5 Things I Hate About You…

The curse of the Alexa is it's extension viewfinder mount

Sound’s a bit dramatic doesn’t it ?  Sorry about that..

I’ve just wrapped on 100 Bloody Acres and after a pretty punishing shoot, I started thinking about just how great the Arri Alexa camera is.  And I wanted to try and think about how to make an already great camera perfect.

Our gear package from Lemac was a single bog-standard Arri Alexa, along with some stupendous Hawk 1.3x Anamorphic lenses.

100 Bloody Acres was pretty tough gig for the gear.  We were shooting is some fairly hot and very dirty conditions.  Despite a ruthless regime of nightly cleaning, it only took a few minutes on set before you could write your initials in the dust settling on the top of the camera… (and now I’m hoping the guys from Lemac aren’t reading this !)

The dust was so fine that it just got into everything.  It was like red talc.  It looks great on screen…most of the time it just hung in the air as extra atmosphere on our shed interiors.   But it was so fine that it just clung to everything.

Despite all that, the camera did not stop working once.  Not a single re-boot, not a software glitch. It was quite disconcerting to see my 1st AC Frank Hruby nonchalantly blowing air up through the cooling vent at the back and literally seeing clouds of dust coming out of the camera

My Loader from 100 Bloody Acres is wondering why he can't load the media on the offside of the camera

I’ve done a fair bit with the Arri Alexa now. I’ve actually grown quite fond of it.  It really is very reliable performer, even in the toughest of conditions.  There is so much to like about it.  Most importantly of course are the pictures.  But….

I started wondering if there were five things I could find that I didn’t like about the camera….it took a little while to get to five and here they are, in no particular order….

  1. The viewfinder mounting.

OK, there is an order in this case.  The number one idiotic annoying every-day-I-grapple with-it problem with the Alexa is the way they’ve mounted the viewfinder.  What on earth where they thinking when they designed this mount ?  I mean to look at, it seems sturdy enough.  It seems to even promise doing what you want…making it possible to orient the viewfinder and have it stay where you need it.  And yet I’m constantly wrestling with the knobs to get it “just right”.  When hand held, it’s almost impossible to reach half the fiddly knobs you need to reach to make it work.

And the Extension viewfinder is worse than the bamboo scaffolding I’ve seen in Vietnam.   It’s got a magical ability to magnify whatever issues you have with the short eyepiece mounting by a factor of ten.

So a big raspberry to the designer of the VF mounting and the extension mounting for making me suffer every single day I use the Alexa.

2.  Controls for the operator are on the dumb side…recording media on the operator side ?

Alexa is a drama camera, not an ENG camera.  I don’t understand the logic of having the card slots for this camera on the operators side….well actually on your right cheek !  I mean if the camera purred the way an Arricam did when you ran it with film I’d happily nuzzle my ear next to the card slot and listen to those bytes being recorded as a final check that the loader had laced the digital magazine properly.

Sadly that final audible check you had for film is no longer required.  So please, let’s move the card slots to the dumb side of the camera where a loader can quietly reload the camera and the operator doesn’t have to take their eye away form the viewfinder.

And while we’re at it, lets move the control panel to the operators side.  Annoyingly, you can control and access some things but I’m constantly finding myself reaching around the camera to access menus and functions.  By all means, have a status screen on the offside so the loader or 1st AC can verify the settings but the controls belong on the operator’s side.

3.  A diopter that stays where you leave it.

You’d think with nearly 100 years of making cameras, Arri would be able to make a viewfinder with a diopter that simply stayed where you left it last.  Apparently not.

4.  A gigantic viewfinder cable and Lemo connector right next to the lens mount.

Theres no reason to have the viewfinder connector so close to the lens mount.  In fact, the position of the connector and cable, means that Arri had to change the way the PL mount rotates to allow for the gigantic cable that looks like it could easily carry the entire broadband capacity of a major city through it’s wires.  Returning to problem number 1, maybe it could even be integrated into the viewfinder mount ?  It certainly has no place anywhere near the front of the camera. (nor does the audio input connector for that matter)

5.  Recording natively something better than 1920 resolution on board without having to resort to big expensive off board recorders.

I love Alexa for her pictures, but there is something very special about having a 4K file to be able to work with.  Yes even for TV.  I’ve shot multiple seasons of TV drama using RED, and that extra resolution has saved me countless times.

Yes, I know I can use wildly impractical and expensive external recorders to record Arri Raw, but it makes it all rather unwieldy.  Another thing to attach to the camera and power and another thing to go wrong when you don’t have the connections right…

It’s just ugly.

So please go licence cineform or make your own compression, but just copy RED and give us a compressed RAW recording with more resolution please.  After my tests for 100 Bloody acres, I could BARELY see any difference between Pro Res 4:4:4 1920 and Arri RAW uncompressed.  Uncompressed isn’t needed.  I’d rather have compression with more resolution please.

So it turns out there are a few things that aren’t quite perfect with the Alexa…in fact they’re sometimes downright annoying….

It’s hard to stay angry with her though.  She really does make some pretty pictures….

Have you got anything you find annoying ? Let me know….

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
This entry was posted in Equipment, Production and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to 5 Things I Hate About You…

  1. Nick Paton ACS says:

    Talking to ARRI there is in fact a mod part for the diopter to fix the issue.

  2. Markus Schindler says:

    Hey John,

    I really like this article! I definitely agree with all the points.

    At first, has Lemac supplied the Hawk lenses? I just worked on a big production with
    them, and they’re just amazing, especially to keep the cineast film look while shooting
    with digital. But Cook’s, without that quadratic front are way easier to clean!

    The whole diopter thing is really a pain. I tried to fix it with tape, but after a while
    you will anyway lose the whole eyepiece adapter so it wasn’t very successful after all.
    The mounting system is also a bit dodgy. I find out that there’s maybe just a few
    situation where it is actually quiet handy that you can easily separate the viewfinder
    from the cam. For example when you’re putting the alexa into a fridge and you still
    wanna see a good quality picture, so basically all the places you can hardly reach.

    I found it quiet nice that I could build up such a good relation to my DoP that he let
    me fondle his cheek several times a day. I mean, I was only the loader!?

    There’s one thing left that I can criticize how this wonderful camera was build.
    It’s the bottom – back mount. When you’re setting the Alexa up to steadicam,
    you have to do that upside down, because if you don’t have a special custom made
    bracket for the bottom back mount, you can’t really work with it.
    What are your experiences in that point?

    Cheers.

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hi Markus.

      The lenses actually came via Vantage in Germany.

      I ended up with a small bit of velcro and using that to try and stop the diopter turning but even that didn’t work and was ugly.

      My steadicam operator indeed has the same custom plate made in a machine shop locally to make it work.

      Nice to hear your thoughts.

      jb

  3. Markus Schindler says:

    Hi John!

    Vantage also supplied the lenses for my last production, and we did our tests at their
    headquarter in weiden, germany.
    It’s a pretty good rental house. Cool that you’ve explicitly got those lenses!
    I forgot that they’re making their money the same way as panavision, by only renting but not
    selling the Hawk lenses.

    Some further thoughts came to my mind: putting a standard eye-leather (I hope you know what
    I mean) onto this plastic eyepiece was quite difficult. I asked the rental house if they’ve
    got some special ones for the alexa, but they said no.

    And the last thing. To have more 2-pin lemo plugs would be good. We always had too
    use different splitters when we wanted to power up 2 monitors and the cine-measure tape
    at once. It was easier with the Alexa Plus, I think anyway some of it’s feature should
    be included into the standard version.

    I would appreciate to hear if you ever had some digital failures with the alexa footage?
    We once had “digital ghosting”, I never heard of it before, but it was impressive. Of course
    in a bad way.

    And another question, do you work with DIT’s in australia? How important are
    LUT’s for your work on set?

    Best regards,
    Markus

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hello Again Markus, thanks for your comments.

      Extra Lemos ? I guess that’s why they have the plus right ?😉 Actually, I’ve found if you can get batteries with the D-Tap connector built into them, along with the D-Tap on the mount itself, then you have two extra connections right there. I would prefer Lemo to D-Tap because it’s pretty easy to force the plug in the wrong way, causing a short. And a short on a lithium battery can be very very bad.

      I’ve done two TV shows (drama series) and now a movie with Alexa, and I haven’t seen anything that’s been WRONG in a technical sense of the word. You can get something I call the venetian blind effect
      https://johnbrawley.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/the-old-venetian-blind-trick/
      but every camera has this issue, Alexa isn’t exclusive.

      DIT’s ? There are certainly DIT’s in Australia, but I’m personally not usually a fan of that model. Even with RED, I prefer to treat it like film and have the footage *processed* off site, back at the lab. There’s no advantage to me to processing on location. I certainly never have time to look or check anything or do any grading, so it’s really only to back up footage. And why on earth would you back up footage on set, a more hostile environment than back in an office where the setup stays the same.

      Thanks again for your feedback !

      jb

  4. Toby Oliver says:

    Good post John…
    Yes, some problems with the Alexa i can share….
    Um….

    Hmmm…. well… er…

    Oh well, yes the diopter slipping is a hassle. I used tape. Need a lock off nut or something.
    And it could be lighter…. bit on the heavy side perhaps, especially when you think of a camera like a C300….

    But overall, quibbles really. It’s great camera to have with you in the heat of battle on a TV drama.

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hi Toby.

      Don’t get me wrong… I love the Alexa ! It’s just a little spoiled by a few niggling little things ! Um..and yes…I agree…She is heavy too…heavier than a RED !

      jb

      • Toby Oliver says:

        hey jb, yep, heavier than a RED MX – and WAY heavier than a C300… I had a C300 on appraisal this week – man, the low light ability is freakish… I will do a post on it when i get a chance

  5. John,
    An ARRI colleague forwarded your comments to me. I am traveling, so may not be able to engage in a lot of back and forth, but let me comment on these issues. First of all, thanks for the feedback. While it is very nice to hear positive feedback, I actually prefer to hear negative feedback on the camera as that allows us to improve things. So keep it coming!

    1. Viewfinder Mounting Bracket
    You are right. We changed it, and the new one is called Viewfinder Mounting Bracket VMB-2. Much better.

    2a. Control for the operator – this is a tricky one. There are markets where the assistant is on the right side. If the controls were on the left side, your head would cover it and you would have to step away each time the assistant wanted to even see anything. There really is no good way to do this, so we tried to make sure that the most important settings are also available in the viewfinder (fps, shutter, EI, etc.). If you absolutely must have the full display on the camera left side, you can use the RCU-4, which is an exact duplicate of the camera right side display in a box.

    2b. SxS PRO slots on the left side – the back is taken with the fan and cooling system, so it was left or right, and since the display is on the right,…

    3. Diopter Рagain, you are right. We now have an upgrade kit for the diopter that makes it work like the film style diopters. Ask your rental house to get it from ARRI Service. The only excuse I have (if any can be made for this kind of thing) is that we wanted to hit a certain price point (because you guys had bought all those REDs and we were very concerned that ALEXA would be too expensive), and that meant some compromises (ugh!). In general I think we did well (as your experience seems to prove), but with some items I am not so happy, like VMB-1 and this !Ӥ$%&/()=? diopter moving.

    4. Viewfinder cable – I had specified that the viewfinder had to have 1 frame or less of delay, and that was only possible with a proprietary interface between the camera and the viewfinder. Thus the big-ass proprietary cable, and thus also the proximity to the PL mount. With high frequency connections (as are needed for low delay), every inch of cable inside the camera counts, and that is where the shortest connection to the boards could be made. Additionally, we went round and round and finally chose what we thought was the least-bad place. Believe me, there are much worse places to put the connector. In the end I think it is worth the low delay in the viewfinder.

    5. Better resolution in-camera. Another tricky one. However, there are less expensive external recorders coming on line soon for ARRIRAW. Plus, we are working on ways to get some more resolution out of the existing sensor, and have had great success with uprezzing from ARRIRAW to 4K. Turns out, the better the original image, the better the uprezzed result. We still believe that overall image quality is more important than just resolution (even though I do understand that extra resolution can be handy), and the ALEXA sensor provides the best overall image quality.

    And to the Steadicam plate issue – we are working on a special Steadicam plate for ALEXA, that should solve those issues.

    Marc Shipman-Mueller
    ARRI Product Manager Camera Systems

  6. johnbrawley says:

    Hi Marc,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. It’s great to even have the sense that a manufacturer is listening, and even to agree that some things could be done better !

    I did a quick search around on the VMB2, but it’s hard to tell much about what’s different. I’ll have to look out for it. More crucially, I didn’t see any images of it in an extension viewfinder mode, and that’s what I most would like to see….and try !

    I’ve never thought about the position of the focus puller relative to the operator. I guess when I think about it I am used to natively having the focus puller on the ON SIDE, or the camera left side, but there are plenty of times for the shot when the operator is on the offside. I guess you’re saying that there are places where the natural position of the operator is the offside ? IN any case, one workaround for the focus puller to see the camera’s important status is to use an on board monitor. At least there you do get crucial stuff like battery, frame rate, shutter angle, ISO etc. It’s not like it’s completely terrible where it is now either !

    With the card slots, I wouldn’t object at all and would prefer to still have them on the offside, even behind the control panel ? For the few times as an operator that it would be nice to have them on the onside, most of the time I’d rather not be bothered by it. In fact, I feel like that happens more often than needing to control parameter of the camera from the control panel. Mostly, those project wide settings are set once for the shoot and never touched again.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the upgraded diopter. Great that you’ve addressed this.

    I’ll take your word for it when you say that’s where the connector had to go…still…anywhere not on that face would have been better (say the top maybe where the VMB goes ?)

    I’ve used the ASTRO recorder. I’m sorry to say it still sucks. It’s not really the astro’s fault. It’s just what happens when you have an off-board recorder and I hate it the fuss and clutter of it. (off board recording). Actually the Astro looks to be a good solution to an unfixable issue….

    The image quality is amazing no doubt. And a great point of difference. I’m really looking forward to seeing where Arri take things from here and congrats on making such a wonderful camera.

    jb

  7. Tico says:

    Great observations. I agree. Smack on. And great response by Arri, too. It’s great to work with a camera that prompts a cinematographer to remark about stuff that, in the end, is really made of not so critical things. You know, peeves, that are really not deal-breakers, so to speak. To me, that’s a sign of a good camera. And so is the Alexa, IMHO. With all the cameras out there today, all things considered, I’d rather shoot with Alexa any day. And count my blessings while rolling with the punches you mention in the article. Pretty pictures is all I want in the end. And the Alexa delivers, as you point out. Many happy returns. Cheers.

  8. Very interesting and useful post and so nice to see a company answering your points in such a professional level headed manner personally!!

  9. Pingback: Items of Interest – 20-Feb-12 to 26-Feb-12 | KARTHIK82.COM

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