Ben Mitchell

Amira: The Shapeshifter

17 Jul 2014 by Ben Mitchell

Whether a RED fanboy or Sony advocate, the Alexa commands unanimous respect for it’s beautiful imagery and bomb proof reliability.  But in what circumstances would you NOT want to shoot Alexa?  Producers and camera operators will cite cost and physical attributes respectively.  Coupled together these render the Alexa an onerous prospect for shooting documentary.  

So necessity being the mother of invention, enter the Amira- an ARRI camera presented foremost as a single user format.  It even has a mic holder!  A quick glance at the highlights will be enough to see that ARRI really are trying something new:

- Smaller and lighter but with the same rugged Arri build quality
- Alexa sensor with up to 2K resolution
- Wide choice of frame rates from 1-200 fps
- Unrivalled ergonomics optimised for a single user
- Low power consumption
- Pre-loaded and custom LUT’s for on set grading
- Very fast/high capacity CFast 2.0 media
- Multiple choice of lens mounts including PL, B4, DSLR mounts

Judging from the response at trade shows and at Focus24, the Amira is perhaps the most eagerly awaited camera for some time.

So our first unit arrives.  As with all new equipment, the engineering department have run through their quality checks and tested every facet of the unit for proper function.  

Daniel our Product Manager, has assembled everything together and fast tracked the ‘new kit inception’ process in recognition of surplus levels of excitement.  The F24 ‘go faster’ stickers are on and we snatch it from Daniel’s disciplined paws.  Time to get acquainted…

From Venice With Love

The ARRI marketing people coined the tagline “Pick Up > Shoot”.  We wanted to push this concept for better or worse, replicating the challenges around fast turnaround documentary shooting.  

So in-camera ND filtration and in camera grading it is then.  And a deliberately malnourished kit for the ‘single user’: a wide zoom, a 135mm prime and a tripod.

Before we departed engineering urged caution, pointing out that the release notes state card slot one operating normally up to 43 degrees in direct sunlight…but not slot two.  We said Venice guys… not Venus.

Anyway, fast forward 48 tiring hours and we are returning to London from the ancient city.  So what did we learn? 

It looks like an Alexa, sounds like an Alexa…it’s probably an Alexa.  But wait it’s not!  Little needs to be said about the Amira image as this IS the same sensor with the same tried and loved qualities.  The same sharpness, organic tones, and the same 14.1 stops of dynamic range etc, etc.  Done.  So where does the Amira differ…? Pretty much everything else.

Unlike the Alexa, the Amira is fairly quick to power up and ready to capture in less than ten seconds.  The run time per battery was approaching 2.5 hours on a 90w Anton Bauer Dionic- a marked difference against the greedy Alexa.

The 4kg difference in weight against the Alexa is telling.  This will be universally appreciated on handheld shoots where the Alexa can be frankly torturous on a long day. The Amira still can’t be described as light and it will still give you  something to think about when packing to fly. But to operate with, it’s weight is almost irrelevant as it’s extremely well balanced.  Though clearly heavier than a Sony F55 or C300, running around Venice day and night was surprisingly easy and we foresee a dip in visits to chiropractors.

A lot of this is down to the fantastic sliding top handle and bottom plates, which allow maximum scope for balancing lenses, batteries and matte boxes of all shapes and sizes.  It’s seemingly so simple, yet so innovative that it’s puzzling how this system was not conjured by ARRI or another manufacturer before now!

The layout of the interface and the menu system is a real achievement and instantly satisfying.  It takes no time to grasp the features and hop, skip and jump from setting to setting.  It’s possibly the most intuitive camera I have encountered, after feeling confident with the camera within as little as twenty minutes.  No time was spent at odds with the Amira, pondering how to make adjustments- it just makes sense.

The 1240x1080 OLED EVF produces a great image.  But your eye must be flush against the cup and central to the display. For handheld work this is a real issue as the curvature of the diopter creates a annoying distortion with even slight movement. 

The flip out screen sadly under delivers on it’s intriguing design.  The device suffers from some ghosting after little movement making it difficult to focus from.  I would perhaps advise using an on board monitor for when focus is critical.  The colour reproduction is also quizzical with a dominant green hue.  Given its otherwise uncompromising qualities, the EVF should be revisited, perhaps through an overhauled design.

Playback is accessed from a button on the underside of the EVF.  It seems an ergonomic position however without a button on the camera body, the user will have to take a leap of faith that the EVF will never fail.  You have the option to assign a custom button to account for this, however you will only have access to the last recorded clip (check the gate!).

We had fun shooting at 200fps.  Life looks so good slowed down!  The instant switch between frame rates was a pleasant surprise.  Unlike the Alexa there is no time lag where potential moments could escape.  We were set at 25fps one moment and ready to capture at another frame rate immediately.

As expected the camera is reassuringly rugged and built to stand whatever production has to throw at it.  This is a camera designed to use in extreme conditions, be it up a snowy mountain or in the outback.  Like the Alexa you would trust it almost anywhere.

 

Amira uses ProRes LT, 422, 422HQ or 4444 codecs recording natively onto CFast 2.0 flash cards with extremely fast data rates.  It seems CFast 2.0 and Amira were made for each other, and the larger storage versus SxS media, coupled with the transfer speeds really do support the documentary/coverage concept.  Two 120gb cards will store over 90 minutes of full 2K Prores 4444 at 25p.

We got to know the motorised ND system well, as we we shooting in a lot of stark sunlight.  There were never moments where we filtered all the way down to the generous 2.1 setting.  The filter change makes either a sci-fi military or clunky agricultural sound, depending on your mood.

The Amira is loaded with default 3D LUT looks which are fairly standard.  There are also several custom options where you can modify your look to suit.  A smart feature is the ability to programme grades from grading systems such as Da Vinci and load them into camera.

We varied the grading from simply light crushing of blacks to dramatic bursts of saturation.  The looks are quickly programable and can really add a cinematic sheen to your work.  It quickly became apparent that any conceivable look can be achieved in camera if there is no time or budget in post.  

You can view a montage of our Venice shoot here:

Arri Amira- City On Water from Focus24 on Vimeo.

Conclusion

So what does the industry gain?  In what seems like an unthinkable offering as little as three years ago, ARRI have recognised an opening and delivered a creative tool that delivers and gives rise to a new demographic of professional- for ARRI at least. Surely the Amira is set to become an industry workhorse in the years ahead.  

Have ARRI cannibalised the Alexa?  No- for drama the Alexa remains king.  Hardcore cinematography features such as anamorphic capability and ARRIRAW will stay exclusive to Alexa.  On the same token the Amira is NOT an economy Alexa designed to do the same thing.  In no way is this a compromise. 

The Amira is a massively flexible and versatile camera in it’s own right boasting distinct advantages on its bigger brother.  It can be almost anything you want it to be- a multi camera format, a run and gun, an A or B camera.  The upcoming ability to utilise B4 and DSLR lenses only adds to this versatility.

Having used this camera extensively now, for documentary this is the real thing on tap.  The beautiful images, the simplicity, the creative empowerment that ultimately means better programmes: it’s there for the taking.  You just have to come and get it.