I heard from many people that they were disappointed in not hearing the trials and tribulations of our process, so I wanted to do a post about the process of developing the D16.
It’s hard to know how much to say because everything we post seems to be analyzed with a microscope and I don’t want people to get the wrong impression. Basically I don’t want my talking about issues or speed bumps we’ve had to erode confidence in the project. That being said, I would like to tell you a little about what we’ve gone through, because we have made amazing progress in the two years since this project started!
I don’t know all of the dates associated with the origin of the Digital Bolex project; it was an idea that had been germinating for a while and slowly came into being. I do know on September 3rd, 2010 I created a task in our task managing software called “Sensor and Custom Camera Research” for Toby Bryan, my research and development assistant at Polite in Public, the company I co-founded and operated (Toby is now our assistant at Digital Bolex, and can be seen in our Kickstarter video). Toby and I researched companies that could build a camera like the one we wanted to make and after four months we settled on Ienso. This is an email Toby wrote to my partner at Polite in Public…
Subject: Recap from conference call w/ IENSO
Date: January 4, 2011 11:58:05 AM PST
Joe Rubenstein and I had a conference call this morning with Mike Liwak from Ienso Inc.
What follows is a recap of our conversation:
Ienso works mostly with CMOS sensors, so their price would be lower if we went with a CMOS sensor. We aren’t yet sure by how much. We discussed with them, the possibility of using another type of Kodak sensor, but Ienso hasn’t dealt with it in the past, so we would be paying for them to start from scratch/learn how to do what it is we need to be done.
Joe proposed on our last call with Mike the possibility of designing a tube shaped camera. Mike said that this was a possibility. Off the top of his head, he said that each camera would cost in the 3, 4, or 5 thousand dollar range.
Mike said that it would most likely be possible to use a c-mount for the lenses.
Ienso is willing to let us pay by milestone – ‘We don’t want you to pay until you’re happy with what you’re paying for’ – Meaning that we could work with them on the sensor, for instance, and are not contractually obligated to continue working with them on the body, mount, or lens. We will own the rights to anything we pay for.
Mike is working on a new, more detailed quote for us.
As Mike put it on the phone, Ienso is small faction of a large company, for which a project like ours is significant, and therefore we can trust that our project will be taken seriously, even with our low volume needs.
To backtrack for a second: Polite in Public actually consisted of two separate companies. The first was Polite in Public the event marketing company, and the second was Polite Technologies, the tech company behind Polite in Public’s custom hardware and software. Initially The D16 was going to be the first consumer product made by Polite Technologies, but after a hard 1st quarter it was decided that, if I wanted to make the D16, I had to do it alone and not have the protection of the umbrella company. This meant that I was going to sell my half of a company I had spent 6 years building from the ground up. This meant that I was going to take all of the personal investment I had made in Polite in Public and transfer it to this new venture. Essentially taking away my monetary safety net, and walking out on a business tight rope. Many of my friends said I was crazy. Crazy to sell my share of a healthy working company in order to take a risk on something like this.
This also meant that I had to find a new business partner because I was never going to be able to afford the development costs on my own. The guys at Ienso were a natural choice. Since I didn’t have an office anymore my friend Max let me rent his living room, and while he was out at his day job I would type my brains out writing an extensive market research paper. Nine weeks later I pitched the partnership to Ienso. I sent them my 17 page market research paper and a very rough business plan and crossed my fingers. It took less than 24 hours to hear from them, and they were interested! One stipulation though, I had to come to Canada to meet with them. So I was on a plane a week later and shaking hands with them closing the deal. We formed a corporation and went to work defining what the D16 should be. I was reading a book called “Blue Ocean Strategies” at the time, and it was the perfect book for me. If you haven’t read it and are interested in business, do you self a favor and get it.
Blue Ocean talks about looking for uncontested market space and unique value propositions for consumers. I started by charting features of a DSLR on a value scale and then I asked myself what would be the exact opposite? DSLRs seemed to be feature heavy, but scored low on image and sound quality and not great ergonomics for film making. So I set out to build a camera that was light on features, but had the missing image and sound quality, as well as the ergonomics for film making. I knew that offering a raw format camera for the price of a DSLR was something that people would be excited by. I also knew that professional balanced audio was something that all DSLRs were sorely lacking. Those were easy choices. The sensor choice was the hardest, but I felt like there were a lot of 35mm sensors out there and a lot of 2/3″ sensors, but I didn’t see anyone building something in that price range that could work with all that great 16mm glass. When we finalized the S16mm sensor I realized we were building a digital version of one of my favorite cameras in college, we were building a Digital Bolex. That realization really helped me focus the direction for the camera. I began researching modern conversions of classic cameras and thought if we could get Bolex on board it would clarify the product to anyone that was familiar with their legacy products. I had no idea if Bolex would be interested at all though.
By July of 2011 we had a basic design and functionality for the camera laid out. I was heavily researching the business model and trying to plan the kickstarter campaign. I felt like it was time to reach out to Bolex International. Eventually I got them on the phone, and we began discussing whether the camera would be the right fit for Bolex. With a 10 hour time difference, there were many nights I stayed up till 4am to call Switzerland!
In July I had another break: I met Elle Schneider. From the first time I met Elle I knew that she was the right person to help me with this project. At the time she was directing fashion ads that had a retro feel, doing a lot of camera work, was very familiar with the youtube and twitter communities, and had a clear understanding of kickstarter (which wasn’t as popular as it is now). We just clicked and suddenly I wasn’t alone. Her ideas and suggestions for the campaign and product were intuitive and intelligent from day one. The only problem was she was too busy to really take this project on. I had to find a way to lure her to it without having the capital to really pay her what she was worth. I decided to offer her a directing job on some of the spots and hope that she would get more involved with other parts of the campaign. I think after her first day of discussing the project with her she realized that the scale was going to be much bigger than I described. She made a joke about the project taking over her life (which it pretty much has, as well as mine of course).
We spent the next 3 months planning the KS campaign. We originally wanted to scoop the Scarlet / C300 announcements, but decided to hold off until we’d shot our first film on the camera. So we settled on SXSW’s trade show, as a dynamic arena full of artists and filmmakers who might be interested in what we were doing.
On March 13th, we launched this project with four dedicated people on our team: Stelio Derventzis (CEO of Ienso), Mike Liwak (Project Manager for the D16), Elle Schneider, and myself. There were other people on board too, but this was the core group that spoke several times a week if not every day about this project. We were ready to let the rest of the world in on what we were doing, but we were uncertain of the response we would get. Are people that are looking to transition from film to digital active online? Will the DSLR community look at this as the future or the past? What will tech critics say?
We drove down in a rented mini-van with camera gear, computers, and booth decoration packed so high it was hard to see out the back window. I learned two things the night before we launched: that there is an extra step of approval before you can launch a Kickstarter campaign, and that I had no idea how to use our website.
On the morning of our big day Elle, the person who had helped me plan everything, was too sick to move, and I found myself standing on the floor of the convention hall with no website, no kickstarter campaign, and no Elle. I was totally panicked, but people came to the booth anyway and they were interested in what we were doing!
By the afternoon our website was launched and so was our kickstarter campaign, but by 6pm when the floor closed we only had one backer, my mother in law. Elle was feeling a little better so that night, while I we got to work emailing every blog and tech news site we could think of, she emailed a few camera enthusiasts she’d been following online. One responded right away: Philip Bloom. And he wanted to talk on the phone even though he was in New Zealand. He called us at 2 AM Austin time and asked if he could record the conversation so he didn’t have to take notes, and we agreed. Shortly after he posted the entire unedited conversation on his blog, and the next morning our Kickstarter campaign had gone from $3K to $60K while we slept.
The campaign was over $100K–fully funded–by the time we got to the convention hall on the 2nd day. We had done it. All the hard work was worth it, people were excited by the project and willing to pitch in! Day 2 on the floor everyone had heard of us, even people from Red and Canon came over to talk. Everyone seemed impressed with the concept, with one notable exception. Stu Maschwitz posted a “skeptimistic” blog in which he called us “adorkable hipsters” and said the one thing we’d been dreading since November 3rd: If Red couldn’t full fill their promise of a 3K camera for $3K, how can you?
I felt that Stu’s opinion is one that really mattered. The next day instead of talking with people on the floor in the expensive booth space I had paid for out of my own pocket, I was on the phone with Stu. He was delightful and engaging and challenged me on many things, but ultimately he agreed that Red didn’t fail to deliver the Scarlet at $3K, but rather chose not to. Stu later posted a follow up article that helped vindicate us to the small number of people that were trying to be destructive to our campaign. At the end of the day, We reached our personal goal of $250k on our kickstarter campaign and sold out of cameras within 36 hours of our launch and, according to Kickstarter reports, we sold more cameras due to Stu’s blogs than any other single external site.
The world had changed for us. Before SXSW we were working in secret, in a cave, scrutinizing over all the details of the camera and campaign, after SXSW we were answering massive amounts of emails, and doing interviews. To be honest, we weren’t prepared for it. The amazing response led to over 5000 messages by Kickstarter, twitter, vimeo, and email–in just 3 days. There was no way we were going to be able to answer them all. Many of the messages were about tech choices on the D16, which I admit were not 100% right at the time of launch. So we put up a forum and I messaged with people there every day for weeks to try to get a better understanding of what people, especially Kickstarter backers, wanted from the camera. Some requests were great but challenging to implement, and others were good but outside of the scope for the camera. On April 10th, less than a month after launch, we had talked to hundreds of people and we added six new specs to the camera, including HDMI output, 12v DC output for accessories, and changed the body frame to magnesium alloy instead of steel.
More on the changes: In my experience as a DP, I was used to working with a B&W SD output from a 16mm film camera’s video tap and a focus puller who used a measuring tape. To me that was good enough and kept the expense of gear down, but after listening our supports tell me that wasn’t how they worked and SD was not good enough for critical focus on todays lenses, we decided to add the HDMI output. But HDMI is not a simple add-on. Adding HDMI meant we had to upgrade the back end processor, which meant we had to upgrade the backend heat sync, which meant we weren’t going to have enough room for the flip up monitor. This along with the other changes also meant we were going to have a smaller mark up on the camera. Which meant that our chances of getting this camera into retail outlets was shrinking by the minute. We had a big conference call with all the partners, and everyone agreed it was better to make a better camera that reinforced the brand and helped create a long term market than it was to get into retail stores.
A few days later we were at NAB: the National Association for Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. We finally got to meet many of the people we had been talking to since our launch, like Philip Bloom, Steve Weiss, Patrick and Christoph from Pomfort, and a ton of Kickstarter backers! We had so many meaningful conversations and loved every minute of it. We also got a chance to see some great gear in person, like Arri’s amazing new Alexa M. And of course Black Magic announced their 2.5k raw shooting camera in the same price range as ours.
A lot of people told us the BMCC would be death for our project, but we didn’t see it that way. In our minds, the most important thing is to grow the raw market, so the more cameras out there shooting raw, the better for everyone. We never thought that we would be or even should be the only company servicing this market. The best result of the BMCC was that people stopped telling us what we were trying to do was impossible. If Black Magic can can do it, it is possible! Another good result was that many people compared our camera to theirs, which got a lot of people talking about us. I feel a lot of people discovered us through reading about Black Magic. I often do wonder if they read the same book I did though
During April we hired three engineers, one to work on the processor and analog to digital conversion, another to help finalize the hardware and board designs, and another to start programing the FPGA back end processor. The sensor actually captures images divided into quadrants in different orientations in order to get up to 32 frames per second. And the sensor is really a call and response system, which means we need to be able to ask the sensor for the right information, in the right format, at the right time, and then reassemble those pieces into the correct orientation to get proper images. This is not automatic or easy. We had designed the body, and the electronics layouts and we had basic board designs, but with the changes to the specs we had to rearrange everything and really figure out how the electronics would fit inside the camera.
In May we hired more people, this time to work on sound components and in camera data management and data streams. We wanted to have a D-tap port on the side of the camera to feed 12v for accessories, but couldn’t find a manufacturer to purchase them from so we ended up going for a second 4 pin XLR for the output. Also the board necessary for the HDMI plug was too wide to fit where we had intended it to go so we had to move it south and we also ended up making the camera 2/3″ wider than original spec.
During June we signed contracts with Kish Optics, a lens designer here in LA to create custom Bolex Lenses, and Pomfort in Germany to program our transcoding software. The software was promised in the Kickstarter campaign if we went over $200K, and the lenses were by far the most popular accessory we had suggested in a kickstarter survey. I also attended Cinegear in LA, which is a Film, Video, and Digital Media Expo, where I met some very interesting people that I will have to tell you about later.
In July we hired a new project manager. Mike, who has been acting as the project manager until now, is actually one of the co-founders of Ienso and has a lot of other responsibilities besides our camera, so we wanted to make sure we had someone dedicated to just the Bolex who can help with all of the details which are piling up. It’s something that will really help keep our schedule on track as we approach the big day in the next few weeks.
Which brings us up to now! I have so much more to write about, but I wanted to post this as soon as I could. I apologize for the length, I hope some of this is what you guys wanted to hear. If it is I’ll write more, if it’s not I’ll write less
Thanks for reading, and as always thanks for your support, Joe
PS: This is what the camera looked like around the time when we approached Bolex and Elle joined the team last summer… oh the memories!