In Memoriam: Denny Clairmont (1935-2020)

The co-founder of Clairmont Camera and longtime ASC associate member passed on May 10, 2020 at the age of 83.

At top, from left, Denny and Terry Clairmont.

Born in Hollywood on December 24, 1935, he was the son of cinematographer Leonard Clairmont, a Swedish immigrant who started his career in the Silent Era and later authored The Professional Cine Photographer (1956). Growing up amidst the business, Denny and younger brother Terry appeared in their father’s films as infants and then children, later playing bit parts and serving as stand-ins and extras.

Today, Denny can be glimpsed in such films as The Blue Bird (1940), with Shirley Temple, and in Penny Serenade (1941), with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. But as he grew older, he had no continuing interest in acting or following in his father’s footsteps behind the camera. “To be honest, I didn’t like it,” he later told the Los Angeles Daily News, citing the crack-of-dawn call times.

Chasing their own dreams, Denny and Terry opened a “speed shop” dubbed Fiasco Automotive with Richard Johnson in 1964, modifying cars of all kinds for racing and other high-performance operations. Unfortunately, the North Hollywood-based venture was short-lived. “The cars were fast, but we didn’t make money,” Denny later lamented.

Denny later gained experience with and knowledge of cameras and lenses while working as a prep technician at Birns & Sawyer, a leading rental house of the era, and as a cinematographer working on commercials and documentaries. He combined this with his natural ability to tinker with and improve mechanical systems — well-honed during his years spent turning wrenches on hot rods and drag racers. He designed and build specialized items for B&S, becoming the rentals manager, but a dispute later ended his employment. He was fired, but that only served to inspire him.

In 1976, Denny and Terry partnered with Ed and Mitzie Engle to launch their own rental company, Clairmont-Engle, with just four cameras in their lineup, largely servicing indie, non-studio productions. Following the departure of the Engles in 1980, the company was re-named and Clairmont Camera was born. Terry focused on business affairs while the ingenious Denny applied his talents to support customers with modified and unique gear created for specific photographic needs. 

“We’ve got hundreds of things that most people don’t know about because we made it for one person,” Terry Clairmont told the Los Angeles Times. “Then people walk in with a special problem, and we’ve already got the thing built. Those custom items a lot of times are what bring a customer to us.”

Known for innovative offerings and exceptional service, Clairmont Camera supported feature, commercial and television productions for decades, becoming one of the biggest and most respected facilities of its kind in the world.

Following a shift in production, Clairmont Camera opened its first rental facilities in Canada in 1987 — starting with Vancouver, then expanding to Toronto and Montreal.

Starting in 1993, Denny Clairmont served as a member of the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Committee. For optics innovations, he was honored with a Technical Achievement Award from the Society of Camera Operators in 2000 (shared with Ken Robings), then their President's Award in 2007, and then their Distinguished Service Award in 2018. The company earned Engineering Emmy Awards in 2000 (for the MovieCam Superlight) and 2001 (for the Clairmont Camera line of lenses)

In 2002, with the help of in-house electronics expert Mike Condon, Clairmont established its digital camera division, ensuring the company’s future in a changing marketplace.

Terry Clairmont died on October 28, 2006, at the age of 64, which was a serious blow, but Denny persisted — continuing his dedication to the namesake company they built together.

Clairmont received the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2011. “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,” noted then-Academy President Tom Sherak. “His dedication to his craft and service to the Academy are well-known throughout the industry.”

During his acceptance speech, Clairmont thanked “all the people who helped me,” he told a reporter for patch.com. “I thanked my wife for putting up with all the long hours, and my brother who helped me start the company, who’s deceased now, and the technicians I work with. I couldn't have got it without help from all my people.”

The Canadian Society of Cinematographers (CSC) named Clairmont as the recipient of its prestigious Bill Hilson Award for 2012.

In 2015, Clairmont and friendly crosstown rental-house rival Otto Nemez were honored by the ASC with the Bud Stone Award of Distinction.

In 2017, the production community was surprised to learn that Clairmont Camera and its vast inventory — and locations in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — had been acquired by Keslow Camera. But, after more than four decades in the business, Clairmont was ready for a well-deserved retirement. Today, many of the Denny innovations remain available through Keslow’s “Clairmont Specialty Equipment,” including his Baby Periscope, Image Shaker, Swing & Tilt and Squishy Lens setups.

“Clairmont Camera is my life’s work, and I never stopped searching for innovative ways to serve our clients,” Clairmont said in a statement announcing the sale. “I have long respected Robert Keslow and the team at Keslow Camera for their integrity, quality of management, best-in-class customer service, and successful performance. I am confident they are the right company to honor my heritage and founding vision going forward.”

ASC members fondly remember their collaborative and personal relationships with Denny and Terry and their namesake company. “Clairmont Camera was a home to everyone who walked through the door to prep equipment, inquire about technical information or just hanging out,” explained Ed Lachman, ASC. “Terry and Denny became a surrogate family for me, always supportive even if it didn't always work out financially for them with the production. Our creative interests and needs always came first. We lost Terry, we lost Clairmont Camera, and now we've lost Denny. We've lost a part of Hollywood that helped many of us create our images with the spirit and love he had for this industry, and the care he expressed personally to each of us. I'll miss you.”

“When I was just breaking into network episodic, the ‘big’ rental house in Vancouver didn’t have much time for me, or any of the best gear,” remembers Robert McLachlan, ASC, CSC. “From the get-go, Denny treated me like a somebody. So, from 1993 until he retired [in 2017], I only used his gear if I had a choice. He was a lovely, gracious man. I miss him.”

“I started my career in 1977 working as an electronic technician at Panavision in Tarzana,” relates Gary Baum, ASC. “Denny Clairmont was always a fierce competitor with Panavision, and, as far as I’m concerned, the only viable one. He knew who I was because I was always at the camera shows with Panavision’s gear. He was always on top of his game and respected by everyone. Later, as a camera assistant, I went through Clairmont Camera infrequently, but Denny always made a point to come by the prep area to say hello and offer his expertise and opinions. When I moved up to cinematographer in 2005, Denny called to congratulate me. When he put up his inventory for sale after he closed his doors, I went by to his office, and we had a great chat about everything except the rental business. He talked about his home in Oregon. I don’t know how this happened, but I wound up buying one of his Eyemo conversion packages! They were the best in the business. Denny was a true gentleman, a pioneer and a visionary.”

“When I first moved to L.A., I visited Clairmont Camera to check out the latest lenses and gear,” noted Mark Doering-Powell, ASC. “Denny was so generous to a young camera assistant he’d never seen before. They let me check out anything they had available and I spent most of the day there. He was incredibly helpful through the years, always ready with advice and immense knowledge. He never shied away from bleeding-edge tech and always pushed us all to try new gear. 

“Denny once showed us the steel prism cage and lens mount he had custom made for their F900s, allowing them to avoid constant back-focus collimation. I remember him joking about how the modification probably voided the warranty.

“Years later, he suggested we test the Arri D20 he had on hand, even though our show, Everybody Hates Chris, had been shooting on the [Thomson Grass Valley] Viper. His encouragement was instrumental in making it happen, because he assured us we’d have whatever support we needed. 

“Denny was big-hearted to everyone he met in our industry — a legend that will be both sorely missed and forever remembered by us all.”

“Our friend Denny is gone,” said Bob Primes, ASC. “He started Clairmont Camera with his brother Terry as a sideline, but every camera they sent out was perfect and their reputation grew quickly. Other vendors [from which they rented gear when needed to support customers] would send them their worst cameras, knowing that the Clairmont brothers would rebuild them before renting them out. But, soon, Clairmont’s reputation for service and integrity made them worthy competitors to the mighty Panavision. 

“Denny and his sidekick [Clairmont senior executive vice president] Alan Albert loved complex machinery, especially if it helped make more beautiful moving images. They promised to make any gadget a cinematographer could conceive of. Fulfilling that promise gave them an unprecedented arsenal of special cinematography equipment. Whether or not you were renting their gear, they were the best people on earth to help solve thorny camera challenges.

“Their genius, passion and integrity were only matched by their generosity. Denny’s door was always open. If he liked you or your project, he would move mountains to insure there’d be no obstacles to your success. He seemed to underwrite every film school in town. 

“The feeling of humanity at Clairmont was profound. It was like walking into a big loving family. Despite the prodigious amount of production they supported, there was never a feeling of stress or being rushed. If you dropped by on a simple errand you were likely to get caught up in discussions of cutting-edge techniques and wind up going to lunch with the whole clan. 

“At one time, the son of one of the founders of Arriflex was serving an apprenticeship at Clairmont. He marveled at how they not only modified and improved his family’s legendary cameras, but designed and built the complete supporting package. Clairmont and Panavision elevated the concept of the camera rental house into a comprehensive resource and partner for cinematographers. Their legacy influenced many others and set the benchmarks we strive for today.

“Like all living beings, Denny’s time has come to an end. The work he did and the example he set will change cinematography forever — not just technically, but in the way we care about and help each other. 

“Bravo, Denny!”

“Undoubtedly, Denny significantly influenced the work and careers of many of us cinematographers,” explained Kees van Oostrum, ASC. “It now makes me think of the time when I was a student and asked my aging cinematography teacher what bothered him most about getting older. He responded that it was the continued loss of loved ones and friends. For me, Denny had become one of those, a true friend concerned about our craft like none other. He contributed immensely to the development of our equipment. Cameras, lenses you name it — he was passionate about all of it, and his excitement when he found an old Bell & Howell camera with his father's name engraved on it became memorable. Denny's office was always open for a chat, not only about technology but often just about life. He left Hollywood a few years ago, but even last week with coronavirus paralyzing our lives, I was thinking of stopping by his desk and starting the conversation with, ‘Well, Denny, what do you think?’ He will be missed ever so dearly.

David Darby ASC — who first met the Clairmont brothers in 1977, when he was aspiring cinematographer working as a runner and returning a camera package — said, “The grand and great good fortune to have met Terry and Denny, and to have somehow earned their friendship, I count as one of the most significant and sustaining events of my life, and absolutely, one of the most significant and sustaining events of my career as a cinematographer. If it were not for Terry and Denny, I either wouldn’t be anywhere, or at least I’d definitely be somewhere else. Between the two of them, they created an energy that counteracted the fear, doubt, and pessimism that we all feel when we're starting-out on a journey that we have almost no idea how to complete when we begin. Through them, what seemed at first like the ultimate in ‘unlikely,’ could somehow be seen as possible.”

Denny Clairmont is survived by his wife, Shannon, his sons, Jon and Joel, and two half-brothers, Toby and Lenny.

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