65mm is Reborn: ARRI Alexa 65 Digital Cinema Camera

ARRI Alexa 65 in action on set

Christopher Nolan’s dream (nightmare?) has come true. The ARRI Alexa 65 is a new 6.5K digital cinema camera with a sensor equivalent to 65mm 5-perf film.

Go big or go home!
65mm is reborn in the digital age. It has now become possible for mere mortals to achieve—at least in terms of resolution, if not “texture”— a look that is closer to the epic 65mm/70mm films from Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. For a more recent reference, there’s INTERSTELLAR which Christopher Nolan and his DP Hoyte van Hoytema shot almost exclusively on 65mm IMAX film cameras.

The Revenant: trailer just in!


In fresher news, Alejandro Iñarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki partly filmed THE REVENANT, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, on the 6.5K digital large-format Alexa 65.

ARRI Alexa 65

Sensors Comparison: 35mm vs. S35mm vs. 65mm vs. VistaVision vs. Alexa 65

So why Digital 65mm over S35mm?

  1. Higher Resolution: The ARRI Alexa 65 sensor is slightly larger than a 65mm 5-perf film frame and is comprised of three Alexa digital sensors arranged vertically and seamlessly stitched together. The current Alexa XT camera maxes out at 3.8K with Open Gate ARRIRaw (ARRI had announced a 3.2K upgrade for the Alexa via software). Then there’s RED Dragon which gives you 6K off of a S35mm sensor, while the RED Epic does a respectable 5K. But that was basically all your high resolution options for digital cinema cameras. Up until now.
  2. Depth of Field: If you’ve shot with full-frame DSLRs such as the Canon 5D MK2/3, you know how gorgeous and impressionistic the depth of field can get at “wide open” apertures. In comparison, a giant 65mm sensor, by design, gives you even shallower depth of field and without needing to “open up” to ridiculously low apertures such as f/1.4 especially when you don’t need to. The practical advantage of the Alexa 65 is this: shallower depth of field at higher apertures (f/5.6, etc) during broad daylight. Great to isolate characters from the background or to get creamy bokeh, especially with anamorphic lenses.
  3. Smaller Form Factor and Reduced Weight: The ARRI Alexa 65 digital cinema camera is just slightly wider than the Alexa camera and weighs about 10kg/23lbs, which is less than half the weight of, say, that 20kg/42lbs beast called the IMAX film camera! The smaller form factor and reduced weight will ensure the DP or camera operator will not need serious chiropractic therapy! So, now, handheld operation and flying the 65mm camera on a Steadicam is a snap! Which means more creative possibilities for the filmmaker.
  4. Bonus! Matching With Other Digital Cinema Cameras: Alexa 65 will easily match the look and feel of the Alexa or Amira—and if you’re the ‘promiscuous’ type—as well as other digital cinema cameras such as the RED Dragon and Epic (with a great colorist, of course). Previously, if you were interested in capturing the highest resolution, you’d have to use 65mm celluloid film, and then intercut your footage with digital cinema camera leading to considerable DI or grading. (For the record, I’m a film lover, and still think celluloid can’t be beat when it comes to texture and feeling.)

ARRI Alexa 65 digital cinema camera with 6.5K resolution

ARRI Alexa 65 specs:

  • 65mm digital cinema camera
  • ARRI A3X CMOS Sensor
  • Aperture equivalent to 5-perf 65mm film
  • 6560 x 3102 Resolution
  • 54.12 x 25.58 mm Sensor size (active image area)
  • Sensor image diagonal: 59.87 mm
  • ARRI XPL Mount (64 mm diameter)
  • ISO Settings 200—3200 ISO. Base is 800 ISO.
  • Dynamic Range >14 stops
  • LDS metadataSame accessories as ALEXA XT cameras
  • Electronic Shutter 5° – 358°, adjustable in 1/10° increments
  • 0.75 to 27 fps (upgrade to 60 fps planned for early 2015)
  • Recording File Format Uncompressed ARRIRAW
  • Recorder Modes: 5-perf 65mm (full aperture, 1.78 extraction)
  • Recorder Modes: 8-perf 35mm (24x36mm – future upgrade)
  • Storage (type) Codex XR capture drive
  • Storage (capacity) 480 GByte capacity/860 MByte per second data rate
  • Storage (recording time): 11 minutes @ 24 fps
  • Weight 10.5 kg / 23.2 lbs
  • Power 24 VDC
Originally made by Fujinon for the Hasselblad H5D, re-housed and re-designed by ARRI

Originally made by Fujinon for Hasselblad H5D, re-housed and re-designed by ARRI

Bespoke Lenses for Alexa 65:
The Alexa 65 will use the larger XPL mount, which is a modification from the existing PL mount. ARRI Rental, for starters, has updated vintage Hasselblad V-series lenses in XPL mount for the ALEXA 65.  The package will include 8 primes and 1 zoom lens, originally made by Fujinon for the Hasselblad H5D. These lenses were re-housed and re-designed by ARRI to sustain the rigours of high-end cinema production.

Alternative Lens Systems:
Matt Duclos wrote an excellent article about alternative 65mm lenses from IMAX, Pentax, Iwerks and Phantom. He also has some interesting comments about RED and Sony’s potential response to ARRI’s Alexa 65. It’s a must-read.

Codex Vault Lab 65

Streamlined camera-to-post workflow with Codex’s Vault Lab 65.


Holy Smokes, Batman! That’s a lot of data.

Working closely with ARRI, Codex has developed an in-built camera recorder, plus an on-set and near-set data management system called the Vault Lab 65. They had to, when you consider that Alexa 65 RAW files are 31 MB per frame and the data rate 733 MB/s. Marc Dando, managing director of Codex explains: “So obviously we needed a robust recording format with solid state drives that were rock solid in sustaining the required data rates, at frame rates of up to 60 FPS.” In his interview, Marc also reveals that the Alexa 65 was in development for years and that Codex was involved as the post-production partner from the outset. Hey, he even got an ethusiastic quote from DP Bob Richardson for the Alexa 65!

Ready to buy? Not so quick, guy!
Currently, the Alexa 65 is only available from ARRI Rental. ARRI seems to be following the Panavision legacy policy of not selling their equipment, and only renting it out. I believe ARRI may have done this for two reasons:

  1. To protect their customers. Many have already invested in the Alexa, XT and Amira cameras. Not all fellas possess deep pockets, and ARRI may have preempted a situation where some individuals would flood the market with Alexa 65 at low rental rates, leaving others at a disadvantage.  
  2. To grow the digital 65mm community organically. Currently, the digital 65mm thing is super new.  Only one set of primes and a zoom lens is available for the Alexa 65. By holding down the Alexa 65 for rental only, ARRI can buy time and modulate demand while more lenses and accessories are developed (by them or third-party manufacturers).

In short order, nicely done, ARRI. Like, really.

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Adnan X. Khan is a cinematographer based in Dubai.
Image source: ARRI, Jon Fauer at F&D Times 

5 Comments

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  1. Colfud

    So i like it, but 2 things i have concerns with (via specs) the larger sensor requires larger lenses- duh- but If I rent this camera, even buy it, I need a a new set of glass….

    Thats great for larger productions, but what for no budget indis? This camera will probable make stunning images, i have no doubt, but Arri, give us 6k in the amira, why, because the indi-low budget guys who like to shoot content weekly need light weight, run-gun ready, high res cameras. Or else youre saying that those with money deserve better(philosophically) If on a stupid low budget, i want to shoot 6k, I can grab a dragon, and dslr lenses and I got it.

    I’ll probably end up shooting with it of course, but I perceptive still stands.

  2. Adnan X. Khan

    Colfud, completely understand the sentiment. Remember, Alexa 65 is aimed at big budget productions which can afford—what I assume—are fairly high rental costs. Add to it the cost of data management (31MB per frame in raw) and the Alexa 65 slips beyond the reach of your average Joe. Panavision also have a 70mm camera in development, so with more large format cameras and lenses entering the market, things should get a bit more affordable! Expect RED and Sony to also respond to ARRI with new cameras in the coming months!

    P.S. You can get 3.8K UHD with the Amira, but for higher resolutions stick to RED. Also, resolution and sensor size are two very different things. Size does matter!

  3. One of the problems of larger resolution in a given sized format is that it requires smaller picture-elements (what you’d call pixels, but that’s kind of a misnomer). In reality they are little lenslettes on the CMOS sensor. However, as you decrease the size of the picture-elements you also truncate their ability to capture light– hence lowering your dynamic range, not only in luminance, but since each picture-element is part of a Bayer mask, also your color fidelity. You will notice, if you have have the chance to– the RAW off of an Alexa and a Red are vastly different, with the Alexa looking much less noisy and more pleasing with much higher highlight retention. This is partially because, also the sensors are roughly the same size, the larger picture-elements in the ALEV-III chip capture more light and information with less interference (noise from heat/other picture elements/ electronics and quantum random noise) than does the MX.
    In cameras, everything is a trade-off, and therefore Arri has and will be vary careful not to trade overall image quality for more and more resolution as other camera companies do.

  4. Adnan X. Khan

    Adrian, thank you for sharing your insights here.

  5. Peter Juneau

    Mr. Khan,

    Thank you for your insightful and detailed article. As a former camerman, visual effects artist and wide format enthusiast this news is music to my ears. I was curious about one detail however; you included various aperture sizes in your chart, but what do you suppose the recommended projected aspect ratio will be for the Alexa 65? With Todd-AO Ultrapanavision at 2.76:1, and IMAX at 2.21:1, the new format would seem a bit square at 2.1:1 – no? Thanks again and keep the faith.

    Best,

    Juneau

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