Armand Denis was born in Brussels, Belgium, on 2 December 1896 - not in Antwerp, where so many bios on the web say (my information comes from his autobiography, so I hope he's right about his own life!).
The family did move to Antwerp soon after Armand was born and Armand attended a Jesuit school there where he learned, among other subjects, Latin and Greek, as was befitting the son of a judge. He learned his subjects easily and was a good pupil.
His father was a judge in Antwerp and somewhat of a puritan a stern disciplinarian. For example he would zealously look through every book in the household and either cut out or blot with ink any bare breasts he found in pictures of "primitive tribes" so that his children would not lose their innocence by looking at them.
Armand developed an interest in both travel and the natural world as a young child, planning family expeditions and collecting many lizards. In fact as early as 3 years old he had an active interest in animals. While on holiday in Italy one year, at the Italian Lakes, he spent happy hours capturing lizards. His father told him "No more lizards" so Armand took him at his word and caught no more lizards. However he kept the 12 or so he already caught, along with a couple of grass snakes, in a pillow case under his bed. On his return later to look at his captives he discovered that a seam in the pillow case had unraveled and his captives had quietly scuttled (or slithered) away! Quietly, that was, until they were spotted around the hotel, then there was lots of shouting, servants' bells being rung and a general alarm about the, usually respectable, hotel. The family left the hotel that morning, not even stopping for lunch, and concluded their holiday in Milan.
Armand, by now 17 years old, fought in the First World War. Well, he joined the army the same day as the German army invaded Belgium. He described himself as an "overgrown youth", standing 6 foot 4 inches tall. He started the war as an enthusiastic volunteer only to become, just a few weeks later, an internee in a camp in Holland. Because of his height he didn't have a uniform so, with the aid of a pesants' cap and jacket he was able to escape and managed to reach England.
Armand studied chemistry, as a refugee student, at Oxford University where he met Dr L Chapman, who offered him a job as an unpaid lab assistant. Armand decided to aid the war effort and worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough on aircraft fuels, lubricating oils and acetate dope for almost 2 years during the war, returning to Oxford University after the war ended. He finished his studies at Oxford with an honours degree in chemistry.
As with so many scientists that were brought up with religion, Armand was starting to doubt the existence of God. He travelled to Italy and persuaded the Father Superior of the Monastery of Cervara, near Portofino, to allow him to become a novice monk, so that he could expose himself fully to religion for the purpose of letting God "make His presence known", whereupon Armand would accept Him. Armands' time as a novice monk was not a long one as the monastery started to get a bad name, the Father Superior being criticised for "harbouring a heretic" and Armand left the Monastery of Cervara deciding to dedicate his life to science.
Armand moved back to Brussles and took a job as a chemist with a firm that designed and built metallurgical coke ovens. He left the firm and took the position of assistant to Professor Carpy at the École des Mines in Paris to research increasing the chemical efficency of coke production. While in Paris Armand made a good friend; Dr Marie Carmichael Stopes D.Sc., Ph.D. Not for her expertise on sex, love and marriage but in her role as an international authority on coal!
Armand spent 2 years in Paris, but felt the need to travel again. The Belgian Relief Commission was offering a research fellowship in America. He contrived an elaborate research project and was dispatched to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California, via boat to New York, then overland to Pasadena. On the overland leg of the journey Armand saw as much of the USA as he could, including the Grand Canyon. When he finally arrived at Caltech he was told that he had been given up for lost!
Armand had an interest in electronics and, in 1926, he invented a system of automatic volume control, commonly known today as the AGC, for radio, using a low pass filter to feedback a varying amount of voltage to the amplifier circuitry, something that radios of the time (and today as well!) needed to overcome the rise and fall of the volume at the speaker from the received station, especially when Amplitude Modulation was the mode in use. Little did he realise the full commercial value of his invention. He applied for the patents, but turned down an offer of $50,000 for the application, settling for a New Jersey firms' offer of a $6,000 option and promises of unlimited facilities for development of the system. Things did not turn out well as the firm pushed Armand away from his development and toward the problems of routine production. He had had enough and, taking his $6,000, left the firm to start a new life.
Armand used the money from this invention to indulge his love of travel and making movies. To start with he bought a pair of second hand cameras, which were to prove unsuitable due to their age, plus all the other equipment, developing tanks, drying racks etc. (film makers of the time processed their own film, dropping it off at the lab and picking up the finished article later was only a dream). In 1928 Armand traveled to Bali with André Roosevelt, a first cousin once removed of American President Theodore Roosevelt, to make Goona Goona (also known as The Kriss), a compilation of authentic expedition footage with a dramatic plotline involving a romance between a Balinese prince and a servant girl. On his return trip to the US a burst brine pipe in his cabin had him washing and drying the film negetives. While the reels were hung out drying Armand noticed that the exposure was not uniform, due to the local helpers not stirring the fluid in the developing tank to even out the temperature. Armand stood to lose everything, he had sunk all hs capital into the film but, he knew, people would not sit and watch a film that flickered from light to dark every few seconds. During the rest of the voyage Armand put his mind to work on the problem, after all he had invented a similar device for sound, could he make an automatic exposure device for printing film?
On his return to America Armand went to see Dr Mees, who was head of research at Eastman Kodak. Armand discussed the problem and his solution with Dr Mees. Mees allowed Armand use of the laboratory facilities and even lent Armand money to pay his hotel bill. Within 6 weeks the automatic exposure film printing machine was made and produced a perfect print of Armands' potentially ruined film. More importantly for Armand, at the time, was the offer from The Eastman Kodak Company of a job in the research laboratory, where he was one of the first to witness the birth of Kodachrome colour film. Eastman Kodak also offered Armand $5,000 for the patent of the automatic exposure film printing machine, which he accepted.
The recovered movie was edited in Armands' spare time, he taught himself editing too, and was first released in 1930, also released as "Love Powder", edited to conform to the American censors, in 1932. It started a craze for all things Balinese, and "Goona-goona", originally a Javanese term for love magic, became a slang expression for "sexually exciting". The film brought Armand to the attention of the cinema industry and, in 1934, he directed Wild Cargo starring adventurer and animal collector Frank Buck.
Armand married Leila Roosevelt, Andrés' daughter, and they had a total of 4 children. In 1934-35, sponsored by the Belgian government, the couple travelled to the Belgian Congo to record sound film material suitable for use in African movies. They recorded a wide variety of footage, including the first film of the music and dances of the Mangbetu and Tutsi (Watusi) peoples. The soundtracks were released as commercial recordings, and the movie material, from the Congo and the Sahara, was edited for release in 1936 as "Wheels Across Africa". Armand and Leila continued to work together on short documentaries through the late 1930s and, in 1944, put together the movie "Dangerous Journey" covering their travels in Africa, India and Burma.
In 1948 Armand met British dress designer Michaela Holdsworth, some 17 years younger than he, in New York. They had an affair and, after he and Leila divorced, Armand and Michaela married in Bolivia. In order to finance their independent work, the couple travelled to Africa in 1950 to work on the feature film "King Solomon's Mines", in which Michaela acted as Deborah Kerrs' double. In 1953 they made another film together, "Below The Sahara", and the pair appeared on the British show, In Town Tonight to promote the film. The BBC saw the couples' potential for television work and, in 1954, Armand and Michaela produced with their glamorous TV travelogue "Filming Wild Animals".
The quality of Armands' film-making, combined with his heavy accent, and Michaelas' enthusiasm and glamorous appeal made them fixtures on the BBC TV screens during the 1950s and early 1960s, revolutionising wildlife documentaries on television. They went on to make several series for both BBC and ITV, including "Filming In Africa" (1955), "Armand and Michaela Denis" (1955-58), "On Safari" (1957-59), and "Safari to Asia" (1959-61), which were repeated until well into the 1960s. Their early work relied on the couple travelling alone in a Land Rover with technical equipment, presenting material in a style that was much parodied, but in later series they used a team of cameramen.
Armand made his home, with Michaela in Nairobi, Kenya. Armand published an autobiography, "On Safari: the story of my life" in 1963. He died from Parkinsons' disease in 1971, aged 74.
I would like to thank Fairandfast, from Lewes in West Sussex, who supplied me with a copy of the autobiography, delivered just 4 days after I oderded it, from where I got much of the information about his life prior to his films. Fairandfast do not have their own website, they tell me, but trade through Amazon.co.uk (trading as fairandfast1, this is where I placed my order), Ebay and ABE books.