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5K sci-fi tale tests the limits of television image quality



Altered Carbon, a dystopian, cyberpunk action/sci-fi tale, set centuries in a bleak future, taking place partly in other solar systems, is a ten-episode television series based on the Richard Morgan novel, debuting in February 2018.

In a crowded television field, one question that Netflix and showrunner Laeta Kalogridis faced, was how do you set the tale apart from other sci-fi fares. In keeping with the Netflix 4K mandate, the makers of Altered Carbon decided to emphasise visual quality, shooting large-format with the ARRI ALEXA 65 camera in 5K mode, one of the first television series to follow this path.

With three months of prep, directors of photography Martin Ahlgren and Neville Kidd established a strong working relationship. Ahlgren says that he’s never had that kind of close collaboration with another director of photography.

“It was a unique opportunity to use our combined creativity, with both of us attacking it in different ways,” he says. “It’s been a real treat to work together and bounce ideas. You don’t usually have the luxury to design sets and lighting, and work out as a team how to approach a project.”

Ahlgren and Kidd both like shooting with the ARRI ALEXA, but Netflix’s 4K minimum requirement took that off the table. Once the ALEXA 65 was proposed, they shot tests to determine whether 4K, 5K or 6.5K mode was right.

“Because the camera only records in ARRIRAW, you’re creating massive amounts of data,” says Ahlgren. “From a storage and handling perspective, 4K mode seemed best. But one goal was to give the show a truly different look for television, so we argued that there was real value in shooting 5K. The size of the sensor becomes a key characteristic in itself for cinematography, and although 4K is bigger than Super 35, it’s not as distinctly different as the look you get when you go to 5K or 6.5K.”

5K was a middle ground when it came to the amount of data, but it also offered compatibility with a wider array of lenses compared to 6.5K, which is slightly bigger than a VistaVision frame and requires large-format glass that will cover the greater area.

 “For episodic television, you need to be able to shoot fast,” says Kidd. “We needed lenses that would behave the way directors expect. And minimum focus was also a concern.”

Ahlgren adds, “We felt 5K was the best of both worlds because we could have the advantages and look that comes with the large sensor, and still shoot with lenses that would open up to 1.3 or 1.4. We could focus literally ten inches from a face, and have the shot develop into something wider. That flexibility was important. And in 5K at a stop of 1.4, your depth of field is actually even shallower than you can achieve in 6.5K. Our focus pullers had their work cut out for them, but they did an outstanding job.”

With those priorities in mind, the cinematographers went with Canon CinePrimes for focal lengths less than 65mm, Cooke S5i in 65mm and 100mm focal lengths, and Cooke S4s when longer lenses were called for – 135, 150 and 180mm. A spherical Hawk 100-400mm zoom was also on hand.

The bulk of the first season was shot in the Vancouver area, where the production took over a former printing facility and filled it with built sets, offices and dedicated space for carpentry, makeup, stunt rehearsal, and art department – even editorial was just across the street. About 85% was done on stages. Budget estimates of $7 million per episode were rumoured to be on the low end.

With complete control, the cinematographers relished shooting as much as possible practically, as opposed to creating elements for visual effects to finish. Involved early on, they were able to collaborate on the aesthetics of the sets and lighting.

“A lot of our prep time was spent figuring out basics,” says Ahlgren. “What do house lights look like in the future? How do people get around? Of course, there are visual effects, but to a large degree, they were minimised. We had very few green screen days. Often the sets worked in 360 degrees. Keeping things in camera was an economic decision, but from a shooting perspective it’s been really fun.”

As many as six ALEXA 65 cameras were in use on the project at once. A LUT was developed with the help of Jill Bogdanowicz of Company 3. Encore in Vancouver handled the initial lab work, converting to 4K ProRes submasters for post.

It’s estimated that the decision to shoot 5K resulted in 13 times the amount of data.


“It was crazy,” says digital imaging technician Mitch Bax. “It was an unprecedented amount of footage. Going in, we didn’t expect that – everybody thought it was a normal TV show. But then we got going, and it was six or seven terabytes a day. To download and handle it all, we had Codex Vaults – I’m not sure what else could have handled all that, with the size of the files and the fact that we were transcoding while turning them into ARI sequences. About 60% of the schedule was three-camera. I realised from the beginning that we needed more manpower and gear, so I implemented the Codex Vault system from the beginning and insisted on extra loaders. As soon as the mags were exposed they’d come off the camera, and we’d take them to the Codex Vault for downloading.  Once there, we backed up onto a Codex Transfer Drive or sled and held the mags until the LTOs were cleared by Encore, which could take up to about two days. For three cameras, we had about 45 2TB SXR Capture Drives, which is insane. The biggest thing was having enough. We did a calculation at the beginning and it held true throughout the rest of the shoot. 

“Using multiple Codex Vaults was a clever idea,” says Bax. “Otherwise, we saw a bottleneck of footage. And it allowed us to avoid separating the download and the creation of the ARI sequence. Then post could create the 4K ProRes XQ submaster and clone everything more efficiently.

On-set viewing was via the 1920x1080 signal off the camera, into 23-inch Sony LLD monitors calibrated to Rec 709 colour space by Encore. Changes were saved and sent to the dailies colourist via CDL.

Because of the sci-fi nature of the show, we could do almost anything,” says Bax. “There are so many directions, and no rules, which was fun for us. For every set, we could play with the colour palette and the lighting. Neville and Martin and I experimented extensively before we got into the actual shoot. I didn’t make a lot of adjustments once we got going. But working with accurate colour was super critical, especially on a show with such a specific look and two DPs. Netflix was adamant that things look their best, so that was helpful.

The cost associated with shooting in 5K is significant – the amount of data and overtime spent to process this could have been spent on more shoot days, or more extras,” says Bax. “But if we’re not pushing the boundaries, no one will. This is a great opportunity to show people what the technology is capable of. Some of the shots we’re getting are just so rad. We don’t know if it’s currently a viable television format yet, but when Altered Carbon comes out, it’s going to be cool, because no one else has done it.”

For the visual effects work, led by Double Negative in London, 4K EXR frames were generated. If a particular shot requires the full resolution of the original file, that data is fetched from the LTO backup. The LUTs, as well as the CDLs, were handed off to VFX, so on-set looks could be applied to VFX temps in the Avid. Nothing was baked into the final EXRs, so the DI colourist had a full range of colour and correct.

Although image quality was high on the list, and a 4K HDR deliverable has been made, archival considerations were cited as another important reason for going with the rich format. The theory is that the quality of the imagery will hold up as delivery and display technologies continue to improve, increasing the potential upside for the studio and investors. “The archival argument is the best way to keep these large format cameras on television shows,” says Bax. “If they can use it down the line, the integrity still holds up. There are so many subtle artistic benefits, but the archival rationale is the one that is protecting the directors of photography and their work.”

Codex played an important role in making the ambitious project run smoothly. “Having that massive data flow handled safely and reliably made it possible,” says Ahlgren. “The Codex Vault has a workhorse quality that is reassuring.”

Bax adds, “I personally have been thrilled with everything Codex has done. I’ve worked with them since the beginning, and when I first saw it, I was like, ‘This is cool.’ It just seems like they’re coming along with the next innovative thing. The Vault revolutionised that aspect of what we do. For camera technicians, whose jobs entail so many other critical things, Codex alleviates all of the unnecessary thinking. We can walk up to the camera and hit record. We can focus on the task at hand – what’s happening on the set. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with them.”

“Directors of photography just want everything to work,” says Kidd. “You go into it hoping to concentrate on your creative process, and hopefully knowing that the backup you’re getting from your cameras and data is faultless. Everyone embraced the ALEXA 65 and the larger amount of data and ran with it throughout for the benefit of the project. And I think it will show in the final product.”

Cameras: ARRI ALEXA 65
Camera Rental Provided by: ARRI Rental NJ
Lenses: Canon CinePrimes, Cooke S4 and S5
DIT: Mitch Bax, Simon Jori
Post Partners: Encore, MobiLabs, Company 3

Codex related product and workflows

Images courtesy of their respective owners.