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As director of photography Seamus McGarvey was preparing to shoot The Avengers last year, he was, he confesses, “genuinely worried.” Because the Marvel production — which Disney releases May 4 — would require extensive postproduction visual-effects work, shooting with a digital camera was preferable to using film. The problem was McGarvey, an Oscar nominee for his work on 2007’s Atonement, never had shot a feature digitally.
“I love the way film will render skin tones and reacts to light,” he says, noting that by choosing the right lenses and film stock, “I can make sure an actress is going to look her best. I was worried that the resolution and crispness of digital would mitigate against that, producing an effect that was too abrupt for the audience.”
To his surprise, McGarvey found that the Alexa digital camera, which camera manufacturer ARRI launched in 2010, actually did have a “gentle” look and didn’t require diffusion filters to soften the image. “I’m very impressed with how it renders skin tones,” says McGarvey. “I didn’t use any diffusion, and I haven’t needed to for Scarlett Johansson. She is a beautiful actress and looks wonderful in the film. I don’t think that actors need to fear that every pore is going to be laid bare on the big screen.”
One of the most iconic brands on Hollywood film sets, ARRI cameras have been around since the Munich-based company was founded by August Arnold and Robert Richter in 1917. (The first two letters of each of their last names formed the name ARRI.) And in the past few years, the 95-year-old company has overhauled its line of cameras, moving from film to digital. The change represented the biggest — and riskiest — transformation in the firm’s history. The digital cinematography market is extremely competitive. And, says ARRI managing director Franz Kraus, there was internal debate over whether the venerable company was jumping the gun. “[Film cameras] was a market we owned,” he explains. “There was some concern within the company that it wasn’t right to go that early into digital cameras.”
But now that the shift has taken place, ARRI’s new digital cameras already have begun to win over many of the industry’s leading cinematographers — some of whom first had to be convinced that digital was a viable option.
Certainly, they had reason to trust the company, whose cameras, lighting and postproduction technology have become ubiquitous by combining Hollywood creativity with German engineering.
Dark Passage, Easy Rider, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now are just a few of the classics brought to the screen with ARRI motion picture film cameras.
“The impact Arriflex has had on the movie, television and documentary industries is immeasurable,” says Michael Goi, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. “In an industry where evolution and change is a given, the craftsmanship of Arriflex is a constant.”
The company’s bullish move toward digital, as exemplified by the ARRI Alexa, already has picked up an impressive list of converts. Robert Richardson used it on Hugo, his first digitally lensed (and 3D) feature, and it earned the cinematographer his third Academy Award. Another 2012 best picture nominee, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, shot by two-time Oscar winner Chris Menges (The Killing Fields), also used the Alexa. (The Artist, the best picture winner, stuck with ARRI film cameras, fitting for a movie that celebrated the past.)
Upcoming films lensed with the Alexa include Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, photographed by five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel, and the James Bond movie Skyfall, which nine-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins is shooting.
“Whether I were shooting Skyfall or any other film, I would consider the Alexa as a very probable choice,” says Deakins, who first used the camera on 2011’s In Time, his first digital feature. “It is probably a mistake to compare a digital image captured by the Alexa or any digital camera to one on film. Suffice to say I like the image the camera produces, and I find the flexibility it gives me on set very much an advantage.”
In terms of television production, the Alexa has grabbed a “pretty good share” of the primetime episodic market, according to ARRI president and CEO Glenn Kennel. It has been used on House, Alcatraz, Homeland, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles. Kennel estimates that a whopping 75 percent of last season’s pilots were lensed with the Alexa, and this year, “we don’t see any loss of share.”
Basic Alexa camera packages, without lenses, range from $86,000 to $170,000. With an estimated 2,500 sold worldwide, ARRI has survived the digital revolution without losing its standing in the industry.
Managing director Kraus describes ARRI as “a digital company with the skill of precision mechanics” and recalls that its digital charge began during the late 1990s with the development of the ArriLaser film recorder, which enabled a practical way to do full digital postproduction and then returned the finished movies to film.
The importance of that change in how movies are assembled was underscored when the ArriLaser was honored with an Academy Award of Merit — an Oscar statuette and the highest recognition bestowed by AMPAS for technical advancement — at the Academy’s 2012 Scientific and Technical Awards. (It also was the 18th time an ARRI product was recognized by the Academy.) The ArriLaser became the basis of all future digital developments.
In 2003, ARRI released its first digital camera, the D20. And then, in 2010, came the Alexa. “It has become the darling of production,” says director of photography Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild. “They developed a camera that has wonderful imaging quality and terrific color science.”
Although digital represents its present and its future, ARRI hasn’t entirely abandoned film cameras. But the company’s Kraus now speaks of them almost nostalgically. “We still manufacture film cameras, but the quantity is almost zero,” he says. “Sometimes I feel the technology has changed maybe not for the right reason. If you have a film that has a fair amount of CG work, then images are of a digital nature. But if you shoot a period picture, you want [as an option] to have the style
McGarvey appreciates that as it developed the Alexa, ARRI listened to filmmakers. “They take advice from the people on the set, and they weld those findings into their products,” he says. “Inevitably, there are teeny problems with any new technology, especially with a product like a new digital camera. They use any issues that arise to improve the product.”
Working with the Alexa on Avengers, says McGarvey, “There are a couple instances where the Alexa came into its own.” He cites a scene featuring Mark Ruffalo‘s Bruce Banner and Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff: “The levels of light were a lot lower than I would have used had I been shooting on celluloid. The actors actually appreciated that. They were shooting in Albuquerque during the summer in really searing heat. It was air-conditioned, but the last thing you want is a lot of light that will make them uncomfortable. They could feel that they were in a space that was lit with ambient light rather than glaring film lights.”
ARRI’s 95 YEARS OF CINEMA HISTORY: The Munich-based manufacturer’s cameras have been used on everything from spaghetti Westerns to the latest 3D movies.
- 1917: ARRI is founded by filmmakers and inventors Robert Richter and August Arnold.
- 1924: The first Arriflex camera, KINARRI 35, makes its debut.
- 1966: Over the years, some of the world’s most respected cinematographers have used ARRI cameras, including Tonino Delli Colli.
- 1972: ARRI introduces its first HMI lights at the Munich Olympics.
- 2011: Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich and shot by Anna Foerster, is the first feature film to use ARRI’s Alexa camera.
- 2012: Franz Kraus, Wolfgang Riedel and Johannes Steurer accept an Academy Award of Merit for the ArriLaser film recorder.
- 2012: Robert Richardson wins the cinematography Oscar for Hugo, the first Alexa-lensed production to win that honor.
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