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Cinematography with a Compact Form Factor: Assessing ARRI’s Alexa Mini Camera

The camera is intended for applications where size, weight and flexible rigging are crucial, but other functions, like audio recording, are less important.

We’re going to have to rethink our concepts about size when it comes to high-end digital 4K cameras. ARRI has long been the gold standard for broadcast/film shoots with its venerable Alexa, introduced at the NAB Show in 2010. It’s a solid, high-performing camera in a body that operates much like a traditional film camera.

Not content to rest on their laurels, ARRI executives unveiled Alexa Mini, a Lilliputian breakthrough, in February at London’s Broadcast Video Expo. Alexa Mini is packaged in a lightweight and compact form factor. It is intended for applications where size, weight and flexible rigging are crucial, but other functions, like audio recording, are less important.

The camera is able to record all the typical ARRI ProRes flavors, up to ProRes 4444 XQ in 16:9 HD, 2K Cine, 3.2K and UHD. Alexa Mini is built on the same ALEV III sensor as used in other Alexa models and in Amira, although to date the sensor is cropped to a 16:9 aspect ratio. 4:3 with anamorphic de-squeeze as well as internal ARRIRAW recording and support for external recorders will become available through paid upgrades scheduled for release later in 2015.

ARRI Alexa Mini

The forthcoming functionality will enable internal recording of uncompressed ARRIRAW to CFast 2.0 cards at frame rates up to 30 fps. ARRI is working with Codex to ensure that the ARRIRAW workflow remains streamlined and straightforward—Codex will offer a new external recorder that is expected to be able to record a maximum of 120 fps of uncompressed 2.8K ARRIRAW per camera, up to a combined max total of 360 fps from up to four Alexa Minis.

Designed for specialized shot-making, Alexa Mini features a super-lightweight carbon fiber body (it weighs about 5 pounds including PL lens mount and built-in motorized ND filters) and frame rates of 0.75 to 200 fps in ProRes. It outputs UHD (3840 x 2160) with the help of in-camera upscaling. Native resolution outputs include uncompressed ARRIRAW 2.8K and ProRes 3.2K.

List price of the Alexa Mini is $45,000 (body only). As there are several lens mount options, the lens mount is sold separately. For Alexa Mini, ARRI developed a lightweight titanium PL mount with an integrated L-Bus interface that allows the daisy-chaining of up to three cforce lens motors directly from the camera without the need for an external motor controller. In addition, all Amira lens mounts—the EF mount and the B4 and steel PL mounts with Hirose connector—will work on the Alexa Mini as well.

Alexa Mini in Freefly Systems’ MoVI M15 gimbal

Optional accessories include the MVF-1 viewfinder, which combines a high-resolution OLED eyepiece with fold-away LCD monitor, and the Transvideo StarliteHD5-ARRI 5-inch OLED monitor with touch functionality and integrated H.264 recorder.

“ARRI completed the transformation from an analog camera company to a digital camera company with the introduction of the Alexa in 2010,” says Bill Russell, vice president of camera products for ARRI. “Alexa was used primarily on a tripod, while other cameras were used for specialized rigs or aerial shots. We created a companion camera for the Alexa, making it as small and lightweight as it could be. Since the sensors in the Alexa line are all the same, we are confident the images from all models intercut seamlessly. The Mini is built with the quality, precision and durability you expect from ARRI.”

One of the tantalizing features of the Alexa Mini is the ability to control it wirelessly. “This is something that is part of the modern design of the Alexa series,” Russell says, “which will let you control some functions of the camera from an iPad or iPhone, or you can get complete remote control with ARRI’s own Wireless Control Unit.”

Paul Sommers

As new as it is, the ARRI Alexa Mini has already met the test of some top videographers. For example, director of photography Paul Sommers has used it on the FOX series Empire.

Cinematographer Paul Sommers has used an Alexa Mini on the FOX series Empire. Pictured here, Empire’s Bryshere Gray and Taraji P. Henson. Photo by Chuck Hodes/FOX.

“Somebody told me we got the very first one,” Sommers says, “and by now we have a full system with accessories including the [Cinematography Electronics] Cine Tape Measure Control plugged into the body, which my assistant loves. We use it primarily on a Steadicam, or on a crane or on handheld gimbals. Since Empire is a performance show, anything we can do to make the camera lighter helps the operator.”

Sommers’ experience has only endeared him to the Alexa Mini. “By now, having worked with the camera, I find the Mini actually has more functionality than most of the normal Alexas,” Sommers says. “It even has more dynamic range, almost a whole stop, than the classic Alexa. It’s not just the sensor—it’s all the electronics that ARRI puts behind the sensor that make the difference. I’d have no fear having three Minis as my main shooting package.”

Could he suggest any improvements?

Cinematographer Richard Rutkowski on the set of Manhattan

“Well, my B-camera crews could use some more power ports on the camera, but I know there are some after-market cages that offer that,” he says. “Other than that, the Mini has really been pretty bulletproof ever since it showed up.”

Richard Rutkowski

“We started using the Mini as a third body on a Steadicam when we first got it early in 2015,” recalls Richard Rutkowski, the DP on Lionsgate’s Manhattan, which airs on WGN America, “but since it could record ARRIRAW, we quickly learned it was even more powerful than the other ARRI cameras, despite its smaller package.”

Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, left) and Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern) in Manhattan.

Rutkowski found ways to take advantage of the Mini’s diminutive form. “I thought about handheld, and tucking the Mini into hidden parts of a car,” he says. “There is always that shot where you want to stick the camera up against the ceiling or hidden into a corner. It’s in those situations that the Mini shines.”

With less than a year with the Mini, he has already amortized its cost. “Over the year, I have customized the Mini to fit my style of shooting, and I now use it on two interesting TV shows. I bring it with me to the set of The Americans for FX and Manhattan for WGN. Fortunately, their seasons don’t overlap. When I’m not using the Mini myself, I rent it out to help cover the cost, so in addition to making my job easier, it also works as an investment.”

Casey Warren and Danielle Krieger

Filmmakers Casey Warren and Danielle Krieger of Mindcastle Studios shot a short with the Alexa Mini, a visual poem called “The Journey.”

The Journey – Directed by Casey Warren & Danielle Krieger from Casey Warren | MINDCASTLE on Vimeo.

“We’ve been working with Michael Jonas at ARRI over the past year to help design the Alexa Mini,” says Warren, “and he was very receptive to our suggestions.”

ARRI Alexa Mini shoots “The Journey”

Krieger says, “Our input was geared toward making the Mini a primary camera, since we come from the world of using small cameras as our A-camera. We were really looking for something the size of a DSLR but with far greater capabilities. ‘Journey’ was actually shot with three preproduction Minis.”

Now that they’ve had a chance to work with several of them, what do they feel are the Mini’s greatest strengths?

Mindcastle Studios’ UAV-mounted Alexa Mini

“Once the 4:3 software is out, even feature films will be able to shoot anamorphic with it,” Warren explains. “And you will eventually be able to record raw directly on the CFast 2.0 cards inside the camera. With ARRI’s policy of upgrading the camera’s software and firmware, it is like constantly getting a whole new camera.”

Danielle Krieger really appreciated the Mini’s built-in motorized ND filters (0.6, 1.2, 2.1). “That is really huge,” she says. “We used them all the time on ‘Journey.’ It means you don’t have to put a filter in front of the camera lens, and you don’t have to change your T-stop if it is too bright out to match a previous scene.”

August Thurmer

In the Los Angeles area, August Thurmer is an independent DP specializing in commercials who had had his Alexa Mini for about two months when we spoke. He has been busy with it on Ford and Mazda spots, as well as a documentary for Levis and a promo for Patagonia clothes.

“I use the Mini as my A-camera because it functions as an Alexa but gives me the advantage of faster frame rates, and those internal NDs save me a great deal of time,” he says. “The only thing it lacks over its bigger brother is camera controls on the body, but you can utilize the settings on the EVF or control it wirelessly from your laptop. Now that we have grown accustomed to it and have learned to use the ARRI WCU-4, which is the ARRI wireless remote, we find the camera easy to operate.”

Cinematographer August Thurmer

ARRI does not position the Alexa Mini as a replacement for Alexa, noting that the Alexa XT M, for example, may be preferable over the Mini to some users due to the higher ARRIRAW frame rates, or in situations (aerial shoots, for example) where the capacity of the Mini’s internal CFast 2.0 cards is too limiting. Mini is intended as a flexible companion camera that will work well alongside ARRI’s bigger cameras and complement them.

Thurmer says, “I like the robustness of the ARRI Alexa. When I’m shooting car commercials and I need to mount a camera on a pursuit car or somewhere it is going to take a lot of impact, I’d still prefer an Alexa. But if you have to put a camera inside a car, or hanging off a door, or inside a dashboard, the Mini will let you get into spaces the other camera simply will not fit. The important point is the images it records will intercut without a loss of quality. It gives you peace of mind on the set. Since I come from a film background, I am a strong supporter of the ARRI cameras.”

Can the good be made better?

“I would definitely like a stronger connector for the EVF, something along the lines of what the Alexa has,” he says. “The Mini uses a small connector like an HDMI variant and it is always back-ordered, so something less proprietary would be a step forward. Otherwise, the Alexa Mini is a great choice for anyone looking for a cinematic camera in a small form factor.”