The History of ARRI in a Century of Cinema

Industry insider, best-selling author, cinematographer, Jon Fauer ASC captures ARRI’s long and exciting history with insightful facts and personal anecdotes. Predominantly focusing on the cameras that made the company what is it today, Fauer paints a chronological picture of one of the most established names in the industry.

ARRI was founded a century ago by two aspiring cinematographers who appreciated the value of technology in the pursuit of their dreams. The excellent adventure of August Arnold and Robert Richter reads like a good screenplay. There is a dramatic arc, with competition, conflict, struggle against odds, stumbles, success and celebration. Serendipity helped, along with good business sense. They were involved in all fields of film production—from manufacturing cameras, lights, and lenses to managing post and rentals. 

The centennial celebration of the connections between cinematography and ARRI is a story about artists and artisans, technique and technology, creativity and tools. Collecting ephemeral images inside a dark box is an intertwined intersection of art and machine. Making these machines is also an art—and it is a remarkable achievement for one family-owned enterprise to have successfully engaged in that pursuit for a hundred years. ARRI is among a handful of equipment companies founded at the birth of cinema that continue to this day.

1917 – 1925: The Early Years

On September 12, 1917, August Arnold and Robert Richter founded ARRI in a small shop on Tuerkenstrasse in Munich to satisfy an eclectic assortment of interests, as announced on their business cards: “Fine mechanics, electrical devices, arc lamps, film apparatus, film printers, camera operating and projection.” Their first products were movie lights and printing machines. In the beginning, the boys were not even old enough to legally sign their business documents. One hundred years later, the company they started is still located at the same address, now much larger, with approximately 1,500 employees worldwide. 

By the time Arnold and Richter set up their first shop on Tuerkenstrasse, cinema had been flourishing for 22 years. Their instinctive proclivity to get involved in all facets of cinema, not just building cameras or being cameramen, most likely helped in their success. It was the inception of an industry that would introduce universal ideas to more people than ever before, the democratization and globalization of an art form that would be seen by the largest audiences in history. The founders of ARRI set off on a cinematic path of eclectic invention to support a hobby that became a successful business conceived in a nimble, mobile, European style of production. 

In Munich, Arnold and Richter were busy improving mechanisms, building printing machines and lighting equipment, and renting out their own cameras in between jobs to colleagues—pretty much the same things ARRI still does today. They also shot and acted in early German Westerns, with lugubrious titles like "Vengeance in the Valley of Gold" and "Deadly Cowboys," in the nearby Bavarian forests. In 1924, they built their first camera, the KINARRI 35. It had a pancake body shape like the Akeley, hand-cranked with 100' loads. Next came the KINARRI Model II Tropic, with an adjustable rotary shutter and a daylight film magazine. These were basically intended for the proliferating 35 mm amateur market. Richter was convinced that 16 mm would be more suitable for home movies, and the KINARRI 16 followed soon after.

In 1924, ARRI built their first electric tungsten lighting fixtures with faceted mirror reflectors. A similar technology of multi-segmented mirrors would reappear 82 years later, in 2006, on the ARRIMAX 18/12 “Most Powerful HMI PAR Light on the Planet,” and on subsequent M-Series fixtures. 

Robert Richter visited America in 1925, selling ARRI equipment and working as a waiter at the Commodore Hotel in New York, at the Hollywood labs of Fox and Lasky, and then as a camera assistant at Universal. He could not have avoided noticing how the Hollywood studio system encouraged bigger and heavier cameras. Richter’s observations undoubtedly influenced ARRI camera designs after he returned to Munich, enrolled at the Munich Technological University and received a degree in engineering.

1936 – 1965: A Revolution in Design and Technology—The ARRIFLEX 35

ARRI’s big breakthrough in camera design weighed a mere 13.5 lb (6.1 kg) and had a spinning mirror for reflex viewing. It was introduced as a prototype in 1936 and as a production-ready product at the 1937 Leipzig Fair. The ARRIFLEX 35 had a WYSIWYG image: what you saw on the ground glass was identical to the image captured on film, parallax free, and able to show whether the shot was in or out of focus. Erich Kaestner, having joined ARRI at age 21 in 1933, was the chief design engineer of this lightweight, small and rugged camera. From this point on, writers were obliged to distinguish between ARRI the company and ARRIFLEX—the cameras with reflex viewing via spinning mirror shutters. 

Cinematographers once again became combat cameramen during World War II. German combat cameramen used ARRIFLEX 35 cameras. The Americans had Bell & Howell Eyemos. The first ARRIFLEX 35s came to America as captured cameras via the US Army Pictorial Center in Queens, New York. Word of the spinning mirror and reflex viewing spread. 

ARRI’s factory in Munich was totally destroyed by Allied bombs in 1944, but manufacturing had been moved to the Bavarian countryside several years earlier. The next-generation ARRIFLEX 35 II went into production in 1941; after the war it gained attention in the US for handheld, MOS, documentary and POV shots. A 35 II was used extensively on "Louisiana Story" (1948), directed by Robert Flaherty and shot by Richard Leacock, a pioneer of Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité. Tonino Delli Colli AIC shot "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966), starring Clint Eastwood, with a 35 IICT/B Techniscope 2-perf (2.35:1 aspect ratio) camera. It used half as much film as 4-perf anamorphic, reducing costs and increasing time between reloads. More than 17,000 ARRIFLEX 35 cameras (including its variants: IIA, IIB, IIC) were sold through 1979, when it was replaced by the ARRIFLEX 35 III. 

Television news and documentaries were increasingly shot in 16 mm. The ARRIFLEX 16ST was introduced in 1950, based on the same spinning mirror shutter concept as the 35 II. It took 100' spools that could be loaded in daylight, much like the Bell & Howell Filmo, and also accepted 400' magazines. The 16ST was followed by the 16M (magazine only, no daylight spools); then the 16BL arrived in 1965 for 16 mm sync sound documentary and industrial film production. It was ARRI’s first silent camera. 

By this time, more than 1,300 employees worked at ARRI around Munich—running the film labs and building camera, lighting, processing and printing equipment. The workforce was well educated and skilled. Munich was, and still is, an epicenter of fine mechanics and precision engineering—partly due to a rigorous apprenticeship program. 

1968 – 1983: ARRI Exports to Hollywood and Expands

It took almost a decade to drag Hollywood out of their studios and onto location. In 1968, William A. Fraker ASC shot "Bullitt," directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen. “We used ARRIFLEXes all the way through, and we destroyed some, but they held up absolutely beautifully for the most part,” Fraker said a few years before he passed away. “I was also one of the first people [in Hollywood] to use a blimped ARRIFLEX. We had to import it from New York, because Hollywood didn’t have any. It was a smaller piece of equipment and we shot on actual locations in San Francisco, like seedy hotels on the waterfront—we just didn’t have the room to put big equipment in.” 

Next came "Easy Rider" (1969), shot by László Kovács ASC with Vilmos Zsigmond’s personal ARRIFLEX 35 IIC. The film’s exuberant, documentary, handheld, flared-lens, new-wave style triggered the New Hollywood era of filmmaking in the early 1970s. This American New Wave was enabled by the technology of the cameras that created the spontaneous style—but economics decided where the industry was heading next. Easy Rider was the third highest grossing film of 1969. With a low budget around $360,000, it made $60 million worldwide. If you were a Hollywood mogul, you saw dollar signs in the future of low-budget, independent productions. If you were a camera manufacturer, you would be scrambling to outfit cinematographers with the tools to shoot those new movies. 

ARRI launched the ARRIFLEX 35BL in 1972, the company’s first silent 35 mm production camera. The need for such a camera had been strongly expressed by Paul Klingenstein and Volker Bahnemann in the US. Having started as an apprentice at Kling Photo in the late 1960s, Bahnemann had by this point risen to VP of Marketing. In 1978 he would become president of Arnold and Richter’s first subsidiary outside of Germany, ARRI Inc. Today he sits on the Supervisory Board of ARRI AG. 

Designed by Joachim Gerb and Erich Kaestner, the 35BL rested comfortably on the operator’s shoulder. At 33 lb, and around 33 dB, it required a lens blimp for silence, but was light, small and portable. Unveiled at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games, it appeared to be intended as a 35 mm silent newsreel and sports camera with the ability to toggle between sync sound and a top speed of 100 fps for slow motion. Of course, it could do much more than that. In the US, Jack Priestley ASC was one of the first to use a 35BL, on "Across 110th Street" (1972). Priestley described the camera: “It was as quiet as a church mouse and had great flexibility. I don’t know what I would have done in a lot of spots without it, especially in those small rooms where we often had to shoot. You put it on your shoulder and could walk around, bend down, sit down, hold it in your lap.”

Company founder August Arnold, was usually ahead of the times, especially in lighting. Colleagues remember Dr. Arnold telling them for years that he had one word about the future of cinema lighting: “Daylight.” His first practical implementations of daylight fixtures were early HMI units at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Iterations of the 35BL followed, project-managed by Otto Blaschek, who had joined ARRI in 1947 under Kaestner. The big breakthrough was the 35BL 3 in 1980. A collective cheer was heard from cinematographers and camera assistants: it had a new PL mount, quieter operation, and no longer required a lens blimp for silent shooting. The various 35BL models worked on major features, including "Barry Lyndon" (1975, John Alcott ASC, BSC), "Taxi Driver" (1976, Michael Chapman ASC), "Apocalypse Now" (1979, Vittorio Storaro ASC, AIC), "The Shining" (1980, John Alcott ASC, BSC), "Fanny and Alexander" (1982, Sven Nykvist ASC), and many more. 

1975 saw the introduction of a silent, ergonomic, shoulder-resting, coaxial magazine camera: the ARRIFLEX 16SR. Its designer, Erich Kaestner, imagined the 16SR (Silent Reflex) as a documentary and newsreel 16 mm film camera so lightweight and portable that it could fit inside a custom metal and leather executive-style attaché case that any well-dressed DP would be proud to carry onboard an airplane. The camera was symmetrical, designed under the correct assumption that not everyone was right-handed, right- eyed and right-shouldered. It worked on every imaginable production, from docs and news to commercials and features, and became one of ARRI’s best-selling cameras of all time. 

For many ARRIFLEX camera users, ZEISS “Standard” lenses were the benchmark. They were about the size of a tennis ball; you could carry an entire set in your backpack. By the time 35BL cameras arrived in 1972, the mounts were bayonet, and it’s been said that the secret to the success of the 35BL as a lightweight location camera was the set of ARRI/ZEISS Super Speed lenses introduced in 1975. To use these bayonet-mount lenses, you needed a bayonet-mount camera, which was basically unique to ARRI. With a maximum aperture of T1.4 (later T1.3), the Super Speeds enabled movies to be shot at night, on location, with practical lights and available streetlights. The first set was used on "Taxi Driver." 

In 1983 ARRI GB opened in the UK, under Derrick Ross and Paul Wild. It was here that the first dedicated marketing and sales team for ARRI lighting products was created, alongside camera sales. A rental business was later added, allowing new ARRI products to be introduced to the market, and ARRI Rental UK remains a key hub to this day.

1989 – 1994: Larger Formats and Higher Speeds

Filmmakers had been interested in larger formats from the moment Edison and Eastman standardized the 35 mm 18x24 mm frame. The ARRIFLEX 765 arrived 90 years later—in 1989. It was silent, sync sound, 2–100 fps, with an adjustable, motorized mirror shutter, and a separate motor for the camera movement, synchronized electronically to reduce noise — something unheard of at the time. This principle would be used in the next cameras, the ARRIFLEX 535 in 1990 and 435 in 1994. 

Technically, the 535 was a marvel, with an adjustable viewfinder system for spherical, anamorphic, 100% optical or fractional video assist viewing. But crews found it big, bulky and heavy. ARRI quickly went back to the design table and released the lighter, smaller and more practical 535 B in 1993. Vittorio Storaro AIC, ASC didn’t mind; in 1993 he shot "Little Buddha" with Bernardo Bertolucci using ARRIFLEX 535 and 765 cameras. Nor did Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC, who liked the 535 and its coaxial magazine that he could tuck under his arm while operating on a fluid head. Roger commented, “It would be interesting to work this out—what comes first: the ambition or technology? People’s ambitions for the way films can be made and the quality of the work are forever expanding, and that forces technology in new directions.” 

The ARRIFLEX 435 came out in 1994 as a 35 mm MOS and high-speed camera to replace the 35 III. Its dual 3-pin pull-down claws and industry-standard dual registration pins assured optical printer steadiness. Frame rates up to 150 fps could be combined with in-camera speed ramps by means of a motorized mirror shutter, and the lens iris could be coupled to a control unit. TV commercials immediately embraced the technology of speed-iris-mirror shutter control, as agency creatives, directors and DPs unleashed spates of beautiful sequences exploring time and motion. 

1995 – 2008: The Dawn of the Digital Age of Film 

The digital age at ARRI really began in 1995 with design work on the ARRILASER. Launched in 1998, the ARRILASER printed digital image files to film. Originally intended for visual effects sequences, the ARRILASER became an industry standard for printing digital intermediates of entire movies onto film and for archival black-and-white separation masters that safeguard our cinematic heritage. 

Meanwhile, a filmmaker in Austria named Fritz Gabriel Bauer had been getting so involved with equipment that he founded his own company, Moviecam, to build cameras the way he liked them. ARRI acquired Moviecam in the 1990s and announced the new ARRICAM ST and LT cameras in 2000—combining technologies from both systems. The ST was ARRI’s first 35 mm silent camera with displacement magazines (instead of coaxial) and was to be the last 35 mm silent studio film camera that ARRI would design—although ARRICAMs successfully work to this day. 

The ARRICAM cameras came with another new capability: LDS—a Lens Data System that displayed focus, iris, zoom and other information about the ARRI/ZEISS lens that was working in its mount. So, in the same year that the ARRICAMs were unveiled, ARRI and ZEISS began to supply Ultra Prime lenses fitted with LDS. 

What was about to come came quickly. The combined influences of art, technique, technology, Moore’s Law, manufacturing and marketing resulted in an acceleration of product introductions that would completely change the way movies were made. 

April 2001, ARRI Managing Director Franz Kraus raced into the central hall of the NAB exhibition in Las Vegas waving a brand-new Canon EOS D30 digital SLR with the first CMOS image sensor, which he had just purchased at a nearby big-box store. “This is the future of our industry,” he proclaimed. People looked at him with the kind of disbelief with which one might greet a prediction of the end of the world. Someone asked, “How long?” He answered, “2010.” Of course, he was right. Working models of the ARRI ALEXA were introduced in 2010. But we’re getting ahead of the story. Franz Kraus was the visionary technologist at ARRI, with an infectious enthusiasm for image science and the way pictures looked—and a stubborn streak of perfectionism that brooked no shortcuts. 

The ARRIFLEX 235 (2003) was the last 35 mm film camera ARRI would build. Many considered it to be the most elegantly styled camera of all time, with its dolphin-shaped magazine and graceful ergonomic shape. The 235 was designed as a 35 mm MOS camera to be used handheld, on stabilizers, on rigs and underwater. 

The following year, the ARRISCAN came out. It had a 35 mm CMOS sensor to scan motion picture film up to 6K resolution. A new chain of events emerged. It was now called “workflow.” Films could be shot on film, digitized in real time to data files, edited, graded, assembled and then printed back out to film with an ARRILASER. The invention of the ARRISCAN led to faster conversion of film images to data files. Faster speeds led to lower costs of digitizing. The result was a creative revolution in the digital age of feature films that was previously restricted to the domain of high-end commercials because of cost. Now, entire features could be affordably scanned as digital intermediates, and highly talented, rock-star colorists worked with cinematographers on grading, power windows, secondary color correction, filter effects, smoothing selected areas and so on. 

The ARRIFLEX D-20 was ARRI’s first digital cine camera, introduced in November 2005. It used the same CMOS sensor technology as the ARRISCAN, with a look that was indeed cinematic and a size that was familiar. It had the same aspect ratio and dimensions as traditional 35 mm film—something most other companies failed to recognize and a decision that probably assured the success of ARRI’s digital endeavors that would follow. Steps for the D-20 were tentative at first. It was to be a limited quantity experiment to test the digital waters, a rental-only camera, not for sale. 

ARRI and ZEISS kept developing newer lenses that raised the bar in terms of sharpness, resolution and contrast. At NAB 2005, the ARRI/ZEISS T1.3 Master Prime lenses were introduced. T-shirts proclaimed, “Breathless!” and they truly were. 

At NAB 2006, ARRI showed the ARRIFLEX 416—the next (and last) generation Super 16 mm camera. It combined ARRICAM technology with the styling of a 235, in a size reminiscent of the 16SR. It was ARRI’s last analog camera. Digital cameras were advancing faster than predicted.

Three years after the D-20 came out, ARRI redesigned and redesignated the camera as the D-21. Still straddling the terms “experimental” and “production-ready,” it was intended for TV production so as not to interfere with sales of film cameras. Like the D-20, it was a bit cumbersome, a rental item only, later reluctantly for sale, but the images were very good. By 2008, there were 56 D-21 cameras at 13 rental houses worldwide. 

2009 – 2014: The Birth of ALEXA and SkyPanel

IBC, Amsterdam, September 2009—a pivotal moment. Some have said that ARRI bet the company on this new digital camera. The ARRI booth was very quiet, very tense in the minutes before IBC opened. Would anyone show up? Would they notice the three prototype ARRI digital camera “sisters” that were presented as wooden models, code-named ALEXA EV, ALEXA EV-Plus, and ALEXA OV-Plus? The doors to IBC Hall 11 opened at 10 a.m. Five minutes later, the ARRI team was smiling. Throngs of DPs and rental houses were swarming the booth, placing orders. By the end of the show the name “ALEXA” had caught on, and it seemed difficult to imagine calling these cameras anything else when they went into production in mid-2010. 

There were a number of things in ALEXA’s favor. It looked and felt like an ARRI film camera: solid, rugged, ready to endure life on location. It was easy to use. The menu and buttons seemed like old friends, not much different from an ARRICAM. Most important of all, the images had a filmlike look. The dynamic range, the range of exposure, was similar. Highlights and shadow areas could be exposed in familiar ways, using a light meter instead of a waveform monitor if you liked. It did not look like video. Somewhat later, Roger Deakins said, “This camera has brought us to a point where digital is simply better.” What really mattered was that cinematographers, directors and audiences liked the way the image looked. They found it pleasing. It matched their expectations during the transition from film to digital. It was comfortable. The controls were familiar. They felt at home. 

ARRI’s image experts, with years of experience working in postproduction, color science and image aesthetics, had conducted extensive research on how pictures should look and what image processing would be required to achieve cinematic imagery from digital capture. As Franz Kraus explained, “People thought that because ARRI made film cameras, how could they possibly have a successful digital camera? That would have to be luck. No, it was hard work over many years, starting with the ARRILASER.” 

In the transition from analog technology to digital, the ARRI team had experience with film and digital cameras—the user interface, wireless control, micro controllers, CMOS sensors, FPGA-based image processing. “We had done these things before and benefitted from the 235 and 416 designs. Why should digital capture have a totally different user interface? Shooting takes place not for technical reasons but for creative ones,” Franz Kraus added. 

When the original ALEXA 35 mm digital camera was presented to the filmmaking community, it was positioned “for HD television, commercials and a few features,” with the promise that “uncompromised and uncompressed 4K resolution will remain in the domain of 35 mm film for some time to come.” That humble camera for “a few features” went on to become one of the most successful digital cine cameras of all time, capturing 80 percent of major motion picture productions by 2017.

At IBC 2010 in Amsterdam, ARRI presented prototypes of a new focusable LED Fresnel lighting fixture that promised the cool-to-the-touch and energy- efficient advantages of LED illumination with the spot-flood control and lifelike color rendition of traditional Fresnel fixtures. The ARRI L7 (L for LED and 7 for 7" Fresnel) arrived in April 2011. Available in tungsten, daylight and color-controllable versions, it was like an electric swatchbook. ARRI L5 and L10 fixtures followed. 

The James Bond film "Skyfall" (2012), shot with two prototype ALEXA Studio cameras by Roger Deakins, grossed $1.1 billion worldwide. ARRI Lighting’s blockbuster fixture premiered in April 2015 with an equally auspicious name: SkyPanel. It was a new line of ARRI LED soft lights, brighter than a 2 kW tungsten soft light or a 6 kW tungsten space light. About the size of a 2 kW zip light that was cool to the touch, SkyPanels could plug into the wall and produce a flattering wraparound light that actors and cinematographers loved. Like the L-Series of ARRI LED Fresnels, SkyPanel C (color) versions were fully tuneable, adjustable from 2,800 K to 10,000 K, with plus and minus green correction, vivid color selection (party colors) and saturation adjustment. With the SkyPanel, ARRI Lighting stepped into the digital age as successfully as ARRI Camera Systems did with the ALEXA.

In October 2012, August Arnold’s son, Robert Arnold, sold his 50 percent stake in the company. The Stahl family, heirs of Robert Richter, now own 100 percent of ARRI. There was another big announcement in the final months of 2012: ARRI/ ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses. Because of ALEXA’s industry-standard 4:3 sensor and 18 mm image height, the feel, myth and reality of the legendary anamorphic look had been enticing DPs since the camera’s introduction. The new ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic prime lenses were a combined effort of the long design, technical and marketing partnership between Munich and Oberkochen. 

ARRI Rental launched the ALEXA 65 at Cinec in September 2014. Within the next 25 months, ALEXA 65 cameras worked on more 65 mm productions than had been shot in the previous 25 years. Continuing ARRI’s involvement with this iconic larger format where the 765 left off, the ALEXA 65 has now been taken up in earnest by the world’s leading filmmakers. One early adopter was Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC, who combined it with ALEXA Mini and ALEXA XT on "The Revenant" (2015). A year earlier, Lubezki had gracefully glided an ALEXA M through "Birdman" (2014). He noted, “Handheld cameras, especially smaller ones like the ARRI ALEXA M, allow you to get really, really close to the actors. You can move within their space and between them. It allows you to get into the eye of the hurricane, as we say. It was inconvenient timing that the ALEXA Mini wasn’t ready for `Birdman.´ But we were able to work with the ALEXA M very nicely. To me what is important, and what I wish for, is that we have many brushes, many different tools to tell stories and express emotion in different ways.” 

2017: ARRI at 100

Dr. Joerg Pohlman joined ARRI in 2014 as Managing Director. He commented, “If we think about the 100 years of ARRI, look at where we are and where we want to be in the future, one of the key factors is how unique a company it is. We are involved in almost all aspects of the motion picture industry, from developing cameras, lighting and accessories, to product manufacturing, including sensor bonding. Our ARRI Rental Group gives us proximity to film sets, and provides immediate feedback if something does not work or can be improved. When you finish shooting, you can come back to ARRI Media for postproduction, editing, sound, VFX, mixing, DI and distribution. ARRI can provide the entire process from developing a camera all the way to releasing feature films into theaters. I think that makes ARRI unique.” 

The cinema has been reinvented over and over again. For a hundred years, ARRI has created the tools and technology that enabled filmmakers to find new ways to tell their stories with moving images. Styles evolved, techniques changed, reacting and in reaction to the art and tools that brought cinematographers, some skeptical, others thrilled as an audience on opening night, along a century’s trajectory from studios to locations, from silent to sound, from analog to digital. 

Endurance is elusive in the pursuit of cinematographic dreams. Providing the tools to tell those stories is also risky business requiring resilience. As successful merchants of the means to those dreams, ARRI has provided the tools and services of cinema production for one hundred years, collecting an impressive 19 Academy Sci-Tech Awards along the way. A company founded by two friends has grown to a team of 1,500, some of whom are third-generation employees—truly a family concern. And the adventure continues. If there is one comprehensive explanation for ARRI’s longevity, it is their foresight and acumen to listen to customers, friends and colleagues. 

By Jon Fauer