ARRI: Munich film technology in Hollywood

By Kathrin Hollmer
arri film camera alexa 35

The ARRI film camera "ALEXA 35" in action. Photo: Sean Dooley / ARRI

Without ARRI, nothing would work in Hollywood. The Munich-based company produces the best film cameras in the world, and many famous blockbusters have been made with camera and lighting technology from the Bavarian tech giant. What sets ARRI apart from the international competition? Pioneering spirit, a high self-image and the courage to establish new business areas.

When the Oscars are awarded at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, people in Schwabing keep a close count. In March 2023, at the 94th Academy Awards, seven of the nine productions nominated for "Best Picture" were shot with cameras from the Munich-based family company ARRI. For the award winner "Coda," cinematographer Paula Huidobro used lenses from ARRI. In the past twelve years alone, eleven award winners from the "Best Camera" category have been filmed with ARRI cameras.

ARRI: Innovation carries the success

Most people in Munich are familiar with "das ARRI", the cinema on Türkenstraße and the founding headquarters of ARRI. The cinema is now called "ASTOR Film Lounge im ARRI," and the company moved into new headquarters at the end of 2019. From the outside, the new building in Parkstadt Schwabing looks like a camera housing. Inside are all of ARRI's primary functions as well as all of the departments of the Camera Systems division - from development and production to marketing and service. More than 600 employees work here under one roof, from engineers and software developers to specialists in sales and marketing. ARRI employs 1.300 people in 16 countries worldwide.

In the foyer, the ARRI Museum reconstructs the company's history - and displays a piece of film history. The oldest cameras on display there have a crank on the back, which is where the expression "shooting a film" comes from. The conference rooms are named after some of ARRI's most famous films: including "Skyfall," "The Boat" and "Black Jack." The last one is an Isar western that company founders August Arnold and Robert Richter shot in 1918, a year after founding their company ARRI - short for Arnold and Richter.

»We make tools for creatives, and the best possible ones.«

Henning Rädlein, Head of Marketing & Digital Workflow Solutions and Camera Systems / Photo: ARRI 2022

Rädlein has worked at ARRI for 20 years and he is sure about one thing: Since ARRIs founding it is the spirit of innovation that has driven the company. ARRI develops a new camera every few years. Accessories and software have shorter cycles. ARRI's first best-seller was the ARRIFLEX 35 in 1937, the first mass-produced SLR film camera that made it possible to see through the viewfinder exactly the image you were shooting. It was lighter, allowed dynamic camera panning and produced fewer static images. "The ARRIFLEX 35 was the foundation of ARRI's success story," explains Rädlein.

Bavarian technology in Hollywood

Since then, ARRI technology has significantly changed cinema, television and advertising. In silent film days, for example, standard cameras generated a lot of noise. When noise became a problem in shooting a film, ARRI invented in 1965 a compact, noise-isolating camera for 16 mm, and for 35 mm in 1972. In the late 2000s, the company took the biggest step yet in its history by developing digital cameras. ARRI's big breakthrough in digital filming came with the ALEXA, which was unveiled at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam in September 2009 and began shipping in June 2010. Previously, the manufacturer built only analog cameras, without electronics or programming. The ALEXA has been a resounding success: "It is the best-selling high-end digital film camera," says Henning Rädlein. Digital cameras are the standard for filming today.

Innovation means not only technological progress, but also diversity - and a wide range of products. ARRI is well-known for its cameras, but has never relied on just one area. ARRI also produces lenses and accessories for its own and other cameras. At one time, the company also manufactured film copying machines, cutting tables and developing machines for analog films. ARRI still manufactures the ARRISCAN film scanner, which archives still use today to digitize analog material. The ARRI camera systems have also been used in medicine, for example as X-ray film cameras, and in many industrial applications.

ARRI Headquarter

The ARRI headquarter in Munich. Photo: ARRI 2020

Another essential business area is lighting technology. ARRI has been manufacturing spotlights since 1924, and since 1953 at the ARRI Lighting site in Stephanskirchen near Rosenheim. There, ARRI manufactures not only tungsten spotlights and daylight lamps, but also LED lights for filming, broadcast studios, events, theaters and photo studios. Among other things, ARRI produces the state-of-the-art, energy-saving Orbiter LED spotlight in Stephanskirchen.The ARRI light is used for example in the "Tagesschau" studio and in the new WELT/N24 TV studios.

ARRIs third business unit is ARRI Rental and based in Ismaning. The company rents out its own and third-party camera and lighting systems as well as stage equipment to film productions. Its rental customers include numerous production companies that produce on behalf of the streaming services Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV+. With ARRI Solutions, the company also offers the planning and implementation of virtual production studios. In these studios, digital backgrounds can be designed in 3-D and displayed on LED walls in front of which actors and cameras move. In the UK, ARRI operates its own studio, ARRI Stage London, where the band Coldplay 2022 shot a music video. The Netflix series "1899" was shot in the ARRI-planned DARK BAY Virtual Production Stage in Babelsberg, Germany, using ARRI cameras, lenses and lights. And it's not just cameras that are evolving, the lighting sector is also undergoing massive changes: "Cameras and lighting communicate with each other today, so the camera knows how the light was set," adds  Rädlein.

Top quality made in Munich

Starting at around 60.000 euros, ARRI's ALEXA 35 camera is in the upper price range, even for the professional sector. To ensure that the products are as robust as they are reliable, "we manufacture and assemble components related to image quality ourselves," explains Christian Hartl, Director Global Production, who manages all production at the company. Random samples of individual parts, such as sensor carriers, are checked during production. "The dimensions must be correct to within 0.05 millimeters. For comparison, a hair is about 0.07 millimeters in diameter," says Hartl. In a clean room, the sensors are connected to the circuit boards, "bonded" is the technical jargon. Exactly how this is done is a company secret. The employees wear white suits, hoods and face masks. Every speck of dust, every flake that landed on a sensor would be seen forever on the image, and the sensor would be unusable. "That's why it's like space conditions here," states Hartl.

Precision work takes place in the clean room

Precision work takes place in the clean room – everything revolves around quality here. Photo: ARRI 2022

Once the cameras have been loaded with software, they have to prove themselves in a stress test: They are mounted on a plate - the "shaker" - which vibrates strongly to ensure that all cables are neatly plugged in and no screws are loose. Then they enter the climate chamber, where temperatures range from minus 20 to plus 45 degrees Celsius. "Our cameras can be used at any time, whether in the desert or on Mount Everest - without having to be prepared beforehand," says Hartl. "That's a competitive advantage; others break down at zero degrees Celsius." In case something does go wrong, ARRI maintains a worldwide service network with repair stations and backup cameras.

Sustainability as a competitive factor

A driver of innovation: open ears. Before the pandemic, ARRI employees regularly met with their customers around the world to listen carefully to what they liked and didn't like about the products. "We always ask ourselves, how can we improve filmmaking? Make it more creative, faster, more economical?" says Rädlein. Travel is now possible again, but since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company has also been organizing exchanges in a different way: ARRI shoots tutorial videos and hosts virtual discussion groups in the studio at the company headquarters in Parkstadt Schwabing.

Sustainability is also important to ARRI: the company therefore continues to maintain older cameras and, after maintenance and careful testing, sells used cameras, lenses and spotlights at a lower price via the "ARRI Approved Certified Pre-Owned Program". The company's approach to customers and employees is also sustainable. The company founded the ARRI Academy for its customers and offers product-specific training courses around the world. The company has a long tradition of promoting talent and regularly supports productions through its worldwide "International Support Program" and regional initiatives. The company itself trains apprentices in the fields of industrial mechanics and electronics as well as industrial clerks and IT specialists for system integration. There are also partnerships with Munich University of Applied Sciences for dual study programs. With programs such as "Fit for future", ARRI promotes junior staff in the form of further training. According to ARRI, specialists with both technical knowledge and experience on the film set will be needed in the future. Software specialists will also play an increasingly important role as film production becomes more digital. Munich is ready. "Everything for the best picture," as they say at ARRI.