It has been a prominent part of European TV and film production for 40 years on both the sound and vision sides but last year Aaton nearly disappeared for good. Film camera sales were suffering from the growing move to digital and the Cantar location recorder was falling behind its rivals. But the company's future was secured by fellow French manufacturer Transvideo, which concentrated on the development of a new audio recorder to re-establish the brand.
The Cantar X3 retains the distinctive, cyber-punk look of the original product but with a new swivelling front display replacing the original pre-set positions and an expandable SSD supported by SD card and USB external drive recording capability to supersede the X2's limited 128Gb internal storage.
Unusually for a small independent manufacturer Aaton had been a key player in both the camera and sound recording for location filming and television production markets for over four decades. The Cantar X series of recorders was a commons sight on shoots in mainland Europe, often in tandem with Aaton's film cameras.
This balancing act appears to have become more difficult as the 21st century went on. The Cantar was falling behind the likes of Nagra, Sound Devices, Zaxcom and Zoom on the audio front and digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa, RED Epic and Sony F65 and 55 were seriously challenging film. Aaton was preparing to meet the latter threat head on but the proposed Delta camera never made the provisional launch date of early 2012.
This combination of negative factors put severe financial strain on Aaton, as Jacques Delacoux, chief executive of Transvideo (pictured), explains: "They had the same wonderful products but the Cantar was obsolete and the Delta, although extremely ambitious, was not ready on time."
By contrast Delacoux's company, which he founded in 1985 to produce flat-panel video monitors, video-assist devices, wireless video transmission systems and camera accessories, was coping more readily with the changing film and TV production landscape. Transvideo and Aaton have been working together since 1999 but Delacoux had been aware of the camera and recorder company while still in his teens.
"When I was 15 or 16 I had a picture of an Aaton camera on my bedroom wall," he says. "It was an unreachable dream that I would use or own one but much later Transvideo developed some products for them and we shared stands at international trade shows. So we've always been quite close and it would have been a pity to see the name disappear."
Aaton's problems started to come to a head in early 2013. Delacoux says Aaton's managing director, Martine Bianco, asked him if he wanted to buy the company to stop it disappearing, to which the answer was "yes". To allow this Aaton went into bankruptcy, with its founder and chief executive, Jean-Pierre Beauviala, announcing the move on the website of AFC, the French Association of Cinematographers on 3 May 2013.
Under French company law the prospective buyer of a firm needs to show that it has a product ready to be developed should the acquisition go ahead, rather than just buying the brand name. "There had been a two-year project to develop a new camera," says Delacoux, "but we decided it was easier to go for sound." This, he explains, was partly because of available storage media but also sound recordists asking for a new Cantar that was up-to-date and future-proof.
The X3 was designed by Aaton's established engineering department, with input from Delacoux and Transvideo's technical staff. Delacoux explains that as part of the rebuilding of Aaton the 23 members of the design team - which he describes as "the heart of the company" - were kept on but others were not: "All employees agreed but with those that had to leave it was very emotional."
Delacoux comments that while it was decided to keep what people had liked about the previous Cantar - specifically its light weight and functionality - the design team "started from scratch". This involved "changing the technology inside" and adding more audio tracks and inputs. Among the features of the X3 are 12 analogue XLR inputs, eight low noise mic pre-amps, ten linear control faders and a keyboard USB for easier editing of metadata and routing control.
Delacoux worked on the display aspects himself, producing an "extra wide" viewing panel with smoother running sliders for ease of use. The machine has digital ins and outs, plus Audinate Dante connectivity. "We wanted to simplify communications," he explains. "If a user wants extra capacity then other Cantar units can be connected and controlled from a single machine." He adds that after surveying sound recordists on what they wanted Dante was chosen, although Ravenna "would not be a major problem" to add if people wanted it.
Pre-orders were being taken earlier in the year and Delacoux hoped to start deliveries in September, with a full industry launch of the Cantar X3 now scheduled for that month's IBC. While there might not be new cameras coming out of France, the Aaton name looks set to live on through audio.