A very cool company with an unorthodox approach chats with planet5D about customer-centricity, workflow, 4K — and that wild but short-lived Pocket Cinema Camera promotion.
We recently had a chance to spend an hour with Bob Caniglia, Senior Regional Manager, Eastern North America for Blackmagic Design. It was an opportunity to learn a little bit about the history of the company and how they think about things today.
Fair warning: I’ve never used a Blackmagic camera, so I was looking forward to our time together.
Bob’s an interesting guy in his own right, with a unique perspective on the company – he joined Blackmagic through acquisition.
Blackmagic has been around for 10 years, Bob began, but they bought DaVinci, maker of Resolve (and his former employer), about five years ago. At that point, Blackmagic became more of a brand on the professional side – and DaVinci got a look at a different culture.
“On a Friday, I was the youngest sales guy at DaVinci. On the following Monday, I became the oldest guy at Blackmagic.”
A lot of things changed for DaVinci, a portent of the approach for which Blackmagic would become renowned. What had to that point been a $300,000 – $500,000 turnkey system eventually became a piece of free software that now ships with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. There’s a story there, but we’ll come back to it in a few moments.
And then, with a grin, Bob says:
“But we make up for it in volume!”
Blackmagic purchased a number of other companies in the ensuing 5 years to round out production and post workflow. One piece missing two years ago, they realized, was the acquisition side –and that’s when they started to develop cameras.
It has been an interesting journey.
As Bob tells it,
“The digital industry wanted to introduce a new workflow to the professional market that was already struggling with camera formats. The switch from film to digital was supposed to be better, faster, cheaper, but back then all of the camera manufacturers required special sauce.”
The Blackmagic team asked some basic questions.
“What if we built a camera that would record straight away in ProRes or raw if needed it — and you could load right away, color grade straight away?”
Or, as Bob says,
“That was the start of it: keep it simple, stupid.”
Data wranglers had to convert footage for many years, but Resolve itself was a Swiss Army knife, Bob says, converting any resolution for any format anywhere, without requiring a lot of storage.
Fast-forward to today, and the product has evolved to include a fuller suite of editing tools, a very different proposition from where they began. But it has grown in this direction in response to the marketplace telling them things – good and bad — and they’ve listened.
It was the same kind of “gee, here’s a problem – can we fix it?” mentality that led Blackmagic to the Cinema Camera…and more.
“Film guys were used to shooting maybe 20 minutes. But enthusiasts expected to be able to film for hours. We saw a market of people using DSLRs to shoot motion who were struggling with H.264, so we offered something much better for finish work in motion.”
But how to make it especially easy to help new customers get to “yes?”
That was their other big idea: use the Canon EF mount. Their thought was: shoot stills with Canon, shoot motion with Blackmagic, and preserve investment in lenses.
Why not just the PL mount?
“The PL mount puts you in a different price category. It would have been easier, because there are no automatic functions — all PL glass is manual – but our goal was to ramp up volume so we could lower the price point.”
The lines do blur between pros and enthusiasts. Blackmagic’s first target was the pros shooting with DSLR’s, but they then offered compressed formats to enthusiasts, giving a larger audience – an audience other than their original target — another good reason to buy.
And while Blackmagic added features like a microphone, the market gave them feedback:
“Some squawked at non-XLR jacks; some wanted to go beyond Canon glass.”
The Pocket Camera came out of desire to truly shoot in your hand. Bob lets us in on a little secret:
“Frankly, the thought for the original Cinema Camera was really the same, but it was just a bit too big. But the Pocket has become a B or C camera on major films — it matches very nicely to Alexa and RED.”
The Blackmagic Story
So, Bob tells us, the Blackmagic story is one of nimbleness, opportunity, keep-it-simple-stupid problem-solving – and constant surprises by how and by whom their gear is used.
They move upmarket, they move downmarket a little bit, they move sideways when it makes sense – wherever the find a problem they think they can solve especially well and get volume through great value.
This year, they start shipping the URSA — a full-on production camera to be used by one or more people. It has 3 monitors, it’s componentized and upgradeable, Bob tells us — and it’s aimed squarely at the pros.
On the other hand, it was last year that Blackmagic built a 4K camera and sold it for $2,999.
A 4K camera before the GH4 or the A7s, with internal SSD recorder; EF mount; oh, and a global shutter. When the Atomos Shogun becomes available, it will cost $4,500 for it and the A7s body it can be paired with to deliver 4K – and you still get rolling shutter and a more limited selection of lenses.
But you know what’s even more interesting?
Blackmagic’s sense of the market last year was that a global shutter was more important than 4K. Their experience told them that people were buying their 4K camera for the shutter, and then downresing to 1080p (in a way, not so different for the GH4, is it?).
So what does Blackmagic see in the market place now?
“I know some fashion pros who are shooting with a 4K camera and pulling still images. But we’re not in the still camera business.”
It’s not the same mindset you see in evidence at Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, or Fuji.
And Blackmagic generally doesn’t talk about product futures.
But candidly, the sense I get is that Blackmagic’s current sweet spot is not trying to compete with the GH4 or A7s or whatever comes next from Canon – this year, at any rate, their focus with the URSA and the Studio camera is the day-in, day-out working pro – although, holy smokes – the URSA will come in under $7,000.
As our time together began to wind down, I asked Bob to share with me the thinking behind the half price Pocket Cinema Camera promotion that was practically over as soon as it was announced.
“The Pocket Cinema Camera promotion grew from a need to move some parts and some cameras out quickly. We were overwhelmed by the response — which was nice. But we were pretty clear that it was not one of these long drawn out plans and then we’ll announce a new camera — it was really not about that. The fact is, we do have a couple of new cameras coming out – the URSA and the Studio — and they need to be built and shipped now. We needed the room. Nothing too sinister. That’s really it.”
Back to keeping it simple:
“By enabling the market to shoot really good looking images at a great price point, you get to be judged on your story, not the camera you use. Back in the day, videotape was ugly. No longer true. You can be judged on your content.”
But just because the gear is within reach doesn’t necessarily mean the cost in time required in post – nor the amount of storage, processing power and software necessary to wring out the last degree of tonality and color — is just as easy to absorb.
For people rushing to pay $500 for a Pocket Cinema Camera or even $2,999 for the 4K Production camera, I bet it isn’t.
I couldn’t help myself from returning to more immediate preoccupations, though, so I asked Bob about low light sensor performance and dynamic range. I was surprised by his response – though maybe I shouldn’t have been.
“Cinema Cameras do very well there. Fact is, the 4K Production Camera does not have the same dynamic range. But working pros don’t worry about dynamic range to the same degree, because they light.”
I well understood his point – one can argue that at least part of the job of a DP is to narrow the dynamic range with which they have to work – but that is only possible in a very specific set of circumstances, often still requiring very large budgets.
I sense aparadox there.
Bob turned back to DaVinci and – with what I was now beginning to recognize as Blackmagic DNA – spoke about the growth of Resolve toward becoming a full non-linear editing system.
“We’ve added tools that are familiar to still photographers to make the transition from still to motion a little easier. You can use different interfaces to do the same thing — to have a set of tools that is more in line with what a still photographer looks for.
“We keep increasing the editing side of Resolve because of the constant in/out between packages. The more we add to ours, the easier to move between both. Wouldn’t it be great if Final Cut users, for example, could edit and color correct within a single package?”
Bob acknowledges that Resolve is not yet mature as full-throated NLE – multicam support, for example, is not there (tough for me – I was editing a multi-cam footage just a few hours ago).
“But for a number of people, wouldn’t it just be easier to use one tool set?”
We closed our time together with a candid back and forth about making raw and 4K workflow much less burdensome both from a hardware and wetware (that’s us, people) perspective, but Bob knows his Blackmagic and mentioned rec709 video mode:
“It makes the footage come out looking like anything else — no need to do heavy color grading…”
It was one more data point on the genetic code of the company.
As I looked back at my notes and draft of this article, I realized that the folks at Blackmagic really do have a different take on things. I’m glad they do – but more importantly, so do a pile of very happy Blackmagic camera owners.
And so should the rest of us. They’ve raised our expectations for what is possible at a price point within reach for many of us, and put the big boys on notice.
But I also got a clearer sense that this company is very much a creature of its roots in post-production and — at least when it comes to cameras — not focused on making the future so much as responding very rapidly to it in an opportunistic way.
This is not a bad thing — think Apple if you'd like — but it's not an easy place to be, especially in a market of rapidly changing expectations and competitors with bigger wallets wrestling for the mantle of ” market leader” from the current holders of the title.
Still, for HDSLR filmmakers, Blackmagic has been a a wonderful shot out of the blue. With a basic strategy of listening, watching and learning from its customers; finding problems that they can solve at aggressive price points at volumes that are mutually reinforcing; and a keen awareness that in the end it's the investment in glass that has to be protected — they are a company I'm going to watch more closely. Might even have to try one out.
Now – what about that crop factor, Blackmagic?
(cover photo credit: snap from Blackmagic)
And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
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