In a recent interview with Forbes magazine , Grant Petty from Blackmagic Design’s tells the story of the success and boom that the company had with the beginning of the pandemic.
“For all of 2020 and half of 2021, I was working until 2 am every day because I was writing the code that runs the company,” says Grant Petty, CEO and founder of Blackmagic Design.
The 53-year-old billionaire is not kidding. He despises outsourcing, so he literally writes every SQL program that runs internal processes for the Melbourne (Australia)-based company of 1,500 employees and $576 million in revenue. When the pandemic began, Blackmagic (which makes all 209 of its own products) had to share parts between its three factories in Australia, Singapore and Indonesia. Instead of hiring someone, or even delegating the task internally, Petty rewrote the workflow software by connecting the inventory databases.
“People see it as a weakness that I write the code myself,” he says, arguing that, by contrast, Blackmagic avoided the impasse that many companies encountered when trying to reconfigure their supply chains during Covid because they relied on consultants and external software vendors. “I think we have a huge problem with outsourcing in the Western world.”
The challenging and DIY make Blackmagic Design a revolutionary project compared to the exorbitant values of Hollywood. His 21-year-old company is best known for making low-cost professional motion picture cameras and other specialized equipment used in television and film production. In addition, it provides the free software known as DaVinci Resolve, used for color classification, special effects and to edit video and audio.
Blackmagic’s products are behind some big-budget Oscar-nominated films like Don’t Look Up and Spider-Man: No Way Home, but its main customers are budget-conscious independent YouTubers and filmmakers. Over the past couple of years, this market has exploded as lockdowns have caused a surge in demand for professional quality home equipment.
In addition to traditional consumers, schools and television networks sought to equip the work of their employees from their homes during the pandemic.
As a result, Blackmagic’s revenue nearly doubled at the end of its fiscal year in June 2019 to $576 million, and its profits grew tenfold to $113 million.
BlackMagic’s story parallels Petty’s own story.
Petty grew up poor in Australia after his father, an engineer, separated from his mother, an artist and nurse, and the family moved into public housing.
“I remember being told to go back to where I came from,” says Petty of his high school years, when he taught himself to code on an Apple II. “But I had an obsession with electronics, so I was positioned at the bottom of the social class and thinking, hey, nobody knows about these things.”
After earning a certificate in electronics from a technical college in 1991, he ended up working in Singapore at a TV post-production house where he maintained the expensive A/V equipment his employer rented for $1,000 an hour.
“I realized that the class system I saw in my rural town also happened in the television industry. It wasn’t really a creative industry,” says Petty, noting how prohibitively expensive and exclusive the business was. Determined to build affordable equipment, he initially focused on capture cards that would allow TV creators and filmmakers to transfer video to personal computers for editing, rather than using bespoke machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2001, Petty and software engineer Clarke founded Blackmagic. Less than two years later, they introduced DeckLink, a $995 Mac-compatible card that could process uncompressed high-definition video. Its closest competitor was charging about $10,000.
And they didn’t stop there. In 2009, Blackmagic purchased the assets of Vinci Systems, a financially struggling color hardware and software developer, and sold its equipment to Hollywood post-production houses at prices ranging from $350,000 to $850,000 per unit. “We felt like we could make it a software product and bring it to the Mac platform where creative people could use it,” says Petty. “When you go after hungry people and make those people more powerful, you realize that the fundamental thing you are offering is freedom.”
A year later, he fulfilled his promise. He brought in software (now called DaVinci Resolve) priced at just $995. After another year, he made the free download version.
“Cloud licensors are like favela owners,” he refers to competitors Adobe and Avid. “You have to keep buying from me and the more loyal you are, the more you will be penalized. It’s like your dog does something nice and you beat him with a stick.”
Although Blackmagic’s software now has a free version that has almost all the features of the paid one, converting professional video editors used to other legacy programs is a slow process. While DaVinci Resolve dominates in color correction, it lags far behind Adobe’s Premiere Pro and Avid’s Media Composer in video editing. Its digital cinema cameras, which start at $1,000 and go up to $6,000, may have a better chance of gaining share against industry leaders such as Arri, Sony and Red, whose equipment can cost upwards of $95,000.
“Arri’s Alexa is kind of the gold standard, and there’s a general snobbery about them,” says cinematographer John Brawley of the Miami set of Bad Monkey, an Apple TV+ series starring Vince Vaughn. Brawley is shooting on an Arri Alexa Mini LF, which costs $60,000, along with Blackmagic’s more expensive 12K camera, which costs $6,000. “I would bring [Blackmagic cameras] and there would often be grumbles and turns from the staff. But by the end of the show half of them are buying their own cameras. Blackmagic gives me 90% of an Alexa for 10% of the price.”
Cost savings are a big plus as filmmakers increasingly use visual effects in their films. Hear from Sam Nicholson, an Emmy-winning visual effects supervisor known for his work on The Walking Dead , ER , and Star Trek. His company, Stargate Studios, is using Blackmagic cameras to film ocean sets for HBO Max’s pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death, starring Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi.
“If you’re going to put nine cameras on a rig, you must have at least ten cameras on site. If those cameras are Alexas, you’re talking $500,000. The studio won’t pay,” says Nicholson, noting that Our Flag’s turquoise ocean scenes were filmed in Puerto Rico, color corrected on set using DaVinci Resolve software, and streamed in 20k resolution on an LED screen. 160 feet wide around the actors while filming at a studio in Burbank, California.
“How do you effectively virtualize reality?” he asks. “It takes a lot of cameras and a lot of data. Blackmagic and its entire ecosystem solves many of these problems.”
By Matt Schifri