I don't think I've met a single filmmaker in recent years who hasn't wondered about the Arri Alexa. Even with so much competition in the digital cinema camera market, it is undeniable that the Arri Alexa is without a doubt the camera to beat. In many ways, the Alexa look has even replaced the film in terms of the basic aesthetic that most filmmakers today strive for. I described this feeling in more detail in a previous blog post here.
What makes it so great For a long time, people have brought it to the dynamic range. When the Alexa was first introduced, there were very few cameras near the DR that Alexa was able to deliver. But today there are many cameras with dynamic range that are at least within reach of the Alexa – and yet none of them looks so good.
The reason for this is simple: color science. In my opinion, color is more important than anything else when it comes to the visual perception of a filmic image. Resolution, dynamic range, grain, cadence of movement and many other factors also play an important role … But color science is at the top of this list. A camera with less dynamic range but better color science looks "more cinematic" than a camera with high dynamic range and poor color science. I believe that many of Sony's recent offerings clearly support this point.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of independent filmmakers, Alexa is simply too expensive a tool. Even Arri's cheapest deals (like Alexa Mini and Amira) cost between $ 35,000 and $ 45,000 as a base price, and increase significantly as the accessories are added. This has inevitably led many low-budget filmmakers to desperate for affordable Alexa alternatives that can deliver similar image quality at a lower cost.
It's worth noting that the only way to get the exact "Alexa look" you're looking for is to actually shoot an Arri Alexa (or Arri Amira). Some selected cameras have come fairly close to Alexa’s legendary image quality in recent years and should be seen as viable alternatives for filmmakers who don’t want to break the bank.
Below is a short list of three cameras that I think represent colors and images that are most similar to the Arri Alexa. Note that the list below does not necessarily reflect usability, features / specifications, ergonomics, reliability, and many other considerations. Rather, these cameras were chosen based on the properties of their image quality – especially the color quality – and their strength alongside the Alexa.
Let's go. In order of the most expensive to least:
PANASONIC VARICAM LT – $ 16,500
With a price tag of over $ 16,000 for the body or over $ 27,000 after full equipment, the Varicam LT is clearly an expensive investment. Nevertheless, it is at least 2-3 times cheaper than an Arri Alexa brand, depending on how each camera is configured. Not to mention that the LT as a rental item costs far less than the Alexa and will generally be much more accessible to filmmakers on a budget.
Let's take a look at some of the technical data:
- Single Super 35mm MOS sensor
- Interchangeable stainless steel EF bracket
- Dual native ISO 800/5000
- 14 stops of dynamic range with V-Log
- 4K up to 60 fps, 2K / HD up to 240 fps
- Simultaneous dual codec recording
- Selectable gamma curves
- Removable IR cut filter
- AVC-Intra, ProRes
- 3.5-inch LCD control panel
Obviously, this camera has some incredibly powerful features, namely two native ISO features that allow users to choose between ISO 800 and ISO 5000 as a base. Above all, the subjective image quality of the LT is absolutely incredible and probably one of the best that there is today.
Panasonic Varicam LT – $ 16,500 at B&H
The Varicam LT has the same sensor as its bigger brother (the Varicam 35), which took some really great looking content – including the original Netflix series “Master of None”. Not only do both cameras have beautiful dynamic ranges that allow them to create detailed, rich images, they also render extremely organic colors. This is what ultimately helps them that Alexa looks different above all. While the footage from the Varicam LT may not exactly match the Alexa footage on the card, the files in the post are very flexible and can easily keep up after grading.
CANON C300 MK II – $ 11,999
I have had a love-hate relationship with Canon for a long time and currently don't have any of their cinema cameras. With this in mind, I can't deny that the Canon C300 MK II excels in the color department, which is not really a surprise. Over the years, Canon has fallen by the wayside as other manufacturers have driven laps with higher frame rates, higher resolution, and better overall specs. However, Canon has always delivered some of the best colors, which is why this is still particularly relevant.
Before we proceed, here are some specifications for the C300 MK II:
- Super 35mm CMOS sensor
- 4K, 1920 × 1080 60 / 50i, 23.98 / 25p True 24p
- Canon XF AVC H.264 codec
- EF lens mount
- Dual pixel CMOS AF technology
- Rotating 4-inch LCD monitor
- 2x 3G-SDI output, 2x XLR inputs
- 2x CFast card slots
- Timecode I / O, Genlock In & Sync Out
- Canon Log 2 Gamma
Canon's C-series cameras have a long history in which they promise too little and deliver too much. Your cameras never look good on paper, but they always seem to deliver really strong images that go far beyond what you can expect from them based on their technical data sheets alone. Canon has also been accused of overpricing their cameras (I'm sure I pointed them out myself), but with the recent price drop of $ 4,000, the C300 Mark II is now more accessible than ever. And although their colors don't always look like Alexa right away, Canon has a new trick in their sleeves –
The C300 MK II now has a “Production” camera profile that mimics the color science of the Arri Alexa. Combined with Arri & # 39; s Rec. 709 conversion LUT in the post, the resulting images between the two cameras are almost too close to reveal the difference. For this reason, the C300 MK II is often used as a B camera for the Arri Alexa or simply as an inexpensive alternative to the A camera.
Canon C300 Mark II – $ 11,999 at B&H
For those of you who don't think you can get great narrative results with the C300 MK II, I would like to remind you that the winner of the Cannes Palm D & # 39; or 2013 (blue is the warmest color) with the original Canon C300 was added.
BLACKMAGIC CINEMA CAMERA 2.5K – $ 1995
By far the best bargain on this list was the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera, which was celebrated for good reason as the "Alexa Mini" when it was first released. Although the ergonomics, structure and overall design of the BMCC could not be more different than that of the Alexa, the overall image quality is one of the best matches with the Alexa to this day. The subtle colors, high dynamic range and natural texture of the BMCC images are just a few of the reasons why this camera has disturbed the cinema camera industry in such a dramatic way.
Here are the specifications:
- 2.5K image sensor
- 12-bit RAW, ProRes and DNxHD formats
- 13 stops of dynamic range
- 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97, 30p frame rates
- Canon EF lens mount
- LCD touch screen with metadata entry
- SDI video output and Thunderbolt port
- Microphone / line audio inputs
- Records on removable SSD drives
- Contains DaVinci Resolve and UltraScope
The fact that the original BMCC was even shot at 2.5K (very close to the 2.7K ARRIRAW features of the older Alexa model) made it even more compatible with the Alexa than B-Cam or C-Cam. But as I said above, the most important consideration here is color science, and the 2.5K BMCC has some of the strongest color science I've seen on a camera so far. I am a big fan of Blackmagic and am currently taking pictures with their URSA Mini 4.6K (also a fantastic camera), but it looks a lot different than the BMCC 2.5K.
Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K – $ 1995 at B&H
With the URSA Mini 4.6K, Blackmagic has started to define a “look” for itself, similar to how RED did with its camera setup. It goes without saying that the 4.6K produces beautiful images all along the line, but they have their own personality, while the original 2.5K BMCC comes closer to an exact match with the Alexa – at least for me.
Arri has managed to go gold with the Alexa in the color department, and as stated above in this post, the only way to get a perfect Alexa look is to actually take a picture with an Arri Alexa or Arri Amira. However, the cameras on this list can be brought very close if they are dealt with directly on the set and in the post. As soon as you know the special features and limitations of these cameras (or another camera), you can make the most of them from a technical point of view.
Post-production and color processing are also enormous. Taking pictures with a color card on the set and effectively balancing your shots in the mail are two of the most important steps to ensure you get the best results. In the end, your skills on the set and in the color suite will be the biggest factors in your overall ability to achieve a cinematic look, and that should never be overlooked.
If you want to improve your results in the color department, be sure to read my recently released Cinema LUT Packs by clicking here.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!