14 minute read

Interview: François Juliat

As the French manufacturer celebrates its 100th anniversary, Jerry Gilbert caught up with the third Juliat generation, who heads up the company today.

It has been a long journey from the era of Early Motion Pictures to Advanced Motion Capture, but you could argue that French theatre lighting giant, Robert Juliat has literally tracked it every step of the way. As the company celebrates 100 years, the question of whether Robert Juliat is our industry’s first de facto centurion seems less relevant than the fact that it has been guided through the century - starting with the end of the Great War in Europe - by just three generations of the same family. And yet the story really begins not when Robert Juliat set up a shop in Paris to sell cinema and projection lighting equipment in 1919, but a generation earlier. For out of the age of cinematic illusion - created by effects like Pepper’s Ghost and Magic Lanterns - Robert’s father Jean, a projection and lighting specialist from the golden fin de siècle silent movie era, had worked with the legendary Film Director, Georges Méliès. For it was he who invented science fiction cinema in those incipient days, and on whose life the film Hugo is based. I learnt this from Jean’s great grandson François, Managing Director of Robert Juliat since 2008. He recalled how this passion, initially for cinema, and generally for lighting, had cascaded through the family as he proudly led me on a journey through

the history of this pioneering company. He agreed that it was pretty remarkable that a Century of technological development had been presided over by just three generations. “Robert started early, as soon as he got married, when he was only around 22-25 and he stayed with the company until the mid-‘60s.” This landmark was celebrated in some style by the ‘RJ Family’ (their loyal army of global distributors) during the recent Prolight+Sound show in Frankfurt and the company will celebrate further in France at the end of the year with staff and local customers. The fact that cinema and lighting should have been in Robert Juliat’s blood is hardly surprising in a country that also gave us Fresnel and the Lumière Brothers. In addition to distributing and selling cinema equipment he would make small lanterns to light performers, who would entertain audiences in cinemas, while the film reels were being changed over at the mid-point of the film (two-reel and three-reel motion picture films were endemic to the French film industry). In his pursuit of purpose-designed lighting for performers, Robert had developed the first single lens lantern. “But it was my father, who had the real technician background, and it was he

who pushed the company into a new era of theatre,” explained François. “He was more interested in manufacturing goods and lighting design, and he had to take on more responsibility.” Carbon arc technology had characterised not only the early cinema projectors in the 1920’s but remained uniquely in the theatre lighting industry, and particularly followspots, for at least another 50 years (while being superseded in other applications with filament lamps). “I still have drawings that my father did with carbon arc,” recounted François. Jean-Charles joined Robert Juliat in the mid-1960s, and dedicated his career to stage lighting innovation. “His father said he would be better working in the family company,” recalled François, matter-of-factly. The industry was in a state of flux and clearly Robert Juliat needed to diversify. “In the late ‘60s our cinema business was going down because firms like Philips and Cinemeccanica were much bigger companies.” Stage lighting provided the obvious move, while architectural lighting and the outdoor market offered further options. And so they entered a world dominated by Strand Lighting, one of the few companies whose origins pre-date Juliat, and

solid-state dimmers. Experimentation seemed largely to be the province of the early disco and psychedelic lighting community where projectionists were converting Rank Aldis Tutor II slide projectors. But Robert Juliat also wasted no time in developing a range of special effects including bubble machines - the first outside the US - oil wheels and a gobo changer. It’s hard to believe, when for most of our natural lifetime, we have thought of Robert Juliat as synonymous with the followspot. Indeed, François confirmed that his company has been manufacturing followspots for 50 years - but what is so

remarkable is that its market position on the world map was forged despites the hitherto predominance of American manufacturers, such as Strong with its Super Trouper, Altman and Lycian. But when Osram invented and introduced its HMI double-ended metal halide lamp in 1967, primarily for film and TV, the lamp wasted little time in migrating to the producers of theatre technology. Philips quickly followed suit with its MSR, and HMI was quickly seen as a safer alternative to both carbon arc lamps and later xenon arc. And while disco’s deployment of high intensity discharge would eventually be

in fast moving scanners of the 1980’s, Robert Juliat were quicker off the mark. By 1976 it had produced the PIXIE 575W double ended followspot. “We claimed it to be the first HMI followspot and it was the beginning of a new era for us,” stated François. “Apart from the safety element, HMI was also better because of the output and the fact that it was a new thing. HMI technology was also more compact in size whereas the Super Trouper was massive.” Robert Juliat always refused to work with the more volatile xenon technology, in which the lamp had to be carried separately from the projector, preferring to leave that to the American companies

and other lamp manufacturers such as Ushio. “Europe was not only getting in early on the discharge scene but producers were soon increasing the power, and we went from 575W to 1,200W, 2,500W and then 4K. “But even 40 years ago only 5% of our production was followspots, we were producing mainly fresnels, profiles and cyclights,” stated François. If the invention of HMI metal halide discharge lighting had offered one lifeline to Robert Juliat, by the start of the 1980’s it was to receive another. With the French presidential election of 1981 François Mitterrand came to power as the first Socialist President of the Fifth Republic after years of conservatism. He quickly decreed that every medium sized town should build a theatre. “And this is when we became focussed on theatrical lighting,” François explained. In the mid ‘70s they had formed a strategic alliance with Gothenburg based console manufacturer, AVAB - a relationship that persisted until 20 years ago. “They supplied the consoles and we produced dimmers, luminaires and accessories so we could supply a complete package. It was massive.” Designed to take on the mighty Strand, it

suddenly found itself supplying high profile Paris theatres like the Opera Bastille and the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy. “Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy was the first time a major place wanted high powered fixtures. It was a big turning point as we introduced the 2.5K HMI Profile. “Most similar products weren’t as reliable or the optics were inferior. So we started to look more at discharge profiles. We already had the HMI technology for followspots and now some DMX, whereas previously we used 0-10V analogue.” The proprietary AVAB digital lighting protocol first appeared in the late 1970’s, but by the early ‘90s DMX would become the industry standard.” The 2.5K Profile saw both an HMI source, in preferences to tungsten, and a DMX address, with mechanical dimmer control by either DMX or 0-10V. In fact Robert Juliat was the first company to introduce DMX motorised dimmer shutter for perfect synchronisation. Up until then, rental activity had been less of a priority than install for Robert Juliat but it was about to change at the beginning of the ‘90s. “Lighting designers wanted the same quality in followspots on the road as they had in the theatre.” The exponential growth of Robert Juliat

over the first 70 years had created its own infrastructural challenges to support these massive technology breakthroughs. When Jean-Charles eventually replaced Robert as CEO in 1975 the company employed no more than 10 people, while today it employs 68. François explained how the company had arrived in the small town of Fresnoyen-Thelle, north of Paris, after originally setting up in the capital itself. “Robert was very affected by World War II, and afterwards decided to move out of Paris for the cleaner air of the countryside. The company moved to a village and by the mid ‘80s it was too small with not much chance to expand. So in 1986 we built up the factory we have now.’’ Robert Juliat decided to move to a new purpose-built 5500 sq metre facility at the current site in Fresnoy-en-Thelle, north of Paris. In 2003, the company was able to expand on its existing land, but when in 2012 another expansion was necessary, this time it had to purchase more land to offer a plant that today measures 10,000 sq metres. The other notable fact about the first 70 years of its remarkable history is that Robert Juliat had remained largely a purely French company, with little need

for export, driven by the momentum of the Mitterand theatre initiative. But all that was about to change. “At the beginning of the ‘90s we started to look abroad, mainly to Europe. We wanted to move forward internationally.” Before the end of the millennium that wish had been returned with interest. “A number of our followspots, profiles, HMI and tungsten fixtures had been specified by the Canadian production team for Cirque du Soleil and this gave a lot of visibility to the brand internationally.” By 1999 it was truly on the world stage, receiving its first major accolade when the Cyrano 2500 HMI followspot won the highly prestigious ‘product of the year’ at LDI - the first manufacturer to receive such an award for a followspot. “We had managed to win a followspot award in the country of followspots,” exclaimed François in disbelief. “People were amazed at the quality of the optics and the fact that it could control dimming via DMX. It really had the wow effect - it brought the followspot into a new era and gained us wide recognition.” It was a great way to enter the new millennium. Crucially, François had been able to witness this first hand, having joined the company three years earlier. Having graduated in International Business Studies, and fulfilled his Military Service duties, he had worked as an intern at the Californian office of audiovisual projection giants, Christie, and at the age of 21 had fallen in love with the

country. It was this more than anything, that had steered him in the direction of the family business. Despite the rich family heritage it was never preordained that he would join the family business, despite the fact his older brother Frédéric, nearly six years his senior, was already there, and various other family members had been employed along the way. “Far from it,” he said. “My father said we needed new people in the company but he never forced me.” At Robert Juliat he worked in every department to gain a true grounding, but building up global sales became his mission. Along with China and South East Asia, the US was his prime focus. It had been his decision to open an office in the US, largely to exploit the follow spot market, after initially working with a distributor. “I convinced my father to open an office in 2003 and proposed Fred Lindauer to run it. I could go directly to the US market, believing that having a direct presence would make the brand more visible and become more trusted, although it took three years to build that trust. To finance the structure we knew the products would need to be more expensive and so we had to work twice as hard. Also, follow spots are not as sexy as moving lights - they just have to work.” However, in 2014 François took a strategic decision to close Robert Juliat USA with both Fred Lindauer and Pete Engel transferring to the new distributor, ACT

Lighting. In the last 20 years Robert Juliat’s deployment of technology has gone into overdrive, with the consequent recognition by specifiers the length and breadth of the globe. As an example, they supplied 20 of the award-winning Cyrano followspots, equipped with DMX controlled shutters, for the Athens 2004 Olympics. The followspots had to compete with 1,500 moving and conventional lights used at the opening and closing ceremonies, and the dimming effects had to be synchronised. Crucially, it freed up manpower so the spot operators could focus on the athletes and performers. Four years later at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing it was Robert Juliat’s Lancelot, which had been produced two years earlier, that took centre stage for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Eight Robert Juliat Lancelot 4,000W HTI followspots were used to cut through the vast quantity of light produced by the largest moving light rig in history. These were specified by Chief Lighting Designer for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Sha Xiaolan. The step up to Lancelot was not simply that it was a long throw follow spot but a complete projector which was easily able to punch above its weight in the face of so many moving lights. “For the first time we had developed a motorised gobo wheel and DMX dimmer control, four blades and filters and colour mixing. It was a complete effects projector, as well as a fol-

Photo: Richard Cadena

Photo: Laurent. Philippe, Philippe Decouflé

lowspot with rotating gobo wheel - and it was a major step in followspot technology.” Having ended the relationship with AVAB, Robert Juliat was now supplying the full package itself - with R&D, optical, mechanical and digital engineers all based in France - and it could respond to specific requests, often from opera houses. For mid-sized followspots it developed the Korrigan, a left-handed operation system, and a motorised dimmer on the remote. “It’s given us flexibility to make our products evolve, and specials can quickly become standards,” observed François. It was the memorable Beijing year that Jean-Charles Juliat chose to retire and into the CEO role stepped François. It’s perhaps no accident that this coincided

with the transfer to another new lamp technology. “We had been talking about LED,” François remembered. “He was very much from a metal shop background. He could design tungsten and HMI but LED was more electronic and he didn’t really want to focus on it. He said ‘I want to do only what I can control’.” Also the world seemed to be spinning ever faster and Jean-Charles recognised that it was time to get off the carousel. In February this year he passed away at the age of 76 and the vast number of tributes speak volumes of the legacy he bequeathed to the industry. As for the brave new world of LED, Robert Juliat wasted little time in embracing it under François’ stewardship. “The Aledin

was our first LED Profile in 2010. We had a partnership with a design company and we worked together. From the Aledin Profile we went on to develop the Aledin Fresnel and then did our own LED development. We worked step by step to raise the power and quality and diversified to follow spot and cyc lights. “There was a lot of discussion about whether it was the right time to release an LED product, but if you waited for the right product at the right quality you would wait forever.” Its commitment to the new platform became unmistakeable with the release of the next product, the Oz. “Both new dynamic models feature an exclusive 600W cool white LED source able to deliver a high

Photo: Blair McLaren

Photo: Ralph Larmann

output comparable with that of 1,200W discharge followspots.” LED technology was moving fast and the company didn’t want to use third party LEDs that would be obsolete in a few months, he said, so it developed its own LED engine and produced LED fresnel and profile products (the ZEP). “Having our own LED engine gave us better control of the technology.” Robert Juliat’s goal now is to go better and higher in terms of power output. “We have a followspot equivalent to 1.2K HMI, and we have a nice cyc light using colour named Dalis, and thanks to the automation of spots we now have a new solution, SpotMe, which is a tracking system. “While nothing will replace the human eye, or operator experience, SpotMe has the benefit of lifting a performer and the operator will be able to follow the people moving on stage in real time where the follow spot will point on stage.” In fact Robert Juliat’s bespoke, 3D position tracking bolt-on system is the only performer tracking system to be driven via a real followspot. The SpotMe system communicates the X, Y, Z positions and the beam size parameters to the console. All parameters are then used by the console to control any automated or static lights,

and coordinate stage lighting to follow performers, without the need for on-stage/ performer sensors or cameras. At 100 years young, Robert Juliat appears to be in exactly the place it wants to be, with no loss of appetite for the future. “We have managed to keep small and independent, and that’s been the key,” considered François. “By not expanding too quickly, we have been able to control our growth better. Today, we have a strong presence in the rental business and LED is giving us new opportunities. “While I have achieved what I set out to do, I still have to make sure the company remains healthy,” he continued. “The market is changing in France - there are more and more big groups now so we have to reorganise our sales strategy accordingly. But I’m proud that we are still selling so well into China.” He never forgets the many lessons and words of advice passed down by his father - particularly reminding him that many companies he once admired have now closed. “LED technology has evolved very quickly and I know some of those companies won’t survive. I want to make sure we remain in the market and to have people trust the

brand. “The other thing my father always insisted on was to know about the technology. I had to know how it works and I had to know how it’s made. He said keep your two feet on the ground and know that things can happen quickly. Stay humble and always listen in order to react quickly.” At 46, he is nowhere near ready to pass on the baton to the fourth generation of Juliats. When he is, there are two potential heirs in waiting. “My elder son is 16 but I don’t want to put any pressure on him,” he said, towing the family line. Robert Juliat is quintessentially French in its culture and its business ethic harks back to a bygone era before corporate greed became the business trope that it is today. To an age when life was simpler, and well... more decent. “Time is accelerating so much quicker today,” he observed. Only when asked what pursuits he enjoys outside of the workplace does François Juliat appear slightly lost for words. He says he simply enjoys being with his family. Pushed further, he said: “I’m a big motor bike fan. But I’m a very ordinary person really.”

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