For 100 Years, ARRI Has Devoted Itself to the Art of Storytelling

From cameras to post-production, the German company has been a leader in the tools of content creation

The French Connection
Courtesy of AccuSoft Inc.

ARRI, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is perhaps best known for cameras that are used and loved by the world’s leading cinematographers. Major DPs such as Roger Deakins, Seamus McGarvey, Emmanuel Lubezki and Owen Roizman have sung their praises.

In addition to cinematography, ARRI is involved in many other aspect of filmmaking. The company manufactures lighting products. It rents equipment to filmmakers and TV producers around the world. It operates a major post-production facility. It is involved in film sales. It develops cutting-edge virtual reality technology.

The list goes on, but all the units share one thing in common: a passion for content creation and storytelling, which runs throughout everything ARRI does.

It all began a century ago when two Munich teenagers, August Arnold and Robert Richter, founded the company in 1917. Even back then, ARRI already embraced many of the activities it continues to pursue today.

The founders were themselves filmmakers, creating silent Westerns on the banks of Munich’s Isar River. But in addition to shooting films they looked to improve the cameras and lighting devices they used, and ultimately started manufacturing their own gear and renting it out, as well as developing film in their labs.

“The two things they had was an enthusiasm for making movies and an enthusiasm for technology,” says Dr. Joerg Pohlman, who leads ARRI alongside Franz Kraus. They are the two members of the executive board at the ARRI Group, reporting to the owners, Richter’s grandchildren.

Today, as then, the company’s involvement in all aspects of the business, and its ongoing contact with those working in the industry, help it remain relevant and grounded. “We understand the entire value chain because we are actively involved in [the industry], and are shaping it as well to some extent,” Pohlman says.

The fact that the company is family-run has contributed to its success. “We have had this stability,” he says. “We are not necessarily looking at quarterly results; we are not driven by the desire to hit the right short-term numbers. Ultimately, it is about long-term planning.”

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, left, lensed 2012 James Bond picture “Skyfall” using ARRI Alexa cameras.

The fact of being family-run also allows decisions to be made and implemented quickly.

Nonetheless, much has changed in the past 100 years, both for the industry and for the company, which means that ARRI has had to reinvent itself to stay ahead of the curve.

The biggest shift was the move to digital. Kraus remembers the point when he first saw the seismic changes that lay ahead. It was in 2000, he recalls, when George Lucas used a Sony digital camera for principal photography on “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

“The writing was on the wall,” Kraus says.

From that moment on, the company stepped up its efforts to develop its own range of digital cameras, starting with the Arriflex D-20 in 2003.

The transition to digital was hastened by the release of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in 2009, which stimulated a desire in Hollywood to release more 3D films, precipitating a rapid move to digital cinema.

In 2008, ARRI had introduced the D-20’s successor, the Arriflex D-21. This was followed by the Alexa in 2010, the Alexa Studio in 2011 and the Amira in 2013.

One aspect of the Alexa Studio that made it stand out was that it was equipped with a mirror shutter and an optical viewfinder, just like a film camera. This innovation had been prompted by a challenge from Deakins, who was about to shoot “Skyfall” and was willing to use the Alexa if ARRI made this modification.

Such conversations between ARRI and the end-users have been crucial in helping the company tailor its activities to fit the needs of the industry. “One of the key factors [helping us stay ahead of our competitors] is to stay very close to the market; very close to those who use our equipment; to really understand what they need, and not to develop things that are technically possible but are not needed by the market,” Pohlman says.

“You want to offer some-thing that is innovative but also very robust and very dependable.”
Franz Kraus

One of the challenges of the transition to digital was that the company had to focus on aspects of image capture that had formerly been the preserve of the film stock and lens manufacturers. It had to acquire the skillsets in such areas as image processing software and color sciences in order to design its cameras, and in the field of lighting, too, where LED lights are now programmable, software programming skills are increasingly needed.

The company focuses on what the end users care about: the quality of the image. Delivering high dynamic range, accurate reproduction of skin tones, and sensitive color temperature controls are more important for ARRI than high resolution alone.

While the company is not always the first to adopt a new technology, Pohlman says, “we take it early on and try to perfect it, and then come up with the solution that best fits the needs of the marketplace.”

Kraus adds that it is also important to “be brave enough to do things differently.” He cites as an example the company’s decision to move into the field of digital intermediates, leading to the launch of the Arrilaser digital film recorder in 1998 and Arriscan film scanner in 2004, which helped the company better understand the digital world.

“The engineering skills acquired during our DI developments helped us adapt to a shifting technology landscape,” says Kraus.

Today the company continues to look forward. The technological areas ARRI is exploring include virtual reality and higher frame rates.

For its technology, ARRI has received 19 scientific and technical awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But even more important than those prizes is the trust ARRI has built in the industry and the reliability of its products.

“You try to do your very best, but you tread a fine line,” says Kraus. “You want to offer something that is innovative, but also very robust and very dependable, without ending up with something that is great but fragile.”

Pictured above: “The French Connection,” shot with ARRI cameras