Grant Petty, CEO of Blackmagic Design


It is always fun to catch up with Grant Petty, CEO of Blackmagic Design. After a bit of mischievous banter (jamming systems, cones of silence, wire cutters?) on how to foil a vexing public address system that insisted on interrupting our conversation, we got down to serious stuff about Blackmagic Design’s latest products, philosophy and aspirations. 

JON FAUER: You mentioned that it has been a rather busy year. 

GRANT PETTY: We have been working on our third generation product lines. The first generation, that we introduced years ago, was basically all about getting people to have our products. Consider a capture card, for example. People could now use a computer and software to work with video. It opened up a whole lot of capability. We introduced converters so people could use their HD monitors. We stripped things down to their essentials. We made a simple router so that people could actually use it—without all the fancy trappings. So, Generation 1 was really about stripping things back to the minimum, to allow people to actually buy something and be able to use it. It was about getting users into the space.

Generation 2 was a complete revamp. We were looking at improving industrial design. We worked on having beautiful front panels with buttons and controls and power supplies built in. Also, we wanted to embrace Ultra HD. We did it before anyone else. We were involved in making 6G and 12G a standard. We worked with chip vendors to increase the speed of SDI. Generation 2 was nice and successful.

But then we started to think, what’s the third generation? Let’s consider that. It is incredible attention to detail, design, ergonomics and usability. We really tried to couple the ergonomics and the usability with the industrial design, and got a whole new generation of products that are a leap ahead. And there are some new technologies in there as well.

What year was Generation 2 approximately?

Generation 2 was about 4 years ago with the first 6G and then 12G products. 

In Generation 3, we focused more on design and features and applied the technology that really mattered. So you see examples of these things in our ATEM Camera Control Panel, some of the fiber products, the URSA Studio Viewfinder, some of the ATEM switchers, the DaVinci Resolve control panels, and the Fairlight consoles. 

You’ve been busy. Where do you see the industry now, at this point in history? And where are we going?

Yes. It is exciting. I think what you’re seeing now is what you will see up ahead. It’s actually happening now. There are different ways of approaching content. Technology and the business models have shifted. Lately, you’ve got Netflix, YouTube, Apple, Amazon and others doing content.

Broadcasters are there as well. I do think the broadcasters have to come to terms with what’s changing. I personally think there’s a much higher role in broadcast for good editorial content. They should be taking a taller direction, not just hanging off a newspaper, which many do. They need to be taking more journalistic roles. They need to be less partisan. They need to be better at explaining the world to the customer base. Instead, many have just been monitoring the maximum ratings. I think broadcast has a role to introduce directions in where democracy is heading, what we believe in, what we do, what matters. You can’t just take from the community; you’ve got to contribute ideas.

That is a very articulate and honest evaluation.

We need more people creating content based on actual experience and doing things that are exciting. Hopefully, with products like Fusion and its integration into DaVinci Resolve, they will get more involved in visual effects so that the entertainment value can go up. I think the industry needs to improve the quality of the content. We can’t just have a string of reality shows, or a bunch of celebrities sitting around on panels. That’s just weak.

I also think there’s stagnation in broadcast. They need to start reinventing themselves and they haven’t really done that. While the rest of the industry has completely changed, I think broadcast has not innovated. Radio reinvented itself when television came along. 

But, you probably see a much broader user base now.

Yes. I always did.

You have said the younger generation is much more creative. Do you want to expand on that?

The younger generation is more willing to take creative risks. Older people tend to protect what they have. For example, an editor who has been around for a long time, when presented with Fusion, might sit there and say, “I’m an editor. I’m not a visual effects person. I’m not going to try that.” Whereas a younger person will look at it and say, “That’s an interesting toolbox to explore. What’s in there?” 

I think when people get to a certain age, they have settled on the job they learned and are proficiently doing now. They look good in that job. Trying something new might be similar to the feeling when you first get a job and you don’t quite know what’s going on. And that’s a terrible feeling. I used to change schools a lot. We moved around a lot when I was young. So I used to walk into a new school, and I’d be thinking, “Oh no, another school and I don’t know anyone.” 

So you learn, and you struggle to learn and work your way through. You try to master what you’re doing, up to a certain level. And then, many people reach a plateau and they never want that feeling of insecurity to come back. But what they’ve inadvertently done is shut themselves down to new learning because they’re so focused on looking good. And they go along for maybe another 10 years. But then they get to their mid-40s, 50, and that’s when they start having problems. They still want to look good. 

But to learn new things, you have to not care how you look. You have to open yourself up to that horrible feeling of admitting again that you’re not sure, that you don’t really knowing what you’re doing. 

If you spent most of your life looking good, at some point the ground shifts, and it shifts away from the things that you knew. So in the end you’re just sitting there with obsolete knowledge. But if you’re constantly learning or even driving that change, then you know it quite well because you helped it move forward. It’s human nature. It’s independent of any industry. Anyway, that’s just my quick theory. 

The circle of life in the technology era. 

The way I look at it is we push ourselves daily to do some projects we actually don’t know how to do. Now, in a business college, if you said, “I’m going to do something, but I don’t know how to do it” — that’s not going to get funding or approval. 

They will say, “If you don’t know how to do it, why are you trying to do it?” 

That’s the core of it. Wouldn’t it be nice if people said, “Let’s try and do something that would be amazing, but we don’t know how to do it. So how do we do it?” And then we ask how much we can learn from it? That’s enjoyable, but we’ve got to embrace the feeling that we don’t quite know what we’re doing. But it’s okay. We begin by sitting around, and there’s a bunch of smart people here, and we think we’ll work it out. There’s almost nothing we can’t try.

I assume that’s the philosophy at Blackmagic?

Yes, exactly. Our philosophy has always been to empower creativity and it’s behind everything we do. Our tools are like the stage our customers perform on, and our role is to make our customers more creative. That’s by getting true high end tools into the hands of anyone who wants to be creative, no matter their budget. Their only limitation is their creativity, and the good thing about that limitation is they can work to improve that as the tools no longer limit them to low end work unless they are incredibly wealthy.

However, we have recently updated our philosophy and feel what our role is now has shifted due to recent changes. We now are focused on empowering creative freedom. If you look at the software industry specifically, it’s become very controlling. Cloud licenses, etc. where your tools shut down if you don’t pay per month. It’s virtually extortion. Then other products have strange user interfaces with features disappearing, there’s big data where everything you do is tracked and your world is shaped by a simplistic assessment of who you are. That’s a form of digital prejudice. The engineers are trying to control the customer and it’s very authoritarian. It’s not good and it does not help creativity. It’s actually a very dark time right now in technology.

So we have to think about freedom in every product we build now. We’re human and will make mistakes, plus there’s always more to do than we have the time. However we have to have a strong understanding of what’s important and why we exist. We have to try because it’s so important and it’s not just the television industry that has these problems, it’s a much bigger worldwide issue.

Speaking of content, do you see a shift? 

I definitely think the world’s more open for more people. It’s exciting to see more feature film actors, directors and high-end crew moving to TV shows and back. And I think we’ve had a hand in that.

How did you influence this move to TV and back?

We’re making color correction affordable. The TV environment is looking more stylish. People are able to be more mobile. It’s no longer a small number of people controlling everything anymore. If there are more outlets and more channels, you can make a choice. The system has been more democratized. Even within the feature film business, you’re seeing a lot of fascinating stories. That’s exciting.

What do you watch in Australia?

I pop up a Netflix movie or something on Apple TV. But I get so little time to watch. The viewing experience is changing rapidly. When the cable TV business came out, it changed the landscape. The online landscape has changed again. You see changes in the vendors and other areas. But, what you’ve essentially seen in the last few years is the addition of streaming distribution. It’s happened, it’s here. So you’ve got cable TV, home video, broadcast and distribution via streaming. Broadcast has been knocked about a bit by streaming. But it’s still somewhat stable even if there will be variations in market share. The fundamental thing is the introduction of direct distribution. The business itself and all the companies in it will change. Companies will come and go. But the technology has been introduced. I guess that was a long answer to your question. 

That’s great. And it’s a nice transition to telling us about your new Pocket Cinema Camera 4K. 

It evolved from the original Pocket Cinema Camera. That was a nice little camera. It was popular. People started asking us about a 4K version of it. So we started the project. We wanted to improve on the original—to make something more professional, Generation 3. The first one felt more like a Generation 1 to 2 kind of product. We wanted the same Active MFT lens mount so you could use the same lenses and adapters. And we know that people have a lot of those.

At the same time, the design had to be able to handle extra heat. If you’ve got a 4K sensor, you need more power. And you need a big screen. Without a big screen, seeing critical focus is difficult. We also wanted really good ergonomics. Then we started to work on the handle design. It has a grippy, rubber surface with a nice feel. Then we wanted really good audio. So we put four microphones in it. They define the form factor in many ways. And being a Generation 3 product, you have good controls. There are high frame rate, shutter angle and iris adjustment controls. 

You mentioned carbon fiber?

The body is carbon fiber polycarbonate composite. It’s strong and light weight and protects the camera from bangs, drops and you’ll be able to take it almost anywhere. 

On the side, we put connectors for full-size HDMI, USB-C expansion port for external recording, XLR audio and 12 Volt external power. There are internal media slots for a CFast and SD card. 

In fact, there’s only one part on this camera that is the same as the original Pocket Cinema Camera—and it’s just a small ring inside the lens mount. Everything else is different. It’s quite funny.

Changing formats is easy. The maximum resolution is 4K: 4096 x 2160. You can record CinemaDNG RAW or Apple ProRes. 

Another thing not many people know about is that you can input standard free-run or record-run timecode through the microphone connector. 

Congratulations. Last question. Please tell us about the latest version of DaVinci Resolve. 

The thing about DaVinci Resolve is to get as eclectic as possible so users can adapt quickly. There’s part of it that is kind of like a Formula One, which is the LA industry and the studios. It’s really fun to be part of that technology advance. But then, at the same time, it is approachable for almost anyone. My philosophy is, just because you don’t have as much money to spend on it doesn’t mean you have to accept a lower-end product. I don’t want to make a simpler one for lower budget productions. What would we be saying? Keep people down? We want to bring them up. The much harder thing to do is make something that looks approachable, looks easy, but put a massive amount of latent power in there.

Remember when we had the original Pocket Cinema Camera, people were amazed that the quality looked so good? A great part of that was because they used it with the full version of DaVinci Resolve that came with the camera. You used the same debayer that was used on Avatar. The camera recorded a wide dynamic range. Users got their shots and started grading them. And then they were almost surprised by the results. But they were working with the same tools that professional graders used on big budget films. They had that: a full-fledged film industry tool. I think it’s amazing to think that a newcomer can sit down and grade and edit with DaVinci Resolve and it’s the same tool used on many high-end movies. An independent filmmaker can do a great job with it. The film might be discovered and wind up on Netflix or in a cinema. 

It is an aspirational set of tools.

Absolutely. Encourage the users. Don’t make a dumbed-down version. I wasn’t dumb when I was 17. I didn’t have any money. I wanted to become successful. Empower that journey. That’s what we need to do. Create freedom. That’s what we’re really focused on. Everything we do is about that. Remember we were talking about someone who is 50, trying to break out and do their own thing? Or you’re at a post house and you’re trying to do a job that you haven’t done before. Or you could be a 17-year-old. It doesn’t matter. Everyone wants their future to be better. Our job is to try and help them get there, to try and help them make that future better. It’s pretty logical. I mean, who doesn’t want a better future?

Reprinted from Film and Digital Times September 2018 Edition #89-90

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