Thursday, April 14, 2011

NAB 2011 Part 2: Blackmagic Design and the Video Value Proposition

In the interest of transparency, I want to start this post by saying that I've been a fan of Blackmagic Design for years, ever since the company launched its Decklink card in the U.S. market. Blackmagic Design reminds me a lot of what Hyundai has become in the automobile business--not only do you get an excellent product, but you get it at an excellent (and sometimes amazing) price. They carry on in the tradition of fellow Australian company Røde Microphones, which pioneered making high-quality microphones at very reasonable prices, and Atomos, which is selling amazing on-camera video recorders at a fraction of the price of most competitors.

At IBC 2009, Blackmagic announced that it had acquired DaVinci Systems, the maker of some of the most powerful and widely-used professional color correction and restoration systems for film and television. DaVinci Resolve was priced for high-end post-production facilities; an entry-level system was over $100,000 (U.S.) and could easily scale to several hundred thousand dollars as more processing nodes were added. Many industry observers wondered about how DaVinci's high-priced products would fit with Blackmagic's product line, most of which was priced at $1,000 or below. It didn't take long to find out the answer.

At NAB 2010, Blackmagic announced a $995 software-only version of DaVinci Resolve that's compatible with Apple's OSX and runs on most MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Pros. The software-only version is only a single processing node and doesn't include a control surface, but it's functionally identical to the product that had sold for $100,000 less than a year earlier. If you want a multi-node system, you can go with a $19,995 Linux version of the software and use it with a variety of third-party control surfaces, but if you want DaVinci's own control surface (which comes with a license for the Mac version), that's priced at $29,995. So, you could now pay less than $50,000 to get exactly the same functionality that you originally paid more than $100,000 for. And, since the Linux license supports multiple CPUs and GPUs, less than $50,000 also gets you the same functionality as those Resolve systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last August, Blackmagic acquired Echolab, the manufacturer of a highly-regarded line of production switchers that had fallen on hard times and declared bankruptcy. Blackmagic continued production of Echolab's two most recent designs, the ATEM 1 M/E with 10 inputs for $19,995, and the ATEM 2 M/E with 18 inputs for $51,995. At the time, I wondered if Blackmagic was going to apply the same cost-reducing philosophy to the ATEM switchers that it did to DaVinci Resolve. Again, I didn't have long to wait.

At this week's NAB, Blackmagic announced the next generation of ATEM:
  • ATEM Television Studio, a six-input HDMI/HD-SDI 1 M/E switcher with two built-in media player framestores, two downstream keyers, software control panel, built-in H.264 real-time encoder,  built-in 10-channel multiviewer with HDMI and HD-SDI outputs, separate program HDMI and HD-SDI outputs, and an Ethernet interface, for...$995. That's not a misprint. $995.

    Roll a few of these concepts around in your head: A "personal switcher" that's small enough to hold in your hand but has four HDMI and four HD-SDI inputs, any six of which can be active at one time. A built-in hardware H.264 encoder. A built-in multiviewer that can use any off-the-shelf HDMI display. No need whatsoever for any PC slots. A software control panel that runs on Mac or PC. The ability to connect to hardware control surfaces and the Internet via Ethernet. $995. This is an order of magnitude better price/performance than anything comparable that I saw on the show floor.
  • ATEM 1 M/E: Based on the specifications of the original ATEM 1 M/E, with 4 HDMI and 4 HD-SDI inputs, all of which are active, a separate analog input, frame resynchronizers on every input, HDMI, HD-SDI and analog program outputs, down-converted SDI output, a multiviewer, USB 3.0 and Ethernet interfaces, RS-422 control, and a PC and Mac-compatible software control panel. Plus, it includes stinger and DVE transitions, 6 keyers, built-in media players, etc. Blackmagic completely redesigned the electronics and firmware so that the switcher is small enough that you can hold it in your hand. And the price? $2,495. If you want the ATEM 1 M/E's original control surface, that sells for $4,995. The total is $7,490.

    The only feature that Blackmagic deleted from the new version of the ATEM 1 M/E is the second multiviewer, which most customers found redundant, and they added additional features, such as USB 3.0. Then, they cut the price by $12,505. If you can live with a software control panel, they cut the price by $17,500.
  • ATEM 2 M/E: Take the ATEM 1 M/E and expand it to 16 simultaneous inputs, add a super source multi layering compositing engine, an additional multiviewer and an expanded software control panel. The resulting switcher is 3 RU high instead of 2 RU high for the ATEM 1 M/E, but you can still hold it in your hand. And, it's priced at $4,995. If you want the original ATEM 2 M/E control surface, it's priced at $14,995. The combination is $19,990, for an equivalent to the same switcher that sold for $51,995 at NAB last year.
These are, in many ways, revolutionary products, and the ATEM Television Studio will likely have the most impact of any of them. Consumers who had never even considered the possibility of doing live multicamera production and streaming it on the Internet will have an affordable way to do so. It has the potential of opening up entirely new applications, as do the other two models. All three models are going to put dramatic price pressure on Blackmagic's competitors, who are going to have to either drop their prices to remain competitive or add features to justify the big difference between their prices and Blackmagic's. Finally, we may see third-party control surfaces support the ATEM switchers at prices even lower than Blackmagic's, just as lower-cost color correction control surfaces are now available from a variety of vendors.

There's one final piece necessary if you want to do multicamera live production, especially in large churches, arenas and stadiums, and that's a way to extend the connections between the cameras and the switcher. To handle that, Blackmagic announced the ATEM Camera Converter, which accepts either HDMI or HD-SDI as input along with two microphone inputs. It's also got inputs for a talkback microphone and an output for talkback headphones. It then converts the signals to ride bidirectionally on an optical fiber pair, up to 147,000 ft. (27.8 miles or 44.8 kilometers). At the switcher end, another ATEM Camera Converter provides HDMI and HD-SDI outputs from the optical fiber signal, as well as talkback audio input and output for the director.

And the cost? $595. A pair is needed for each camera, for a total of $1,190. Consider that before now, you would have had to use professional cameras with multicore and optical fiber interfaces that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The ATEM Camera Converter enables you to use any good consumer or prosumer camcorder with an HDMI interface. The combination of the ATEM switchers and Camera Converters will make professional live field production affordable for schools, churches, community cable stations, small-market TV stations and Internet video producers of all kinds.

Just to touch on a few of Blackmagic's other NAB 2011 announcements:
  • UltraStudio SDI, a cost-reduced version of the UltraStudio Pro with HD-SDI in, a HDMI 1.4 display output for monitoring, and a USB 3.0 interface, for $395.
  • UltraStudio 3D, Blackmagic Design's first device with a Thunderbolt interface, with dual HD-SDI inputs, HDMI input, analog inputs on a breakout cable and HDMI monitor output for 2D ot 3D video capture and display, for $995.
  • HyperDeck Studio, a dual-drive uncompressed HD recorder that uses the same 2.5" SSD drives as the new HyperDeck Shuttle I wrote about yesterday. It has HDMI and HD-SDI inputs and outputs, VTR-style deck controls, a jog shuttle dial, a small LCD monitor for time code, audio and video monitoring, and an Ethernet interface. SSD drives can be swapped while the device is running for effectively infinite recording time. The price is $995.
  • H.264 Pro Recorder, a real-time H.264 encoder with component, HDMI and HD-SDI inputs, USB output and RS-422 control, for $495.
  • And, as for DaVinci Resolve, Blackmagic introduced a new feature-reduced version called DaVinci Resolve 8 Lite, intended for users from whom even $995 is too much money right now. The price? Free.
My point in going into this detail isn't to provide an ad for Blackmagic (although I'm sure that the blog post reads like one), but to make it clear that video technologies that cost tens of thousands of dollars just a year ago, and hundreds of thousands of dollars a few years ago, are now available at a price so low that hobbyists can afford them. Just as making computer power available to consumers at a reasonable price sparked a revolution in the early 1980s, so making video and audio power available at a low price will spark an explosion in how media is produced and who produces it.

In the final part of this series, I'm going to take a look at some of NAB 2011's other interesting new products and trends, including the first Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals, POV cameras, the rise of ENG trucks in a backpack (or a cigarette case), and a brief comment on Apple's forthcoming Final Cut Pro X.

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