Vantage Paris is located at 113-121 Avenue du President Wilson in Saint Denis, the media and film production district on the periphery of Paris. The elevator opens onto a large and airy loft. Sunlight streams in through the large windows. The walls are white and spotless. Is this a motion picture rental house? It looks more like a high fashion salon, a high-end still photography studio or a lofty boutique. The floor is like an art gallery: smooth and polished. If you dropped your croissant, it would probably be clean enough to eat off the floor. Turn right. The croissants and coffee are ready–on the glistening wooden counter. Vantage Paris’ Manager Alexander Bscheidl is the barista welcoming us from behind the gleaming industrial grade Espresso Machine. The coffee cups are as clean as the gleaming white camera cases. Vantage Paris opened in September 2011 with a staff of 5. The aim was to find a location near the studios, other rental companies, EMIT, Cité du Cinema. The space is a former newspaper printing company. Alexander noted that although the economic climate has been challenging, film production and equipment rental has been robust. Most companies had a very good year. And 2012 promises to be exciting, with many new products–including some from Vantage. At this point, I should note that Vantage Film is the company founded by Peter Märtin and Wolfgang Bäumler in Weiden, Germany–about 1.5 hours north of Munich. They make the famous Hawk lenses, including the 2x and 1.3x anamorphics. Vantage, and Hawk, have grown over the past 20 years, and are a major player with offices in Weiden, Prague, Berlin and Paris. We walk past 10 check-out bays. What’s remarkably different is the light. These are not bat-cave-like target areas. They are flooded with light. Curtains and black-out shades are there if you need them. I have never seen cases so clean or equipment so pristine. And there’s a lot of it. Alexa Studios, Codex on-board recorders, the latest lenses and accessories. Since opening 5 months ago, Vantage Paris has serviced 5 major features, mostly anamorphic, film and digital. They also have supplied big budget commercials for Nina Ricci, Christian Dior, Chanel, Citroen, Peugeot, Apple, Euro Disney, and McDonalds. Customers are mostly French producers and French productions, but they also supplied some American productions shooting in Paris, including a huge campaign with Harris Savides, ASC for Dior.
“The idea of setting up an office in Paris,” Alexander explained, “is that Vantage products have always been in demand in France because, as the 3rd largest producing nation in the world, there has been a very long history of working with anamorphic lenses. This is still one of the preferred aspect ratios (2.40:1) of French cinematographers. We felt an increasing demand, and decided to open a boutique style operation in Paris to make our products available–to come in, touch it, try it, test it, use it and shoot with it.
“Vantage is also known for supplying commercials. We love commercials. They are short. We get to know a lot of people. And commercial budgets here are still very interesting. We have a really specialized equipment inventory. We can supply from a 6mm fisheye to a 1000 mm tele lens. We have all that in stock.
“We have full packages here–with the right number of batteries, monitors, filters, wireless systems, heads. We can do a studio configuration, a handheld configuration…from a tiny package to a huge one. If we need more products like periscopes, we can get it from the mother ship in Weiden. We have a sophisticated rental inventory software program that lets us move equipment among our branches–so items are not left sitting on the shelf and can be moved from one place to another.
“We started out with an experienced staff of 5, and now we are expanding. It’s February now, and all our cameras are working–and this is supposed to be the slow time of the year. We have to be ready for the summer busy season.” About 70% of the jobs are digital; 30% are film. The camera most in demand in the French market is the ARRI Alexa, for its reliability, service, and ergonomics. Alex unpacked an Alexa Studio last week, put on a 2x anamorphic Hawk lens, unsqueezed the finder, and gasped, “this is it! This is the beginning of a new relationship…for lots of new digital productions in Paris.” Alexander definitely brings the Vantage philosophy to the French market. It’s a family atmosphere. After all, Peter and Wolfgang were childhood friends, played together in the playground, made movies together as teenagers, started a company, and still work together like the closest of long-time, inseparable friends. The other key ingredient is attention to detail. If they find that something is lacking, they will build it. Down to the details of things like the metal, engraved labels on the cases or the anodized numbers on the check-out bays.
For example, take a look at their test targets, below. The focus charts are metal, and the end of the focus tape is magnetic. There is no chance of error. It’s simple, clever, and custom-made.
“Our main priority is to support the crews, our customers, with the best equipment–no matter whether it’s a big or small job. Every job and every customer is important. We get great support from the mother company–where there are about 40 people working for us to help with whatever we need. France is a market where you can find almost anything. It is almost over-saturated with equipment. But there is still room for the latest high-end equipment and superb technical service. Many customers at the beginning asked who are our technicians. It’s important. We have experienced technicians. And now we are training new people.”
Howard Preston asked, “You have perfect equipment and a beautiful place. It’s 600 square meters. Where will you expand when you grow bigger?” Alexander said, “Vantage has always been thinking of the long term–5 years ahead. But we do not want to grow too fast too soon. We want to do it in a smooth, deliberate way–keeping service and high quality in mind above all else.” As mentioned earlier, Alexander worked as a trainee at Vantage in Weiden. He then wanted to get practical production experience and worked as a camera assistant for 5 years–ending up as focus puller on Black Dahlia for Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC before getting back into camera rentals. “I decided you have this very important technical industry (rentals) and you can have a very nice career in this family business (Vantage) but be in touch with interesting people, cinematographers, crews–and give all your skills back to the customers, which I find very satisfying.” As an anamorphic supplier, Alexander is not a big fan of shooting flat, spherical 2.40:1. He had several interesting ideas on the anamorphic look and how to get it. Currently, only the ARRI Alexa Studio has a traditional 4:3 (4-perf) size sensor conducive to 2x anamorphic 2.40 shooting. However, take that 4:3 sensor, add a 1.3x anamorphic lens, and you get a 1.85:1 gently squeezed image from the significantly larger sensor area. When shooting with a 16:9 sensor (Sony F65, standard Alexa, Red, Penelope), you can use 1.3x anamorphic lenses to stretch it to 2.40:1. “As a supplier of Hawk anamorphic lenses, I see many producers and cinematographers coming back to us to shoot in the classical 4-perf size format — but now in digital — with the Alexa Studio. Features, beauty shots commercials, cars — with the anamorphic look, shallow depth of field, oval bokehs.” That’s certainly an adVantage.