The Amira: an Arri documentary camera

Arri Amira
Doc shooter: the super35mm Arri Amira. Picture: Arri

Arri has long been associated with high-end dramas and documentaries. But whilst there are plenty of projects that would benefit from the look created by its Alexa camera, by no means all budgets can stretch to using one.

Instead, directors for factual projects in particular have needed to look elsewhere – to a Red, perhaps, to Sony’s F5 or F55, or even the Canon C300 or C500 – for a film-like result.

Arri, though, has not ignored the trend for directors and directors of photography to use 35mm DSLRs or super35mm single-chip camcorders on their productions, especially in documentaries. The company’s response is the Amira.

The camera was first announced at IB2013, and it is perhaps as interesting for what it is not, as well as what it is. Firstly, the Amira is not 4K. It is a 2K camera, based around a super35mm sensor. Nor is it a RAW camera. Instead, it records to ProRes (up to 444), and for the colourists, Rec 709 or Log C profiles. That is as close to uncompressed as ProRes gets, and the images, if early samples are anything to go by, are impressive.

But the Amira is also interesting because of its form factor. It moves away from the modular approach of the Red, the Sonys and even the Alexa, essentially boxes that directors of photography can add to, to suit their budgets, preferences and the demands of their projects, in favour of an all-in-one design. But rather than go for the handheld ergonomics of Canon’s Cinema EOS range, the Amira heads in an altogether different direction: an ENG-style shouldermount.

Arri, then, is positioning this as not quite an action cam, but certainly a camera that is ready for action.

The company markets it as being ready to film straight out of the camera bag: as it can go on the shoulder, you may not even need a tripod (Arri’s slogan is “Pick up: Shoot). And the essentials are there, such as four-channel audio, an 1280×1024 OLED viewfinder and a TFT screen too. There is also WiFi for remote control.

Arri says the camera has “advanced” peaking, helping film makers to nail focus – always something of a challenge on a large-sensor camcorder. The basic sensitivity is 800ASA, which should also make it easier to achieve sharp pictures. Dynamic range is an impressive 14 stops. Equally impressive is the shutter speed range of up to 200fps, something even the Alexa doesn’t offer.

The manufacturer has clearly thought through the practical aspects of running a camera that is being positioned as the documentary maker’s friend.

There’s a range of powering options, although early reports suggest that the Amira is still a relatively power-hungry beast, running through a battery in about an hour. There is also a mounting for a microphone and another for accessories. The initial lens mount is a PL, with electronic connections for ENG lenses, and Arri is developing both a B4 and a Canon EF lens mount versions.

Ergonomics seem sensible too: the camera is not light, and much depends on the glass fitted to the front. But everything feels it is where it should be. It is also quiet, which is a real bonus for much factual work.

But will documentary makers turn to the Amira? The market for cinema-style cameras is starting to look a little crowded. The forthcoming EF-lens version will help broaden the Amira’s appeal, especially to Canon EOS system owners; if nothing else, it will cut the cost of hiring an Amira if you can use some of your own glass.

Whether the ergonomics, and cost of hiring (or for the wealthy, buying) an Amira will be justified over, say, a Canon C500 or Sony F55 kit will also depend on whether 4K is needed.

These decisions are often driven more by clients’ demands than by the needs of the production, and whilst network television is not yet asking for 4K, more directors say corporate clients are starting to ask for it. It could be a struggle to convince them to opt for really, really good 2K instead.

At the other end of the spectrum – newsgathering, or observational documentaries, the Amira will find itself up against cameras such as Sony’s PMW-500 (now on hire for as little as £150 a day with lens) or the Panasonic AG-HPX500 and 600, which have proven themselves in rough conditions. There are still plenty of jobs where a 2/3inch sensor is good enough, and sometimes even more practical, than s35. These cameras also fit into existing, broadcast news workflow.

Against this, though, is the fact that the Amira is an Arri, and for commissioners (and clients who understand what that means) the appeal for Alexa-like footage for less money is clear enough.

For its intended market of documentaries, with a long enough turnaround time to allow grading and careful editing, the Amira shows a lot of promise. How popular it proves to be, will depend largely on its cost.

  • Arri’s promotional showreel for the Amira is on Vimeo.