Picking The Right Digital Cinema Camera To Buy Is Hard To Do

by | Jul 5, 2022 | Essays | 0 comments

Picking The Right Digital Cinema Camera To Buy Is Hard To Do

JM Headshot2014Med
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the June 2022 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)

HardToPickCamera 2In a tradition going back to the early days of my writing for DCS, I like to share my thought process when picking new gear to personally invest in.  It is somewhat like therapy for me, writing out the pros and cons, as I struggle to make the best choices, but I also figure others contemplating such investments themselves might benefit from my analysis.  It is a tricky business trying to keep up with technology that is so rapidly advancing, and it is even more complicated now that there are pandemic related disruptions and supply chain issues; cameras could start to become obsolete even before they are delivered.  Scary stuff for a lone Owner/Operator that can only afford one or two camera packages, and I have to imagine that it is no less scary for the rental house that has to try and guess where demand will be before the cameras even exist.

I give RED Digital Cinema a lot of credit for the way they pushed motion picture imaging technology forward, not only with the technology they brought to market, but perhaps more importantly the way they got some of the other companies in the space to get off their laurels and start innovating to meet the competition initiated by this upstart company.  However, one practice I have come to regret is the pre-selling of cameras before they actually exist, then sending them out the door to early adopters before they are fully debugged and bullet proof.  I’m also not a big fan of selling cameras, then adding advertised features after the fact by firmware upgrades.  Although such updates are a good way to keep the hardware up to date in such a quickly evolving landscape, I don’t like buying gear with certain expectations, then have them inevitably delayed.  But my bitching aside, let’s look at the current choices under consideration.

I’m looking to purchase my next generation Digital Cinema camera; one that I can use on some of the higher-end productions I shoot, as well as have demand in the sub rental market where the latest and greatest premium gear is the expectation.  I own lesser cameras that I will keep for certain uses, but I’m talking here about top of the line, and to complicate matters, I usually like to invest in two at a time if possible.  This kind of purchase will not be inexpensive; if you want uncompromising quality, you have to pay for it.  I’m probably looking at a nearly $100K investment per camera, and have set my sights on two options.

Venice2ForArticleThe first is the VENICE 2, which Sony is currently delivering, but in very limited numbers.  Even if I can source a camera, I’m told media and card readers could still be a significant wait, and in order to take advantage of many of the new features that would justify moving up from a VENICE 1, (8K RAW, higher frame rates, etc.,) you need proprietary AXS cards and a USB-3 reader.

Alexa35 ForArticleThe new ALEXA 35 is the other exciting prospect, but that is likely not delivering until late Summer or Fall.  And I know that ARRI has already taken a large number of reservations, so there would be many hundreds of buyers ahead of me in the queue.

Therefore, allow me to compare and contrast these two impressive cameras.

They both have exceptional specs, and create beautiful imagery.  The Sony VENICE 2 has a newly-developed 8.6 K (8640 x 5760) full-frame CMOS image sensor that is said to produce 16 stops of total latitude, and the dual base ISO has increased to 800/3200.  It supports everything from full-frame, (including full-frame anamorphic) with internal recording formats including 8.2K X-OCN, (extended tonal range Original Camera Negative,) at up to 60fps and Super35 up to ProRes 4K 4444.

Meanwhile, the ARRI ALEXA 35 features a new 4K Super 35 sensor said to deliver a whopping 17 stops of dynamic range, better low light performance, and richer colors. A new color science they have named “REVEAL” is designed to take full advantage of the sensor’s image quality.  At 17 stops of dynamic range, (1.5 stops more in the highlights and 1 stop more in the shadows,)  the ALEXA 35 is said to provide 2.5 times more exposure latitude than the original ALEXA sensor which was first released 12 years ago.  An optional Enhanced Sensitivity Mode can be applied to settings between EI 2560 and EI 6400 to produce cleaner images in low light.

JM ShootingS35 Montage2Both cameras have impressive specs, leaving as one of the biggest differentiators, the size of the sensor.  One is a native Full Frame sensor and the other is Super35. I’ve been eagerly awaiting ARRI’s ALEXA 35 for just this reason, since I have a large investment in Super35 lenses which do not fully cover the larger sensors of the many new cameras on the market.  It is also a format I’m comfortable with, having grown up shooting for decades with ARRI and Panavision 35mm film cameras.  I honestly was not that excited to see the trend of large sensors, and gave a lot of thought to the advantages and disadvantages, even producing a DCS documentary on the subject:

LargeSensorTitleCardx600https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/689060503

One attribute I found that was a plus for the VENICE 2 was that it could still shoot in excess of 4K using my Super35 glass.  Another thing I like about the VENICE is the 8-stops of built-in rotatable ND filters.  I also like the fact that Sony chose to stick with their current power requirements whereas ARRI opted to go with a new “B-mount” 24 volt input.  It is designed to accommodate the many power hungry accessories commonly added to digital cinema cameras and to insure adequate voltage for the camera.  Although Anton/Bauer, Core SWX, and other manufacturers are at the ready with higher voltage batteries, I own a nice assortment of 14V Anton/Bauer gold mount batteries which would not be compatible with the ALEXA 35.  In the plus column for the ALEXA 35 is the higher frame rates it can achieve, as well as being able to use the same Codex drives as many other of the ARRI cameras.  In the case of the VENICE 2, if you want to take advantage of all the new capabilities you need a new model of flash card known as AXS which run between three and four thousand dollars each for a 1TB and require a new reader, which also costs almost as much as one of the memory cards.  At least the new cards are backwards compatible and can operate with the VENICE 1.

Another plus for ARRI is the way they have strived during their development cycles to allow the buyers of their cameras to amortize their investment before a new model is released.  This practice has caused them to sometimes fall behind other manufacturers in offering the latest available technology such as 4K capture.  This caused them to lose significant ground when Netflix and many others started to demand 4K acquisition.  However, I think ARRI customers appreciate that when they make such a major investment, it will be well tested and ready to put to work, and there will not be another new ARRI camera coming down the pike to replace it in an unreasonably short time.

On the other hand, ARRI’s new sensor currently tops out at 4.6K resolution, and it seems the march to ever higher capture resolutions is not about to slow down.  Although I hate to have my work reframed without my supervision, I can see some of the advantages to acquiring at 6K or 8K even when finishing on 4K.  It would be nice to have some extra resolution to push around on occasion now and it could help to future proof the investment going forward.  Who knows what resolution Netflix may require next?

Some of my current thinking about camera investment is informed by an experience I had in 2009 when I missed the chance to buy the original Alexa.  I was visiting ARRI’s Munich headquarters prior to IBC when they were assembling some of the first few dozen ALEXA cameras.  Robert Richardson, ASC was already using prototypes on the 3D Martin Scorsese movie Hugo.  I was meeting with Stephan Schenk, who was, and still is, the top man at ARRI for camera sales.  I could have ordered my Alexa cameras right then, and they would have paid for themselves many times over by now if it were not for the fact that I was waiting on RED to deliver the long awaited MX sensor upgrade that turned out to be about a year behind schedule.  Although I could see the ALEXA was going to be a winner, I did not have the resources at that time to be invested in two different camera systems.

As a matter of fact, I don’t currently have the resources to invest in two complete cameras in this budget range.  Since most of my work and other projects that would require this level of camera are going to need at least two and probably more camera bodies, this could be an issue.  On the plus side for the VENICE 2, although they are currently hard to come by due to supply chain issues, two of my good friends and colleagues also have the cameras in hand.  Enrique Del Rio and Daniel McCoy, CAS, were smart enough to put in very early orders for the camera and have two complete VENICE 2 cameras currently available to build a multi-camera package, which is an important deciding factor for me.

I was having a hard time deciding, when I got some unexpected news.  Michel Suissa from B&H called to say he had a VENICE 2 body available if I was prepared to move quickly.  Being that they have been so heavily backordered, I jumped at the chance.  However, he didn’t have all the parts and accessories necessary, including media, to make a working camera system.  Luckily, I was able to source the rest from Band Pro and am now ready to rock ’n roll with a VENICE 2.  I have a project I’m shooting soon that I’m planning to use it on, but hope to also subrent and keep the camera busy when I’m not using it myself.  So, if you need one, two, or even three VENICE 2 cameras, please give me a call.

 

 

 

 

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