” The Alexa EV also doesn’t offer some of the things that make more modern variants of the camera, such as the 3.2K resolution options.

The downside, predictably, is convenience. “When I first started [with] DSLRs and the tiny cameras, I was getting so much more done at such a quicker rate as an independent person. I was getting these crazy angles and these camera movements, I was able to be more creative with my shots with those tiny cameras. While it technically looked better with my bigger cameras I look back at my old stuff I think there's a little bit of soul lost. I want this technically great image that looks like the movies, but I can't get the big camera movements that make my work look like what I do. That's the big thing, that's what you lose as an independent shooter. You get the brand name, you're shooting on movie cameras, but you're going to lose something creatively.”

Yes, that's a Zoom H6 on top, standing in for the Alexa's audio.JPG

Yes, that's a Zoom H6 on top, standing in for the Alexa's audio

Perhaps at some point Alexa Mini will have sunk to the same price.

In the end, the greatest irony is the greatest benefit. Capable cameras shine in exactly the hard-to-control circumstances that this sort of shooting entails, and Max is happy to live with the downsides. “If you want a real movie camera, there's consequences with it. You can get a movie look through a [Sony] F3, but you need a more controlled environment. I’ve had shots where maybe I forgot to shift exposure and Alexa still looks good. The skin tones blew out realistically. I’m still seeing the tone differentials… colour differentials in hair, if someone's hair is burned from being straightened a lot, lips and eyes always pop on Alexa.”

Technology only gets you so far

In the end, Max is very keen to reinforce the ancient truth that technology only gets us so far. “if [film schools] just taught grip and lighting and set construction... you’d be preparing them better for the industry than saying ‘here's how you write a script’. Directing on the level of Tarantino or Spike Lee is a very talent-driven thing. People have to find out themselves. I can't tell you how many people take my workshops, they're Ivy League graduates and I'll go over stuff none of which was covered... I show them behind-the-scenes pictures of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and it's David Yates talking to a production designer and a cinematographer and in the background are a hundred people - grips gaffers, set designers, production assistants.”

Alexa helps, though, bulk notwithstanding. “I really want to get it modified. I want it lighter and I want the audio better… YouTube has come full circle, or it might just be me, I don't know. We've taken the vulgar stupid vlog or goofy jokewriting, with your friends shooting, now we've come to the point where it's major motion picture equipment making these videos.” Videos, perhaps, like NYC RANT shot on ARRI (certainly unsafe for work!) “It’s in the title. We don't really care about this video at all, but I'm going to go for the clickbait. I'm going to have all these serious cinema guys with moustaches and button up shirts... people are going to be looking up things to see how this camera does... and they see this guy cursing about yu-gi-oh cards.”

Tags: Production

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