The Academy Award of Merit goes to... the ARRILASER Film Recorder
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On February 11, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor the ARRILASER film recorder with an Academy Award of Merit in the form of an Oscar Statuette. The Academy, which awards individuals behind achievements that "demonstrate a proven record of contributing significant value to the process of making motion pictures," will present the Oscar to Franz Kraus, Johannes Steurer and Wolfgang Riedel. The design and development of the ARRILASER, noted the Academy, "demonstrates a high level of engineering resulting in a compact, user-friendly, low-maintenance device, while at the same time maintaining outstanding speed, exposure ratings and image quality."

Kraus, ARRI Managing Director, who is also a member of the Executive Board, has been with ARRI for 28 years. Steurer, who has been with the company for 17 years, is Principal Engineer and Project Manager of ARRILASER. Riedel, prior to retiring in 2009, was Project Manager at Fraunhofer IPM where his work focused on laser spectroscopy and other complex optical systems.

"The concept was to have technology which would satisfy Hollywood-quality demands but would be efficient and competitive to accommodate lower budget films," says Kraus.

The ARRILASER was developed with the advent of digital effects, which needed to be recorded onto photographic film in order to be integrated into motion picture films. "These film elements can then be used in the ongoing film production process like regular film shots and distributed to the film theatres," says Steurer. "The ARRILASER was the first industry product to implement this task at a photo-realistic quality level where you could not tell, if the images were digitally modified or not."

"Simply speaking, the ARRILASER takes a digital video sequence and records it onto 35mm photographic film producing a perfect analogue facsimile of the video sequence on motion picture film," he explains. "Hence the device consists of a computer that receives the image data from a network, some complex control electronics, a set of laser light sources in various colors, a deflection system that scans the laser beam onto the film, and a film transport mechanism."

The basic development for the ARRILASER began in 1997; after two years of development, the first prototypes were delivered to Digital Domain and Computer Film Company for beta testing in 1998. Today, there are 280 ARRILASER units installed around the world.

Some of the groundbreaking technologies involved in the ARRILASER included the first time use of all solid state lasers for the red, green, and blue primary colors. "This also included the development of a novel blue laser light source based on a frequency doubled infrared laser diode," says Steurer. "Solid-state lasers as a light source were one of the reasons for achieving this outstanding image quality. They were powerful and clean enough to meet this specification." The laser light source meant high power for very short exposure times, which led to recording times of only 1 second per frame. Pristine beam shape provided very high contrast and low flare, and the light sources were very long-lasting. The recorder also proved to have no variations of the light level that would cause flicker and other image flaws.

He adds that the deflection system directs the laser beam onto the film, focused through a specially designed f-theta-lens; a fast rotating mirror scans the beam across the film, writing one line of image data, while the film is pulled slowly along in order to write the next image line adjacent to the previous one. "All these components in the deflection system have been specifically designed for this application," says Steurer. "The f-theta lens implemented a patented method of "computational photography" - as one would call it today - utilizing electronic compensation of some optical deviations. "

The spinning mirror is mounted onto an air-bearing spindle, rotating at up to 120.000 rpm The film transport mechanism is a novel linear motor with a precision of a few nanometers. Acousto-optical modulators, which control the brightness of the laser beam on a per-pixel-basis have been taken to the very limit, requiring novel production methods in the crystal-growing process.

Steurer points out that the ARRILASER was designed to be nearly maintenance-free. "Earlier gas-laser film records from other suppliers suffered daily optical alignment requirements, which could only be done by trained and skilled personnel," he says. "Several of our customers characterized the ARRILASER as the most reliable piece of equipment in their facilities."

Images transferred to film via the ARRILASER presented no visible quality loss or artifacts and excelled in contrast, color fidelity and low noise. "The ARRILASER really made a difference in contrast and color, enabling deepest blacks, sparkling highlight and perfect skin tones," says Steurer. "This knowledge also turned out to be a core competence for subsequent digital products. At the same time we managed to build a device that was faster than any competing product."

The debut of the ARRILASER ushered in the era of the Digital Intermediate. "At the time when the ARRILASER was first in use, only a few special effect scenes were digitally produced," says Steurer. "The majority of a feature film was produced on film. The ARRILASER turned out to be fast, reliable and cost efficient enough that one could start producing complete feature films in digital. This changed the whole production process. From now on not only special effects but all the creative decisions in post production like editing, color timing, titles and so on were done on the computer and at the very end of the process transferred to film - or "ARRILASERed" as people said. At the same time, the volume of recorded film grew dramatically and so the need for more ARRILASER recorders."

"The ARRILASER made it possible to record complete feature films at a moderate price with quick recording speed so the industry could turn from shot-based visual effects production to digital production for the complete features," says Steurer. "This enabled the digital intermediate process on a big scale."

The Digital Intermediate process is now used on the vast majority of feature films. "The list is almost endless, because the ARRILASER dominates the film recording market," he says. "One of the best known productions is Lord of the Rings, but also all the Harry Potters and Pirates of the Caribbean have been transferred to film through the ARRILASER."

ARRI's early foray into digital technology later paved the way for more innovation. "We are very pleased to receive the Oscar in particular for this product because it is the first digital system ARRI ever built," says Kraus. "The ARRILASER has been a success in itself, but it was really the foundation to further digital projects: the ARRISCAN and the ARRIFLEX D-21. Without those products there would not have been the in-house engineering competence and the customer confidence for the successful design and marketing of the ALEXA camera."

Academy Plaque for the Scientific and Engineering Award

This story on ARRILASER Film Recorder is one of a series on the winners of the Scientific and Engineering Awards.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has awarded The Academy Award of Merit® (Oscar Statuette) to Franz Kraus, Johannes Steurer and Wolfgang Riedel for the design and development of the ARRILASER Film Recorder.

The ARRILASER film recorder demonstrates a high level of engineering resulting in a compact, user-friendly, low-maintenance device, while at the same time maintaining outstanding speed, exposure ratings and image quality.

ACADEMY AWARDS® is the registered trademark and service mark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED. Title image credit courtesy of Lothar Reichel.