ARRI’s groundbreaking ALEXA camera has gone through many iterations in the 10 years since it first appeared in Chicago. I know, as I was one of the few people able to spend an extended amount of time testing ALEXA’s ProRes functionality that summer on one of the earliest ALEXA cameras capable of internal recording of Apples new codec. The chance was afforded to me because I had been working extensively with ProRes workflows and the codec as part of my work testing Aja’s KiPro, the first ProRes capable recorder and because of my association with Fletcher Camera and Lenses, the Chicago rental house that I did all of my testing at. As a company, under the guidance of Tom Fletcher (now at Fujinon), Fletcher Camera had maintained itself as one of a handful of rental houses focused on the growing needs for HD, Digital and Film Production tools and technologies, having been one of the earliest rental houses to embrace HD Productions.
As I understood the Apple philosophy on the ProRes intermediate codecs better than most, I had a small part in the early success of ProRes adoption though my work with Aja and the knowledge I gained as an early leader in the Final Cut Pro User Group community.
Apple’s codec, designed to allow for the ease of use and less restrictive playback requirements in post-production, was a welcome relief from the lossy, highly compressed and hardware based HDV based encoding favored in the video cameras of the era. Apple’s ProRes codec was barely 3 yrs old at this time, while the ugliness of compressed HDV tape maintained its wide popularity for its ease of use and low cost. DSLRs were just becoming popular for video production and RED was struggling to deliver a second round of the initial RED One. Cameras of all types were being released at a break-neck pace for broadcast and television production as the cinema side was still fighting it out with film. At NAB2010, nine PL-mount camera announcements were made after ALEXA’s Hollywood launch party, held at the Directors Guild Office, just a week before NAB 2010 was to start.
One of the first productions that wanted to go with the ALEXA here in Chicago was an NBC show called Chicago Code. While this production was slated to shoot on the ALEXA and record directly to HDCamSR tape, as was the practice at the time, I was tasked prior to the start of production to test some of the tapeless possibilities from Aja, STwo and the more established CodexOnBoard recorder that had gained success with ARRI’s previous digital camera offering, the ARRIFLEX D-20/21.
The first task was to establish, then test multiple workflows that could be used when handling the ALEXA’s media. ARRI’s decision to choose an established media manufacturer allowed them to widen accessibility for tapeless acquisition from the prohibitive cost of the early Codex solutions. By choosing Sonys popular SxS card media, designed around the Express3/4 card slot found on most PC laptops and on Apples MacBookPro at the time, ARRI showed insight to the coming changes that were about to tear through our industry, and ones that continue to ripple through the technological landscape today.
Both of these ideas, while not new, broke ground for a new way of shooting and working at a time when connectivity was still defined by analog boundaries. The US had passed through the transition to Digital Broadcast Transmission barely a year earlier. While ARRI had been working on a version of their digital cinema camera for a while, most people did not understand ARRI’s mindset at the time, nor their rather forward understanding of the digital process and how it might evolve. Unlike the other camera manufacturers building their digital camera designs on the existing designs of their broadcast offerings, ARRI did something radically different. They built their camera using the knowledge they had gained from making film cameras and scanners, almost as if they turned an ARRI Scanner on its end and started mounting cine-style lenses on it.
That is a fundamental difference in how ARRI brought the ALEXA to life, by not expanding on a broadcast or scientific sensor design like other manufacturers. ARRI built and refined their own unique sensor and capture system, one that was initially developed around the existing ARRI Laser Scanner. Digital Fim scanners are designed from the beginning for converting conventional motion picture celluloid frames to the digital files required for use in non-linear editing systems. It is not that ARRI redesigned the wheel, they just came at the sensor issue with some 90+ yrs of knowledge of film acquisition and more than a decade of scanning feature films for the growing market blossoming in digital post-production. Now a decade later, ARRI has adapted the ALEXA’s sensor technology as the foundation of an entirely new generation of film scanners designed for the digital age and a wide range of cameras for the needs of cinematographers.
There was something else about the ALEXA too, something you could feel when you picked it the first time. The ALEXA was a camera made to be used, to be handled in the wildest and most extreme environments around the world. One of the earliest cameras even kept working after being nearly destroyed in a fire, something that would have destroyed every other digital camera of that era. Don’t get me wrong, other camera manufacturers make sturdy, well-built cameras, but the ALEXA was machined from a block of aluminum with precision and the attention to detail that German manufacturers are renowned for. Beyond that, ARRI had more than a fundamental understanding of ergonomics and how a camera and operator move and perform during a TV, Film or Documentary production. While this might seem odd now, at the time it was a fairly radical change from existing digital cameras.
ARRI’s ALEXA was designed for film and television production from one of the companies that founded the film industry. With more decades of technology and advances in film production around the world at the time the ALEXA was released, ARRI knew what needed to change more than most companies. Film productions have always had a multitude of people required to be in and around the camera for the entire production day. So with that mindset, ARRI wisely took the camera controls away from the operator, as it was standard practice in film cameras, and placed them on the opposite side of the camera, for camera assistants (and Digital Imaging Techs, like me) to have direct access to the camera controls even while it was being operated.
Yet, ARRI did not stop at just changing just the outside of the ALEXA to better suit production crews, they were one of the first camera manufacturers to fundamentally change the look and feel of the user interface and how people interact with a cameras operating system. ARRI’s overall philosophy in camera design and ergonomics learned in 100yrs of production, carried through to the digital camera menus, relieving us from the never-ending menu style found on the Japanese digital cameras to this day. This gave users the look and feel of an iPod like navigation wheel, mimicking the Apple products simplicity of navigation that has influenced other camera manufacturers and how users interact with menu structures ever since.
In the decade since the camera was created, nearly 20 versions have followed if you count the ALEXA 65 and the amazing popular Amira models. This showed ARRI’s commitment to building and designing what are arguably the best tools in the business. I saw that commitment very early in the ALEXA s development and it reinforced everything I had ever heard about.
At the 2010 IBC Show in Amsterdam, ARRI was publicly showing the ALEXA to the world for the first large show in the European Union, after NAB and Cinegear shows in the US. The ARRI booth was adorned with the names of the people that had influenced the ALEXA’s development including my work testing ProRes and a video walkthrough of the interface posted online. The booth was so packed all the time it was not until the 3rd day that I realized that my name was on that wall too (along with the name of PVC contributor Art Adams, now an ARRI employee).
It was on that day that I had a chance to run by the ARRI booth before the show opened and it was the point when I got to see something that I would have never imagined. In a discussion with Marc Shipman-Mueller, the ALEXA Product Manager, I made an offhand comment about a minor detail that bugged me after working on and around the camera onset for the 5 previous months. During some fast-paced production at one point, I had a difficult time getting the media bay door open to exchange the SxS cards the camera recorded ProRes onto, and found a minor but noticeable issue: the top tab on the media door was something approximately 1 mm longer than the tab on the bottom of that same access door. Upon hearing my comments Marc paused then signaled to another individual and in a couple of minutes, many of the senior engineers on the camera were asking questions, testing my issue for themselves, and photographing hand movement when I was working on the camera.
That whole scene took maybe 10 minutes and I never thought another thing about it until the next time I worked on an ALEXA, albeit one that had just come back from ARRI with an update. It was a minor change, one that most would have not seen, but it was a change that was instantly noticeable to me. I found out a couple of months later that ARRI had started replacing that part when cameras came in for service, so unbeknownst to most owners, it was quietly and seamlessly updating cameras so that no one else would have the same trouble that I had taking media out of the camera while the camera was on the operator’s shoulder. To this day it still stands as one of those moments in my career that I look back on with amazement, that any manufacturer actually listened to their customer base, and would take it upon themselves to correct minor flaws just to make the tool better for their customers.
I wanted to give special thanks to my friends at the former Fletcher Camera and Lenses in Chicago, without whom I would not have been able to be at that place and time. While the Fletcher name and assets are gone, the people have spread out across the county and are still making waves in film and television technologies. Camera Technician Mike Sippel, now coordinates new technologies for ARRI Rental, based out their facilities in NYC. Megan Donnelly, now head of training for AbelCine, along with Rental Coordinators Jim Summers (Keslow Chicago), as well as Stan Glapa and Lens Specialist Al Collins (Panavision Chicago) for their help, guidance and assistance. Lastly I send my thanks to Tom Fletcher, who’s guidance and friendship remain part of my life.
(Note: This was updated to say Fletcher Camera and Lenses)