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A “cat on the shoulder” for recording on the go


It is not easy to meet the needs of documentary filmmakers, whose objective is to capture people’s authentic realities as they experience them. The Aaton meets these needs. It is the product of research aimed at developing lightweight cameras. Designed to be carried on the operator’s shoulder, it can record sound and image simultaneously, without the need for a cable.

Refer to the “Additional resources” section to see a glossary of technical terms.

A cat on the shoulder for recording on the go

Of course, the Aaton looks nothing like a cat. Designed to be carried on the shoulder, it allows operators to get close to their subjects. Created in 1972 and still widely used today, the Aaton’s ergonomic design offers comfort and stability. 

The Aaton was the product early 1960s research on designing lightweight, synchronous cameras. It became well-known for some of its technological innovations, such as sound-image synchronization, a silent motor, low weight, quick reel changes and a timecode imprinted directly on the film, among others. 

The Aaton represented the next step in 1960s documentary filmmaking: It was lightweight and it synchronized sound with video. Finally, filmmakers could record the candid words and movements of people in their own environments. In small teams, they produced films that were a far cry from the “frozen aesthetics of beautiful documentaries” (Bouchard 2012, 79). These filmmakers avoided predetermined settings, preferring to adapt their approaches to suit a film’s subjects. Natural lighting was favoured, and crew members generally avoided adding their own commentaries.

A few films shot with the Aaton

Many films shot in Quebec, France and the United States were produced thanks to the Aaton and its useful features.


Liberty Street Blues directed by André Gladu in 1988
Narrator : Éric Gaudry
A vibrant and colourful portrait of New Orleans: Its musicians young and old, its brass bands, its traditions, its unique culture.


Liberty Street Blues directed by André Gladu in 1988
Narrator : Éric Gaudry
A vibrant and colourful portrait of New Orleans: Its musicians young and old, its brass bands, its traditions, its unique culture.


Le Roi du drum directed by Serge Giguère in 1991
© Les Productions du Rapide-Blanc
A local hero from east-end Montréal—passionate, whole and naive—Guy Nadon is rhythm incarnate. He is a jazz drummer who can find the beat in anything that makes noise. As the king of musical improvisation—and also a king of theatrical improvisation—he sometimes makes comments that border on the surreal. He is a do-it-yourselfer who makes his own drum kits and creates his own universe whenever he’s behind them. It’s an unbridled universe, a reflection of Montréal in the 1950s…its nightclubs…the golden age of jazz in Quebec (Rapide-Blanc Productions).

The origins of a camera: Quintessential portability for professionals

The quest for a portable camera led engineer and movie buff Jean-Pierre Beauviala to create a professional camera that would meet his own needs.

As he set out to create a film experience that would provide viewers with an immersive audiovisual experience in the streets of Grenoble, France, Beauviala came to realize there were no cameras available that could synchronize sound and image without being restrictive. Like many filmmakers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Beauviala was confronted with a lack of suitable equipment for capturing live, immersive shots.

The engineer  holds the first model of the Aaton in his hands. He is holding it in such a manner as to show its full length.

Photograph of Jean-Pierre Beauviala in 1972.
Jean-Pierre Beauviala – CC BY-SA 4.0

Beauviala initially worked for one of France’s largest camera manufacturing companies, called Éclair. His experience as a consulting engineer, and later as a director of studies, trained him in the design of filmmaking equipment. The Aaton was directly descended from two iconic Éclair cameras widely used by Direct Cinema and New Wave filmmakers: The Éclair 16 and the Caméflex. For example, the Éclair, like the Aaton, was carried on the shoulder, but it was too front-heavy, forcing users to either overcompensate for its instability or wear a harness, both of which caused physical discomfort after several hours of shooting. In addition, there were synchronization issues between the image and the sound that had to be remedied through the use of cables.

Première page du brevet dont l’entête contient le nom des inventeurs : MM André Clément Coutant et Jacques Mathot. La date du dépôt et le lieu : demandé le 29 décembre 1961 à Paris. Le numéro du brevet y figure, ainsi que le ministère de l’Industrie dont dépend le service de la propriété intellectuelle. La suite de la page est réservée à la description de cette caméra dite silencieuse. View

Coutant, Clément and Jacques Mathot. 1961. Brevet d’invention [Patent of invention]. No. 1318665. Paris, France. 3 p.
Public domain

pdf (189.30 KB)
sing an Éclair camera that resembles the Aaton, a camera operator films children painting.

Photograph of a camera operator with an Éclair on his shoulder. The bulk of the camera’s weight sits forward of his shoulder. The Aaton’s design is similar to this one.
Podzo Di Borgo CC BY-SA 4.0

Beauviala invented different cameras to overcome these problems, as well as to satisfy a desire for formal and aesthetic renewal that was shared by 1960s filmmakers from Quebec, France and the USA.

The Aaton company was formed in France in 1971 by Jean-Pierre Beauviala. He and his team never stopped perfecting their cameras in an effort to attain their ideal:

“Beauviala’s main goal continues to be to design what he calls ‘a friendlier instrument.’ His primary objective is to develop a tool that corresponds to his vision of an ideal movie camera—a ‘cat-on-the-shoulder.’ This guiding principle serves as the basis—constantly renewed and re-examined—of the development of a whole range of 16 mm cameras. Their varying technical characteristics all derive, either directly or indirectly, from the primary goal of making a camera into a ‘cat’.” [Translation]

(Grizet 2017, p. 39).

Two images of a man. In one, he has a cat on his shoulder. In the other, the cat has been replaced by an Aaton camera. The images are accompanied by text: “Q: What’s that you said about cats and the Aäton? A: Cats catch mice, Aätons don’t. Q : Then what are these two pictures for? A: To show what cats and Aätons have in common: both comfortable to hold, and very quiet.”

Excerpt from an Aaton cameras brochure.
Anon. 1978. Aaton Cameras. p. 5.

© Aaton Digital


After two years of research and testing, the company’s first camera, the Aaton 7, was launched in 1975. It allowed the image to be synchronized with the sound recording without the use of cables, thanks to its “universal quartz-controlled motor.” The properties of quartz had already been adopted by watchmakers for their precise timekeeping. In the Aaton camera, they allowed the speeds of the two devices’ motors (the camera’s and sound recorder’s) to be precisely aligned.

Aaton technical data sheet

Which characteristics of this device make it so portable and lightweight and allow it to approach its subjects?


50 cm x 20 cm x 23 cm.
6 kg, including batteries and magazines.
The camera is made up of electronic components that perfectly synchronize the image with the sound recording.
Frame rate
Variable frame rate of 6 to 32 fps.

Components and accessories

Under normal conditions, the battery can power the camera through up to five magazines of film.
16 mm film
This highly light-sensitive film allows operators to shoot in all types of conditions, both indoors and outdoors, as well as at night.
120-metre magazine
The preloaded magazines can be installed and removed quickly, which is very advantageous when shooting on the go.
High-performance reflex viewfinder
It offers precision frame control, as the operator can see exactly what is being filmed at the time of shooting.
This camera was one of the first to directly embed a time code onto the film when shooting. This allows the sound and the image to be synchronized.
Walnut wood grip in the form of a closed fist
Adjustable to fit the camera operator’s hand. It allows for easier camera handling.


No integrated microphone. An external microphone is required.
The microphone is mounted onto a boom that is operated by the sound mixer. The sound mixer, who works independently from the camera operator, can record freely at a distance from the camera.
Zoom lens.
Used by documentary filmmakers, the zoom lens provides great flexibility without lens changes, and thus without shooting interruptions. It can be used for zoom-in and zoom-out effects.
Very silent.
The very quiet camera motor produces approximately 23 decibels of sound, equal to a barely audible whisper.
Cutaway on the body of the camera.
It allows the camera to be placed on the shoulder, providing it with great stability.

Operation and handling

More than anything, the Aaton fills a need to capture action shots.

Sommaire du manuel intitulé Aaton Cameras. L’adresse du siège en France est indiquée ainsi que la table des matières. Un homme est dessiné sur le côté, il porte un chapeau melon et une Bell & Howell avec son trépied sur son épaule gauche. Il porte dans sa main droite une mallette. View

Anon. 1981. Aaton Cameras 7 LTR 16 mm Camera Instruction Manual. 29 p. TR 880 A22
© Aaton Digital

pdf (4.65 MB)

First, the camera is prepared by the camera operator (or assistant): the film is loaded and the battery is installed. Next, the camera is lifted onto the shoulder and the eye is placed against the viewfinder to frame the shot (the other eye may also provide information on the surroundings, as needed). The hand that is placed on the wooden grip guides the camera, while the other hand adjusts the focal length and/or focuses the image.

The Aaton is comfortable to hold and very stable, as all of its weight is supported by the entire body, not only by the arms. The Aaton is not so much an extension of the camera operator’s body as it is a second, symbiotic entity. The filmmaker and the camera work together to get as close as possible to their subjects. Those who wish to become professional camera operators must train themselves to keep control of the camera while also moving around. It is recommended that they practice a sport to develop accuracy, such as archery, or an activity to help them learn to move fluidly, such as dance, yoga or Tai Chi.

To establish a relationship of trust between the film crew and those whose private lives are being recorded, a film shoot must be prepared in advance. It is relatively easy for small crews of two or three people to be accepted and get close to those being filmed.

The sound mixer and the sound equipment must always be close to the action. The assistant camera operator oversees the mechanical aspects of the camera. This is a more important role than that of assistant camera operators of the early days of cinema (see the Bell & Howell info sheet). This allows the camera operator to focus entirely on what is being shot, while maintaining a close relationship of trust with the subjects. The film crew must become emotionally involved in the action, in order to react quickly and capture significant moments, which are sometimes fleeting.

The director leans forward to provide instructions to the camera operator, who is in a crouched position. The camera operator’s left hand is on the zoom lens and his eye is on the viewfinder. In the background, the boom operator is holding her boom pole and listening through her headphones.

Photograph of director Sophie Bissonnette, camera operator Serge Giguère and boom operator Diane Carrière filming a scene from Quel numéro What number? Photograph by François Bouchard.
Personal collection of Sophie Bissonnette.

3D model of an Aaton operator, assistant and boom operator. The camera assistant ensures the operator remains safe while moving around.

Modélisation 3D de l’opérateur de la Aaton, l’assistant-caméraman et le perchiste. L’assistant-caméraman sécurise l’opérateur dans ses déplacements.

Première page de la brochure. Le fond est beige uni et il est écrit en gros à la verticale Aaton Cameras View

Anon. 1978. Aaton Cameras. 47 p. TR880 A222.
© Aaton Digital

pdf (9.05 MB)

Users and anecdotes

In Quebec in the 1950s, NFB productions were made by technical crews that, until then, adhered to relatively rigid standards. Michel Brault, a well-known Quebec cinematographer, cameraman and film producer who was a leading figure of Direct Cinema, described the NFB’s training program: The director of the NFB camera department taught new recruits that in order to produce beautiful images, they had to sit still and examine the frame before shooting. In addition, to synchronize the sound with the image, the words had to be synchronized one by one with the movement of the person’s lips during the editing stage, which was a long and tedious process. An alternative option was to connect the whole system to a power supply, which meant shooting in a studio.

In the mid-1950s, a new generation of francophone filmmakers challenged these codes in their quest for greater authenticity. It was the dawn of Direct Cinema. All that remained to be done was to develop equipment that could meet their needs. 

Brault, who was the Aaton brand representative in Canada, explained the importance of the camera in the 1980s.  

“We were tired of having to shoot documentaries and fiction films with huge cameras that had to be plugged into the 110-volt grid to sync with Hydro-Québec’s 60 Hz cycle. We wanted to be able to go anywhere, without wires getting in the way […] Nowadays, the Aaton is the star. It’s almost perfect. The most ergonomic camera in the history of cinema.”

(Brault 1991, p. 22)

Michel Brault at an outdoor shoot. He appears to be looking at something off-camera. To his right, an Aaton is mounted on a tripod.

Michel Brault at a shoot. Cinémathèque québécoise collection. Fonds Michel Brault 2019.0084.PH

The Aaton contributed to the tail end of a shift in documentary filmmaking. Both the new role of camera operators and the facility of recording synchronized sound allowed subjects to express themselves without the need for narrated commentary by producers. They could tell their own stories.


A man is bending forward to film something near the doorknob of a door just in front of him. He is holding his Aaton and his eye is looking through the viewfinder.

Denis Villeneuve uses an Aaton during the shoot of REW-FFW (NFB 1994) in Jamaica.
©Martin Leclerc, photographe

When Beauviala first designed his camera, he had a specific purpose in mind. In practice, the camera was also used for TV reporting. The ORTF (France’s public television station until 1974) was one of the first broadcasters to buy the Aaton. The BBC soon followed. It was also used on major movie sets until the advent of digital cameras.

Additional resources

This motion picture glossary will help you better understand some of the terminology used.

Are you the inquisitive type? Would you like to learn more about Aaton and the filmmakers who used it? The following websites will provide you with additional information.


Anon. 1978. Aaton Cameras. TR880 A222. Cinémathèque Québécoise collection. 47 p.

Anon. 1981. Aaton Cameras 7 LTR 16 mm Camera Instruction Manual. TR 880 A22. Cinémathèque Québécoise collection. 29 pages.

Bouchard, Vincent. 2012. Pour un cinéma léger et synchrone! Invention d’un dispositif à l’Office national du film à Montréal. Paris: Presses universitaires du Septentrion.

Brault, Michel. 1991. “Métamorphose d’une caméra : fragment d’une langue histoire.” Lumières, no. 25: 22-23.

Coutant, Clément and Jacques Mathot. 1961. Brevet d’invention. No. 1.318.665. Paris, France. 3 pages.

Graff, Séverine. 2014. Le cinéma-vérité: films et controverses. Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

Grizet, Denis. 2017. “Les appareils de prise de vues de la société Aaton (1971-2013). Du ‘direct’ au ‘numérique’ : enjeux techniques et esthétiques.” Master’s dissertation. Université de Rennes.

Marsolais, Gilles. 1997. L’aventure du cinéma direct revisitée. Laval: 400 coups.     

Mouëllic, Gilles (dir.). 2020. “L’innovation technique, de l’argentique au numérique : le cas de la société Aaton.” Encyclopédie raisonnée des techniques du cinéma. Under the direction of André Gaudreault, Laurent Le Forestier and Gilles Mouëllic.

Mouëllic, Gilles, et Giusi Pisano (dir.). 2021. Cahier Louis-Lumière, no. 14 (issue “Aaton: le cinéma réinventé.”).

Nicolazic, Vanessa (Université Rennes 2). “Main, épaule, les creux de l’identité: une archéologie de l’Aäton 7.” Lecture.

Sorrel, Vincent. 2017. “L’invention de la caméra Éclair 16 : du direct au synchrone.” 1895, no. 82: 106-131.


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