World's first side-by-side ARRI ALEXA and RED MysteriumX camera test

For our current film, Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous", we just finished up three days of camera testing with the ARRI Alexa prototype and the RED Mysterium X.

For our current film, Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous", a drama about Shakespeare (yes, you read this right. No destruction. No end of the world.), we just finished up three days of camera testing.

Not just any camera test, but the world's first side-by-side test of the new RED MysteriumX (which is the REDONE camera, with a brand new chip and a new software codec to go with it) and the ARRI ALEXA (which is a brand new camera, very different and way more compact than the current ARRI D-21). We were privileged to be provided by ARRI with a prototype of the camera, and by RED with one of the first delivery models of the Mysterium X.

Before I dive into the specifics, ladies and gentlemen, let me announce right here, on this blog, that     

 2010 IS THE YEAR THAT CELLULOID DIED.

Yes, all you physical-analog-film-lovers, I said it. Touch the smooth plasticky emulsion  one last time and relish the memory. Both these two digital cameras simply blow film out of the water. Period.

Daylight/Candlelight test

Mixed daylight and candlelight test

Now, to be honest, I wish the names of these two would be more celebratory for such an event (my guess is the "mysteriumX" was named by the creators of "Godzilla vs Mothra", and the "ALEXA" for somebody's girlfriend?). But that's beside the point.

The point is, both these cameras can do what you could not accomplish with any film stock, not in your wildest dreams. Here's how they work:

The RED and the ALEXA, while accomplishing approximately the same amazing feat of creating clean, VERY low noise, pictures in candlelight conditions, work in slightly different ways.

The RED still has a chip that's basically rated at 320 ASA (or more like 200 ASA practically, as many DPs told me), but you can underexpose it in extreme ways with only very little addition of noise.

For instance, we shot two stops under (equivalent of 800ASA) without any significant addition of noise.

3 stops under (1600 ASA!) is still absolutely feasible, with more noticeable noise, of course. Even 4-5 stops under (3200/6400 ASA) is not out of the question, if you use a good noise removal tool (we tested with ARRI's Relativity software and The Foundry's Furnace for Nuke) and are OK with loss of detail ion the blacks. But it's possible.

The ALEXA has a chip rated at 800ASA. But even with that starting point, it's possible to underexpose significantly with only little loss. We actually went so far to test 4 stops under, the equivalent of 12,800 ASA! And, while of course extreme, I would not be beyond saying it's usable for a certain type of shots (documentary style). Basically, I was absolutely blown away that we even saw ANYTHING on the footage.

We recorded the RED footage on CF cards, at a data rate of 42MB/sec (the highest data rate RED offers). The ARRI footage was recorded on CODEX portable machines. The CODEX records on little removable harddisc RAIDs with a capacity of up to 5 hours each. The RED records to their own RED RAW format, at 4480x1920 resolution, which is currently only supported via the redcineX (in beta) software, but is already also being implemented by other software packages, such as Digital Fusion and Baselight.While ARRI would not say what on-board recording solution they will show at NAB, in our test the ARRI output a 4:4:4 dual-HD-SDI stream at 1920x1080 resolution, which can be recorded by any HD recorder. The CODEX that we used, creates internally their own implementation of a JPG2000 file. During output via Ethernet or other means, it creates 10bit DPX files from the JPG2000s. In terms of file size, the Redraw 42 and JPG2000 are fairly similar. JPG2000 is a 1:4 compression, so about 2MB/frame. The Redraw comes to about 1.75MB/frame (at 24fps).

The DP for "Anonymous" is Anna Foerster. Anna started with Roland as DP for the miniature shoot of "Independence Day", and advanced to second unit director on many of his films, and is now also a director (she directed episodes of "Criminal Minds"). She prepared several lighting setups, one being a Vermeer-painting-like interior scene (pictured) and the other a greenscreen test setup, obviously of great importance to us. (attached are before-and-after pics of the greenscreen test).

At this point in time, I don't want to publish exact comparison details, because the ARRI ALEXA is a prototype camera. It will be shown at NAB and delivered in June this year. So not all the specs are finished yet. But I have to say, no matter what the final details will be - this is a damn fine camera, and the range of the chip is simply incredible. The RED Mysterium X is already shipping, and all I can say is - go out and test it for yourself, you'll be amazed.

So, it turns out that both cameras, in terms of performance of the chip, are very similar. And I'm not saying this for some bullshit political correctness reason, but because it's the truth. Since the ARRI is a prototype, and the RED software is still in beta, I don't want to go into the finer details that we found, because they can change at any point in time.

I've attached some pictures from the test shoot, a daylight/candlelight scene and a greenscreen shot (the raw, uncorrected footage and the keyed result). Do to the limitations of this blog format, these are just downrez'd JPGs, but even here you can see what I'm talking about. I will prepare links to high-rez files soon. The greenscreen footage of both cameras was very clean and - especially for 800 ASA, had very low grain/noise. While you still need post noise reduction to get a perfect key in hair details or the semi-transparent collar of the lady in the picture, we only had to apply very little NR, and it didn't create any visible softness in the picture.

"Raw" greenscreen image

Keyed image

 "Tracking Marc" will return next week: Shooting HDRIs for CG lighting and textures.

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