Denny Clairmont

Denny Clairmont in June 2017

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.”

Some History

Denny Clairmont (l) and Terry Clairmont (r)

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.

Newsie: Denny at Hollywood and Vine, announcing Terry’s birth on May 21, 1942.

Denny Clairmont and Academy’s Bonner Award

Denny Clairmont was awarded the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science on February 12, 2011. Photo © A.M.P.A.S.

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.

Dominique Rouchon, Denny Clairmont, Mardrie Mullen in St-Héand for Angénieux 75th anniversary.

Denny Clairmont inaugurating
Angénieux’s new studio in Dec 2010. The commemorative plaque on the wall reads:
“The Pierre Angénieux Studio was opened on December 13, 2010, marking the
75th anniversary of the brand, by Mr. Denny Clairmont, President of Clairmont
Hollywood.”

Denny Clairmont never saw a camera he didn’t want to modify and make better. Clairmontizing a new Sony F55 in 2013, L-R: Denny Clairmont, Alan Albert, Michael Condon, Sergio Huerta, Tom Boelens.

Denny Clairmont and Otto Nemenz receiving the ASC 2015 Bud Stone Award.

Denny Clairmont in his lens test room in July 2017, shortly before he sold the company to Keslow Camera. Photo taken with Clairmont’s Leitz Summilux-C 50mm, wide open at T1.4.

 

Denny and Jon Fauer sitting on distinctive Clairmont Camera yellow cases, 2003.

At Marino’s Restaurant in LA, 2017, where Denny was a regular, from left to right, Jacques Delacoux, Denny, Mardrie Mullen, Danny Hallet, Shannon Litten Clairmont and Sveta Delacoux.

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.

“While in college, I was working part-time as a PA at an independent film company in LA. I always had an interest in still photography and had ambitions to somehow work on motion pictures, but no formal education in cinematography and only minimal experience with 16mm Eclair NPR and Arri S cameras while working as a PA at this company. Denny was working as  a camera technician at Birns and Sawyer in Hollywood at that time.
“This was a period when Movies of the Week were beginning to be produced. The company somehow made a deal to produce a MOW that would shoot in the Bahamas. The DP was Andrew Laszlo ASC, based in NY, and the camera assistants hired to do the job were not available for the camera prep in LA. Somehow I was assigned to do it. This made no sense at all. I knew nothing about 35mm cameras nor how to go about prepping them for a job. When I mentioned this to the producer I was told, ‘just go to Birns and Sawyer and they will show you what to do.’
“At Birns and Sawyer I met Denny for the first time. He was working as the camera tech prepping the job. I was quite open about my lack of experience and how dependent I was on his help.  He told me not to worry, he would take care of everything.
“We were prepping two 35mm cameras: an Arriflex 2C and a Mitchell BNC. I knew nothing about them. The Arri 2C  came directly from Birns and Sawyer, but the BNC was a sub-rental from the MGM studios camera department. This was during the period of conversion of BNC cameras to reflex mode and ours was a rack-over camera. I had no idea this meant it had unique viewing issues distinct from reflex cameras.
“We had five days, Monday through Friday, scheduled for the prep. The BNC was set to be delivered from MGM on Wednesday. Since B&S carried the Arriflex 2C, we started with that camera on Monday. Denny was a great teacher; the 2C was relatively straightforward, and I started feeling pretty good about working with it on my own.
“There was a delay at MGM and the BNC didn’t arrive on Wednesday as scheduled. There was quite of bit of pressure because the cameras were leaving the country and I started getting nervous we wouldn’t have the proper amount of time to prep the BNC by the end of the day on Friday.
“The BNC finally arrived on Friday morning. Denny immediately unloaded the entire package and spread all the pieces on the floor and began searching through it all. I asked what he was looking for and he said, ‘The camera manual’. Since B&S didn’t carry BNC cameras, Denny had never worked with one either and was more or less seeing it for the first time. He had asked the MGM camera dept. to send a camera manual and they actually had one and complied. I always thought they must have had a great laugh about it. They indeed did send a manual but I’m sure they expected to receive an emergency call for help as well.
“The BNC rack-over finder was totally dependent on a system of cams and viewfinder mattes for accurate composition at different focal lengths. It wasn’t overly complex, but there definitely was a fairly steep learning curve involved, and if all the pieces were not in place it would have been disastrous for the production. Denny immediately understood what to do to check it out. I didn’t have a clue about any of it and just stayed out of the way.
“At the end of the day Denny said we were good and we should ship the cameras. I decided there were limited options. My choice was to ship the cameras and assume everything was fine and hope for the best, or to delay shipment and try to find an explanation.
“I decided to ship. I figured if it didn’t work out I could always look for alternate career options.
“The rest of the story is that the production thought I did such a good job ‘prepping’ the camera package that they sent me to the Bahamas location to work as an AC/loader on the 2nd unit/underwater unit. I loaded film magazines for the underwater DP, Mike Dugan. This unit shot during pre-production.
“When the 1st unit camera crew arrived, their 2nd AC/camera loader had changed his mind about coming on the job and didn’t get on the plane. He also hadn’t notified anyone in production so they were short a 2nd AC. The production manager had a great idea about how to save money and put me on the 1st unit as the 2nd AC, rather than fly in a new 2nd. I had never been on a real movie set and didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
“This became painfully obvious in about 5 minutes to DP Andrew Laszlo and the rest of the crew, especially the 1st AC David Dalzell. But they decided to give me a chance. I made many mistakes, but no disastrous blunders. I’m sure I hold the record for the slowest magazine reloads in history.
“The best part of the story is that 6 months after we returned to LA, I saw the 2nd unit/underwateer DP Mike Dugan. He  asked if I had applied to Contract Services for admission to the IA because I had accumulated 30 days work on an IA picture. I had no idea what he was talking about, but eventually applied to Contract Services. I had an interview and they approved me and Local 659 had to let me in as a member, even though I still had no experience other than that one job.
“I blundered my way through a couple of other jobs as a low-priority Group 3 2nd AC, and eventually learned enough to stay employed and be able to pay my rent on a regular basis, primarily on low paying jobs. Andy Laszlo was a very nice man and a very good cinematographer. I eventually was able to thank him in person. About 10 years later, I was working as camera operator on a film at Universal Studios. Andy was working there as well and we spoke for a while. I was incredibly fortunate that both Denny and Andrew were a part of that whole early experience. But quite honestly, I don’t believe any of it would have happened if Denny had not been the prep tech at Birns and Sawyer.”

 


David Darby ASC sent a four-page essay. Please download the PDF.

Excerpt:

“…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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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