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Arri - secrets of the cinematographers' world

David Tiley

Arriflex turns a hundred and unveils a huge collection of wonderful interviews with cinematographers.
Arri - secrets of the cinematographers' world

Image: Arriflex 35-2C, l;aunched in 1937, was the first 35m reflex motion picture camera with various models made until 1995. This model was used on The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and some are still in use today. 

Bavarian camera company Arriflex is now celebrating its centenary with an enormous sense of occasion. The company was started in 1917 by August Arnold and Robert Richter, a pair of teenage camera enthusiasts in Munich who were too young to be conscripted. Using the first two letters of their names in the title, they built  their first camera in 1924 and developed an empire which prospered through every transition from ortho to pan chromatic stock, from clockwork to electric motors, the rise of hand-held camera, the coming of sound, and the creation of synch.

They are celebrating a website containing 250 interviews with cinematographers which is a delight. 

Erica Addis has moved from AFTRS to become the Head of Cinematography at Griffith University in Brisbane. 'I am a very big fan of  Arriflex', she said, 'and I became an even bigger fan when I went to the factory in March this year and saw Alexas and Alexa Minis being made by hand on benches.'

Malcolm Richards runs hire company Cameraquip, and preserves historic equipment. Why is the Arri so important in his career? 

'It is mainly just their reliability and good design. Even the original Arri 35 in the 1930’s was designed as a hand held camera. It had an ergonomic hand grip fitted into the body. The eyepiece was in exactly the right place and  you could focus the lenses using your fingers. The motor comes out the bottom so you can hold the motor as well.

Kevin Anderson has used Arris through a wide-ranging career which took him into features and out to taxing documentaries in remote locations. Ultimately he bought an Eclair NPR - also a marvel of the craft - but his Arri has a special place in his work.

'My favourite Arri was the ST. You could take the 400 mag off and use a 100 foot roll. Then it was very easy to use hand held. But you only had two minutes and forty seconds on the roll.  It didn’t have a blimp but it had a sync motor and I would shoot interviews with a long audio lead.

'They were made for documentary and they never let you down. It was the most iconic camera, there is no doubt. The Arri 2C went through the war - again it was an unblimped camera and it is still being used.'

By 2008, according to Addis, the company realised film was disappearing much faster than they expected and the Japanese camera companies were well ahead in the development of high end digital cameras. But Arriflex did have a hidden advantage.

'The Japanese companies have never made a mechanical film camera so all of their creative intelligence comes from a place of electrical engineering', explained Addis. 'So they completely get optics - they are brilliant at optics - but the very high level of engineering required to build a camera that will manage a huge number of frames every second is a very different way of thinking about the interface between the creative human and the equipment.'

The company had a small pool of young designers and engineers who were working on the D20 and D21 digital cameras. They were moved swiftly to the centre of the enterprise.  

Said Addis, 'They turned themselves around very quickly. They did a complete review of the company and its values and worked out how to move into digital without throwing away their heritage of film. They still maintain and service a lot of cameras - they just don't make them any more.'

From film they brought a meticulous attention to ergonomics, which is about much more than balance and heft. The relationship between a cinematographer and a camera is spontaneous and intimate, an extension of the way you see. While so many modern cameras interrupt the mental flow with small details which become big problems, Arri brings that feel for human usage to the fine decisions about buttons and menus. 

The Arri Alexa came out in 2010, and the range has now expanded to eight models. Famous competitors  were not so lucky - Kodak went down completely, Mitchell long ago morphed into Panavision which also made it through, Eclair has gone and Aaton refuses to die. Even though it is now the world's largest manufacturer of motion picture cameras, digital intermediate systems and lighting equipment, Arriflex is a small company. Addis reports that this fact makes the company very aware of the need to co-operate inside the ecology as simple electronic changes by suppliers can be devastating. 

Further behind the scenes, Arri has become a legend in archiving film. Their scanners are now a stable technology and they have an extraordinary ability to reconstruct damaged footage. The company also now has a large presence in the medical world. 

Newshooter has an informal history of the company with lots of details, while FD Times takes a wider view with a sense of drama. 

Here's the current Arri showreel - ARRI Camera Showreel 2017 from ARRI on Vimeo. The link takes you to more material.

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.