One of the common aspirations makers have is to create a product, bring it to market and make it a success. While many of us share this dream, very few of us are ever able to make it a reality. David Aldrich, founder of D|Focus Systems was able to do just that nearly 8 years ago when he created a low cost follow focus system for filmmaking.
I caught up with David recently and was able to observe his workflow. He starts by setting up several jigs in a well worn CNC machine (circa 1995) so he can mill several camera mounts at once. As he worked, David was adamant about the widespread misconception that CNC machining is nothing more than pushing the “Start” button — especially when working with an older machine without most of the fail safes that more modern machines have. This observation led to another — the perception of engineering to an outsider often appears to be a rote process of entering numbers and calculating angles, when a more accurate description would be that engineering is an endless puzzle of problem solving that can only happen with a heaping dose of ingenuity and creativity. David’s ability to do all of this does not come as a surprise to me.
I met David nearly 14 years ago when he was an early 20-something studying Aerospace Engineering at Cal State Polytechnic University in Pomona. He was (and still is) an energetic and methodical maker that almost always had his hands in several ventures at once. It was his love of filmmaking, however, that led him to the creation of product that nearly leveled the playing field between hobby filmmakers and professional cinematographers.
After graduating, David began working in a machine shop about the same time that the first video capable DSLR cameras were released to the consumer market. It was also during this time that he became involved in filmmaking to better document his hang gliding flights. An opportunity to create something was revealed.
DSLR cameras don’t have an effective way to “pull focus” when moving towards or away from a subject to better emulate traditional film. Most filmmaking systems that enable this were only available for professional film cameras that started in the tens of thousands of dollars. Since David had access to a CNC machine at the shop he was working in, he set out to solve the problem of creating an more affordable alternative.
According to David, it was online filmmaker forums who first voiced a need for such a product and gave him his first orders. When I asked David why he chose to pursue this venture instead of something related to his degree, he excitedly stated, “It’s something I wanted. Other people wanting it turned it into a business, but I wanted this function for my own filmmaking.”
I asked David if he had any advice for people who are trying to invent or create a marketable product and he gave me two valuable pieces of advice to pass on. First, “create something that you want to use and that you have an immediate need for, don’t focus on how to make money on it, at least not at first.” Second, “get in contact with someone who has a large following who can endorse your product.” David said that leveraging social networks and getting filmmaker Philip Bloom to use and endorse his follow focus was one of the first real boosts he received to his business. After that exposure, his business took off, but it is not without its challenges.
David filled me in on the current state of the hobby photography business and while he said things were going well, there is infinitely more competition from overseas manufacturing. He also pointed out that while the outsourced manufacturing gets the price point down, it still has not been able to maintain the same quality he aims for in his own products. All of the D|Focus parts are made in house and the plastic injection molding happens just two doors down from his own shop — he’s definitely earned the prominent display of the American Flag in his shop.
David has never been one to sit around and wait for opportunity to come knocking and has had quite a bit of success in other endeavors as well. In 2015, David’s love of hang gliding led him to successfully kickstart a hang gliding web series titled “Dreaming Awake” which combined his love of filmmaking and flying, all filmed with his in house made gear.
So what’s next for David? He has been diving deep into astrophotography and has some rough plans to construct his own telescope.