Even media professionals who have never used a DaVinci and so don't know exactly what a DaVinci color grading system is, or exactly what it does, do know exactly what it means
. They know that DaVinci has defined quality and performance at the top of its market, because everybody else in the business compares themselves to them, as in "ours is just like a DaVinci," or "just as good as a DaVinci."
Of course, such comparisons also imply that the original is now something less than the object of desire it once was: priced for a market that no longer exists, features evolving too slowly or in the wrong direction, a company drifting out of relevance - or worsee.
All of which, it turns out, were more or less true about DaVinci Systems, the company in Coral Gables, Florida whose products have indeed been defining the upper-end of the colorgrading and telecine market for the past 20 years. There were some twists to the tale - including parent companies who had previously bought and sold the company strictly for cashflow, rather than any particular interest in the postproduction market - but the end result was this was a company ripe for "they used
to know what they were doing" competitive marketing.
This is not to say that DaVinci had entirely lost its way. A cursory glance at CreativeCow.net's the News section shows that DaVinci products such as Resolve and Revival have still been in use on the highest-possible profile projects. A big reason: power.
As David Catt, the original product manager for DaVinci Resolve, told us, "Even in the very early stages of development, Resolve could work with 10-bit 2K DPX files, and record color corrections back to storage in real time. We continued to develop parallel-processing hardware that would allow us to process those images in real time. We were the first people to implement an Infiniband topology to move data from one box to another box very quickly, so that now we could connect mulitple boxes to get the performance to do, say, 15 layers of 10-bit color correction in real time if we needed to."
That's the kind of performance that turned Blackmagic Design into DaVinci customers. In addition to manufacturing IO cards, converters and routers - and originally introducing them at such low prices that some peers, and even some customers, feared that Blackmagic would crater the industry - BMD has a complete postproduction facility in Singapore. Their gear includes two DaVinci Resolve color grading systems and two DaVinci Revival film restoration systems among others.
"We kept asking DaVinci for more features," says Blackmagic Design founder Grant Petty. "It was through these conversations we learned that DaVinci was for sale." Things moved quickly enough that, even before a formal announcement that Blackmagic had bought DaVinci Systems, the email that Grant sent to the rest of the company on September 8, 2009 to tell them about the deal was publicly released to anyone who asked.
In his conversation with us the day after the official announcement, Grant told us about the ways in which the purchase was motivated by the same things that have always motivated BMD's development strategies: a love of beautiful pictures, building the tools they need for their own business, and being the kind of company that they would want to do business with.
Some of the inevitable post-purchase changes were already underway by then. The first was to reorient the company's direction. DaVinci had chosen to focus on their "2K" product line, but "it's [old] now, and Resolve should be on focus," Grant said. Engineers that had been cut back have already been rehired, on the way to making the Resolve team 3-4 times bigger over the next two months.
Grant was quick to offer assurances that 2K customers will continue to be provided for. There are still plenty of spare components, and their price will be cut dramatically. At the same time, the size of the service team will be increasing, including adding a new service presence in New York.
While nothing you read in this interview can quite convey how quickly and excitedly he was speaking, Grant also kept returning to the theme of stewardship. "DaVinci is a legendary brand, but it's a bad move to ever take a brand for granted," he said. "Brands should be nurtured all the time, through excitement and ideas.
"And I think from just a hard business point of view, it damages the culture of a company when you start taking advantage of customers."
A return visit to Singapore from the company's base in Melbourne, Australia is on Grant's todo list. "I've seen demos, and I kind of know some basics, but I've never done a real grading job on Resolve," he says. "I need to get some training on how to use it myself, and keep getting better at it." This will be somewhere in between taking care of five-moth old twins at home, and continuing to hammer out the details and strategies of DaVinci's future.
- Tim Wilson
CREATIVE COW: It really jumped out that your first step is to get rid of the support contracts. A lot of companies use support contracts to not only keep the company afloat, but in some cases, they're the company's only profit centers. How are you reconciling getting rid of them with the need for cash?
I've always sworn that I would remember back to when I was a post production guy. In the days when people charged for codecs, we had a free software codec. We have also been making hardware so that the same board plugs into Mac or Windows. That was the first time anyone had done that. Separate Mac and Windows hardware - that's a business thing. That doesn't help the customer. I've always tried to make sure that there's this kind of maximum flexibility for customers.
The whole support contract thing was wrong
. As a customer, I hated them, and from what we could see, nobody had had enough failures to justify the cost of those DaVinci contracts. Even the price of spare parts was too high.
It's getting back to the customer focus, and what we would want if we had one of these systems - and we've actually bought four!
Support contracts actually damage a company's culture. If we've got a bunch of customers that keep paying us every year for service they don't actually receive, we don't have to do
anything. And that's what happens - everything slows down. There's no incentive to innovate.
My feeling is, your next meal should come from what you did today
. This is how our customers have to work. If you're in a telecine suite and your clients walk out unhappy, they're not going to come back.
I think it should be the same for a manufacturing company. It's about blowing people's minds with exciting ideas. If we don't have that culture because we get hooked on a bunch of support contracts for customers that we've already got, customers just don't win.
Service contracts were getting in the way of secondhand systems too. During due diligence, I saw on the price list that it would cost $50,000 if you bought a second hand system and then wanted it supported by DaVinci. You'd also be paying outward of $80,000 a year for an annual support contract! We just did away with that.
If someone wants to sell a system they don't want anymore, we can do our best to look after people who want to buy it. Maybe they only need to spend a couple hundred dollars an hour for a DaVinci engineer to go out and have a look at their system, maybe only add a new cable or board. Let's make that happen without forcing people to buy huge contracts for service they'll never need.
We have details to work out, but I have this general feeling that we can do a lot better.
Just the idea of trying to support value for second hand systems is unusual. I think that other companies try to make it so hard that people will be ANNOYED into buying a new product, then buying a new support contract on top of that.
I know! We see the same thing happening with these robot machines that make circuit boards. I had one company say to me, 'You can't buy that gear second hand, because we won't support it.' I said, 'Fine.' I haven't bought anything from them ever since. It's insane. Don't they realize that people have the right to choose? You can't get so arrogant to think that people are going to keep coming back to you, and you can just do whatever you like and charge whatever you like. That's just not the way it works.
Blackmagic Design post Production, Singapore.
(Singapore photo courtesy Ted Teo)
NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT....
Since you're the one who brought up price - where's my $995 DaVinci?
We're looking at the company, and we're thinking, 'Everybody's going to think we're going to do a really cheap version.' Our business consultant was even saying to us, 'But this is such a different thing for you guys.'
Yeah, kind of - but it's not really different if you look at who we are. We're post production people who just want to make the things we need to do our job. We didn't buy DaVinci to make it cheap. We bought it for performance, to build in the features we need.
We've looked at Resolve and tried to think, could you reduce it in price? You can see developments coming in the future that might help to do that. But ultimately, it's a screamingly powerful system. You can start with one computer with a couple of GPU cards in it. Then to do real-time stereoscopic 4K grading with multiple effects in real time, you need eight GPUs or something like that. And you need three fast Linux PCs, tied together with Infiniband.
Still, I don't think that adds up to $850,000, the price of the highest-end systems at the moment. I don't think we'll ever sell a product for $850,000. I just don't think the cost of the hardware that works with the new software justifies that kind of price. We're still checking it out now, but I think more likely at $500,000, maybe $600,000. That's just my feeling.
With Apple Color at the low end, we'll always be thinking of possibilities for reducing prices. But before any low cost thing, we'll focus on getting it together as a high performance system, updating interfaces, and adding features that have been missing.
Can you talk about new features yet?
The Resolve had a card in it called the Transformer card, which is a really big and complex PCI card that had a whole bunch of incredible algorithms in it - just incredible quality, really amazing. The pictures were perfect.
We've now put these algorithms onto the GPU processing, so now you don't need that custom card. It allows you to use more off the shelf hardware, but also more modern hardware, like the NVIDIA 5800 GPU. We should hopefully also be able to incorporate them much more quickly.
Over the next six, twelve months, our plan is to open up DaVinci to allow other things to work with it. The days of closed-off systems are over. I've never liked them from the start, and I'm not about to do that now, just because we've got DaVinci as one of our product lines. I'd like to see it opened up to all sorts of friends and enemies.
Not enemies, but competitors. I don't have any enemies, you know. [Laughs]
But I think for maybe $150-200,000, something like that, you get a much more powerful machine as an entry level system.
NVIDIA Quadro FX 5800, with 240 CUDA parallel cores, 4 GB of frame buffer, 102 GB/sec. memory bandwidth
Still, people's perception, and perhaps for good reasons historically, is that Blackmagic is all about cheap IO and converters. You've added some large-scale routers, up to the 144x288 Enterprise Videohub at $30,000 - but this is still a long way from that.
In the first few years, it was all about capture cards. I think that that was the most pressing need at the time. But then as you get bigger, you start realizing, "Hey, look, I've got enough engineers that I could actually do two things at once." I had been slowly collecting a bunch of good ideas that I thought would be nice for making converters, but we weren't really ready for it.
One of the problems with mini-converters is that there's so much jammed in them - digital and analogue audio, SDI, three gigabit, component and so on. It all came together a couple of years ago, where we had enough miniaturization in electronic design to manufacture them at a price we could actually sell them for.
It was the same with that big router. I remember about a year ago when we saw a machine that could build a router with far more inputs and outputs, in a smaller space. Sometimes you have to wait for the right technology or time to come along.
So it's not like there's some big master strategy plan here. It's just that things can be done when you've got the right people, and you've got the right situation, and suddenly you go, "Hey, we could do this!"
And then you just sort of do it.
DaVinci colorist Ron Anderson at Cinefilm, Atlanta Georgia, US
A LIFETIME OF INSPIRATION
It seems to me that the first sight you saw of Davinci and the inspiration of beautiful pictures kind of moved forward through the rest of your career. Am I overstating that?
No. It's actually as simple as that.
The high school I went to as a kid was a village school in a poor area. I didn't know this at the time, but there was some government grant money invested, hoping to generate some benefits. They said, here are a lot of poor kids, maybe we can do something spectacular.
All I knew was that the high school had a TV studio in it, with a couple of pretty crappy cameras and some simple mixers, and it had a room full of Apple II computers. I was a kid going to class, simultaneously playing with the TV studio and programming Apple II computers. What's really bizarre is that Blackmagic is in some ways really just computers and televisions jammed together.
We had a work experience program at school. The jobs didn't pay much, but they went to course credit. One of mine was at a TV station. When I walked into the telecine suite, my mouth dropped. The DaVinci was just this magical thing. Even now, nobody really gets to see the RGB pictures straight out of a telecine. I couldn't believe it. They were the most amazing things I'd ever seen.
(It's quite funny - the engineer in charge of that facility is now a DaVinci distributor! We're working together again!)
Once I became a telecine engineer myself, I used to hang out in the DaVinci room. I'd get them to show me things, and when a client showed up, I just grabbed a soda out of the refrigerator and sat chatting with them, watching the grading session. I had this absolute fascination.
I watched this colorist just pulling colors out of the background, and thought, "Where did that come from? Was that really there?" Before the session began, the background of the picture was just this moldy wall, and suddenly it was the most amazing, beautiful colorful environment.
What they're doing is real-time creativity, in front of the client. They've got no time to practice, no time to rehearse. They've got to get it right, NOW. It's a really high stress environment, and they handle it every day.
why DaVinci is important. That's
why clients ask for it.
That's the thing. There are ego-driven people, they're in it because they like the lifestyle. But the people who are actually successful are the ones who love images.
A Quantel Harry guy told me a story. "One day I was walking out of a post production facility, and the boss looked up and said, 'I could get a good key off that sky.' Now every time I look at a blue sky, I think about the kind of key I can get off it."
Now I've got the same problem too! I look around the world and say, "Hey, is that 10 bit? Is that good enough quality?" [Laughs.]
Anyway, that's what is most important to me. To make things and enjoy doing it. I think that's why most people start their own companies.
It's funny, I remember one week, I had nothing but rice the whole week. My shoes had worn through. I had to get insoles in them because my feet were touching the ground. I didn't have any money because I was putting every cent I had into the original capture cards that we were doing.
We've now got all of these amazing people working with Blackmagic products, and it's a privilege that I never forget, because I know what it's like to start with just one guy in the back of a post house.
As difficult as these things are in a lot of parts of the world, you're talking about now coming "all the way down" to $600,000, maybe $500,000 dollars - and you've eliminated the immediate cash flow from the support programs. How are you going to survive? How are you going to grow?
The great thing about Blackmagic is that we don't have any investors, we don't have any debts, and we don't owe anyone a single dollar - so we can give things time to mature. We certainly don't have to make millions of dollars overnight.
The main thing is that it has to pay its own way. I don't want to be losing money. I still have a business to run, and have to be clear about that. I also think that businesses that don't do well are depressing. Everybody knows when the company they're working for isn't doing well. So you make it do well, because otherwise, it's not fun.
I think there's a lot of love for the DaVinci products, and I think the new software updates that are coming are really, really good. We know we're not going to get everything right straight away. There'll be tweaks and adjustments, but I think it's going to be fine. This recession will end, and things will be better for the higherend. We'll invest, and add new features, and once you do the right things, I reckon the sales will come.
COW: Last question: how do you spell 'DaVinci'?
This is pretty funny, because during the negotiations, this was a sore point. They said, it's supposed to have a lower case 'd,' space, and an upper case 'V' - I just thought that's the worst possible combination. It looked like the kind of word you'd stub your toe on in the middle of night, and then get really angry because it hurts.
It's now 'DaVinci.'