The Caméflex Éclair-Coutant

In 1939, The Éclair company took on a new engineer, André Coutant (1906-1983), who would bring mobility and lightness to filming techniques.

Obturateur à miroir, From the collection of: The Cinémathèque française
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The Éclair company, founded in 1907, was always supported by high-caliber technicians, the two most prestigious being Ambroise-François Parnaland and Jean Méry, the creators of innovative cameras.

In 1946, Coutant designed the Camérette, a 35-mm camera equipped with a three-lens turret, an electric motor, and a 30-m or 120-m magazine. It weighed just 4.8 kg. The reflex viewfinder (one of the first in France) was created using an adjustable mirror shutter, which reflected the image onto the focusing screen during the shutter time.

The Caméflex, a more advanced version, was commercialized in 1947 and could be carried easily on your shoulder.

La caméra 35 mm Caméflex Eclair Coutant 2, From the collection of: The Cinémathèque française
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The 200° to 35° adjustable shutter ensured high levels of light. Two claws fed the film through a slit with a side pressure plate. The magazines could be loaded instantly. In 1949, the Aquaflex case made it possible to film underwater.

In 1950, it became possible to use either 16-mm or 35-mm film in the camera. The Caméblimp, a soundproof case, came out in the same year.

Maquette en réduction du blimp Aquaflex pour caméra Caméflex, André Coutant, 1950, From the collection of: The Cinémathèque française
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The Caméflex was quickly adopted by the filmmakers of the era. Paul-Émile Victor even took it to Greenland in 1948. René Clair, who discovered the camera when filming La Beauté du Diable (Beauty and the Devil), was enthusiastic: "We used the Caméflex at various speeds, from 10 to 48 images per second: the results that you will see have been perfect. The Caméflex is the most extraordinary innovation I have seen since I got behind a camera." Henri Alekan, an experienced director of photography, was also won over: “After over a year carrying out various experiments with the Caméflex whilst shooting films such as Les Amants de Vérone (The Lovers of Verona) and Marcel Carné's La Marie du port (Marie of the Port), I was able to test this camera (both on location and in the studio) in what were often very difficult working conditions, and it produced the most perfect results."

But it was the New Wave that took advantage of the full scope of this lightweight camera: François Truffaut and Henri Decae with Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) in 1959, and Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard with À bout de souffle (Breathless) in 1960, used Caméflex to invent a modern aesthetic. Coutard would sit in a wheelchair with the camera on his shoulder while Godard pushed him and controlled the movement. In this way they produced types of sequence shots that had never been seen before. "Our technique was very similar to reporting, very different from the elaborate photos made in the studios. Given the style of shooting, we ruled out using tripods for either the camera or the spotlights. For the lighting, I attached a few floodlights to the ceiling, or, if I didn't have time, I would just change the bulbs in the existing lights," explained the chief operator. Another tendency was to shoot a silent film and then synchronize the sound later. This may seem surprising, but there was a fitting aesthetic logic. The Caméflex would have needed to be enclosed in a heavy Caméblimp to completely soundproof it.

Les quatre cent coups (1959) - François Truffaut (trailer) | BFI, François Truffaut, 1959, From the collection of: The Cinémathèque française
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Jean Seberg was at first skeptical about this modest team and this small camera, which was completely different from the larger equipment used in Hollywood. But the actress ended up falling in love with this totally out-of-the-ordinary style. Even the film editing went against all of the rules of the time.

"Personally, I understand the technology, thankfully, and there is something about the technology that I like and that I don't really see as being separate from the aesthetic. I'm a bit like Liszt with his piano. With him, some of the things he composed came from the piano. Only a pianist whose abilities went further than virtuosity could have created them, could have had ideas that a composer could not have had. I like the technical side of cinema, in that it gives me ideas for shoots. Like Hitchcock for example: ideas that Gide can't have" (Jean-Luc Godard, Les Cahiers du cinéma, 1985).

The Caméflex also triumphed on the other side of the Atlantic: Coutant and Mathot d’Éclair received an Oscar in 1950. The Americans were also happy to use it, like Orson Welles for The Trial (1962) or Francis Ford Coppola for Apocalypse Now (1979).

In 1952, in a different spirit, Éclair released the Camé 300, a heavy studio camera designed in 1939 by Méry (under the name "Caméréclair Studio"). In 1961, the creation of the 16-mm camera allowed the documentary genre to find new life, "cinéma vérité" to express itself, and television to find a certain freedom. As the Éclair 16 was equipped with an original system, the Compact Universal Perfectone, with an integrated quartz time coder, it was possible to film with a tape recorder without needing a connection between the camera and the magnetic sound recorder. The director of photography Pierre Lhomme remembers: "It basically allowed us to film with synchronized sound in a small team. The cable linking the camera and the tape recorder had gone. The heaviness of the equipment was gone. And it was reliable".

Camé 300, André Coutant, Jacques Mathot, 1949, From the collection of: The Cinémathèque française
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Another 16-mm camera followed in 1971: The ACL, which weighed just 3.5 kg. But Éclair would soon be outshone by a competitor that came from within its own ranks: Jean-Pierre Beauviala created the Aaton company in 1972. The Caméflex's success would even go beyond terrestrial borders! The 1960s saw the acceleration of space exploration, the impact of which would mainly be diffused through image. On the ground, Soviet astronauts were effectively trained in filming with a Caméflex. The camera would also be the first to travel in space...

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