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01 September 2011

There’s been a huge revolution in cameras over the last year or so, largely centred on the all encompassing popularity of a single camera – the Arri Alexa, as Jake Bickerton reports

It all used to be so easy. If you were doing TV work, you’d grab your trusty DigiBeta and off you’d head. Then there were film cameras for films and high-end commercials. Nice and straightforward.

Nowadays choosing a camera couldn’t be more different. File-based production, HD, DSLRs and the widespread adoption of 35mm sensors have shaken everything up. There are now many, many different cameras and formats aimed at different niches, each with their own good reasons to choose or leave on the shelf depending on what you want to shoot, how mobile you need to be, the kind of ‘look’ you’re going for and the budget you have available.

The frequency of new camera releases has failed to slow down over the last 12 months but the market has settled down somewhat with a number of key models establishing themselves at the forefront of popular choice, leaving an ever 
growing pile of less successful models behind.

Alexa takeover
t’s very much been the year of the Arri Alexa, which has managed to gain a stranglehold on the high-quality digital 35mm market very quickly indeed. It’s principally found favour with DoPs that have, until now, been reluctant to give up their trusty 35mm film cameras for the shiny new world of digital cinematography.

The Red One was the first camera to draw film DoPs away from film cameras, but many did so with a list of reservations. The Alexa is the first digital 35mm model that is truly loved by DoPs.

The Alexa makes the transition very easy, emphasising the benefits of file-based production while providing the familiarity of use DoPs were nervous to leave behind. “Film DoPs were pushed into using the Red before, as it was the first affordable digital camera for promos, virals and so on, but DoPs used to shooting on film didn’t really like the Red,” believes hire company S+O Media’s co-founder and DoP Olly Wiggins.

“The Alexa has the backing of Arri, which is a huge thing. It’s a very solid product that produces beautiful filmic pictures and people are very happy to use it.”

Many other camera hire companies stocking the Arri report similar feedback, and Peter Savage, md of finance company Azule, which has funded many Alexa purchases, says simply: “Over the summer we’d have died if it wasn’t for the rise of the Alexa. DoPs like to use something they feel comfortable with – this camera takes out lab processing but feels like a film camera. It has taken everything by storm and done what Red said it would do.”

Red’s fight back
Red’s response to the Alexa, whether it was designed to be or not, is the Red Epic, which has been promised for some time and has finally arrived on the market just in time to give the company something to help regain lost market share.
“The Alexa is on back order and has impacted on the popularity of the Red One quite a bit, but Red is back with the Epic. Then it’s up to the DoP and director which to go for, as budget-wise they are around the same hire rates,” sums up Danny Dawson, hire manager at hire company Alias, Smith and Singh.

Mike Fisher, creative director at short-form production outfit Sequence Creative thinks the Epic has a good chance of success: “Having seen footage from it, I’m really excited by the Epic. It looks incredible. Red totally changed the industry. The company approached everything in a very guerilla way, putting out beta releases. Now people expect them to be more mainstream and get frustrated and pissed off with delivery dates slipping, etc.”

Pro Cam’s operations manager Paul Sargeant is typical in saying the hire company has had a lot of interest in the Epic from clients: “A lot of people are asking about the Epic. It’s another little one to slot in. It’s at the Alexa level and we now have to get hold of one to have a play with it.”

David Phillips, head of digital at vfx/post/production house Prime Focus has had a reasonable amount of hands on experience with the Epic already and has been impressed with what he’s seen so far: “I did a demo with the Epic two weeks ago and have used it on a couple of jobs and been happy,” he says. “The footage looks great on the Assimilate Scratch. It has a 5k image to zoom in to and isn’t expensive. The workflow to post is also very straightforward, going through the Scratch – Assimilate and Red work well together.”

Comparing the Alexa to the Epic, Philips adds: “The Alexa ticks lots and lots of boxes and people are queuing up to use it. The difference between the Alexa and the Epic is the Alexa is a film camera built around a digital machine, while the Red is the other way around.”

The rise of the F3
Another model making plenty of waves over the last 12 months is Sony’s F3, which has found a home at a slightly lower end of the market than the Alexa and an audience almost as enthusiastic.

“There’s very much a place for both the F3 and the Alexa,” believes S+O’s Wiggins. “It’s wonderful to work with and great in low light, and there’s a wide range of PL-mount glasses to use. It’s been flying off the shelves and we’ve been investing in a lot more PL-mount lenses as well as adapters to use other lenses on the camera.”

Also spending heavily on the F3 is Pro Cam’s Sargeant: “We’ve heavily invested in F3s and now have 13 of them. We had a very big production – Made In Chelsea – that wanted the 35mm look and the budget wasn’t there for the Alexa, so the F3s were the best choice.”

“There’s a crazy demand for the F3 – the pictures are lovely so people want to jump on board,” adds Sargeant. “Lots of people are looking at it, and not just with the nanoFlash either – a lot of people are using it with the SxS cards, maybe for the 25% allowance for non-HD”

Similarly, Alias, Smith and Singh’s Dawson says: “We went the F3 route, which is robust and a recognised tool. It’s a lovely camera. Where you’ve tighter budgets but still want quality, there’s the F3.”
Ongoing success of DSLRs

The growth in the use of DSLRs, and more specifically the Canon 5D and 7D, for professional video productions, which started around two years ago, sees no sign of abating. And this despite the Canons falling short of the usual requirements for the professional market – with no time code, genlock, XLR inputs and so on – users have simply found ways around these potential stumbling blocks.

“The Canon 5D and 7D still gets a lot of use, as a B-camera and for promos, at the lower-end creative side,” says Prime Focus’s Phillips. “It’s not the most elegant of workflows but most people have found a way to do it. You need to be careful as there’s no time code, but people are aware of what to do now.”

“I thought we’d be scaling back on them by now but they have a good position in that a lot of people are familiar with them and the workflow,” agrees S+O’s Wiggins. “We hire out quite a few of them – they are great for web-based content and fine if you don’t blow up the footage too much. There are problems with the 5D if you compare it to the Epic, F3 and Alexa, but if you’ve a low budget and want the filmic look, it’s still your best option.”

Sequence Creative’s Fisher echoes these points: “DSLRs are really good at what they do, they’ve opened up a new market – you can put decent lenses on and they are cheap. It’s a way of making pretty images cheaply.”
And for camera hire companies, the ongoing popularity of the Canon DSLRs is to be encouraged: “The economics of these cameras is incredible,” says Azule’s Savage. “For a £4-7k camera, they go out for around £100/day or £400/week, which is an incredible return-on-investment for hire companies so most hire companies love them.”

The next step up
Panasonic and Sony have been busy either trying to kill off Canon’s DSLRs or at the very least opening up a new section of market to bridge the gap between Canon’s DSLRs and the F3s when going for that ubiquitous filmic look.
Panasonic’s AG-AF101 and Sony’s NEX-FS100E include all the things missing from the 5D and 7D for professional filmmaking, and it seems Panasonic’s model is establishing itself as the favoured choice.

“The Panasonic 101 is biting into the DSLR market quite a bit,” says Pro Cam’s Sargeant. “We tested it alongside the F3 and it’s not PL-mounted so wasn’t the best, but was still good. It’s been a slow burner, like a lot of Panasonic products, but it will definitely take away from the 5D now.”

He adds, about the Sony 100: “It’s like a baby F3 and is on my list of cameras to see at IBC, but I’ve not had anyone call up about it as yet.”

Alias, Smith and Singh’s Dawson disagrees about where the Panasonic sits in the market: “It isn’t really 
a Canon killer – it is creating a market not there before – but its advantages are fantastic, with genlock, time code and XLR.” He is less enthused by Sony’s 100: “I wouldn’t bother with it as the NXCAM format it’s based on hasn’t taken off. We’ve not had a single call for any NXCAM camera.”

Sony’s F65
Sony may have better success with its forthcoming F65, which is a 4k model (with an 8k sensor) that’s aimed at filmmakers at the top end of the market, including those currently extolling the virtues of the Alexa. “The F65 is going to be interesting and is very much on my list to see at IBC,” says Pro Cam’s Sergeant.

“There’s a lot of scope for the F65 – you have to make sure you have the right accessories, there won’t just be a standard package for it as it’s not like video, it’s going down the film route. It’s quite a big investment in everything that goes with it, including the lenses, but it bridges the gap between TV and film. It’s a good way to set ourselves up for film work, TV docs, drama and ads.”

Alias, Smith and Singh’s Dawson is also enthusiastic about seeing the F65: “Sony has been a late adopter with the F65, but it looks like it has a chance. People will know how to post it and the indication is the pricing will be similar to the Alexa. If that’s the case, Sony stands a chance of taking some of that market.”

Pricing up the options
The hire cost of the different filmic-look models, once they are packaged up with suitable lenses, helps place them in some sort of hierarchy. “The best choice of lenses for the F3 and Panasonic 101 are Carl Zeiss Compact Primes, which cost around £15-20k for a set,” says Dawson. “For the Alexa and Red you need Ultra Primes/Super Speeds, which are much faster but cost around £40-80k per set.”

“The rental costs reflect that, so a comparable F3 and Alexa kit with camera, lenses, legs and so on, is around £300 a day for the F3 and £500-£550 a day for the Red and Alexa. The purchase price of the Panasonic 101 is cheaper, but once you’ve added in the Compact Primes it’s not that much less than the F3 to hire.”
S+O’s Wiggins agrees: “Once you’ve added in the lenses, you’re getting closer to the Alexa price with the F3, and you’re having to put a nanoFlash on to get 50mb/s, which is a compromise. But there’s still around a £250/day difference in cost.”

Canon’s HD staple
With all the attention everyone is focusing on to the 35mm sensor and getting the filmic look, it’s easy to overlook the huge swathe of the market Canon has taken over for more run of the mill HD TV productions with its BBC-approved 50mb/s XF305.
“The Canon 305 is all encompassing in TV,” says Dawson. “For us, everything for TV is shot on the 305, so if Sony doesn’t launch a 50mb/s handheld camera very soon, we’ll just buy more 305s.”

Sargeant says the Canon 305 has also proved popular for Pro Cam. Perhaps even a little too popular: “The Canon 305 is still very popular, but production companies are starting to buy them now (as they did with the Sony Z1s) – it’s a no-brainer as it’s accepted by the BBC and not too much money and its accessories are simple.”

Panasonic announced a competing 50mb/s handheld model at NAB – the HPX250 – which Sargeant is particularly interested in seeing at IBC: “The Panasonic HPX250, which competes against the Canon 305, is another we’ll be looking at at IBC. But the P2 is always going to be an issue. The SxS and Compact Flash cards fly out the door but the P2 is very expensive so hasn’t really been taken up by production companies.”


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