Cinematographers on the ARRI AMIRA: A Powerful, Flexible Camera for Every Shooting Style
The AMIRA was first heralded as a documentary-style camera — smaller and lighter than the ALEXA, but sharing many of its bigger sister’s capabilities. Like ALEXA, AMIRA boasts exceptional image quality for all applications. Also like ALEXA, it’s designed with a deep understanding of the art and craft of cinematography. It’s a camera that supports DPs who need to work quickly and accurately, making beautiful images under a wide variety of shooting conditions. Ever since those first units got into the hands of DPs, the AMIRA has proven itself a robust choice in its own right for many cinematography styles, from sports shooting to episodic television and even feature film work. To learn more about how the AMIRA is being used in real-world environments, we contacted pro shooters in multiple disciplines to find out why the AMIRA has become their go-to camera option.
AMIRA Cinematographer: Martim Vian
“I think the ARRI ALEXA is unmatched in terms of quality, so when I heard about the AMIRA, to me it was a no-brainer,” says cinematographer Martim Vian, who has shot three narrative feature films (Caught, Summer of 8, and Calico Skies) with the AMIRA, as well as a feature documentary and numerous music videos and commercials. “People were talking about using it for documentary and ENG shooting, but I never looked at the AMIRA that way. I was just going to use it the same way I used the ALEXA.”Martim Vian on set with AMIRA
Vian said the AMIRA's weight and size make it a good fit on his sets. The AMIRA body weighs just 9.2 lbs with its PL lens mount, and is just 12.1 inches long. And it’s not enough for a camera to be smaller and lighter. As anyone who’s carried a camera around on their shoulder all day knows, a well-balanced rig is essential. For Vian, the AMIRA hits the sweet spot.
“For handheld work – most projects have a bit of handheld -- the AMIRA is very well balanced on the shoulder,” he says. “It isn’t as light as some other cameras, but it has the right amount of weight. And I can fit it into corners." The AMIRA’s form factor makes it exceptionally versatile, Vian said, especially when moving rapidly between shooting on tripods and handheld work. “Because the plate has a shoulder pad on it, I can pop it out of sticks and throw it on my shoulder very quickly. The way the top and bottom plate slide, it adapts to your shoulder. And there is never enough time on set, so speed is something I’m always looking for.”
AMIRA Cinematographer: Dan Friedman
The AMIRA is a fast camera for feature work, but the world of pro sports photography, where the critical moment of action can pass in the blink of an eye, can be even more hectic. DP Dan Friedman shoots sports for NFL Films and NBA Entertainment—live games during the season, and assorted other programming during the off-season—and he says he needs to be able to operate quickly and independently in order to document historic moments unfolding in front of him.The best thing about the AMIRA, he says, is the degree of control it offers him even while he’s keeping his eye on the field.
Dan Friedman shooting sports with AMIRA
“I have total control of the camera without taking my head away from it or taking the camera off my shoulder,” he says. “I don’t have to have an AC standing next to me making changes. I can do it all while the camera is in front of me, being held on my shoulder. I can flip open the viewfinder to use it to change settings or I can have a user button set up right next to me so I can hit it and the task is done.
“We’re shooting documentary and live action, so there is no take two. That’s really critical between plays, when you have just a split-second to make a change. And on the AMIRA, it’s right there.”
The NFL and the NBA are serious about their archives, so the move from film acquisition to digital capture wasn’t taken lightly. Multiple cameras were auditioned, with particular attention paid to how the cameras captured the action — and whether they introduced distracting motion blur or other artifacts in highly kinetic images. “We didn’t know what camera was going to be able to capture the action with the fluidity of shooting off-speed as well as with sync sound,” Friedman recalls. “Not every camera could do slow-motion the right way. Not every camera scanned properly so that you didn’t get motion blur or jitter.” Basketball is a particular challenge because the action moves from one side of the court to the other very quickly, requiring camera operators to pan swiftly across the scene. “The AMIRA seems to scan perfectly, and we don’t get the motion blur that we had with other cameras,” Friedman says.
AMIRA Cinematographer: Joe Kessler
Joe Kessler, a cinematographer who has used the AMIRA on episodic shows for IFC (Maron and Benders) and TBS (The Detour), as well as various pilots for TV Land and others, said the AMIRA outperformed his original expectations. “The first time I used the AMIRA was on Marc Maron’s show, Maron,” he says. “IFC wanted a quick show with three-day episodes, and we mostly do handheld, so I initially went to it for that reason. But all of the other things I found out about the camera as I used it on Maron are what has kept me using it since then.”
Joe Kessler (bottom) on location with Maron director Bobcat Goldthwait
Among the key advantages of the AMIRA are its imaging characteristics, which Kessler says enhance what he’s able to accomplish on set. “I rated it at 320 ISO instead of 800,” he says. “That means that, on a three-day show, you can spend a lot more time using your grips and your electricians to achieve what you had to do before with post. And the AMIRA dials in color temperature to the 10s, not the 100s. We use a lot of different color temperatures, along with color-correction filters, so it’s a great tool for that.”
AMIRA Cinematographer: Alwyn Kumst
Cinematographer Alwyn Kumst, CSC, who shot season 5 of the USA legal drama Suits with the AMIRA, said the imager has a “spectacular” range that helps keep complications out of his job and noise out of his frame. “As a cinematographer, I don’t like messing with ISOs,” he says. “Even in the days of film, I was a fine-grain person. I don’t like noise. So for me, the tremendous dynamic range of the AMIRA was the most important thing. I was shooting in boardrooms 40 stories off the ground, with people sitting around a conference table. You don’t have the ability to crane lights up through those windows. While I was capturing, I wanted to retain the detail outside and the detail inside, so the AMIRA’s 14 stops of latitude was pretty awesome. I never changed the native ISO, so I retained all of that dynamic range.”
Alwyn Kumst, CSC
But Kumst did learn how to make the camera give him the most latitude in a given scene. For example, he realized that shooting at an exposure index of 160 increased his range on the low end of the image to a full nine stops, allowing him to pull a lot of information out of a fairly dark scene. “That’s the beauty of the AMIRA,” he says. “I think the average cinematographer would think, ‘I’m in a dark situation, so I have to increase the ISO.’ But after playing with it, I knew I had to drop the ISO. Similarly, if you want to protect the highlights, you can set it to 3200, and that gives you 9.4 stops of highlights. With another camera you’d be swapping in ND filters and increasing the ISO, but the AMIRA was clean, with no noise. I like that.”
It’s not a question of needing to light less just because the AMIRA sees so far into the dark, but of being able to concentrate on getting the light right, rather than just pouring it into the scene. “Lighting is not just a matter of exposure,” says Vian. “It’s a tool to tell the story, and to shape an actor’s face. But I do take advantage of the camera’s sensitivity when it comes to the background of night exteriors.” For example, Vian remembers driving around to find a parking-lot location for a thriller he was shooting. Because there was no budget or time to properly light the parking lot, he was looking for a location that had a degree of practical lighting in place—that way he could rest assured that the background of the scene would be lit well enough that the setting would register in the camera. “Even in the distance, I knew the AMIRA would be able to capture it with the available light,” he explains. “I could light the foreground and the actors, shaping the image while knowing the background wasn’t going to be murky or fade into pitch black.”
And Vian found that he was using the AMIRA’s 3D LUT support in ways he hadn’t expected. Working on an especially tight schedule — 14 days to shoot a feature-length script set in a single house — Vian adjusted the camera’s curve to make his job a little easier. “I actually altered the Rec. 709 curve to lift the middle-low part of the curve a little bit,” he explains. “That helped me light quicker on set, since I barely added any fill, and it allowed me to make things look more natural. It was a subtle change, but it’s great to be able to alter the curve of the camera in such a specific way.” Vian knew the option would have been to lift that part of the image in color-grading, but preferred getting it right in camera. “I like to limit what I do in post,” he says with a chuckle. “Limitless, for me, is scary.”
Speaking of limits, we asked DPs about their deliverables. With the AMIRA allowing shooters to record everything from HD all the way up to a 4K UHD image, that versatility is another advantage. Friedman knows that, at some point, broadcasters will demand UHD files, but at this point he shoots everything straight to 1080p ProRes, largely for practical reasons. “The turnaround on ProRes is phenomenally quick and cuts out a lot of post issues, which speeds up our workflow,” he says. “It’s really critical for us to get our content into social media as fast as we can, and ProRes is a big help for getting our productions out ASAP. With all of these platforms, everyone wants content immediately, and we’re able to provide it with unprecedented speed.”
Shooting TV programming, Kessler said he adjusts quality and resolution upward for the benefit of VFX artists when the material demands it. “Unless we’re doing plates or green-screen, we can shoot Log C 4:4:4, and it’s perfect,” he says. “If we have to do FX work, we go up to 4K and also use the ProRes 4444 XQ mode, which has a negligible amount of compression and so much latitude. I’m completely sold on it — I haven’t seen any real drawbacks for television.”
And every AMIRA user seems to have discovered an unsung feature that makes their job easier in a significant way. For Vian, it was finding that the camera’s flip-out screen could double as a monitor, allowing the director to get closer to the action. “I don’t use it because I use the eyepiece, but many times the director was able to come over next to the camera, to be closer to the actors,” he explains. “The AC was able to keep their own monitor, and the director could come over and look at a shot.”
Kumst cites the camera’s color balance, which he said excels even under difficult and often unpredictable conditions. “On Friday nights we shoot our night exteriors on streets and in the foyers of buildings, and we’re always shooting fancy restaurants with different colored lights,” he says. “And LED lighting is cropping up all over the world. The AMIRA can capture all of it. What I can see, I can shoot.”
Kessler says AMIRA’s support for 4K UHD recording has made it possible for him to hold the line on his first-choice camera, even when some producers have expressed a different preference. “So many shows want you to use a specific camera,” he says. “Usually the AMIRA or the ALEXA is a better camera, and they would try to change that by saying, ‘You’ve got to shoot 4K.’ Well, now that the AMIRA can shoot 4K UHD, you’re there. It’s a bulletproof argument in favor of that camera.”
Even though the ARRI AMIRA is held up as one of the finest cameras available, it keeps getting better. Stay tuned for updates on great new features and opportunities still to come in the world of AMIRA.