The best camera for your documentary?

Jordy Wax, co-owner of Contrast Films and an Arri Amira Premium.

Jordy Wax, co-owner of Contrast Films and an Arri Amira Premium.

When Jordy Wax and his team were searching for a new camera, they had a laundry list of things they knew they couldn’t live without. As the co-owner of Contrast Films, a Baton Rouge-based production company, along with his business partner Chase, Wax regularly works on different kinds of projects for a variety of clients.

But with just a small team, and preferring to keep productions to a one or two person operation, finding the right camera optimized for a lean setup proved to be a challenge.

“We were willing to pay whatever we needed to get a top of the line camera.”

Wax says, but he also needed camera that was a good fit for his agile team.

As a self-described gear hoarder, he spent months researching what would best fit his workflow. His search ended with the Amira, the latest digital camera by Arri.

Arri certainly needs no introduction. The company is the world’s largest supplier of motion picture equipment, and they’re well known for so-called “film-look” cameras—digital cameras that achieve that mythical, film quality of classic big-screen productions.

The release of the Alexa in 2010 marked the company’s first major transition into digital cinematography and defined what a film-style camera should be. The Alexa is a great example of a cinematic storytelling camera, meaning it is optimized for a big-studio workflow and larger teams.

In contrast, the release of the Amira targets a different audience altogether.

The Amira is marketed as a documentary-style camera, meaning it's intended to be ready for all of the challenges faced by documentary filmmakers.

More specifically, the documentary-style designation means this is a camera optimized for fast operation and is intended to provide great image quality in any and all conditions and environments filmmakers may find themselves in.

Contrast’s Amira with a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9, Arri MMB-2 matte box, and Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone.

Contrast’s Amira with a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9, Arri MMB-2 matte box, and Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone.

For small teams like Wax’s who want film-quality footage in ever-changing environments, a documentary-style camera like the Amira sounds great on paper. But, as we’ve said in the past, finding the right camera is all about tradeoffs: identifying the features you need is as important as recognizing what you can live without.

With that in mind, how does the Amira hold up in the real world?

Whether a filmmaker is looking to step up from Canon’s C-Line (C300, C500) or looking to rent a camera for their next production, the lingering question is whether the Amira is the ultimate documentary-style camera.

We quizzed Wax about his experience with the camera and about his recent collaboration with Ryan Booth filming Noah Gundersen for SerialBoxTV.


Perfect For Small Teams

Most of Noah's SerialBoxTV episode was lit with either natural light or existing practical lights. A testament to the ability for the Amira to adapt to any environment. 

Most of Noah's SerialBoxTV episode was lit with either natural light or existing practical lights. A testament to the ability for the Amira to adapt to any environment. 

Documentaries are often captured by individuals or very small teams.

At Contrast Films, like many small and tight-knit production companies, this is certainly the case.

“We almost exclusively work as two-man bands,”

Wax continues,

“And by that, I mean two people going out and shooting the whole thing—lighting, sound, everything.”

Wax and his team are used to working with cameras like the Canon C300—cameras that are ready to roll within seconds of being pulled out of a bag.

In selecting their next camera, Wax knew he didn’t want to get away from that. The Amira gives him and his team the features they need all within reach. With everything being easily accessible on the operator’s side of the camera, it’s perfect for one-man band or small team productions.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Designed for Fast-Paced Shooting Environments

Revolving around the relationship between Noah and his city, Ryan and Jordy felt it was necessary to film outside, rain or shine for this SerialBoxTV episode. Pictured: Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9, Arri MMB-2 matte box, and Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone.

Revolving around the relationship between Noah and his city, Ryan and Jordy felt it was necessary to film outside, rain or shine for this SerialBoxTV episode. Pictured: Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9, Arri MMB-2 matte box, and Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone.

Documentaries are fast paced shooting environments.

Thankfully, this is where the Amira shines.

“This camera is designed for crews who don’t have time to spend a half day on prep,”  Wax says.

And while other cameras could perform in similar environments, the Amira feels like it was designed especially with his workflow in mind.

It’s an unapologetic shoulder-rig camera—meaning, all you have to do is pick it up and it’s ready to go. And it’s built in features—neutral density filters, on-board audio, evf with flip out monitor, operator-side button placement—all add up to create a camera that allows you to focus all of your attention on the story you’re telling without any distractions.

“Having the ability to get a large-sensor—cinema-look—camera built for running gun every day is one of the main things that sold us.” 
Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Cinema-Quality Image

Documentaries are almost always about people.

Since they share the same sensor, Arri compares the Amira’s image quality to the Alexa—which is to say, it’s stunning.

Skin tones look real—natural color rendering and subtle highlights give detailed nuance to each frame.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Even shooting in environments with mixed lighting—where most cameras fall apart—the Amira delivers realistic skin tones.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.


A Few Drawbacks

Based on Wax’s experiences with the Amira, it sounds like it is an incredible option for a documentary-style production. But, like any camera, it isn’t without a few drawbacks.

Ryan Booth filming with the Amira and Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9.

Ryan Booth filming with the Amira and Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9.

The camera is expensive.

Wax’s Amira Premium camera costs over $60,000—and that’s just the body. Add on lenses, camera support, etc—and it’s easy to pass the $100,000 mark. Meaning the camera targets the rental market.

cinematic storytelling With the amira Is Challenging.

Your MoVI, slider, glidecam, etc, aren’t going to support the Amira's size and weight. For cinematic storytelling, you're going to need a full steadi-cam setup and operator, full-sized dolly, track and team, etc. That's not to say you can't use the Amira as more than just a shoulder-mounted camera, but that's really where it shines—unapologetically, as Jordy puts it.

The Amira is not able to shoot raw—even with an external recorder.

Not a huge deal, as it shoots in Pro Res 444 Log—even up to 200 frames per second!—and you’ve got a lot of latitude with the image. But, changing white balance and exposure post capture aren’t possible.

The camera doesn’t offer 4K resolution.

Yet, that is—there is an update coming to enable UHD on the Amira.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.

Arri Amira frame grab. Recorded in LogC with the Amira Rec709 LUT applied in post.


The Bottom Line

The Amira may, in fact, be the perfect documentary-style camera currently on the market, budget permitting.

While other cameras might perform well in similar situations, the Amira feels like it was designed for this format.

  • It’s ready to roll at a moment’s notice;

  • It has tons of features that are easily accessible without being overwhelming;

  • It’s high quality sensor takes whatever you throw at it; and

  • It captures beautiful skin tones, providing cinema-quality images in changing environments.

Still, the camera does come with a price: it’s very expensive and has drawbacks. But, just like Wax and his team, many filmmakers will find that the quality features and versatility of the Amira make it the ultimate camera for their next documentary production.

Special thanks to Jordy Wax and Ryan Booth for sharing their experience with the Arri Amira and the behind the scenes of SerialBoxTV with us. For more information about Contrast Films, visit contrastfilms.tv. For those interested in learning more about SerialBox, visit serialboxpresents.com, and be sure to keep an eye out on the first SerialBoxTV episode, featuring Noah Gunderson, launching very shortly.

Have any specific questions for Jordy about the Arri Amira? Share them below in the comments.