Our filming industry is one of those to suffer from the current situation. All over the world productions are put on hold or canceled, and colleagues/friends are sitting at home. But what about the manufacturers? As we all know, camera sales are slowing down and competition is fierce. In that regard, the current event came at the worse possible timing anyone could have expected. So we took the initiative and approached some of the leading Japanese camera manufacturers in order to hear from them about how they are coping with the situation – especially if new products are involved.
It’s the beginning of April and I’m heading to FUJIFILM’s offices in Omiya where I’ll be meeting Toshi Iida-san. The last time we met was during the launch of the GFX 100 and, to be honest, with the current sequence of events it feels like this event took place in a completely different world. (See our 2 parts documentary on how the GFX 100 camera was born by clicking here and here).
Back to the present time, in this 20 minutes interview, I had the opportunity to talk to Toshi-san about the current phase and challenges our industry is facing, the upcoming X-T4 and cover the subject of lenses.
Here is a transcript of our interview:
cinema5D: Toshi-san, I’m catching you at a very delicate time. The Coronavirus is all over the place, places are shut down, many people lost their jobs. So this is a very delicate situation, kind of unstable, also for our industry. But I want to start from a point of view of when everything is finished and we are back to kind of normality. How would you see the industry then? Do you think that things will go back to normality? Or this industry will change forever?
Toshi Iida-san: Before I start telling you, I’d like to say I’m very sorry for the loss of the people who passed away by COVID-19 and I do hope for a quick recovery for the other patients who are suffering. And I also feel sorry for all the photographers and videographers, they may have lost some business because of the situation. So, I’m really sorry for all of them. And yes, many global events are now postponed or canceled, such as the Olympics Games recently. It must have a huge impact on all the imaging industry. At this moment I can’t predict, I cannot say it’s short term or long term, but I totally believe that at some point all the people will go back to normal. But I cannot think how quickly at this moment.
cinema5D: And, as a manufacturer, as a Head of the Division, are you making any certain plans, like Plan A, Plan B, or are you actually monitoring the situation every day just to see how things are developing?
Toshi Iida-san: Yes, of course, you know, that the COVID-19 is affecting my business in many ways. First we started to get impact at the China factory for manufacturing and procuring the components. That happened probably in February, early February. Then we started seeing the impact on the demand for cameras. So it’s too early to say, plan B or Plan C, but at the moment I’m just focusing the same way with it, to keep our product development.
cinema5D: This situation is really the worst time for the industry in general because we know that sales went down and the competition is extremely stiff. Are you as a manufacturer, together with other Japanese manufacturers, discussing the situation? Are you trying to get united, do something together in order to improve the situation or come up with solutions, especially now?
Toshi Iida-san: I’m not sure how the manufacturers can be united or work together, if there is any way we can do such a thing. At the moment, I don’t know. I do believe individual companies, including FUJIFILM, are working hard to go back on the situation by their own efforts.
cinema5D: You mentioned just before that obviously there is some impact on manufacturers in China. When you say impact, what type of impact are you describing? Is it a shortage of components, a lack of manpower?
Toshi Iida-san: Yes, both. Lack of laborers, lack of components. So, I was actually told by the government first to extend the Chinese New Year holiday until the 10th of February. So, we had to extend the closure time. I was just really worried about it because at that point we were supposed to start some production for the XT-4, so, I was really worried about it in early February, but luckily enough our factories went back to normal as soon as the government allowed us to start things in February. So at the beginning, of course there were some restrictions, because of laborers and component shortage. But they quickly caught up. So at the moment I have no worries about the manufacturing side.
cinema5D: Early samples of the camera were actually made in Japan and some were made in China. Only the samples were made in Japan? Why the decision to take the production out of Japan?
Toshi Iida-san: For the XT-4, we haven’t changed our plan. From the beginning we set up the production capacity of the XT-4 just in China Factory because we see there is such a big demand. In order to meet such a big demand I think that China is the best place to manufacture.
cinema5D: Again, some of the questions, of course, I have to tie up to the situation and let’s say that you are able to manufacture the amount you want, but then there are other obstacles in the way. Big vendors are actually either closed or they try to sell online but there are some other restrictions. Sometimes, you can’t even send the cameras to the customers or whatever. And on top, and this is maybe the hardest part, maybe people lost some enthusiasm to buy stuff. Not because they don’t want to, it’s literally because if you lose a job you have less money, and your priorities are completely different. How do you navigate as a manufacturer, since you just introduced a new camera to the market and a very capable one? It has the potential to be very popular. How do you navigate in these circumstances?
Toshi Iida-san: We should be worried about the actual demand being also affected by this situation. However, we already started collecting pre-orders from customers. So I think the customers are still willing to buy, to have a good product, but of course we have some restrictions in terms of logistics. For example, the warehouse it’s not 100% operational and the shops are closed, but people still want to buy the XT-4. People buy online.
cinema5D: So, you haven’t really noticed a drop in cancellations of orders, that’s not the message that you get from some vendors?
Toshi Iida-san: As long as the XT-4 is concerned, we don’t see such a situation.
cinema5D: Due to the situation, did your managing style change? Your people are still working from the office, am I right? FUJIFILM didn’t ask the people to work from home.
Toshi Iida-san: Yeah, we’re not recommending the staff to work from home, but maybe now I need to adjust my management style. But the majority of my management style shouldn’t be changed. I really like to still focus on the speed and product innovations. Otherwise, as a manufacturer it has no point, so I still really focus on the same pace of the product development.
cinema5D: Let’s talk a little bit about the XT-4. It seems like the product was developed in a very short time. I think the XT-3 was in the market for about over a year?
Toshi Iida-san: Slightly longer, about 1 1/2 year, I think.
cinema5D: This is a bit faster than normal, am I right? Why was that? Because the XT-3 next was a good camera, and obviously you felt that something was missing, and I guess you kind of asked your people to devote more time and come up with the XT-4.
Toshi Iida-san: I tell you this: we introduced the XT-3 18 months ago. Immediately after our interview we launched the XT-3, we started getting such a positive feedback especially for the speed and the video quality. So we are very proud of that, but at the same time we immediately started getting the requests, especially for IBIS, for a bigger battery. So we thought maybe we should respond to the customers’ needs and requests as quickly as possible. And as for the sensor and the processor, we already established, so it’s a matter of time how quickly we can develop a new IBIS unit. This is a small IBIS unit. Previously we had an IBIS unit for the XH-1. The XH-1 was a little bit big, heavy camera. Our R&D team learned a lot on how to make a small IBIS unit, which is 20% smaller and lighter. So to make this IBIS unit we also developed a new mechanical shutter. And also, we developed a new longer life batteries. So we had those key components, we thought we satisfied the customer demands almost 100%. So our passion was to make the XT-3 even better. So now for stills and movies, …
cinema5D: Will you continue to sell the XT-3, by the way?
Toshi Iida-san: Yes, probably at some price gap. The XT-3 is a good camera. Some customers buy the XT-3, at a much more affordable price point than the XT-4.
cinema5D: So, if we have to summarize, because you said you already have the sensor and the board to support the sensor. What was the most challenging part of the development of the XT-4?
Toshi Iida-san: I think the IBIS unit. How to make a this small IBIS unit without compromising the performance or even improving the performance. So this IBIS can work for up to 6.5 stops compared to the 5.5 previously. So it is a stronger more stable IBIS unit than before, even for a small package. And this is more durable, much more powerful and at the same time it’s smaller.
cinema5D: We also have on the table the GFX100, which is, of course, a medium format camera. And the video capabilities it’s very nice in terms of quality, but this is a rather expensive camera and this is first and foremost a photographers’ camera. And you declared in a very clear open way, that medium format is the full frame format for you.
Toshi Iida-san: Yes.
cinema5D: The only thing is that full frame cameras are kind of dropping in price. And they’re doing quite a good job. Do you think in the future you will be able to also bring the price down of a medium format and accommodate the needs of filmmakers, something that is a bit more cost-effective and that can compete also price-wise with full frame cameras?
Toshi Iida-san: Of course we’re fully aware about our competition. And we already started doing GFX50 at a very attractive price point already, but the response is great. So it’s always our ambition to make the GFX a mainstream product. To make the GFX a mainstream product we need to continue our effort to make it more affordable and probably smaller and lighter. So this is one way we’re focusing on.
cinema5D: You always cook something, you always cook another product which hopefully will be a bit more capable and a bit more affordable.
Toshi Iida-san: This is just my ambition to make the GFX a mainstream product, ok?
cinema5D: When it comes to video functionality, obviously it became a very very important feature to you and to feature film in general. The thing is that current cameras, in general, they’re quite good, and personally I think and I feel that maybe adding features or new features is simply not enough anymore to capture the attention of the user. Maybe sometimes a completely new concept can be thought about. What is your opinion, are you doing anything in this direction, is there anything you can share with the audience?
Toshi Iida-san: As you know, we are a quite late comer to the cinema camera, I think our journey just started with the XT-3, I say. But we’re quickly learning and catching up and this XT-4 we get it to a higher level. So our journey will never end. So we are listening and we’re learning more, what the filmmakers, videographers, what features, what design, what usability, what accessories should be compatible, we are always looking for the next step.
cinema5D: Toshi-san, you’re obviously pushing forward with the video capabilities of the cameras. How about the lenses? Because you have the nice MK lenses, which is good for Super-35. Obviously, you have medium format cameras, and other manufacturers are moving to full frame. Anything that you can share with us about future plans?
Toshi Iida-san: As a late comer, we have thought, how do we differentiate ourselves from the competition in an already crowded market? We turned out to find what the customers were expecting from us. It is the lens and color reproduction. So, with the lens, actually we are in charge of a very broad variety of lenses, including the very big broadcasting lenses, Cine Zoom lenses. And based on that kind of very high spec professional lens, we can copy such technology to more mainstream lenses. MK you were mentioning, that is one example. And even for the GF lenses and the XF lenses, those are interchangeable lenses. We can introduce that technology to make good video capable lenses. So the lens and color reproduction, color rendering, the film look color rendering, those are two core advantages. I think that we really like to expand, invest for the lens and the colors for video as well.
cinema5D: Out of curiosity, because again we talked about finding the unique points and to do things maybe a little different. Anamorphic lenses are becoming extremely popular because everybody looks for that identity when they’re filming. They don’t want everything they do to look like others. The thing is that is either very very expensive, and if it’s not expensive maybe there’s a lack of identity to the footage coming after filming with the lens. Do you sometimes dream at night about anamorphic lenses?
Toshi Iida-san: We do have lots of requests about such a lens. However, we just introduced two cine zoom lenses called Premista, which is a large format cine zoom lens. The market reaction is very very positive. And we really like to focus on our current project before we’re looking at anamorphic lenses. Maybe in the future, but at the moment we are quite busy with the current project.
cinema5D: Toshi-san, thank you very much for your time.
So here we go, the first in a series of interviews we are about to conduct. If there is a specific manufacture you would like us to feature, please let us know in the comment section below.