*Everything that follows in this article is likely to be outdated really fast. Maybe even by next week. Things are changing fast in the camera world. The only thing that we can know for certain, is that our predictions for the future will be wrong. The question is if we are going to be just a little wrong, or a lot wrong.*
For our humble little industry, it’s taken awhile to get to this point. Two juggernauts, with radically different business philosophies now dominate the world of high-end cameras and productions that use them. And it’s getting ugly, with lawsuits flying in some cases, and plenty of heated debates on film sets the world over.
Red Digitam Cinema and Arri are now, for better or worse, the default camera for most high-end productions. Look at TV and film, and these two cameras are used on more than 2/3 of all productions. Other players like Sony and Canon are chipping away at the fringes, and doing all they can to make their mark, and they make some great options, but for the most part, they aren’t the default choice (yet).
The RED Camp has a loyal fanboy base, addicted to their open and disruptive business model, their (somewhat) cheaper prices, 5k resolution, and the blind optimism and ambition displayed by their founder. Detractor’s say they always deliver late, they aren’t as reliable, and the ergonomics are a pain in the ass.
Arri, (an incredibly well-respected name with old school film types) has it’s Alexa line and now the new Alexa XT cameras, which many of the higher ups in the industry prefer over the Epic. It’s rugged, reliable, and everyone says it has great skin tones. But it’s only 1080P or 2K, and it’s always more expensive to both rent and buy an Alexa.
For the masses, 95% of them can’t tell the difference between a film shot on Alexa or one shot on Epic. Especially in today’s digital world where every job has undergone a DI and extensive color timing to change the look and feel of the piece. One thing is clear, both cameras are capable of making stunning, fist-rate images suitable for even the biggest hollywood blockbusters.
In 2013 Arri announced the new upgraded version of the Alexa. The AlexaXT. Many in the industry (us included) were hoping that this would be a 4K capable camera. And many were disappointed (also us).
At NAB 2013, 4K was the thing. It was being shoved down our throats. Projectors. Displays. And Cameras. RED was showing upgrades to their new 6k capable dragon sensor. Canon was pushing their C500, and Sony has the new hotly anticipated F55 that also can shoot Raw 4K like a Red. Walk in to your nearest BestBuy or Sony store today and you will likely see 4K consumer sets. Media companies want 4K. They are staking their claim saying this is the future distribution format. So where does that leave Arri?
But the new Alexa XT is 2K max. It adds lots of new features. A raw recording “module” from codex. 4:3 Sensor. Etc. And it’s price has gone up accordingly. And they are even taking a lesson from Red and making older Alexa’s upgradeable. But it’s not 4K, and while resolution definitely is not everything in a camera, 4k is past being a curiosity, it is now important to have the capability. An Arri Rep at NAB said to us “we will do 4k when it makes sense for us to do so and when we can do it at the quality we are known for.”
So we know Arri is working on 4k. But it’s not here yet. And we know that they are now upgrading cameras like RED and some others are doing. So if you want to buy an Alexa XT and you also want 4k, you have to ask yourself the question “Is this new $130,000 camera going to be future proof?” Again we turn to Arri for the answer.
“The Alexa 4:3 sensor is not 4k. We have no plans to allow future sensor upgrades”
Ouch. When I heard those words my heart sank, because it really murks up the water. Alexa isn’t going away anytime soon, but those looking to purchase an Alexa with the hopes it will be a workhorse for years to come are likely out of luck.
This doesn’t mean to say Arri can have a change of heart. They may steal yet another page from red and offer a trade in program, or some other upgrade path to 4K. But with no plans right now, getting an Alexa XT is rolling the dice.
With RED continually improving and upgrading the Epic with things like the Dragon sensor and free firmware upgrades, and with Sony coming out with the promising 4K Raw-Capable F55, this is the first chink in the armor for Arri. Not to mention companies like Black Magic doing really cheap 4k camera systems. The Alexa is now in danger of slipping out of the game, as producers wake up to the fact that 4K is a real thing.
Competition and change is healthy for the business, and great for the consumer. I’m sure that when a 4K camera from Arri comes out it will quickly stake it’s claim as a top contender. But unless they hurry they will find themselves losing market share rapidly. It almost reminds me of years past when Panasonic was top-dog in the pro-sumer video camera market with their DVX and HVX series cameras. They rested on their laurels and now those are mostly on the sidelines while the C300 from Canon and F3 from Sony fill their shoes, while Panasonics offerings like the AF-100 are rare sights.
We could be wrong. Resolution wars may turn out to be moot. Dynamic range, color rendition, ease of use, reliability, form factor, etc. are all important components of a camera package. Whatever the changes you can be sure we’ll be here speculating about them, ad nauseam. Let’s just try and remember (hard as it may be at times) that cameras are just a tool, one of many tools in the kit of the filmmaker. The real value lies in the person behind the camera.