Several years after Charles Davidson joined the Arriflex Corporation in 1980, he attended a National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) trade show in Dallas. "We'd been gaining growing acceptance of our lighting kits," Davidson recalls, "and we had just introduced the 300W and 650W tungsten fresnels. I, like everybody else, saw these wonderful little fresnels being sold to traditional film and television markets. I never imagined them in portable kits--when you said portable kits, that meant open-faced lights.
"One person after another came up," Davidson continues, "and they said, 'These are really great; when are you going to get them ready in the kits?' Well, we stared at the kit case on the floor, and at the fresnels. Then we imagined that the 650 was going to fit in that kit case, and that the 300 was going to fit in that kit case. And we told people we'd have them ready right after NAB."
This story doesn't describe any great revolution in lighting technology, even if it does pinpoint Arriflex's emergence as a major player in the portable kit business. What it mainly does is illustrate the company's legendary symbiosis with the industry it serves--after all, "For users, from users" has always been the motto of parent firm Arnold & Richter (Arri). "We pioneered the notion of having lensed instruments, which provide better control and better light quality, in a portable kit environment," says Davidson, vice president of the Arriflex Corporation lighting division. "And I would love to tell you it was because we were really brilliant. But it was because 10 people in a row said we ought to do it--people with a very specific idea that we simply recognized was correct."
Arri, based in Munich, Germany, has been doing that and more since its founding in 1917 by young cameramen August Arnold and Robert Richter. Arnold and Richter were in the forefront of streamlining shooting technology, introducing the Arriflex 35, the first camera with a spinning mirror reflex shutter; the Arriflex 16, the first professional reflex viewing, pin-registered 16mm camera system; the Arriflex 35 BL lightweight sync sound production camera system; and the current standard, the Arriflex 535 and 435 MOS camera systems, featuring swingover viewfinder and programmable shutter/frame rate selection. Arri has also led the way with Zeiss high-speed lenses, and has been involved in the development and manufacturing of editing tables and medical motion picture recording and display devices. It has extended its activity to such services as post-production and sound studios.
Then, of course, there's lighting. The company introduced studio lights with faceted reflectors and mobile power supply units as early as 1924, and most famously developed HMI lighting technology, which was introduced in 1972 at the Munich Olympics. Gaffer Mo Flam says he finds Arri lighting equipment to be "the most dependable," especially when working on a difficult location job like The English Patient. For that movie, Flam ordered a package from Arri Italia that he had to rely on throughout shooting in the Tunisian desert. Yet while Arri cameras gradually made significant inroads in the United States, accounting at this point for up to 40% of the market versus leading competitor Panavision, Arri Lighting has historically not been a big domestic player.
That changed soon after the Arriflex Corporation was founded in 1978 in Blauvelt, NY. Part of an expansion that also saw the creation of Arri GB in England, Arri Canada, Arri Italia in Rome, and several other subsidiaries, the Arriflex Corporation was created to distribute and market Arri's products in the United States, a task that had previously been handled by Berkey Photo. "The decision was made to more actively market lighting equipment outside the home market, and I was a by-product of that," says Davidson, who had previously been Colortran's Northeast regional representative and a stagehand on "everything from Disney to rock and roll." This kind of hands-on training is a common strength at the company, he adds. Sales representative Roger Dean, for example, came to Arriflex from a gaffing and cinematography background, while John Gresch, sales manager of the Western lighting division, had worked extensively in theatre. "We've always gravitated toward production experience and real technical experience, above simple management or business experience," he says.
When Davidson came onboard in 1980, the Arriflex lighting line consisted of four products--a 575W, a 1,200W, a 2,500W, and a 4,000W HMI fresnel. "But a lot of them are still out there working, and a lot of the customers we sold to at the beginning are still our customers," he says. In New York, Strand was the company's major competitor, and Davidson saw an in: "We knew that we could win the battle with customer service. We've always known we had a good product. But in the search for greater market share, we've provided what we think is the best service in the business, whether that's technical response or stocking large inventory, so we could turn around and ship the same day. That attitude has continued."
As Arriflex gradually grew as a film lighting force on the East Coast, and opened a West Coast office in Burbank, CA (effectively making it Arri's largest subsidiary), it also worked on product development. "The HMI line continued to grow as new lamps--the 6k and 12k double-ended lamps--came in," says Davidson. "Then Arri GB was established, and took on a significant role in lighting development and marketing. What happened, of course, is that with increased market efforts, there was more outside input on product needs, and more demand for product development. The established line of HMIs was soon followed by a line of open-faced fixtures, the Arrilites. Later, in the mid-80s, came the complete range of tungsten fresnels, and the development of the Arrisun line of HMI PARs."
Besides trade shows, another forum for customer feedback is provided by the rental side of the business, which the Arriflex Corporation has been in since acquiring New York's Camera Service Center (CSC) in 1987. This facility, which is the leading camera and lighting rental house on the East Coast, "brings us one step closer to the market," says Davidson. Flam, who has worked on many New York-based productions, from After Hours to Green Card to the upcoming A Perfect Murder, says CSC is his primary connection to Arriflex, and one of the best reasons for using Arri products. "I find them to be the best rental house I've worked with," Flam says. "There's one particular light that they got for me called the Mini-Wendy, that I had seen over in Germany. They're very responsive if there's something you'd like to get." Not only that, but Arriflex regularly asks for Flam's feedback. "I was up there last spring, and they showed me all their new gear. They're especially sensitive to our needs in the field."
The actual nuts-and-bolts product development occurs at the factory in Munich, but meetings of representatives from all company subsidiaries are held once a year or more. "We bring ideas from the marketplace, and the factory shares its ideas about what it believes is possible technically," says Davidson. "And we do our best to arrive at products that are going to satisfy a number of needs. I have two roles there--one, in helping to provide input from the market; and two, in being an advocate for the very specific needs we have here." By that, Davidson is referring to variations between US and European ways of doing things. "There are the core differences between a 120V market and a 220V market," he explains. "And there is a style of working in terms of how some equipment is handled that's different from here to Germany. Our location customers have a desire for more scrims, and that affects how a product is designed. My colleagues in Europe are always horrified at that--if you put four or five scrims in a 2k fresnel, then the barndoor's further away, and you have to deal with the light leak that comes out the side. That's an issue that regularly turns up."
Product development that derives from established equipment--such as a 575W single-ended lamp giving birth to a compact 575W HMI fresnel and PAR--can also be distinguished from "the kind of creative and innovative products where we haven't simply followed the traditional path, but have taken a step back," Davidson says. Such a product, he says, is the Pocket PAR System, a portable 125W daylight PAR with special reflector and snap-on lenses that was introduced in 1996, and which has been popular in remote or difficult lighting situations. "The original product idea came from Germany," says Davidson. "It's been a great product as a small PAR--it's lightweight, it's easy to handle, and it does extraordinarily well in a battery situation, where it's drawing less power than a 200W, while providing just as much light. But its basic design is so adaptable that it's one of those products that has ignited all kinds of ideas."
Additions and accessories to the Pocket PAR have recently included the Flex Light Liquid Optic System, which uses a special collection lens to gather and direct light through a liquid-filled optic cable into the focusing lens, and which can produce 7,000fc at 2' for tabletop applications; the Arri Light Pipe, which can smoothly transform the Pocket PAR's beam into a soft source; pattern projection lenses; and a 12-30V DC converter to boost 12V sources such as car batteries for use with the 30V 125/200W electronic ballast. "We just keep coming up with new things to either put in front of, or attach to, this little PAR," says Davidson.
Other recent Arri lighting products were heavily customer-driven. The Arri X 40/25 daylight wide-angle floodlight, which accommodates either 2,500W or 4,000W single-ended HMI lamps, was pushed for by a Japanese customer. It features a 130-degree beam angle that made it ideal for washing large areas at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano; with an exchanged reflector, it can also become a hard, sharp, shadow source. Broadway's Ragtime, in fact, is using an Arri X to project shadows. And the new Arri 150W fresnel extends the company's line of tungsten fresnel spotlights. "People who loved the 300W and 650W have for years been asking us for that scaled-down version. It arrived in March, and hundreds have gone out the door," says Davidson.
The Arriflex Corporation's lighting division remains small; between Blauvelt and Burbank, there are at most eight employees that devote their full-time working lives to lighting, though, as Davidson puts it, "we occupy pieces of lots of people." Other manufacturers vie for domination of the American market--LTM on the location lighting side, DeSisti and Mole-Richardson on the studio side, and Lowel-Light on the portable kit side, though Arriflex has carved out its special niche there with the small fresnel units. More importantly, the company has made it a point to operate on a number of levels of the business. And to recognize that customers often have a crazy quilt of equipment, Arriflex has recently made the gesture of expanding its electronic ballast line to be mateable with other manufacturers' fixtures. "We're not going to hold that technology just for people who own Arri equipment," says Davidson, adopting his dry, kidding tone. "We're going to make ballasts that operate for the few lost souls who don't.
"People who come to us have a pretty clear understanding of why they're coming here--they want the best quality possible, and the best service possible," he continues. "And they recognize it's going to cost them a little more."
Make no mistake--cost is definitely an issue for customers. "Believe me, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was buy Arriflex," says Victor Abbene, chief VFX lighting technician on Independence Day and Titanic. "They're too expensive, and they're from Germany, and I would rather buy something that was made here in Burbank." Nevertheless, Abbene's lighting and grip company Grip-It Lighting acquired a dozen Arrisun 40/25 HMI PARs during Independence Day, and a dozen Arrisun 60s during Titanic. It all came down to quality. "I picked them because they're optically a better light."
Both films involved unconventional applications of the HMI PARs on model shots. For Independence Day, Abbene used the 4k units to provide massive, uniform exposure for 300fps bluescreen photography on miniature cars. For 60fps, 1/8-scale model shots of the Titanic sinking, he created his own flicker-free equivalent of Musco Lights by installing five or six 6ks each in two cherry pickers, filling in with giant softboxes composed of the 4ks. "There are five other very good manufacturers out there for this particular lamp," he says of the HMI PARs. "All are a lot less expensive. The LTMs were almost as good; but optically, the spread and evenness on the Arrisuns were better, and they were equipped with some really good lenses. I was going against conventional wisdom--LTMs were what every rental company was using, and this was a $250,000 investment. But I bought them. And they've since gone out on jobs with other people."
Whatever the limitations of its position, Arriflex seems content to be at the high end. "The instinctive compromise we will always make is to build the light with the better optical field," Davidson concludes. "It's hard to describe how rooted in the culture of the company that is. That may mean it's bigger or that it's created in an unusual way; it often means that we're at the top of the market price-wise. It would be easy one day to stick our names on something that costs a little less. But anytime that flag gets raised, it immediately gets shot down, because the way to protect the name we've developed over the years is to continue to focus on the quality side."