Is the ARRI Alexa Mini the Most Versatile Cinema Camera?

March 14, 2017
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The rise of modular cameras is hardly surprising. In the digital age, it seems like the only thing advancing faster than sensor technology is the diversity of peripherals and rigs available to filmmakers. You can’t build a single camera to fit the needs of both drone videographers and studio cinematographers out of the box but, if the body is compact, you can build a camera that allows filmmakers to build the rigs they need. This is great, except that it forces you, the shooter, to make a lot of important decisions.

To help you make those decisions, we’re seeking the advice of our most successful renters to see what kind of rigs they’ve come up with for different shooting scenarios. Today, we’re exploring the different ways to build around the Alexa Mini.

The Alexa Mini was announced just over two years ago and, since then, has garnered quite a fan base. Among those fans are Nik Shaw, an L.A.-based cinematographer whose Alexa Mini packages are centered around mobile/gimbal use and Michael Barnett of Freestyle Films, LLC. whose packages emphasize more traditional use and lens options.

A little size comparison for ya.

Thoughts on the Alexa Mini

Nik on set.

Before we build with any camera, we need to know what we’re working with. For Nik Shaw, the Alexa Mini’s practicality and user friendliness make it the perfect camera for the many different kinds of rigs he uses.

“I started shooting on the RED One. That takes like five minutes to boot up and it’s just massive. I moved on to the [Sony] FS100 and started messing around with the RED Epic and I landed on the Alexa Mini because I’ve kind of always been a fan of their sensor… Their color science and their skin tones are just amazing. All of their cameras were just too big, but I didn’t want to go back to the RED One, kind of, 17-pound deal… I’ve already had physical therapy for my shoulder [laughs] I didn’t want to do that. When the Alexa Mini was announced, I was looking at it, waited for reviews, waited for people to use it, and I bought one about a year ago now. I’ve never looked back. I’ve thrown it on a drone, I’ve put it on a MoVI, I’ve put it on a Ronin, I bought a car mount with a Ronin upside-down and I’m just mounting it everywhere. You can really strip it down to be, like, nothing and it just works.”

For Michael Barnett, the Alexa Mini simply provides the best image around, but he does have one beef with it.

“I think it’s the best camera in the world… My only beef is that it’s not a true 4K camera but if it were then it would be unstoppable. The sensor is a 3.2K sensor that does an upscale in-camera to 4K, but it is still the most beautiful 4K image. There’s no debating that. It has most latitude, the best color spectrum, but it’s not true 4K.”

Michael’s love for the Alexa sensor really comes through when he describes the function of the 4:3 license.

“4:3 license means you can shoot open gate, because it’s actually a 4:3 sensor, it’s not a 16:9 sensor or an APS-C sensor, which means you can utilize the whole sensor and shoot anamorphic. It’s a massive file. If you’re shooting full-res I think you’re getting three minutes for a 256 gigabyte card. That would have a very specific purpose to shoot files that large. When you shoot on a RED and shoot anamorphic you’re just cropping into the sensor, so you’re not using the whole sensor. The 4:3 open gate is you’re utilizing the whole sensor so you’re getting a glorious image without cropping the sensor.”

Basic Packages

Nik and Michael both offer bare bones Alexa Mini packages. Nik’s Basic Package is all about portability.

“It all fits into one Pelican case, so it’s really simple to just hand to someone and say, ‘Here you go.’ That’s why I built that package.. The new line of RED’s are just about the same in portability… The only thing I will say is that RED’s tend to overheat way more. I took a RED to Palm Springs and I put it on my Ronin and I was shooting and it shut off multiple times due to overheating. But I’ve put the ARRI in so many different temperatures and it’s good. It never overheats… You’re also kind of forced to use RED’s monitor and that’s what I don’t like about RED. You’re forced to buy their batteries, you’re forced to buy their mini-mags, their monitor, and with the ARRI you can use your phone. The WCU 4 combo with the ARRI is the best run-and-gun combo I’ve ever used. It’s like, ‘Oh, we need to switch ND filter’ and you just go into ‘Follow Focus’ and click ‘ND’ so in terms of portability, ARRI wins hands-down. Also, you have this side button on the ARRI that you can customize in any which way.”

Michael’s Basic Package is even more stripped down. This is for filmmakers who want to build their own rigs.

“If you own support, the Basic Package is there to say, ‘We can get you batteries, we can get you a camera, and we can get you media cards for recording. If you have everything else, then this is a really affordable way to go.”

Let’s Talk About Lenses

Both Nik and Michael offer Alexa Mini packages with Cooke lenses. Their reasons, however, are very different. For Nik, his Cooke Mini Set Package gives the user high quality glass that’s light enough to be mounted to any rig.

“Actually, since I posted that I’ve been getting hits on that package than anything else I have up there actually. People really like that package. They’re lightweight lenses that you can throw on anything. That’s why I got them. The only lenses that I’ve been able to fit on a Ronin, a MoVI is different, but on a Ronin I can only fit, like, Canon glass, or Zeiss, or something but not real quality lenses but then I throw on the Cooke Mini's and they’re the only lenses that you can really balance perfectly with the Alexa Mini. There are obviously some other lenses you could throw on there, but I really think that the Cookes are the lightest-weight best glass that you can get.”

Michael offers two lens packages for his Alexa Mini, with each serving a distinct purpose. However, he definitely has a favorite.

“We have a set of Cooke lenses that, when you put it on a Mini, creates the most glorious image that, for me, has ever existed. They’re funny. They’re interesting lenses… They are strange, funky, and have interesting blur and aberrations at the edges. You would think that, after spending $200,000 in a lens, you wouldn’t want that but you do with these. They make it have character. They make it have this cinematic, analog, quality that takes this really clean, digital, image and puts soul and life into it.”

Here's a video Michael shot with his Alexa Mini and Cookes

 

Michael also offers an Alexa Mini with Canon CN-E primes that, in his opinion, is much better for straightforward commercial work.

“The Canon CN-E Primes, they’re not Cookes, they’re not the world’s greatest cinema lenses but they’re incredibly affordable for what you get. They’re nice, they’re crisp, they’re fast… They’re a nice, entry-level, really high quality cinematic pro lens… It renders color really naturally and really honestly and it’s a really clean image. So it’s quite the opposite of Cooke. If you’re shooting something that doesn’t require that sort of personality that the Cooke lenses offer you then these are a good option. They play closer to me to Master Primes. Like low-end, cheaper, Master Primes because Master Primes are the cleanest, most clinical, glass on the planet.”

“A lot of people at this price point are shooting on CP2’s, but CP2’s are muddy. They have aberration and not the good kind. Not like Cooke. We have a set of those too but I don’t advertise them. They’re like our backup lenses. When you shoot them wide open they get really muddy and not in the good way... They have chromatic blur. CP2’s are just Canon ZE still lenses that were re-housed. Canon CN-E Primes, for a very similar price point, are lenses that were designed by Canon, who have been making incredible glass for 40 to 50 years, cinema glass, that this was a new line of them built for cine purposes, not based on still technology… I’m a big fan of them… Canon did a real favor to the indie film market when they put these lenses out a few years ago.”

Building a Package That’s Ready to Shoot

Alexa Mini on a MoVI Pro.

Nik has two packages that are great for indie shooting. The first is centered around movement. His MoVI Pro package is built for getting the smoothest movements with the Alexa Mini, and he has proof to back it up.

“They just go so well together. I’ve used the MoVI and the Alexa when we literally only had three takes. We had this amazing studio location but we only had 20 minutes to do a one-take, two minute, video. We only had three chances to do it so I beforehand threw the camera on the MoVI, powered the camera from the MoVI and we had 30 minutes and we got it. There were no hiccups. I just threw the Cooke lenses on there and everything was balanced. Sometimes on a Ronin or another gimbal if you’re in a hurry and you tilt up or move a certain way, the motors get stressed and everything goes to hell. So this package is perfect for a run-and-gun shoot… That’s just my thinking behind it. I used it on a shoot and got a shot in a one-take in less than thirty minutes so, yeah, that’s why I made that one.”

 

His next package caters to more traditional productions. However, the Indie Package is still lightweight enough to make shooting a breeze.

“That package is more of a, ‘you’re on location but you’re not in a hurry,’ short of thing. Where you have your director’s monitor, you have your Teradek, you’ve got the WCU4, and all that stuff… It pretty much is a studio setup, but it’s more lightweight.”

“What I love about the Alexa Mini is you can have it stripped to nothing but can build it out to however crazy you want it. It could weigh 30 pounds. When it’s built out like a studio camera, it’s still lightweight. Sometimes I’ll be doing commercials and I’m in the studio and I’m on a dolly and I think of a shot and I just plop the camera off the tripod and I get really low with it and I get my shot really quick… I don’t think any camera really does that as well as ARRI does. There’s really only, like, six, screws that make it a big setup… ARRI really built my favorite camera.”

Nik's indie package build.

Freestyle Filmworks also offers an Indie Package, it’s the one with the Canon CN-E- primes. In Michael’s mind, rigging the Alexa Mini properly means building with items that meet ARRI standards.

“This package, for $1,000 a day, you can go out and shoot a short film. This everything you need to get up and running camera-wise. This has all the basic support, tripod system, monitor system, follow-focus, everything.... It’s just a nice, clean, simple, package. We tend to use a mostly ARRI support. I’m not a big fan of not buying third party generic. I like the best, so I stick with ARRI matte boxes, we stick with ARRI follow-focuses… I feel like if we have the best, the work will be the best and there will be no debating. It’s just the best.”

ARRI doesn’t make everything though, so you have to go third-party for batteries and rigs. Both Michael and Nik use Anton Bauer Cine 150’s to power the Alexa Mini. For Michael, Anton Bauer created batteries that perfectly fit the Alexa Mini’s design.

“These are the Anton Bauer Cine 150’s, so they’re made of carbon fiber. First off, they just fuckin’ look cool. They’re the sexiest looking batteries on the market. With two of those, you can run a Mini for a whole day. Considering the power-to-weight ratio of these things, I mean, they’re the way. They look cool, they last a long time, and they’re light. And I also like the square build of them because they built them that way to counterbalance the lighter cameras now. So, if you look at the line, the way they sort of go backwards further than previous versions of Anton Bauers. The way they sit on the camera creates a counterbalance… You know, the Mini’s not balanced at all, it’s just a box. You have to create this modular system for it and then it balance, so to have this counterbalance system that goes to the back to power it is just amazing right out of the gate.”

They also both use the same cage. As Michael describes it, the TiltaMax cage seemed to come out of nowhere two years ago, but it remains the best option for the Alexa Mini.

Nik's Package

“It’s funny because everyone is using, you know, like Wooden Camera. There’s so many other companies that are making stuff that works great for AMIRA’s or works great for RED’s. I’d never even heard of TiltaMax and when I was doing research for Mini support, every Mini I saw had a TiltaMax cage on it. I was like, ‘What is this company and why did everyone sign on so quick?’ They just jumped out of the gate with a better design than anyone else and everyone bought it. It became industry standard right away… It’s super functional, super modular, we can strip it down for the MoVi, they built it for all of these things. It’s super modular Just like the camera is… We just bought a MoVi Pro and put it on there and all the parts of the Tilta cage work perfectly with it like it was designed that way, but the MoVI Pro is three months old and the Tilta cage is two years old.”

Michael's Package

Freestyle Filmworks and Nik Shaw both offer top-level packages as well. As extensions of their philosophies on the Alexa Mini, both Nik and Michael have pretty simple responses for the thinking on these packages.

Nik’s Elite Package is a hybrid of his Indie and MoVI packages, and everything you will need to operate both.

“It’s pretty much everything I own in one package [laughs].”

FreeStyle Filmworks’ Pro Package is designed around commercial productions, meaning it sticks with the CN-E primes.

“This has all the bells and whistles. This has wireless video, this has everything… This is for a commercial production. You’re getting a 21” Flanders Scientific director’s monitor, which is calibrated to lighting and color, you’re getting a lot of stuff for this.”

The joy or anxiety, depending on how you look at it, of modular cameras is that you could fill an encyclopedia with customization options for just one camera. If you’re interested in shooting with the Alexa Mini, I encourage you to explore the what Nik Shaw and Freestyle Filmworks offer in greater detail, or check out other options on ShareGrid. If you have an Alexa Mini rig that you’re proud of, be sure to hit me up at brentlz@sharegrid.com and we can post about it.

Happy shooting, filmmakers!

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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