Dan May: working Digital Blackmagic

January 12, 2018
Since 2002, Australian tech firm Blackmagic Design has been at the forefront of digital filmmaking. Their products have been used in everything from Avatar to Moonlight, Game of Thrones to No Activity. We spoke with company president Dan May.

When was Blackmagic founded, and what was the impetus behind the decision?

Blackmagic Design was founded in 2002 by Grant Petty. His dream was about putting high-end production and post-production equipment into the hands of everyone – at affordable costs. He wanted to change the TV industry by democratising it.

Before Grant founded the company he was a technical engineer in the film industry and worked for a television company in Singapore using highly complex post-production technology worth millions. These technologies were all that were available at the time, often broke down, and had major flaws in their functionalities.

He often worked on an editing system that was worth over a million dollars and every week it would break down. Not only did it cost so much that only the biggest companies could buy it, but this type of equipment was built by businesses who cared about making a huge profit with the least amount of design work.

This is what made Grant desperately want to change the status quo. Not just change it, but completely demolish that way of thinking.

What was the digital landscape like then? Is there any comparison to today?

Up until 2002, if you were a big company that had millions to purchase poorly designed digital products and employees to maintain them then you were good. But if you were a small post house, student, or indie filmmaker then there was little chance you could create high quality looking projects. You unfortunately had to compromise because it was only about who could afford the technology and had a lot less to do with how talented you were.

There is no comparison today. A person’s talents are what matters the most and there are many avenues for your work to be seen. Any project can be of Hollywood level quality because the same tools that a Hollywood level artist uses are affordable to everyone. Our DaVinci Resolve used to be $300,000 at its lowest price prior to our acquiring the product for redevelopment. Now it is $299, and is used by everyone from students to Hollywood filmmakers.

Blackmagic’s first area of inquiry was non-linear editing and digital post, but when did you first look into digital film/cameras? Was it a gamble or did you know or believe that film tech was inevitably heading in this direction?

Grant has been thinking about building a digital film camera ever since he was a telecine engineer in the 1990s. For years we talked about the huge gap that existed between affordable video cameras and expensive digital film cameras. We wanted to design a digital film camera that was compact, affordable and could perform as well as those expensive film cameras. These were our original goals when the Blackmagic Cinema Camera was first imagined.

As we got to working through those first drafts of creating a camera, we realised we had an opportunity to address many other challenges that we felt were problematic with the cameras that were on the market. We wanted cameras that would work seamlessly through the post production process. People couldn’t shoot in the formats they wanted to, like ProRes, and would have to jump through hoops to work within post production efficiently. We saw many solutions where cameras only worked with expensive proprietary media. Most cameras were limited around which lenses and other accessories you could use. It felt to us like camera companies were holding customers hostage.

With the Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5k, we really changed the world by being able to offer a camera with high dynamic range, a high resolution sensor, using standard lens mounts, and non proprietary storage that did not use heavy video compression but instead RAW or ProRes.

We are especially proud of how we brought together digital film cameras with colour correction that anyone could use with DaVinci Resolve. We had built a digital camera that could give a film look instead of customers settling for a “video” look. With the old video cameras, blacks and whites in the images were so clipped that even with colour correction they looked bad. We designed our cameras with high dynamic range and RAW capabilities that would let anyone bring the images into Resolve and create a Hollywood level quality image.

Of course, all of this still was a gamble as to whether it would be welcomed by people. We were coming into a new product space for the first time with a revolutionary approach, and offering something that many traditional camera companies had never done. However, we felt we understood what folks wanted from a camera at this incredible price and thought the risk was worth it. It turns out when we launched that camera at NAB we were completely validated by the amazing response we received.

What was the turning point? Can you point to a movie or a time when we shifted irrevocably from a physical media industry to a digital media industry?

I would say the big turning point was the introduction of nonlinear editing back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was a new way of filmmaking and then soon made its way into television production. It was a new way to create for editors, and an industry grew around nonlinear editing, from helping to transfer tape and film to digital, to digital storage and software for things like VFX and colour correction.

Even though nonlinear was a huge push to get people to go digital, the industry was still broken. Only big companies could afford to create digitally and tech manufacturers and software makers had no desire to change that. Unless you could take out a million dollar loan, you weren’t creating with digital.

By the late ’90s Apple’s Final Cut Pro was available and actually affordable. Even then, no one but the big studios or post houses could use digital media. You could not capture and playback unless you were in the old boys club.

In 2002, the Blackmagic Decklink capture and playback card launched for $1,000. The nearest card to that was at $10,000 more. That was the shake up that the industry needed.

September of 2009 saw another big change when Blackmagic bought DaVinci Resolve. People didn’t know why a company like Blackmagic Design would purchase a very expensive colour grading solution that was used by the vast majority of Hollywood. However, nine months later we had announced that what had before been a colour correction solution that cost hundreds of thousand of dollars was now a $995 software and available to everyone. It was so exciting knowing that an indie filmmaker anywhere in the world could create with the same tools that Hollywood films like Avatar used.

What has enabled Blackmagic to occupy such a central position in the digital film tech world? Is it a matter of technical innovation, marketplace strategy, or something else?

Being fanatical about great design is at the center of everything we do. We design the highest quality products that solve real problems customers have. We design and price them in a way that lets everyone create, no matter what their bank account says.

The key is to find a problem and solve it. This is what we love doing, and often solving problems customers don’t even know they have. Our task is to look at technology and then think about how we can imporove the industry by empowering creative people everywhere.

We’re currently in the early stages of the VR boom – how has that affected Blackmagic? What are you looking into in the VR space, and how do you expect that area to develop?

VR is definitely interesting and our customers are already pushing out VR work. They are using Resolve and Fusion for VR post production, and our cameras for VR capture. We have seen VR footage of the Oscar red carpet, a VR shoot of a swarm of sharks and live VR streaming of a music festival in Jamaica this past July. Our live switching products are even being used in arcades in Japan for live VR gaming.

VR does still need to overcome the hurdle of ‘being in the way’ when paired with traditional broadcast. It can’t inhibit a live broadcast; it must augment and supplement it.

The truth is VR is just another way people are creating. Yes, VR has its unique difficulties in production and post. Stitching together the various camera images and having it all look identical in particular is a hard process.

But our products already can handle what VR needs.

There are film diehards who still refuse to go digital – what do you say to them?

There is nothing wrong with people wanting to shoot on film still. It is a beautiful image and I don’t think the film market will ever really go away totally. A lot of the reason people got away from film were those same old industy problems; professional equipment was expensive, specialised, and out of reach for the majority of people.

It’s one reason we decided to acquire the company Cintel and produce a sub $30,000 Ultra HD film scanner. A lot of people would think that is crazy, but to us it was just another Blackmagic Design application of our principles.

What is the key misconception people have about the digital workspace that you might wish to correct?

That digital filmmaking at the highest levels is out of reach. Success is now based on talent and not whether you can afford the technology.

We’ve worked to make the tools for digital filmmaking more affordable and within the reach of more people than ever. We offer free versions of DaVinci Resolve Studio and Fusion Studio so people can get software in their hands and begin to work on their own projects. There is so much information out there that people have access to online to help people improve their craft. All it takes is putting in the effort and having that desire to create something amazing!

Head to Blackmagic Design to find out more.

 

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