Ed Lachman, ASC on “El Conde” – Shot on ARRI Rental’s New ALEXA Monochrome Cameras

February 14th, 2023 Jump to Comment Section
Ed Lachman, ASC on "El Conde" – Shot on ARRI Rental's New ALEXA Monochrome Cameras

Monochromatic digital cameras have many advantages. They usually provide sharper images, better low light sensitivity, better signal-to-noise ratio, higher dynamic range, a lack of moiré with no Bayer pattern de-mosaicing, and higher available ISOs. But how has the cinematography world embraced the new ARRI ALEXA Monochrome models? Let’s take a look!

In the past, ARRI had one monochrome camera model, a standard ALEXA XT model, they would rent out via their ARRI Rental program. It wasn’t until cinematographer Ed Lachman, ASC persuaded them to make a large format 4K version, that the Munich-based manufacturer decided to go even further and produce a number of cameras to choose from.

Because this would be a range with limited numbers and with a higher price than their color counterparts, they would also be rental-only items. So let’s take a look!

“El Conde”: shot on the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF Monochrome camera

Back in November, ARRI Rental announced three ALEXA monochrome camera models: the ALEXA 65, the ALEXA Mini LF and the ALEXA XT model. In early 2022, Lachman was shooting the South American Netflix fantasy film El Conde in Chile. Directed by Pablo Larraín, the movie is centered around the aged vampire Augusto Pinochet and is expected to become available on the streaming platform later this year.

Lachman and Larraín wanted to shoot in black and white but were not happy with the camera options available to them. At his seminar at CAMERIMAGE Film Festival 2022, Lachman said, “Our choices were limited. We could shoot on monochrome film, shoot digital in color and then print on black and white negative or use a digital monochrome model.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t happy with the existing digital mono cameras, either, as they were too big and heavy (the shoot was using a Technocrane, so a lighter camera body was an essential requirement) or just didn’t have the right look. Hence, he asked ARRI whether they could help him out with a monochrome version of their popular ALEXA Mini LF. “They had three weeks to come up with something”, he said, before he started shooting.

Recent examples of movies shot on monochrome cameras

Two recent black and white award-winning films, Roma (2018) and The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) were both shot in color and then de-saturated to black and white in post. Roma actually had a choice of using the monochrome standard XT model, but director Alfonso Cuarón wanted a more naturalistic black and white. “I would refrain from that classic, stylized look with long shadows and high contrast”, he said.

Mank (2020) was shot with RED's 8K Helium S35 Monochrome camera
Mank (2020) was shot with RED’s 8K Helium S35 Monochrome camera. Image source: Netflix

On the other hand, Fincher’s Mank (2020) was looking for more tonal control and eventually used RED’s 8K HELIUM black and white camera. Cinematographer for the movie, Erik Messerschmidt, described what the camera offered: “It gave us a silvery platinum print quality and tonal depth that we didn’t see from the color cameras. It was overwhelmingly clear to us when we sat in a theater and screened the tests.” Interestingly, this was the same camera Ed Lachman found too ‘sharp‘ to use in El Conde.

The new ARRI ALEXA monochrome cameras

ARRI describes their new cameras as having increased resolution, crisper blacks, and higher native ASA than regular ALEXAs. In fact, Lachman’s Mini LF didn’t have a designated ASA rating when he started using it but he quickly found that it was at least 3/4 of a stop faster. “The 800 was 1280 and the 1280 was 2000”, he commented. He twinned the look with re-housed Baltar lenses which were the glasses that shot Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, just to name a few famous black-and-white classics.

The three new ARRI cameras launched in November 2022. The Mini LF was used for "El Conde"
The three new ARRI cameras launched in November 2022. The Mini LF was used for “El Conde”. Image source: ARRI Rental

Each of the three cameras can only record in ARRIRAW, using their native recording media: 2TB SXR capture drives for the ALEXA 65 Monochrome, compact drives for the ALEXA  Mini LF Monochrome, and XR Drives for the ALEXA XT Monochrome.

All new Monochrome cameras are for rental only. Image source: ARRI Rental

Leica’s take on the beauty of shooting in Monochrome

Recreating these sensors for purely black-and-white capture makes the cameras pricier, as we know, but there is an allure to their use, which the camera manufacturer Leica has also explored. The original Leica M Monochrome was unveiled in 2012 and boasts a sensor that is one stop faster than previous models, with a native ISO of 320 and with a much higher SNR (signal-to-noise ratio). Leica also claimed that the monochrome images it delivers were “100% sharper than those captured with a comparable color sensor”.

Lachman’s film El Conde also had the choice of de-saturating the color in post, but he wanted to use his old color filters on the black-and-white shoot. “Putting a red filter on the front of a monochrome camera makes nature look very different.”

What do you guys think of ARRI’s new monochrome cameras? And what do you think about shooting this way for black-and-white movies? Let us know in the comments below!

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