Denny Clairmont passed away yesterday afternoon, May 11. He took a fall while at his home in Mill Valley, California.
Please also jump to the end of this article to read all the wonderful comments sent in.
This is a tribute to a dear friend, mentor and icon of the film world. Denny Clairmont founded Clairmont Camera in 1976 with his brother Terry. Denny was like a father to so many of us, always there with advice and encouragement from the beginning of our careers. Denny never saw a camera or lens he didn’t want to improved or retrofit. He was the consummate camera man, in all meanings of those words. With an encyclopedic knowledge of technology and technique, Denny could rattle off facts and figures faster than you could look them up. His phone number was at the top of many lists and number one on my speed-dial. If you were placed on hold, it was because a camera or lens manufacturer was on the line, also asking his advice. This made sense. Denny grew up in the business. His father Leonard was also a cinematographer.
In 1995, discussions began between Denny Clairmont, Otto Nemenz, Paul Duclos and Cooke lens designers Mark Gerchman and James Moultrie about characteristics to include in the next series of Cooke lenses, based on the requests and needs of cinematographers. After many conversations, the new lens design included a cam movement and a new, open window with opposing focus scale design that has since become an industry standard. That was the birth of the new Cooke S4 T2.0 series of lenses.
I have framed a letter that Denny sent me about focus. “Jon, the next two paragraphs you most likely already know, but it needs to be said anyway… Four paragraphs later, he continued, “Now, what most likely you may not be aware of, is where a lot of focus issues arise.” After several pages of thorough analysis and explanation, he concluded modestly, “I hope that this advice helps explain to you any focus problems you have had in the past.”
Denny Clairmont was born Dec 24, 1935. His brother Terry was born May 21 1942.
The two youths grew up in the valley, within walking distance of the place that would later be Clairmont Camera on Lankershim Boulevard. They worked as extras, stand-ins and actors on more than 50 movies each. They also were like the characters in some of those period films, tearing along Ventura Boulevard in their souped-up “kandy-kolored streamline babies.”
One of Denny and Terry’s first enterprises was Fiasco Automotive, a hot rod and drag racing speed shop. Denny was working as a cameraman on commercials and documentaries. He developed an incredible knowledge of camera and lens technology. When they started Clairmont Camera in 1976, it seemed to be a natural progression from the early Fiasco Automotive adventure. Denny never saw a camera he couldn’t improve, retrofit, modify, make lighter, smaller, brighter, faster or better—better than the manufacturer intended. They were essentially hot-rodded cameras. Clairmont’s cameras were finely tuned machines, and the devotion lavished on lenses, cameras and accessories was a gold standard for rental houses worldwide.
The force behind all this was the man whose name was on the door: the energetic, prophetic guru, Denny Clairmont. Of course, the force behind Denny was his dear wife Shannon, his family and the incredible staff at Clairmont — who were also like family. Some were family. Many had been with the company for twenty to thirty years. The list read like a who’s who of the Hollywood film industry. In addition to understanding motion picture technology, Denny had an amazing knack for understanding people. The proof was in the loyalty of his rental customers and the dedication of his staff.
Denny Clairmont and Academy’s Bonner Award
Denny Clairmont received the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Achievement (Sci-Tech) Awards on February 12, 2011, in Beverly Hills, California. The Bonner Medal is awarded “for outstanding service and dedication in upholding the high standards of the Academy.”
As mentioned earlier, Denny founded Clairmont Camera in 1976 with his brother Terry. Terry passed away in 2006. By 2011, it was one of the largest camera rental companies in the world, with a staff of more than 120 in Hollywood, Albuquerque, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
Clairmont Camera innovated, designed, and developed many essential new products and accessories. If a cinematographer needed something custom-made for a show, Clairmont would build it. “For more than three decades Denny has been at the forefront of camera technology, helping cinematographers, camera assistants and film students with evolving technologies and related equipment,” said Academy President Tom Sherak. “His dedication to the craft and his service to the Academy are well-known throughout the industry.”
Denny served as a member of the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Committee since 1993.
A few months earlier, in December 2010, Denny was in Saint-Héand, France. He was honored at Angénieux’s 75th anniversary and dedicated a new film studio where a plaque bears his name.
“He was a Godfather, in the best sense of the word, teaching us all so much,” said Dominique Rouchon of Angenieux.
Jacques Delacoux, President of Aaton and Transvideo, writes, “I can say that I owe everything to Denny, he was my mentor and I’m proud to say my friend. Denny was the greatest man I met in this industry. He taught me everything I know and always helped me with his advice and suggestions. Denny will stay in my heart for ever.”
Larry Barton, President of Cinematography Electronics, said, “Denny treated everyone as if they were his best friend. This industry would be a completely different thing had it not been for him.”
Lillian Barton writes, “We will really miss Denny. He was a kind person who helped so many people in our industry get started. He was a huge help and influence to Larry and me.
Les Zellan, Chairman of Cooke Optics, writes, “One of my mentors and heroes passed away this evening in California after a fall at home. Denny Clairmont was a giant in the industry but always made time for everyone. Denny was in his mid 80s and lived with his wife Shannon in Mill Valley CA since he retired a few years ago. His career spanned decades. He changed the industry with his innovative ideas and his ability to make the tools cinematographers came to reply on.
One of those ideas became the Cooke S4 lenses. I have much to thank Denny for, as does this industry. Denny will be deeply missed.”
Shannon Clairmont writes, “This article was a very thorough and complimentary recap of Denny’s life and high points in the industry. It made me cry to know that he touched so many in a positive way and I loved the warmth and tenderness you regarded him with. As the industry evolves, I hope that others will have the same attitude Denny had for trying to make it a place where customers and associates will feel respected and part of a team to make improvements and progress in the visual cinematic arts. As you probably know, his main concern was always improving quality and performance of equipment, to try to be the very best, not looking to the bottom line profits as the engine that drove him. Not saying he didn’t care about profits but that profits were of secondary importance to him. I guess with people watching movies on iPhones, perfection is no longer a priority with many in the industry and I think this was a big disappointment to him. Thanks for such a nice summary of his professional life. Fondest regards.”
Steven Finestone writes, “Thank you so much for the wonderfully articulated tribute to Denny. It brought tears to my heart. Your words and photos capture the sweet essence of a man who was always there for each one of us. Starting out as a second assistant up through my director/cameraman days his attitude never changed. Whatever I needed, whatever I did not understand, whatever kindness I requested he was always there with that sweet, gentle and humble all-knowing grin. He was a treasure to us all. The business is a bit smaller without him. Thanks again for stirring up this lovely reflective moment for me.”
Angenieux posted this FDT interview with Denny from 2015 on their AngéBlog.
Volker Bahnemann, former President of ARRI Inc, writes, “I first met Denny Clairmont when he was a junior technician at Birns & Sawyer. At that time, it was a leading equipment sales and rental company in Hollywood. On my regular sales visits to companies all around the country, I always made it a point to stop in and talk with the technicians in the service departments. It’s how I got the most valuable, unbiased information about equipment performance. At that time, motion picture cameras, mostly Mitchell BNC, NC and modified Arriflex 35 systems, had remained relatively unchanged, providing companies many years of a stable business environment in which new, disruptive technologies were not universally welcome. Our Arri 35BL was such a development and after numerous visits to Birns & Sawyer, neither Jack Birns nor Cliff Sawyer could be convinced to invest in this new camera system.
“But Denny, with input from his brother Terry, then a camera assistant, saw the potential. They asked Jack Birns if he (Denny) and his brother Terry would buy a 35BL, could they sub-rent it through the company? Jack, probably seeing a business deal without having to invest, somehow agreed.
“That was the beginning of Clairmont Camera Rental and my decades of friendship with the “Brothers Clairmont”.
“The success of entrepreneurs like Denny and Terry was also key to our success. They were receptive, inventive, not adverse to risk and important to both, business also had to be fun.
We shared a parallel path, from the first 35BL, through the Clairmont Engel restructuring, opening the Vancouver branch to service Stephen Cannell’s 16mm TV productions and much more. It was always a pleasure dealing with the brothers and I feel fortunate having done business with Denny and Terry: many major transactions, never a contract, no attorneys, all based on mutual trust.
My deep condolences to Shannon, Mardrie and everyone to whom Denny meant so much.”
John Toll ASC writes, “I met Denny during my first job in the film business. It’s a long story that I won’t entirely repeat here, but would like to pass along. It was very typical of Denny and his incredible level of expertise.
David Darby ASC sent a four-page essay. Please download the PDF.
“…Over the next 25 years, the number of man-hours that Denny devoted to making custom one-offs for me and so many other cinematographers in Hollywood and around the world – to solve the unique and individual problems and requirements of so many crazy jobs, was amazing. The wisdom, humor, and 2 downright endless child-like enthusiasm Denny had for solving your problems – and making it possible for you to succeed with the nuttiest and best ideas you could come up with while under a bit of pressure, was above and beyond – and endless, and so very much appreciated. The Denny and Terry Clairmont ‘way,’ of taking care of clients, teaching clients, inspiring clients, and helping the next generation of runners wanting so badly to learn and grow, was also present in the bone marrow of every single employee I ever met and worked with at Clairmont Camera over those 25 years. The priceless help so many of us received from Alan Albert, Andre Martin, Tom Boelens, Mike Condon, Jaymie Bickford, and so many more on the technical side – and rental agents Irving Corea and Sean Jenkins, was somehow cut and tailored from the same cloth that all those Hawaiian shirts must have been; how else could you explain how everybody in Terry and Denny’s company treated you exactly the same way those two brothers did.”
Dr. Winfried Scherle, former Executive VP of cine and consumer optics at ZEISS, shown above with Denny at Cine Gear 2017, writes:
“We lost a great person who did a lot for the industry. I highly appreciated how he was always thinking about the development of the industry in terms of helping with his ideas on technical matters and progress. And we also lost a great man with high values and morality.”
Yasuaki Mitsuwa of nab Image Technology in Tokyo writes:
“Denny Clairmont was always a kind gentleman who supported us a lot.
“I remember that we worked closely with Clairmont to promote the NAC MEMRECAM fx-Cam system in USA. It was about 20 years ago, and we were one of the first companies who introduced the industrial digital high-speed camera system to the motion picture and TV commercial field. We started the business with Clairmont and ARRI Media at that time.
“Also, my very first business trip at NAC was to visit Clairmont … We learned how to modify the early version of the ARRICAM ST in order to reduce noise and vibration. It was amazing that they were modifying the cameras by themselves. And the last time I met him was 3 years ago at Cine Gear. I still remember that he was still fine. He introduced the facility of Clairmont to our customers by himself and told about the memories of the fx-Cam project…
“Our President, Seiji Nakajima would also like to send words of condolence.”
This article will be expanded as we add new pictures and stories and comments — please send them in.
Like most of us, I have known of Clairmont Camera from when I started in the business and had not met Denny or Terry. I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit next to Denny at the PERG meeting two years ago. He was friendly, gracious and astute in his comments. So glad that I met him.
Dave, good words: friendly, gracious and astute.
Clairmont Camera in North Hollywood was one of the first camera rental facilities I had the pleasure of prepping at as an end-user. Denny often allowed me the opportunity to conduct detailed camera tests on the latest camera model out at the time. It was an incredible opportunity to improve my creative and technical skillset, which I will be forever grateful for. I truly enjoyed the conversations I had with Denny in his office throughout the years, not only about the latest camera gear but about our lives. May Denny Rest in Peace.
Thanks Tony. Ah yes, that wonderful office of Denny’s!
I was blessed to come to work for Clairmont as a temporary employee that turned in to 24 years. I learned so much from both Terry and Denny, not to mention all the amazing staff members they employed. I was heartbroken when Terry passed and am the same with Denny passing. Two great men who cultivated innovation, mentored and supported students and up coming independents, collaborated and contributed to this industry in so many amazing ways. Their legacy will live in through all the lives they touched. Denny was the best front man a company could have!
Nicely said, Jaymie. Best regards. Jon
I am, of course, deeply saddened about the passing of my long time friend Denny Clairmont. I cannot, however, think about Denny without smiling.
He was full of life, enthusiasm and mischief from the moment I met him in 1972. Both he and Terry were kind, thoughtful, inventive and straightforward throughout their careers. Although we did millions of dollars of business together during my time at ARRI, there was never a need for a lawyer or a written agreement. The Clairmonts were honest and loyal and their word was their bond.
The founders of Fiasco Automotive are together again after a long painful separation. I am certain they’re taking something apart and improving it.
May God bless both of them and grant peace to Shannon and Mardrie and their entire family.
Beautifully said, Bill.
Thank you for the kind words about my big brother. Our dad would be so pleased.
When I was in my first year at the AFI Conservatory, Clairmont Camera was our go-to rental house for our student films. Whenever I needed anything, I was treated with the same care and professionalism as a big show working with them would be. Even during very busy times (I have seen their shelves almost bare and all the prep rooms very full of gear) they were always very supportive to give as what we needed. I remember once helping another fellow out, picking something up. As it turns out an item was missing on the order, I think it was an Easyrig. First I was told they didn’t have one for us. But then Denny walked by and remembered an orphaned one and we got it. It was a bit roughed up and pulled out of service, but it worked. Thanks Denny!
I can’t say I knew him well but we did say hi a couple times and exchanged some words when I was there or at trade shows and festivals. His rental house is already missed greatly by many and he will be too. Rest in peace, Denny!
PS: I am still bummed I didn’t win any of the bids on the Moviecams when they closed. I’d love a yellow case with a well kept Compact!
Beautiful article Jon! Denny was such a big part of my life for years that I loved to think he would never go away. Unfortunately, it is now a fact and we all have to get used to it and cherish his memory. My thoughts go to his dear wife Shannon. Your article shows how much he was an icon of the motion picture industry. What a wonderful man!
Words mean everything and Denny Clairmont deserved everyone one that people shared about the legendary life he shared with so many. A life well lived! Over a 3 day period, I got to know Denny and Mardrie at Cameraimage. We had a ball! Even though I had recently retired, once we got back to the states he continued to stay in touch with me. I will always have fond memories of him for that great experience that we had. He was definitely a people person!
Denny Clairmont, one of the finest men in motion picture history. His wisdom and generosity is what fueled many young careers. Denny, Terry and the Clairmont Camera family will always be in my heart. Rest In Peace dear friend.
Denny was a mentor, boss, and friend. We shared awards, patents, innovation and a few fails (thankfully very few). Denny’s work on hot rods, I believe, give him an understanding that you don’t always solve the (engineering and mechanical) problem on the first try, but you keep at it until it works. Denny would throw out ideas (rubber in a lens mount, really?) that I had the fun of making work. I knew at the time what a great job I had. As a free-lancer, I would happen to drop by just before lunch, to talk about ongoing engineering projects, and Alan, Terry, Denny and I would go over the details. I was so lucky, I had the best job in the world. RIP Denny.
Ken, Thanks for the nice comments. I think that’s where I first met you — at Clairmont Camera. And yes, it was always good to arrive just before lunch, because Denny had a European outlook at mid-day, and always took time to enjoy lunch with a moveable feast among friends at a nearby restaurant. Jon.
The first camera I ever held was at Clairmont Camera in North Vancouver in 1990. Denny opened up his rental shop one Saturday a month to allow hopeful camera trainees a chance to handle, load and learn about the cameras. Much of the time was spent listening to stories Denny told that made me want to be in the business that I love today. What a gentleman Denny was.
Thanks for a beautiful article about my brother-in-law. A deligbtful, legendary man.
Jon, thank you for this very fabulous article regarding Denny. I have such fond memories of prepping there when I was an Assistant. I also had the good fortune for him to invite me and a date to see Linda Ronstadt concert and dinner before. I will always treasure that time with him. I felt very fortunate he asked me to go. It was a lovely time and evening.
I had the privilege of working with Denny and Terry in their adoption of early digital camera technology in the early days of the Cinealta and DigiPrimes. This led to a 20+ year mentorship and friendship. No one in our industry knew more about lenses and cameras and how to make both work better in service of creativity. I will always cherish the far reaching technical discussions, valuable personal discussions and rare but amazing meals we shared over the years. Denny will be greatly missed but never forgotten.
Michael–Nice. And who can forget Denny ripping apart those Cinealta cameras and substantially reinforcing their mounts?
When Denny hired me in the early 1970s as a driver for Birns & Sawyer, I could not have imagined the fantastic journey my association with him would bring. Working side-by-side with him and Terry for over 47 years was truly the experience of a lifetime. The influence that Denny had on my career in our industry, as well as life in general, goes beyond measure. A true friend by any discription. Be it cameras or Corvettes, Denny was into it 110% and 24/7. As Haskell Wexler once told me “Take it easy, but take it.” I think that applies nicely to Denny. An amazing guy that was “all in” whatever he was doing. Miss you pal.
Alan — eloquent and moving. And after all these years knowing you, I did not realize you were with Denny at Birns & Sawyer. And oh yes, those Corvettes. To misquote Haskell, another part of the 4 C’s of Cinematography: Cameras, Cars, Corvettes and Clairmont.” – Jon
Daniellle Nicole Christopher
To say that Denny was a genius is the understatement of the century that goes undisputed. He was fair he was kind he was generous he was all of those things that you don’t usually find when somebody is of his caliber. But for me he was a second father; he loved me totally, unconditionally when my own father passed away in 1993 and he was there for me. When things in my life fell apart he was there for me and he just took time to make sure that he was at my twins’ high school graduation party in San Clemente. He made sure to tell Shannon we have to hurry and get the children a gift to be there for Danielle. Then he jumped right into the photo booth with everyone. I have a beautiful picture with him with a big smile on his face. Before he departed back for Laguna beach he told me, “You will always be my little girl; I’m so proud of you and I love you.” I know from my faith I will see Danny again happy healthy and parting his wisdom. Until then there will be a hole in my heart. Shannon and Denny are my family. They always will be. I just want to say to everyone who ever knew Denny: you should feel very blessed because he was an incredibly special man. Love u forever. Your daughter Danielle.
Denny was always helpful and insightful. He helped me during my first job as a camera assitant, when I nervously stepped into Clairmont Camera for the first time, and he provided the same support when I regularly visited years later to discuss future ARRI camera and accessory developments. Amongst many other words of wisdom, he said: “I don’t care how many accessory outputs the camera has, it is not enough!” My condolences to his family and friends.
Marc, I imagine Denny is busy retrofitting Heaven with infinite accessory outputs :)
Denny Clairmont was an innovator, son, actor, brother, husband, father, hot rodder, thrower of legendary parties, mentor and friend. My history with Denny goes back decades to when we met while he was working at Birns & Sawyer. Denny had a warmth and affability the was immediately apparent. Even upon first meeting, he made you feel as if you had been friends for ages.
Over the years ,Denny had nurtured the careers and lives of numerous others. We all have our favorite story about Denny and his amazing accomplishments. I have one that speaks to who he was as a man. In 2000, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had no experience coping with the process with either friends or family. I was overwhelmed and scared. I knew Denny had been through this with his brother Terry and had his own personal battle with the disease. I called Denny and asked if I could speak with him about it. Without a moment’s hesitation he invited me do to his offices. He sat me down and shared his time, compassion and insight so generously over several hours that I was able to face everything laid before in a calm, positive way. This is the kind of man Denny was: openhanded, warm-hearted, and thoughtful. Thank you again, my friend, for all you gave to me and everyone around you. Godspeed
My thoughts and love are with Shannon and the entire Clairmont family.
Jon, Thank you for the beautiful tribute.
Sad to hear of Denny’s passing. I have nothing but great affection and memories of Denny and the Clairmont team. I can’t help but feel this is the end of an era. When I was fresh off the boat from England and prepping a camera package, I shot tests and when projecting them I found an otherwise sharp 50mm Superspeed to be soft on one side of the screen. When I showed this to Denny, he was very concerned and wanted to solve this potential problem for the next prep. He bought a lens projector. I can’t tell you how many times over the years when I would be with him and he’d say, remember that time when you had that lens problem! When I became a DP he was always helpful to me in a million ways, be it discussing some new lenses or filters or coming up with a solution to a visual idea. I enjoyed many lunches with him, and they were kind enough to invite me to their table at the ASC awards. Bottom line he always made me feel valued and special, and that is certainly important in this business. I was prepping a film in Montreal and had to use a local rental house. There were a couple of lenses that were not immediately available, and as time went on I felt that I was being given the run around and would never actually get the lenses. So, I called Denny and explained the situation, he said tell me what you need and I’ll ship it out tomorrow! THAT is amazing service. I was always happy when I saw those yellow cases on the camera truck, and I knew I had total support behind them. Thanks for being the BEST in the rental business, and for your amazing positive, inventive spirit.
I was 19, still in school and could barely turn my light meter on. Pretty sure I was stress sweating on the Clairmont prep floor trying to figure out how to load a 416 magazine when I first met Denny. He was so nice and just chatted with us like we were anyone else, like we were pros or something. It made me feel so welcome – less like an imposter, a kid standing on the prep floor of a famous rental house. I wasn’t there from the early days like many others but truly Clairmont Camera opened the door for me to see what was out there, and Denny was as much a part of it as anything.
I believe Denny helped shape a company filled with a truly kind and dedicated band of professionals who even after Clairmont closed have gone on to elevate their new places of work (Like the amazing staff who’ve gone to PV Hollywood) or Andre Martin’s AM Camera. To create a workplace energy like this starts at the top, and still to this day the beautiful thing Denny and Terry created ripples out into Los Angles for the better. May you rest in peace Denny. Clairmont Forever.
It has taken me some time to process the loss of Denny. I did not know him like most of you, I knew him because I was tasked to sell his company. The thing that has always stood out in my mind, was that he cared more about the welfare of his employees than he did getting the highest amount for his company. When it came down to the short list, Denny told me to go after a company who would take his employees rather than paying him substantially more money. Anyone who knew Denny knew his heart was as big as he was. Second, Denny was a man of his word, an old-time trait that few have or live by. If Denny told you something, he stood by it. His knowledge of lenses was second to none, and his integrity and honor was above reproach. Last, I want all to know that Denny was a true friend. Although I was a hired gun, his friendship to me meant the world. He never made me feel less important because I didn’t come from his industry, instead he made me feel at home and valued. When he spent time with you, he gave all of himself. I will deeply miss my friend, and feel it was an honor to have known him for the time I did.
Denny Clairmont was instrumental I helping me create my Documentary film called KEEP FILM ALIVE. He was so kind in helping out in was incredible. I had no money and did not have any contacts in the Film Business. He called some of his friends like Haskell Wexler who was my first interview for the film. And Bob Harvey at the time with Panavision, Then James Chressanthis who help me interview Micheal Goi and then list goes on. So Denny and Alan where unbelievably kind that I have remain friends with both all these years later. I was back doing interviews a couple years ago and got invited to the Arri 100th Birthday Party at the ASC Head quarters and road with Denny in his silver Corvette help loved so much. I had spoken to Denny and Alan just a few days before I heard of his death and I was shocked because when we spoke he was doing pretty good he told me about his health. He had sent me a real-estate brochure of his really nice home north of San Francisco, which from his water front location you could see very far in the distance. I have some pictures that were taking while filming at his rental company and a sample video of or interview he kindly gave me. Much Love.
Interview with Denny Clairmont: https://youtu.be/BAeFXq4zmV4