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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.)

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An Artier Hollywood: Christopher Nolan picks Hoyte van Hoytema as cinematographer for INTERSTELLAR

Hoyte Van Hoytema

Director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister’s creative collaboration began with Nolan’s second and best film  MEMENTO (2000). Nolan had shot his debut feature FOLLOWING (1998) himself, so he had never worked with a cinematographer until he hired Wally based on a screening at Slamdance. Following a legendary and long partnership, they parted ways when Wally decided to quit as director of photography after THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) and become a feature film director with TRANSCENDENCE starring Johnny Depp. This was done with Christopher Nolan’s blessing (he is after all producing Wally’s directorial debut), but it left the Hollywood auteur in a precarious situation: who will replace his old friend and beloved cinematographer?

Well, Nolan seems to have found his man in Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema whose credits include LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), THE FIGHTER (2010), TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) and Spike Jonze’s upcoming HER (2013).

Let the Right One In

Secret member of the Fight Club in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008); directed by Tomas Alfredson, cinematography by Hotye van Hoytema

Hoyte van Hoytema belongs to a new breed of cinematographers whose reputation emerges from a small but very distinctive body of work. Hoyte’s style—precise framing, immaculate use of contrast and expressionist lighting—has finally found favor outside Europe. Born to Dutch parents in Switzerland and raised in Holland, he studied cinematography at the Polish National Film School in Lodz.  Continue Reading