This February marks the 30th anniversary of EMIT, the beloved company founded by Trevor Steele in Paris. On February 10, 2012, the largest tour bus Montmartre has ever seen loaded celebrants from the AFC Micro Salon for a trip to Chez Serge. Chez Serge is the company’s water hole, and it was closed for the evening to outside guests. Inside, more than 75 friends, colleagues, clients, customers and family of EMIT gathered to share memories, music, food, wine, and gifts.
Here is a slightly distilled version.
Trevor Steele was born shortly after World War II had been declared. He lived on the South Coast of England, where he attended a good public school. When he was eight, the family moved to Palmers Green in North London. Trevor recalled, “I had no friends when I arrived. But a boy named George Hill befriended me and became a lifelong friend. We did practically everything together as young boys do. We played and went bicycling together. We joined the church choir. The church was named St. Cuthbert’s, at Chitts Hill in North London.
“George went on to a technical college called Arnos Grove. He trained as a technician to work a lathe and all the machinery. I failed miserably in the grammar school and came out with achievements in French and woodworking. Reading, writing and arithmetic went by the board. I confused geography with history. But I did very well in French, which of course, helped later on.”
One of Trevor’s first jobs was as a projector technician for Cinex in London. They were the importers of the famous Paillard Bolex H-16 cameras and other equipment. Trevor stayed with that company for more than 15 years, gradually working his way up from Technician on the bench to Section Leader, Assistant Service Manager, and ending up as Technical Manager. He travelled to Switzerland often for intensive training courses.
The Bolex H-16 was a spring-wound 16mm reflex camera introduced around 1935. It weighed about 5.5 lbs with 100’ of film on a daylight spool. With frames rates from 8 to 64 fps, a 190 degree shutter, and rotating turret for three C-mount lenses, estimates run as high as 43,000 manufactured. Trevor got involved with the Bolex 16 Pro camera, designed and developed in Munich, and way ahead of its time except for one detail: you had to cut the film to remove it from the magazine. He gained valuable experience learning how to shoot a film as part of a crew working with Swiss television.
In 1965, Kodak (with sales of more than $1 billion a year and 75,000 employees) came out with Super 8. Bolex was slow to adopt the new format. Trevor was out of work for a few months when he got a call from Éclair Debrie UK. This company was created by Mr. Harry Saltzman, Producer of the James Bond films. Trevor explains, “Saltzman had saved the tragically ailing Éclair International Company and the Andre Debrie Film Processing and Printing Factories in France. He opened up the subsidiary in London to be able to produce this equipment cheaper. I was invited to join them. I was the first person to be employed by that company. I stayed there for three or four years and everything just turned to gold for me. I was responsible for setting up the the camera production line and the after-sales service. And then later on technical sales. I joined Éclair International Cameras (E.I.C.) in rue Gaillon near the Opera in Paris, and later just off the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe.
I travelled around the world to train technicians on the NPR, ACL, and other cameras, and bring back news of potential sales. We started a training school. We trained some 150 technicians over a period of four or five years. Which meant that there were plenty of technicians available to service Éclair cameras. But Éclair was about to fail. All the staff were laid off except myself, Manfred Tosseram, Michel Vacar, and Madame Gauthrie. Jean-Pierre Beauviala was called in to assist. There were no new orders for Éclair cameras because with the new Aaton and Arriflex 16mm cameras, the market was already saturated and video was coming in very fast. The writing was on the wall. There was no future for Éclair. Mr. Beauviala was very kind to me personally when it came to the showdown at the end.”
And that is how EMIT began in 1982 from the ashes of Éclair. Trevor’s son Andrew Steele said, “With Éclair in dire straights and in Chapter 11, the offices of E.I.C. in Paris were to be closed. As they were all destined to leave during the year, Trevor, Manfred Tosseram, and Michel Vacar created the company EMIT to assist the camera factory export their massive spare parts back orders and accessories. The company was called “Modern Image Techniques.” It was set up at Epinay-sur-Seine, some 12 kilometers North of Paris, the hometown of Éclair Processing Labs, cutting rooms, and the famous Éclair Film Production Company with the largest sound stage in Europe at that time.”
I asked how “Modern Image Techniques” became EMIT. Andrew explained, “Well that was a problem, because you had a big university in Boston named MIT. Not wishing to be pretentious, they chose a four letter word which could be pronounced easily in most languages. They added the ‘E,’ which is the first letter of Equipment, Electronics, Efficiency, Emitter, Éclair, Etcetera, Etcetera. The vowels A, I, O, U had no significance, and Omit was frowned upon; thus the name EMIT was created. If you reverse EMIT, it spells TIME.” TIME waits for no EMIT.
Andrew continued, “When they started EMIT, Trevor brought in Cooke lenses from the UK. And PAG batteries by Alan Lavender and Nigel Gardiner. Manfred Tosseram brought in Chrosziel matteboxes and follow focus. And Panther dollies—under FGV at the time. Michel Vacar did all the ground work on the administration and had contacts at the TV stations.
“They had a huge order book for the two first years. They were still riding along on the crest of a wave. The good old times of Éclair included big restaurants, big parties, much bigger than you would ever see thrown by anyone nowadays. Éclair would book a whole hotel, and take everybody to Cannes, and things like that.
After that, times got tough in ’85. But with Éclair products gone, Trevor had to make a decision. They could end their partnership in EMIT, or Trevor could buy out the shares of the other guys, which he did. Trevor’s wife Marlene, previously the chief accountant of E.I.C, joined EMIT to handle accounts and administration, which she accomplished admirably.
Trevor then asked the original 30-year anniversary guys (PAG, Cooke, Chrosziel and Panther) for a line of credit of a year. “If you give me a year to pay off my tax debts, we can keep going,” he said. If you decide to call in your debts, we will have to close.” Within six months, he had paid all his debts off. And EMIT was floated correctly in 1985.
Today, the company is located in Saint Denis, in the Urbaparc, near the new City of Cinema in Paris, the largest studio in Europe, being developed by Luc Besson. Trevor’s sons Andrew and Ben are now running the company with their very loyal staff (picture, previous page).
Andrew joined the Royal Navy when he was 16, as a specialist in communications. At 27, he asked Trevor, “What do you think about me working for you for a little bit?” And Trevor said, “Well, I’ll give you a two-year contract. Come and see what you can do.” Andrew joined the EMIT team in 1991 as a sales assistant, signed a two-year contract, and now it’s been 21 years.
“I learned French when I was here. At school I failed French, English and Geography. Trevor failed everything at school except French and Woodwork. The mind boggles. It was great how Trevor helped me. He put me in contact with guys like George Hill from Optex, Alfred Chrosziel, and Steve Manios, Sr. from Century Optics, who taught me pretty much everything he knew, which was a lot. I’ve have huge respect for all these men. They taught me things they wouldn’t have given to anybody else apart from Trevor’s son.
Benjamin Steele was three years old when EMIT was created. There were no boundaries between home and office. There was always office talk at dinner, on weekends, sometimes even late at night. Ben said, “I grew up with EMIT. When I was young and had free time off from school, it was a bit of my playground as well. I would play within the company, play with the employees, and play with the “toys” that were there. We used to spend a lot of weekends and holidays with French customers, and Trevor would invite the suppliers to visit. When I grew a bit older, I was a bit of a rebel. I didn’t want to go to work at EMIT. I wanted to go my way, a different way, do something else.
When Andrew joined the company, the plan was for Andrew to work on the commercial and technical side, and Ben would do administration and finance. But Andrew said to Ben one day, “Take the time to choose. A good idea would be to do a tour of the world and benefit from the fact that, for two years, you’re going to work six-six-six: six months in Germany with Chrosziel, six months in the US with Manios at Century, and six months in London with PAG. And then you make your own choice.”
Ben made his decision when his mother told him, “We are giving you a company in silver. It’s up to you to turn it into gold. Do it better.” That was his challenge. He decided to give it a try around 1998. They were switching to computers and software for accounting. Up to then, bookkeeping was done by hand. With actual books. “We saved a lot of time by using the new technologies. And this gave me some more time, and freed me to spend more time with Andrew to learn to do sales. Then somebody left our rental department and we redeveloped that area. And this is where I learned some more of the technical side from Andrew.
“Then it becomes interesting. When you don’t get stuck on the books, you can be more practical. You can react more quickly because you understand the equipment and what is behind the technology. Finance becomes a tool, you can use it to achieve something else.”
Andrew said, “Basically, my job has changed from a sales guy to a future guy, and doing the shows, looking at new products, and trying to get good new products in to EMIT, and keeping the old products running. Whereas Ben is now doing the day-to-day business. I’m, working with guys like Jacques Delacoux of Transvideo, Geoff Chappell of Cooke Optics, Alain Derobe , Christian Betz, Alfred Piffle of P+S Technik, Philippe Bordelais. I think all of our suppliers are motivated mostly by passion—passion for the cinema.”
Ben elaborated, “Andrew is dealing more with strategic and long-term developments like new products. He gives a lot of feedback from the end user to the manufacturers. He’s been very much involved with 3D, digital cinema, and questions from the customers, the end users. They love to come to see us and say, ‘I have a problem. I need this. This is the way I work.’ And then Andrew takes his phone, and phones the supplier, and says, ‘Hey, I have this request. What can we do? Do you have a solution? We thought of that. Are you thinking of doing something? You should.’”
France is the third largest producer of feature films in the world. Andrew explained how EMIT fits into the scheme of things. “If you can imagine, EMIT is very independent from all the big rental houses. We deal with all of them, even when they are competing. We are central with all the suppliers. Someone once said we should put a Swiss flag up above our office, because we welcome everyone.
“We are a part of the backbone of the French cinema industry. But we’re very much behind the scenes. We even have people coming to us who have known us for years, but have never been to our offices. We’re well known, but we’re a little bit…mythical. EMIThical. And everyone knows that, if they have a problem, they can phone us. And we’ll get them out of trouble. We never say no.”
The past year has been very busy in the French film industry. One of the reasons, according to Ben, is that it’s now catching up from the economic crisis. France has always had a busy film industry. With the DSLR revolution, and more affordable digital cameras, a lot of individuals are now starting their own production companies. They buy one of the new cameras. It’s more accessible now—even more accessible than the days of the H-16 Bolex.
Andrew said, “It may be more affordable, more accessible. But France has always been in love with cinema. Now that fast, broadband internet is available, a lot of people are new in this market as well, making online videos.”
Ben concluded, “This is how we work together, Andrew and I. We discuss everything: the technical, the commercial, all are important. We fit it all together. At the end of our careers, we’ll tell if we’ve changed silver into gold. But I’m sure of one thing. We have turned a job into a passion. And that is really from the heart. I mean, it’s really something that we can say today. We grow, as a family, around this. We’ve built it all together. It’s a real family business.”