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Two Years After Entering the New Cinema Market / Interview with Kazuto YAMAKI, CEO of SIGMA

- The Apex of Lens Production / Why "Made In Japan" -

Yukihiro ISHIKAWA / HOTSHOT EXECUTIVE EDITOR

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Act.1 Why and how we have been getting into the cinema lens market

Act.2 Vision of leaping the L-mountL

Act.3 SIGMA Aizu Factory

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SIGMA’s Cine lens made its international debut at the IBC 2016, held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in September 2016. 2 and a half years after entering the market, SIGMA, already well-known in cinema, has become more widely recognized in the motion picture industry.
SIGMA has long been known for its still lenses and as a camera manufacturer, and their famous Art Series is highly acclaimed for its product and cost performance. Of particular note are the superior design and image strategy that characterize their product lineup, and the level of perfection achieved in each item as a complete optical product. Most importantly, everything is made in Japan. All products are created with superior “collaborative technology”, which results in collector’s item quality, appealing to cinematographers not just in Japan, but the world.
We paid a visit to SIGMA’s sacred site where all is created: the Aizu factory in Fukushima to interview CEO Kazuto YAMAKI about the past, present, future, and essence of the company.

The True Value of Japan’s Collaborative Technology

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The first phase of construction on the Aizu factory was completed in 1973, and it has continued to expand year after year. At present, everything is manufactured at the Aizu factory: interchangeable lenses, cameras, strobes, etc. From the molds to the parts, excepting one aspect of processing, it is an integrated system of manufacturing. Lens polishing, plastic parts molding, painting, substrate mounting, assembly, and the creation of screws, as well as the manufacture of metal parts – all is done at the factory. Because of their vertically integrated production system, they can cope with high-mix low-volume production.
One of the major characteristics of SIGMA is that the Aizu factory is their one production base, and since many employees are from the local area, they have a long history with the people in Aizu. Because passing down intricate technical knowledge from generation to generation is part of the company background, SIGMA’s products have currency the world over, and are an important driving force behind their ability to create a consistent product. This integrated system from raw material to finished product and the inherited technical knowledge are the reasons behind the success of Japan’s “collaborative technology” that supports the culmination of craftsmanship in Japan, which we can see in actual practice at Aizu.
Last year, they produced a lightweight but robust part using magnesium, and added on a specialized its processing section. The evolution of SIGMA continues.

The road to Hollywood

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In October 2018, a new hub in Burbank, Hollywood: SIGMA BURBANK was established. It’s their new location on the West Coast in America that houses an office and showroom, a studio, and storage facility. The proximity to Hollywood allows for communication with their users and creates a space for people to come and experience the products first-hand, and they have already hosted numerous events.
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Now, high quality Internet network productions are flourishing in Hollywood, of which Netflix is the most prominent. The budget is of the same scale as a major movie, but the production speed is about 1/2 to 1/3 of the time. So, the scale of the film crew has increased as well as the number of cameras and lenses required, so it’s hard to keep up with the market demand for high-quality cine lenses. SIGMA’s excellence when combining high quality + cost performance is bringing out the best in Hollywood.

Two Years After Entering the New Cinema Market

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Interview with Kazuto YAMAKI, CEO of SIGMA

With 3 years of preliminary research and 2 years since entering the cinema market, this marks our fifth year, and we have come to realize it’s a really strong market. Even during these past 2 years, there have been many other manufacturers entering the market, and (Sigma) is relatively well-recognized within the industry. The transition to sales has been better than we predicted, and we are delighted.
The fact is that our biggest customer is America, without a doubt. Next is the European market with France and England. Compared with the US and Europe, there are still opportunities for growth in Asia.
At first, we assumed that our target customers would be owner/operators and smaller scale productions. Of course they are among our customers, but surprisingly there are also cases where our equipment is being used on relatively larger budget Hollywood and European movies. We have contacted major equipment rental companies located in America and Europe.

Compared to the stills, the cinema industry is complex and difficult to penetrate. Why to leap?

Thanks to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, shooting movies with a DSLR started becoming more popular around 2010, and I became intrigued too. I often saw manual focus lenses being used on set, so I wanted professionals to use our lenses in that way, too.
Afterwards, since we received encouragement from many movie producers and professional cinematographers, we took their advice and got to work. Around that time we launched the still lens 18-35 F1.8 DC HSM/ART. In the case of still lenses, usually (in terms of regional sales) Asia and Europe are about the same and second is North America, but with the 18-35 F1.8 lens, for some reason half of the total number of lenses sold were in North America. When we researched it further, many of them were being used by video users. That was when we began our serious, in-depth market research.

The bar has been lowered somewhat in the video industry, but at the same time production costs have decreased and production sites are chaotic. What do you think of this situation?

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In terms of cinema, I’m not really in a position to talk about the transition the industry is experiencing, but there is no doubt that we are in an era of upheaval. Serious shooting equipment is becoming more affordable and the selection is increasing. For the producers, there is no doubt that this situation is chaotic compared to how stable things were in the past.

To be honest, the photography industry is facing the same situation. There is the SLR, which is geared toward the high-end and professional market, and then smartphones entered the compact market, making things difficult for the compact camera. And then the mirrorless came on the scene, as well as different sensor formats. Photography was quicker to evolve, but the same thing is happening with video, too.

As a manufacturer, things are more secure when the market is stable, but with this kind of situation, you need to think of it as an opportunity. What challenges are the customers facing? It’s exciting to think about what solutions our company can offer; it’s what makes our work interesting. We started out as an interchangeable-lens manufacturer, and in the camera industry, we were what you’d call a third party. We’re in a position where you have to differentiate yourself from camera manufacturers and promote a totally new set of values. For us, we welcome that kind of industry disruption. I think we should take more drastic measures.

Launch of the L-mount Alliance: Sigma, Leica, and Panasonic

Originally our cameras were made for DSLR use with an SA mount and long flange back distance. Even with the SD Quattro on sale in 2016, we still use this SA mount with our mirrorless cameras. We adopted an SA mount despite having a long flange back distance because we’re targeting our existing customer base, but those customers asked us to optimize it so we decided to create a new mount. At first we’re working on our own design at SIGMA for a unique short flange, but Panasonic approached us, saying they were working on creating a new mount for the full-size mirrorless, and they asked if we would be interested in working on adopting a new mount and creating an alliance. Once it was decided that we would be working with Panasonic and Leica, the engineers formed a consortium and started discussing the details, and as they explored various ideas, they found that in terms of diameter and the flange distance, Leica’s L-mount made for a good balance.

Response to the announcement

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Switching mounts is normally considered as “taboo”, so at first we thought about it long and hard, as we were concerned about the response of our existing customers. But surprisingly many customers were interested, and we are grateful that it was received more favorably than expecting. We’ve had a lot of people asking for a full-frame camera, so there has been a lot of anticipation over the creation of a new camera with an L-mount and a Foveon image sensor.
We announced the development of the full-size Foveon sensor at the CP+ 2019. The next generation camera body for this sensor has not been announced yet, but it is planned for the still market and not for moving pictures. In the case of the Foveon sensor, you get 3 sensor data per pixel, so the data can become huge. There are constraints regarding the processing time and the time it takes to read, so there’s merit to doing it the still way – by editing it carefully one by one.

What are your thoughts on adopting a cinema camera?

Since I started attending video trade shows, I’d been talking directly with people and I had heard quite often that the ideal was to be able to sample RGB data 1:1 for cinema cameras. Hearing that made me want to try (laughs). But give our current circumstances, there are some technical issues and it’s impossible to do it in a single step.

What is the ideal design for the processor now that you have the lens and sensor?

If you take existing color filter sensors beginning with the Bayer sensor, the image processing procedure is pretty much predetermined. You can make adjustments using your all-purpose image processing sensor, processor, and do some fine-tuning with the sliders. But in the case of the Foveon sensor, it requires a totally different process. There is no doubt that using the Foveon presented a big challenge. After we launched it, we made it a coherent system. You place the FPGA before the general processor and have the Foveon perform the necessary pre-processing. Then you place it in the processor to perform the post-processing, and have it written on to the file. Because it requires 2 chips for processing, admittedly there are some issues with processing speed. I can’t go into detail about the L-mount Foveon sensor camera that we are about to launch, but basically it is a similar configuration. The sensor is new, and the later-stage processing will be modified. Overall it’s not just the mount that has changed; it’s all completely different.

Pride in Japanese “Craftsmanship” and the Aizu Factory

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Concept and Advantages to Aizu

If I wanted to sound cool, I would say that our basic concept is that we pour our blood, sweat, and tears into our “craft.” As a result , we offer high-quality products while keeping the prices down.
On the one hand, we do acquire some simple parts from suppliers. All of our suppliers are in Japan, and most are in the northern Kanto region and Tohoku areas (Tochigi, northern Gunma, Fukushima, Yamagata, Miyagi, Akita, Aomori), and we have some suppliers in Nagano. We have been doing business with all of them for a long time, and we are on excellent terms. Thanks to this, we don’t really need our own network. Because we are able to do everything with a small group of employees at our company, we can keep procurement costs down and we can manufacture difficult parts at a reasonable cost. If we had to find something even 1yen cheaper, going all over the world, then we would need to have a huge purchasing staff. We are appreciative of the support we receive from companies outside of our network.
To be able to create alongside people we have known for a long time means that our organizational structure can be extremely simple and small.

Currently, Japanese craftsmanship is in decline. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I think this is probably true in the case of the industry in general. The most advanced technology is becoming all about information processing, and I think other countries are ahead of Japan in this respect. But when it comes to lens production technology, this is where Japan is advanced compared to the rest of the world. The technique of creating hundreds of incredibly detailed parts and assembling them accurately is called the “collaborative technology.” You take many different kinds of parts and assemble them, making sure there aren’t lumps or gaps. You’ll hear “collaborative technology” or “collaborative technology industry” in the automotive industry, but compared to cars, lens production is a precision industry and so the level of accuracy required dramatically increases. I think that the ultimate in “collaborative technology” is in the world of lenses. Japan is overwhelmingly strong in this area. One of our strengths is the ability to focus on details and commit to something – not just for today or tomorrow or the next day, but well into the next year – when it comes to the reliable manufacture of individual parts.
In the case of other countries, there are many factories that rely on cheap labor, and this leads to a lot of employee turnover. As a result, it’s difficult to maintain reliable product quality. In our case at Aizu – and I think this is one of Japan’s strengths – training someone for mastery in one subject is suited to this industry.
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Furthermore, we’re talking about “collaborative”, so the people who are polishing the lens have to communicate properly with the people creating the mechanical parts in order to move forward. Polishing the perimeter of the lens is referred to as “centering.” It’s not really possible to sketch out the precise allowance of the “centering” and inner diameter where the lens will be inserted. You need to do this on site during the fitting. This is something that the Japanese excel at. It’s not about: “That’s not part of my job, so I don’t know.” It’s important for everyone to feel that we are all working together to make a great product. This is where we need to collaborate with our suppliers. “The power of Japanese craftsmanship” is what makes us a strong competitor and where we have the edge.

I understand you work with domestic suppliers to sustain your “Made in Japan” label. Can you talk about this some more?

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In the end, I want to be proud of everything I have done up to this point, and so I want to try to stay with “Made in Japan.”

What do you think of the reputation you have built as “Sigma = Made in Japan”?

I feel that we have begun to earn that reputation, albeit gradually. At one point in 1995, the Japanese yen was very strong and business-wise this made things difficult for our company. Around that time, many manufacturers – not just camera manufacturers – moved their factories overseas. It continued into 2000. Looking back now, I am glad that we stayed in Japan, and when people abroad say something is “made in Japan”, it is becoming more widely recognized as a symbol of quality. Through the efforts of not only our company, but all over Japan – whether it is the delicious food or the customer service of smaller restaurants that tourists visit – people associate “Japan” with “quality”, and this is a reflection of what we are doing at our company, too. It isn’t through our efforts alone that Japan’s reputation is on the rise; we are benefiting from this, too.

Which product is the most representative of your brand at the moment?

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I think every product we make is representative of the Sigma brand. Our cinema lenses are representative of our company, and to give a recent example, we have a lens that is being used for cinema purposes, the 105mm F1.4, which I think is representative of Sigma.
The 105mm F1.4 lens is huge. With it, we were looking to create a high-performance lens, and it became really big (laughs). Our optical designer was insistent on creating this lens. At the design stage, he came to me and showed me the design, saying, I know it’s enormous, but is that ok? And it was huge. Naturally there was a legitimate reason for the size: it’s high-performance from the center right out to the periphery, there’s no chromatic aberration, and the bokeh in the background produces circles rather than lemon-shaped figures. The lens also minimizes Sagittal coma flare, so this is ultimately what he wanted to create. It was actually this person’s first lens design.
Back in university he was specializing in a totally different area, so he was not confident in this area. When he joined our company, he said he wanted to try optical design. Since his area of specialization was different, he was fine with being assigned to a different department from optical design – like sales. I thought he was not your typical employee, so I started asking him lots of questions. It turned out he’s a big fan of astrophotography and said he wanted to create the ultimate lens with his own hands. So I put him in the design department and taught him everything, starting from square one. Partway through, I sent him to Aizu where he learned the craft of lens making, and the 105mm lens was his first design. I doubted whether it would sell, but I thought it’d be better to go all the way rather than making something that’s a bit off or half-baked. And when we finally launched it, at first people laughed, but then it became exceptionally popular, and even now it is a consistent seller. What I learned from that product is that an engineer’s feelings – his passion and belief in what he’s created – really do reach the customer! It was the engineer’s understanding of the market – and not the design department’s market research or my directions to make a certain product – that led to that lens. It really is representative of our company.

Do you have certain criteria when hiring unique employees?

Of course, we do employ regular people, too (laughs). One question we ask during the interview is whether they have something they want to do – it doesn’t have to be specific – but what is it they ultimately want to accomplish, what kind of person do they want to become. If a person has an ideal they’re aiming for, even if they are lacking in some areas, I think that person will make a good addition to the company.
One provision of being a professional is to do what you really want to do. I think this is also a prerequisite of becoming a craftsman.

October 2018: Opening a showroom in Burbank, California

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At first I was concerned that it didn’t fit the vision of our company, but I realized after entering the market that if you are going to target this industry, it’s easier to communicate with people when you’re located close to Hollywood, and I knew we had to have somewhere where people could come see our products.
Our distribution offices are in New York, and we didn’t have a hub on the west coast. We had been talking for a long time about how it would be nice to have a showroom along with our warehouse on the west coast, and so we decided it would be a good idea to have something on the west coast, including photography. There’s a studio where you can host small events and seminars, and it’s great to have a place where people can get together for other reasons. I think it’s important to communicate more with our users through such events, whether it’s in cinema or photography.
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Mrs. Aubrey DUCLOS<SIGMA BURBANK>

After SIGMA entered the cinema industry in earnest, people have started paying more attention. Any thoughts about this?

I agree that people have started paying more attention to us, but there are areas where we still lack recognition.I want us to continue working hard to make good products, interesting products, and prove that we are an interesting addition to an industry in which people are always fascinated by what we are creating. The photography industry is shrinking, I want to revolutionize and continue doing things that other companies don’t. Just because we accomplish something, I don’t want to stop there – I think it’s important for us to continue creating, and it would make me happy if SIGMA were judged based on this.
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