​How this tiny Estonian company became a go-to light source for Hollywood

Eleven years ago brothers Kaur and Kaspar Kallas founded Digital Sputnik. Now their LED lighting is used on Hollywood blockbusters.
Written by Kalev Aasmae, Contributor

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The Kallas brothers' quest for innovation in the film industry started 12 years ago when they were commissioned to provide the technical solutions for a feature film, 'Magnus' by an up-and-coming Estonian film director, Kadri Kõusaar.

"We knew we had to shoot it in at least 2K digital raw, which was a completely unknown concept at the time," explains Kaur Kallas in an email interview with ZDNet.

"Kaspar recalled seeing a 'strange' camera body in a remote corner booth at NAB called Silicon Imaging SI2K," he recalled. The brothers decided to risk it and order one.

"What we got was a working prototype without a recorder and a lens mount that did not work. That is where it all started."

A few years later the brothers had an idea to connect two SI2K camera heads to a recorder, which would essentially become a small and mobile 3D camera system.

"So by 2010, we had a mobile 3D camera system that would only weigh 7kg. At the time, existing 3D cameras were 35kg or more," explains Kaur Kallas.

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The brothers' solution led to Digital Sputnik's first major breakthrough in the film industry as the system debuted on Werner Herzog's 3D film, 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'.

Around the same time, the brothers discovered the untouched potential of LED in film lighting.

"In 2009 we started taking LED technology seriously. We felt that the market would be ready to replace HMI and tungsten lights with LEDs sooner than later, and the technology was becoming available. So starting in 2010, the majority of our focus was on perfecting an LED alternative to HMIs as the main light for film sets," says Kallas.

It was also the time when the sector of smart devices was developing rapidly, so the brothers saw an opportunity and started to work on modular LED lighting systems that a user could easily control with a smartphone or tablet.

It wasn't easy for an unknown Estonian company to get its foot in the door of Hollywood. But once the company managed to hire the right salespeople to demo the products to influential cinematographers, word of mouth started to work as well.

The first signs that all the hard work the brothers had put into developing lighting was going to pay off became visible a few years ago.

"Once it was confirmed that we'd be the main lighting source for 'Star Wars: Rogue One' and 'Independence Day: Resurgence', we realized that we have a very good chance in playing a key role in the LED revolution," says Kallas.

Kallas pointed out that the conservatism of the film industry was also an obstacle that took some time to overcome.

"The biggest challenge has been to get the large productions to switch to an almost 100 percent LED workflow in the past three years," he says.

In the professional market, Digital Sputnik's biggest competitor is Arri.

"They have been very successful with the Skypanel line. But while the competition has focused mainly on hardware improvements, we have been radically improving the user experience by offering an intuitive visual user interface for controlling our lighting systems," Kallas points out.

To keep up with the competition, Digital Sputnik is already developing new technologies that it hopes will become new standards in the future.

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Kallas views pixel mapping as the next big step for the industry and Digital Sputnik's new Voyager line is already fully pixel-mappable.

"It means that lighting fixtures are now turning into low-resolution, high-output screens. This advance, coupled with our visual user interface allows cinematographers to program lights by sending video that they can play back on an editing or color grading program straight onto the lamps," he says.

"They will no longer need to learn and use DMX to control their lights. Instead, they can control the new lights with a toolset with which they are already familiar with from editing and color grading."

He hopes that eliminating DMX will speed up the adaption to LEDs, since clients do not have to hire a dedicated lighting controller with a dedicated and expensive lighting controller desk.

All Digital Sputnik's products are currently developed and manufactured in Estonia, where it employs 24 people. Four more people are working in the USA. The company has been backed by Q Capital Ventures and by Skype's founding engineer, Jaan Tallinn, among other angel investors.

"We're growing fast and are currently investing all the profits into speeding up our growth," says Kallas, without disclosing any raw numbers.

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