The spotlights used in many a film classic were made by a family-run company in a tiny Bavarian town. We meet the German engineers bringing a warm glow to Hollywood.
Despite providing the spotlights that illuminate filmstars on sets around the world, Arri does a remarkable job of keeping itself out of the limelight. In the town of Stephanskirchen (population 10,000), perched at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the lighting division of the family-owned, Munich-born company has been manufacturing the equipment that shaped many of the canon’s classics since the 1950s. If you enjoyed La La Land’s moonlit dance or the brooding atmosphere of Blade Runner 2049, you have this team of German engineers to thank.
“We have always concentrated on cinema as our main market,” says Tino Schuldt, the firm’s head of industrial engineering. “There are other lighting companies around but in this niche we are kings.”
Arri was founded by two German film-makers in 1917 and for much of its history it has been known for the high-end cameras it still assembles in the Bavarian capital. The duo started making lights in the 1920s but for decades the lighting outpost in Stephanskirchen was considered Arri’s “outback”. It wasn’t until the division won a technical Oscar for its Arrimax lamp in 2009 that this branch started shining in its own right. “[To make a film] the first tool you need is a camera – but just as important is light,” says Schuldt.
Technology in lightbulbs may not have evolved at the same speed as in digital cameras but the ideas that the team have introduced over the past 20 years have upped cinematography’s game. In the beginning it was tungsten lights, which lend a particularly warm feel to proceedings because they radiate large parts of their energy in red and infrared wavelength. They also tend to get scorchingly hot – and have therefore fallen out of favour on many a set. (Not for famous German theatre director Tina Lanik: Arri’s team remember her proclaiming, “Sorry but for me, actors have to sweat.”)
Then came the daylight lamps: doing away with metal wires, these models rely on an electric arc for a high-efficiency, high-power result. The flagship Max model, a hulking beast of a thing, is so powerful that it needs a UV cover panel if actors are not to get sunburnt.
And finally, just as they appeared in offices and homes, LEDs came to film-making too. These lamps may have a bad reputation for the cold, clinical vibe they exude but Arri’s hi-tech version mixes different colour sources, so the result is as close to sunlight as possible. “It’s the Arri magic,” says Markus Lampier, the lighting division’s general manager.
The company’s newest invention (and its current battle horse), a lightweight LED lamp called the Skypanel, was born in 2015 to meet the needs of a production anybody in Hollywood would gladly have on their CV: Star Wars. “People were putting in night shifts and it didn’t matter,” says Schuldt. “As soon as you have those credentials, all other productions want to use [the model] too.”
Plenty more clients besides movie-world regulars started flooding in; Arri’s lights ended up being used for everything from still-life photoshoots to fashion catwalks and car shows, and even during mass at certain spectacle-prone US churches. “Other markets look to film and want to be just as professional,” says Schuldt. From its secluded, rural corner of Germany, Arri has managed to get the inside eye on a lot of the entertainment industry’s major shifts. That means knowing which film markets are growing; China, Nigeria, India and the Middle East, according to the team. And when film and TV are involved, those shifts naturally involve Netflix and its comrades.
Hungry for new series and with humongous budgets to back them, these new players have brought in plenty of cash. “Netflix alone has a $10bn production budget; Apple has a $1bn production budget,” says Schuldt. “There’s a lot of space for growth.” Whatever their end purpose, however, Arri’s lights are always made to the same high-end specs and retail at the same hefty price tags, oscillating between €15,000 and €30,000 depending on the model. “We understand applications not just for one customer and we try to make [the products] fit them,” says Schuldt. “We can then produce in a quantity that is economical.”
Part of the reason why Arri has the ability to feasibly manufacture at such a level is down to this factory’s location. Bavaria is Germany’s automotive heartland; suppliers around here are plentiful and are used to working to exacting standards. Despite some processes being automated, much of the work on the roughly 60,000 lamps that leave this factory floor every year is still carried out by hand. Many employees have been here for decades; some go on to become minor industry institutions.
The last lamp that one of the company’s veteran workers ever assembled went for €20,000 at auction: the money was donated to the town’s nursery. It’s an endearing detail that’s true to the company’s affable, familiar atmosphere. Employee Lucia Stufa has been working here for 10 years; hanging up by her workstation is a picture of the Blade Runner 2049 set autographed by cinematographer Roger Deakins himself. She takes a break from assembling and comes closer. “There aren’t that many factories like this around,” she says. “If at the end of a movie’s credits I see the Arri logo, I’m so happy. It means we made that.”