éclair was originally established in France as a film production studio and evolved into a movie camera manufacturing company in the late 1920’s. éclair originally produced 35mm cameras, mostly studio cameras before WWII, and then the very successful portable Caméflex after the war. In the 60’s, the company became a major innovator in the 16mm camera market. The NPR and the later ACL models featured a revolutionary magazine design that allowed for instant re-loading and has since become a standard feature on modern film cameras. Additionally the NPR and ACL were quiet, making them suitable for shooting sync-sound footage – another ground-breaking feature at the time. These cameras were favored by indie filmmakers and television crews throughout the 60’s and 70’s. éclair changed ownership in the late 60’s and moved shop to England, where they continued to manufacture the same cameras. Production resumed in France by ’72/73 as a subdivision of SOREMEC. In the mid 80’s, the camera production side of the company was discontinued and the technology and patents were purchased by Aaton.
The film processing/studio department of éclair has survived to this day and is one of the main actors in the French cinematography industry. The éclair website is located at www.eclair.fr.
Company/distributor names and addresses in France, the UK and the US:
- 1928 – late 60’s éclair International, 12 rue Gaillon, Paris
- 1973 : éclair International, Département caméras de SOREMEC-CEHESS, 12/14 rue Gaillon, Paris
- 1976 : éclair International, Département caméras de SOREMEC-CEHESS, 41-45 rue de Galilée, Paris
- Oct. 1976, éclair/ Soremec moves to 41-45 rue de Galiléé, Paris (Cinema Pratique Oct. 76)
- 1982 : E-MIT, 82 rue de Paris, Épinay + Eclair SCOP International / éclair Usine (factory), 10 bis rue du Mont, Épinay-sur-Seine
- 1986 : EPIFAC
- 1960’s : Evershed Power Optics Ltd, 35 Soho Square, London (Dist.)
- 1970 : ECLAIR-DEBRIE (UK) Ltd, Orion Park, Northfield Ave, London
- 1975 : John Page Ltd, 169 Oldfield Lane, Greenford (Dist.)
- The Fodel Co. (owned by Canadian Harry Saltzmann, producer of James Bond movies like Goldfinger) buys out Debrie in August 1968 and éclair International in November 1968. In April 1970, the ECLAIR-DEBRIE Ltd. is created in the UK, and shortly afterwards a new factory is built for camera production. The company goes bankrupt in January of 1973 (?) and by October 1975, the sole agent for éclair International/Soremec in the UK is John Page Ltd, London. Debrie UK survives, producing mostly processing gear.
- 1972 : Eclair Corporation of America, 73 S. Central Ave., Valley Stream, NY / 7262 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA (Represents the Eclair-Debrie UK company and imports British-made ACLs only.)
- 1975 : E-CAM Co., 6430 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, CA (represents SOREMEC-éclair and sells the French ACL exclusively)
- 1979 : SOREMEC-Eclair USA, Inc., 905 N. Cole Ave., Hollywood, CA
- 1982-85 : E-CAM (Alan Gordon Enterprises, Inc.), 1430 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood, CA
Major Innovations at éclair
In the 1960s the company virtually created the concept of the “independent filmmaker” with its breakthrough 16mm camera design for the éclair NPR. The NPR placed the sprocket drive and pressure plate in the magazine itself, so that reloading was merely a matter of snapping magazines on and off a body that resembled more of a conduit for the lens, motor and magazine than a conventional motion picture camera. The NPR was a breakthrough for the independent filmmaker much as the original 35mm Arriflex gave more freedom to theatrical feature film-making.
In the late 1960s éclair began the design of a next generation 16mm camera which would be smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the NPR. The ACL was the result, the letters standing for the initials of its two designers – Agusti (Austin) Coma (ACL Design Team – not to be confused with Andre Coutant, previous éclair designer) and Jacques Lecoeur (ACL Mechanical Designer). By employing a design in which the mirror was not a part of the shutter, but instead moving back and forth on its own shaft, it was possible to cram a very quiet mechanism into a tiny space. This also provided the ability to get the shutter as close as possible to the aperture, allowing for the greatest possible exposure accuracy of any camera before or since. The camera achieved rock-steady images without the use of a registration pin thanks to a wedge-shaped claw design that itself acted to register the frame. The ACL is the spiritual “father” of today’s Arri SR and Aaton (no patent infringement is implied).
Circa 1972/73, British film producer Harry Saltzman (of the James Bond films) bought the company and the camera moved its base of manufacture from France to England to take advantage of British investment incentives. Very minor, inconsequential design tinkering was done by the British — cutting a chunk from the metal block holding the transmission to lighten the camera by a very tiny amount, fiddling with the aerodynamic styling of the mirror shaft, and adding a screw to the right rear of the camera being about the biggest changes in the body. The English design of the 400 foot magazine was a major departure, however. In an effort to create a 400 foot magazine with less torque so that it might function with the original ACL motor, the English engineers designed a take-up system based on a rubber capstan turning the film itself rather than a belt turning the shaft. While this design has been maligned over the year by purists (“only tape recorders use capstans”), it is actually a very functional design and a properly maintained English magazine does not scratch the film in any way. The English magazine yields motion pictures identical to the French magazines. And the capstan design makes the film less likely to unwind from the core — which is the major cause of magazine jams next to a bad loop.
Eventually a two-part pressure plate was introduced on the French 400 foot magazine similar to that on the NPR magazines. éclair breathed a second life into the French ACL by also adding an on-board battery, anatomic handle with an on-off switch, a large base for future electronics, and a Kinoptik orientable viewfinder that required less fussing with than the Angenieux. Because of previously reported problems with magazines falling off of the camera, the sliding magazine-latch lock was replaced by a cover that flips over the top of the latch. Although the camera body and mechanism did not change, with the addition of these accessory features the camera was dubbed by éclair as the ACL II. Unfortunately its arrival came too late to save the company. The remains of éclair were ultimately bought by Aaton in the 1980s.
Today éclair cameras, though no longer manufactured, continue to be used by both independent and professional filmmakers. Filmmakers who choose éclair cameras tend to be eccentric, yet pragmatic. The éclair name is not as commonly seen on the set as is Arriflex and Aaton. The last éclair camera was produced in the 80’s and so they have not evolved to include the bells and whistles found on modern cameras. However, a well maintained éclair camera combined with a good lens will still deliver feature-quality images and is one of the most affordable ways to shoot sync-sound film.
Information about Jean-Pierre Beauviala based on the AATON website:
“No sooner had the people at Eclair, the first manufacturer of the camera, seen photos of what Beauviala had produced by playing around with an Arriflex camera, that they hired him as a consultant engineer. They were indifferent to the political and aesthetic commitments behind the prototype, but were very much attracted to the invention and the inventor, because of the ingenuity of the system and the practical solutions it offered. At Eclair, which manufactured cameras designed by André Coutant, Beauviala brought out the first lightweight 16mm camera, with single system sound. A few barricades later, Eclair had been bought out by a British producer (Harry Saltzman, who got rich on James Bond films); Debrie, the other jewel in the crown of French camera manufacturing, had also changed hands. Beauviala set up his own company, still in Grenoble. He did not have money, but he did have ideas and friends. Above all, he was determined to work in accordance with the needs of his film-maker friends. Among them, the best known French film-maker was Jean Rouch, who occupied a particularly good position both to formulate the needs of an experienced documentary film-maker, and to publicize the developments of the young company, Aaton, set up shop in a former chair factory. Among these precious friends was the crème de la crème of American militant documentary film-makers (Pennebaker, Leacock, the Maysles brothers, Barbara Kopple), as well as Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Félix Guattari… In addition, several technicians and engineers, mostly from the Eclair days, were tempted by the ambition and the spirit of the adventure, and joined Beauviala in Grenoble for Aaton.”
Text is written by Boris Belay, pictures and additions by Erkan Umut.