90 Years of Precision

By Birchard, Robert S. | American Cinematographer, June 2008 | Go to article overview

90 Years of Precision


Birchard, Robert S., American Cinematographer


Arri celebrates nine decades of service to the entertainment industry.

Today, in an era when used movie projectors are often given away or sold for scrap value, it is difficult to imagine that a powerhouse of moving-image technology could have emerged from the parts of an old projector picked up at a flea market, but that's precisely how the story of Arnold & Richter Cine Technik (A&R), also known as the Arri Group, begins.

Natives of Munich, Germany, August Arnold (1900-1983) and Robert Richter (1899-1972) met in school and shared an interest in what was then the latest scientific marvel: motion pictures. The films were silent and often "jerky" because of uneven sprocket-hole perforations and primitive claw movements that could introduce frame-toframe unsteadiness in the available cameras. Film emulsions were slower, grainier and less uniform than they would become. Harsh lighting, from shooting under period lamps or in broad daylight, brought a hardedged contrast to the images. Handdeveloped footage strung on wooden racks and dipped in open tanks of processing chemicals could contribute to the "flicker" that early audiences noted. Nevertheless, these images of life and drama had a magical allure, and the two boys from Munich were entranced.

In 1915, Arnold and Richter met cinematographer and producer Martin Kopp, who was then working as a news cameraman for Messier Newsreels. Introduced to the world of filmmaking, they took odd jobs repairing bicycles and doing installations for an electrical contractor to earn enough money to buy motion-picture cameras of their own: a second-hand wooden French Gaumont and a British-made camera manufactured by Charles Urban. In those days, owning your own camera was the ticket to a career in cinematography, and being a cinematographer meant you did pretty much everything from setting up the tripod to developing your own dailies at night after hand-cranking the camera during the day. Arnold and Richter learned the technical side of the motion-picture business as on-the-job apprentices and found work with producer Peter Ostermayr, among others.

Their first venture into equipment manufacturing came in 1916, when they made a motion-picture printer from the parts of that old projector. Their design was clever and useful enough to attract attention, and they began selling their printers to interested buyers. In 1917, they established their own company - Arri, derived from the first letters of Arnold and Richter but they were too young to be recognized as a business establishment under the law, and they were not officially incorporated until December 1918. They set up shop in a building on Munich's Tuerkenstrasse, a location that remains the company's corporate headquarters today.

Initially, Arnold and Richter weren't that interested in manufacturing equipment; their early efforts in that area sprang from a desire to create tools that would be useful in their work as cinematographers. Odd as it may seem, they were much in demand as cameramen on German Westerns, which were imitations of American sagebrush sagas. For director Fred Stranz, the duo shot Black Jack in the wilds of suburban Munich, and they went on to crank their cameras on schnitzel-shoot-'em-ups with tides such as The Yellow Strangler, Texas Fred's Honeymoon and High Voltage - Caution! Danger!

By 1920, Arnold and Richter were producing their own cowboy pictures, and with the earnings from films such as The Train Robbers and The Deadly Cowboys, they were able to expand their film laboratory and manufacturing business. Arri film printers attracted a large order from an Italian film company, and in 1925, Arri gained its first U.S. customers: film labs attracted to the company's improved film printers.

1924 proved to be a turning point for the young filmmakers. They designed faceted mirrorreflector lighting equipment for motion-picture photography that utilized incandescent lamps and provided softer light than the arc lamps commonly used at the time. …

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