The Arri ALEXA - first time out of the box

Russell England was a participant in the Directors UK Challenge Alexa scheme. Here, Russell and his DoP Kate Reid give their thoughts on using the Arri ALEXA for the first time.

It is said that every director has a feature film script in his or her back pocket. I certainly had mine.  Written by Richard Davis, Leathermill had been re-drafted and tinkered with since I had bought the option, but it had also been through the wash a few times - set aside when I was busy with other things, then pulled-out again after a few pints or an idle moment.

Earlier this summer, I decided that I was going to try and make the feature happen (rather than just talk about it), starting with a self-contained short film that would introduce an audience to the inhabitants of Leathermill – a tough Northern village that looks after its own and meets out its unique form of justice.

I had contemplated all this whilst packing the bags ready for my summer hols this year and choosing what reading matter to take to the beach, as well as throwing the completed short film script into the bottom of my suitcase – where it stayed.  

The email from Directors UK snapped me out of holiday mode.  I was one of the winners of the Challenge Alexa competition – jointly run by Directors UK and Arri - the prize being free use of the Arri Alexa HD camera and their filming package for the shoot, along with a special screening at BAFTA during the London Film Festival.   

Gulp.  It was just three weeks before the proposed shooting dates I’d promised them.  I’d better get on with it then!

Along from all the other elements required to put a shoot together: including seven actors, a night shoot, a crashed car, dogs, a horse and medieval stocks; the most important element for me was finding a DOP who could put the camera through its paces and really show me what it was capable of delivering, in as bold and cinematic a way as possible.

Kate Reid came highly recommended and had a great reel.  She had also shot with the Alexa.  We met-up a couple of times, immediately hit it off and the dates worked for her.  Everything was starting to click into place as the actual shoot date fast approached.  

Being selected for the Challenge Alexa competition was also having another important knock-on effect - I was building a fantastic cast and crew around me who were all keen to be involved with the project (with nearly everyone doing it for free).  The production company Outsider now agreed to let me produce the film through them, which gave me the all-important production insurance, as well as a fantastic joint producer in Nic Lowicz.  Absolutely everyone was working so hard to make the film happen and in a very short period of time we were good to go.

I had only seen the Alexa, with a few leads and a lens attached, sitting on a bench at a rental house.  On day one of the shoot, out it came again – looking remarkably similar.  It was clipped onto the tripod and we were all set to start filming – it really was that quick.  In fact, this would be the pattern for much of the shoot, with the occasional pause as the memory card was swapped over or a battery changed.  This immediately reminded me of the joy of shooting with a 16mm Arri SR camera (and the more occasional joy of shooting with a 35mm 435).   It appeared so hassle-free – certainly in comparison to much of the other HD cameras I’ve worked with recently: including the Red, the Sony HDCam and XDCam (with and without Pro-35 lens adapters) and Canon 1 & 5D.  

Other benefits included the compact design and the way the camera felt very well balanced when hand-held (at least that’s what was reported back to me by the camera team).  It also didn’t have too much cumbersome stuff bolted-on (in comparison to the Red or when using film lens and adapter on something like the HDCam/XDCamcorders).

Part of my pitch for the use of this camera, had been for the shoot to track the roughly-16 hour story arch of the script – filming during the day, at dusk, night and dawn; with nearly all of the action taking place outside.   We experienced the good fortune of an Indian summer that came at the end of September - golden autumn daylight and a beautiful sunset on the second day.  Then it was into the night.  Kate was very keen to push the camera here – and I had to take her word for it – as my monitor had grain dancing all over the screen and I couldn’t actually see the actor through the gloom; yet through the eyepiece of the camera, the image looked crisp and clean – even when shooting at  ISO 1250.  

The Alexa was definitely bringing us good luck.  The heat of the previous day on the colder ground was creating a slow-rising fog that looked just like a huge smoke machine.  We were also ripping through the script with minimal re-lighting and were now instilled with the old film discipline of swapping the memory cards after a handful of slates, just as if we were changing mags (we were also using a traditional clapperboard to sync and visibly record every shot).  These cards were then run over to our DIT who would transfer the data onto two G-Raid drives (one a back-up) via a Mac laptop.  

With the film ‘in the can’ (or more correctly safely on the drives) I moved onto the next step of my introduction to the Alexa.  We had shot in ProRes 4444 and recorded in Log C with some of the rushes being given a guide ‘grade’ via transcoded files for the Avid.  This may all sound a bit technical (it does to me), but essentially what it meant was that I was able to easily and quickly access all my rushes by simply plugging the G-Raid drive into my Mac laptop and play the shots as quicktimes - requiring no additional software.  From this I created the master shot-list of file number and slate, which tallied all the way through the offline editing process via Avid AMA (I understand the process is even easier using Final Cut Pro).

It was at this point that stage two of the Alexa’s superlative benefits kicked-in – the flexibility of the image it creates for post-production.  

My long-time collaborator, Simon Willcox at Loaded Dice, edited the film.   Thanks to him, the post-production facility Prime Focus became involved.    Kate and I had created screen-grabs to which we’d applied a look (I used iPhoto, Kate used Photoshop) and these went off to the colourists, Tareq Kubaisi and Duncan Russell, along with a list of movie references ahead of the grading session in Base Light.

I’m sure Arri can reel off all the necessary spec, but to my non-techie brain, Alexa rushes seem to behave just like film – with an amazing exposure latitude and a seeming lack of grain, even when pushed quite hard.  In fact, we were specifically trying to give the film an old 35mm print stock look, so we added extra grain.   After a wonderful session in Base Light, it felt like the film had climbed to another level. (I also learned whilst I was at Prime Focus that commercials are now fast-moving across to the Alexa, and that this year only 25% of Prime Focus’s work is likely to be shot on film)  

The other reason for giving the film a print look was because it was going to be projected in the Princess Anne theatre at BAFTA as part of the Challenge Alexa screenings on the 27th October.  

And so it was that Kate and I sat together, nervously waiting our turn.  The addition of Colin Winston-Fletcher’s eerie score and Pure Soho’s sound design made Welcome to Leathermill feel just like a proper movie – at least it did to me – but what would the audience think?  Hmm, the clue was in the title  - Directors UK – a bloody cinema full of them – I’d forgotten about that small detail.    I struggled hard to keep my nerves at bay as the opening title rolled…

Please do watch the trailer for Welcome to Leathermill.  Here’s a little more about the film:

A driver slavishly follows his satnav and discovers to his cost that he has become marooned in a small village in the north of England. Then, distracted by the satnav and his mobile, he knocks down one of the village inhabitants and crashes into a tree.  That evening and until early the next morning, the locals decide to teach him a lesson – and provide a little sport for the residents of Leathermill.

Thanks to Directors UK and Arri (and especially Stuart Wealands and Milan Krsljanin), it is no longer just a script, but a fully-completed short film which I’m now entering into the festival circuit and I’m getting in front of producers.  The next step will be Leathermill the movie – shooting with Arri’s superb Alexa camera, of course.  

Director of Photography Kate Reid writes:

When Russell approached me to shoot his short film Welcome to Leathermill I was delighted that the production already planned to shoot on the Arri Alexa, which I had worked with on one previous project and been very pleased with the results.  About 50% of “Welcome to Leathermill” is shot handheld and the Alexa is a very comfortable and well-balanced camera to operate. On a practical level the Alexa is well sized for shooting in tight spaces, such as an interior car driving scene in the film where we elected to shoot inside the car rather than using a car mount, which was possible due to the size of the camera and it’s relatively streamlined accessories. And it was here that the camera’s ability to hold the details in the highlights and shadows was really evident as we drove through leafy country lanes on a brilliantly sunny day with varying extremes of exposure.

The script called for a range of scenes across a day in the fictitious village of Leathermill. For most of the shoot we were outside, and shooting in the UK naturally presented us with a range of seasons over our 3-day schedule. For all the day exteriors I rated the camera at ISO 400, as I didn’t want to have a large amount of ND in front of the lens and was happy that the highlights in the bright skies would still hold well, which they did. The Alexa is renowned for its low light capability having a native ISO of 800 and for the night scenes we shot with an ISO of 1250. This is the first digital camera that has produced results I have been happy with, when shooting at this speed. It’s great to have this capacity in a camera, for those occasions when you need to work with available light sources or practicals, that are part of your shooting environment and match your lighting to those existing levels, allowing you to create an image that isn’t compromised despite the higher ISO.

From the outset we wanted the film to have the feel of an old western and in the grade we added grain and increased sharpness to emulate the look of a print stock of that era. I was amazed by the how malleable the images were without feeling forced, specifically one shot which we graded to look like early morning dawn, having been shot around midday. The Alexa is fantastic camera that I definitely look forward to working with again.

Tech Spec
Arri Alexa
Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses
2.35: 1 Aspect Ratio
ProRes 4444, recording Log C