In episode #56 host Brett Stanley chats with John Ellerbrock – owner and President of Gates Underwater Housings.
Gates have been a staple in the world of underwater imaging since the late 60’s when Elwyn Gates started building the first products in his garage, and created a thriving business. John talks about the history of Gates, how he got involved, and what it takes to build camera housings for some of the worlds best cameras.
We discuss the manufacturing process, where Gates housings are being used, and where he sees the industry going in the future.
About John Ellerbrock – owner and CEO of Gates Underwater Housings
A graduate degree from Michigan Technological University, John Ellerbrock spent the first 20 years of his career as a Product Manager in defense, electronics, and wireless industries managing products that include the first generation OnStar phone system
With a graduate degree from Michigan Technological University in Mechanical Engineering and Business, John Ellerbrock spent the first 20 years of his career as a Product Manager. Working in defense, electronics, and wireless industries he managed products that include the first generation OnStar vehicle system, DirecTV satellite receivers, and mobile phones / accessories. Along the way he learned all aspects of successful product development, and the skills to take the helm of Gates
John became co-owner (with wife Karen) and President of Gates Underwater Products, Inc in 2002. Specializing in professional underwater motion imaging systems, Gates is at the forefront of underwater imaging with a brand name synonymous with quality, customer support, and ‘bulletproof’ reliability. John has designed several Gates products including the FX1/Z1, EX1R, DEEP RED / EPIC / WEAPON, Canon EOS, External Monitor housings, as well as a variety of optics and lighting systems. John says: “I am an Engineer by education; President by occupation; and Marketeer by avocation.”
Karen and John enjoy family gatherings and travel to remote diving destinations like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. John’s other hobby is flying an Experimental Ultralight.
Ep 56 John Ellerbrock
Welcome back to the underwater podcast. And this week I’m talking to John Ella, Brooke owner, and CEO of gates underwater housings. Gates have been a staple in the world of underwater imaging since the late sixties, when Elwin gates started building the first product in his garage and created a thriving business. John talks about the history of gates, how he got involved and what it takes to build a camera housings for some of the world’s best cameras. We discussed the manufacturing process where gates housings are being used. And where he sees the industry going in the future. All right. Let’s dive in.
[00:00:34] Brett Stanley: John, welcome to the underwater podcast.
[00:00:36] John Ellerbrock: Well, thank you for the invite, Brett. It’s a pleasure.
[00:00:38] Brett Stanley: Gates has been such a big part of the underwater world for me just getting into it in the last sort of 10 years. I know that Gates goes way past that. how did it kind of start? sort of talk us through this sort of little history of Gates and, and kind of where you sort of step into it.
[00:00:52] John Ellerbrock: Yeah, well, the company was founded by Elwin Gates in 1969, and he at the time was laying linoleum floors, and he was an avid diver at the diving locker down at Pacific Beach, and he saw an opportunity to make his first product in his garage, which you Nikonos camera system had these really unique Yeah.
Uh, macro framers where you would put this, uh, this extension between the camera and the lens and then have a framer out in front of it, such that when you would put any subject within that, that wire frame, you could trip the shutter and it was in focus and it was perfect.
and as you can imagine, I mean, he knew about the idea from other photography, but he had to work out the details all.
By trial and error, uh, how long to make the extension, what worked, what didn’t, and, uh, then dialed it all in and offered a set of of these macro framers for the Nikono system. And, uh, that’s where it all started. Uh, the, over the decades that followed, he sold tens of thousands of them to underwater photographers.
It was very popular and that’s what got his.
I’m going to show you a small suite, actually a part of a suite in Pacific Beach, where he could continue making these underwater products. That’s where he got into doing, uh, Uh, underwater housings, uh, photographic things. He, um, one of the things that he sold a mountain of, uh, our cables that allowed an extension between the Nikonos camera and whatever strobe we were using.
So he would manufacture the entire cable and the fitting to connect to the camera and the fitting to make. Connect to the strobe. So he made a bunch of these. They were coil type cables. So that was a staple product and, and in the, you know, the 70s, 80s, 90s, he would make custom housings for a variety of things.
And if you want to see what these look like, we’ve got a museum in the, in the front of our building in the
lobby area. it’s really popular. There’s a lot of history there, not only of gates, but of underwater imaging in general. So, a lot of what Elwynn created over those decades is in our museum now, from film cameras to The first video cameras you might recall, the very first video cameras where you had a camera head you could, you could hold like you might hold a camcorder now, but the recording device was a giant VCR type deck that was, you know, strapped around, you know, a strap around your shoulder and
carried at your, at your belt side.
So, you know, we’ve got a housing in the museum that has the camera on top and the recorder below it. And it’s got a funny V shape to it for that, that he made completely by I want to say by craftsmanship. He would hammer out aluminum and weld it together and cut big slabs of acrylic for the front and rear.
And, uh, do this technique called flame polishing. And it was a whole, when I say craftsmanship, it’s a lost art for the things that he did in that time to make these housings. So, He got into the housings. And then in the 1990s, things really started to take off because the, you remember the Sony handy cams, the little personal ones with the small tape drives in them,
[00:04:26] Brett Stanley: Yeah. Were they high eight or something?
[00:04:28] John Ellerbrock: Well, actually Hi8 came yeah, well, sorry. Hi8 was originally the, uh, the, the, the, the tape, uh, format. And then it moved to mini DV became digital after that. But yes, through that period, these camcorders became wildly popular because they were small and you could record, you know, anybody could pick one up and record anything you wanted.
Like we use our iPhones today. That was, you know, sort of the iPhone of the time. So L1 decided to say, let’s. wrap a shell around it and take it underwater. And, uh, that took off. That was a big deal for Gates. And, uh, that was right about the time that I met Elwyn. In 1996, I was uh, a local recreational diver and wanted to go shoot what was, you know, what we were seeing underwater so I could show my friends.
And so I met Elwyn then. And knew that at the time I was working through various startups in the dot com era, they’re wireless and, uh, satellite TV, a number of different industries. And I knew that eventually I was going to be a business owner of myself. And so, uh, L1 decided in 1997 that they were going to sell the company.
It took a few years to work things out until 2002 when I, my wife and I took over the keys. Uh, but. Uh, it was in those interim years, I helped them do some, uh, marketing for the company and to move their products, which, you know, worked against me for buying the company, of course, but, uh, it was a good way to find out what it was all about and if it was a good fit for, you know, for a future business.
And as it turned out, it was perfect.
[00:06:00] Brett Stanley: That’s, that’s amazing. And so, so when he was creating the sort of these, these handycam housings, was, was he mostly selling those to, you know, sort of consumers like just divers or, or was that more, to, to, towards the commercial sort of world? Yeah.
[00:06:15] John Ellerbrock: Uh, exactly right. It was all recreational divers. Interestingly, if you look at the markets that Gates has served over the years, prior to that Handycam era, uh, Elwin was making housings for television. He has a an Emmy for a large housing he made for the Betacam. You might remember the giant shoulder mounted Betacams.
Still in use today, though you see them at the baseball and football games. So, same size. Uh, but it was standard definition at the time and he made one for television and I don’t remember the name of the program for which he won the Emmy. I want to say it was National Geographic, but, um, a giant, uh, yellow colored, uh, housing that was sandcast is the method for making it.
but he was making a lot of of these professional grade systems and then comes along the Handycam and Gates became. Uh, recognized as a consumer product company then at the time as well. So, and since, you know, the, the, when Karen and I took over the company, we were still doing quite a number of camcorder housings.
It was a bread and butter. Uh, product line for us. But as you have seen yourself those have, uh, disappeared from the marketplace when digital photography caught up with, uh, the video side that started taking over the whole camcorder market. And now you know, the vast majority of cameras that are out there on the market are photographic cameras first and that do video seconds.
So that took over the market. And of course the point and shoots. Uh, came around, GoPros came around. So Gates evolved away from the consumer video market and back much more toward the professional end, which the housing you’ve used is what we’re very much known for today.
[00:08:03] Brett Stanley: And I, so I think, you know, I guess around like 2002, 2003, 2004, that’s pretty much like a revolution of, of digital imaging came through.
[00:08:12] John Ellerbrock: Mm
[00:08:12] Brett Stanley: So that must have, that must’ve been a very interesting time for you to sort of take the reins of the company. And, and did you feel like that influenced your direction in terms of what sort of products you were going to make housings for?
[00:08:23] John Ellerbrock: Oh, very much. So what you’re referring to is what I call technology waves. So, uh, to give you to lead into this Howard Hall was shooting for many, many years on a 16 millimeter film camera. And when high definition was in its. Infancy, this would be the late 90s, uh, he and Bob Cranston saw the writing on the wall and said, okay, there’s a technology wave coming.
So Howard sold off his 16 millimeter library and started rebuilding it in HD, uh, after shortly after that. And it became clear to me that You know, this technology wave is what drives what Gates does in a sense, because we’re always chasing the latest cameras. We’re always chasing the latest this, but it’s those technology waves that have a really big impact on, uh, on what we do.
So when, when high definition came along and really began its adoption into the general marketplace, that drove, Big wave of of growth for the company. So buying the company in 2002 was right on the leading edge of that wave. And it was quite, as you say, it was, uh, it was quite good for us to be at that particular moment of time.
[00:09:34] Brett Stanley: Did it, did it feel strange kind of letting go of the, the consumer market and moving more into. Yeah.
[00:09:42] John Ellerbrock: It did. It’s hard to let go of something that’s been so good to you that has worked out so well, but. You know, as a business owner, you have to look at it and say you know, where is this going? Is this gonna, can you keep making money? Are we going to start losing money? You got to be a little smarter than, um, uh, having sentimental attachments to it.
And when you look at Uh, all the, uh, the, the smaller cameras that were coming along. We just realized that the type of manufacturing that we do with machined aluminum, by this time, uh, uh, there’s a whole, a whole side story I could give you about how we’ve manufactured over the years. Point in time, we were getting into CNC machining and, uh, where, where the historically the, the whole industry was doing sand casting or, uh, they were doing extruded shells, even Elwynn had a number of extruded tubes that were.
10, 12 feet long that you would slice up and then turn into a housing. Uh, so we began machining everything because it’s one of those things I could see into the future that said, uh, everything is going this direction. There’s so many benefits to machining and being able to turn on a dime. If we want to change something in a product design, we can do it overnight.
Whereas if we were extruding something or we were sand casting something, the process of that to make some change is. Weeks, if not months to do it. Um, so that became, uh, in a big way, uh, a competitive advantage for us because we could turn quickly. We could take a new camera that’s come on the market and create a housing for it in record time.
And that was a big deal as well. So, The, uh, the, uh, machining part of it had a big influence on where we were going with what we were doing. So leaving behind the consumer market and saying everything we do lends itself well to the professional end. It was a natural for us to progress that direction.
[00:11:39] Brett Stanley: Right. Yeah. You, you could see the, you could see the benefits of, of sort of letting go of that, that market and moving into the, into the more specialized market.
[00:11:48] John Ellerbrock: exactly. We do still make one housing for the camcorder market. It’s a Sony 4k small camcorder. That isn’t really used much for the consumer end anymore. It’s been picked up by low end TV productions or people doing their own videos they post wherever But they’re looking for something a little more, you know straddles that a recreational professional market with a little bit But there’s quite a still may be our best seller ever is that particular camcorder because it’s been on the market now for five years, which is that part is unprecedented to see uh, uh, uh, camera, uh, digital camera be on the market for that long in the age we’re in.
It’s just remarkable.
[00:12:34] Brett Stanley: No, because I mean, like, technology moves so fast and people are so fickle as well. They’re wanting, you know, the, the more megapixels they’re wanting, the, the higher, you know, frame rates and all the data sets and all that sort of stuff. what is it about that camcorder you do you think that is so, so stable?
[00:12:47] John Ellerbrock: Well, two things. Number one, Sony sees it as it continues to sell for them. So, um, why change it? It’s got a foothold and people like it. But the other is it’s a very capable camera. It’s, um, four K does hide, uh, hdr Since it has a built in, uh, built in lens that’s a huge zoom range that’s completely usable underwater.
Um, you can be very opportunistic with it. From wide to macro and everything in between. And it handles underwater colors pretty darn well. So, it’s got a lot of things going to, uh, going for it technology wise.
[00:13:19] Brett Stanley: So that must be an interesting thing for you as well. Like having, not just the… production side of stuff in terms of making your housings, but you must have to have your finger on the pulse of what cameras are going to be the next thing. What, what new technology is going to come in that you want to sort of back and, and, and invest in, right?
[00:13:35] John Ellerbrock: Absolutely. Back up 20 years again, and the, you know, with Sony, the market was very different in that time because Sony would come out with a small high definition camcorder and their flagship model we knew was going to sell. We could easily predicted that it was going to be popular. So putting our money into the R& D to develop a housing was a no brainer.
It was easy and At that time, uh, Amphibico and, um, and Light Motion would do the same. Uh, everybody could see the writing on the wall. These days is a different story though, uh, Brett, as you can see, there’s a million cameras on the market and. Picking one that we can put our money into and get a return on investment is a lot harder, uh, that the crystal ball is a lot murkier when we’re talking about today.
So what does that mean? Um, in a business sense, another big shift in our company has been Away from these, um, I’ll call them our, our standard product line where we put our money into something and we know it’s going to sell well enough to do that. Uh, we have shifted a lot more toward the custom side. So there’s cameras out there that, you know, look good.
They look promising, but they just don’t get over that threshold of saying, let’s make a housing. So we put it into that column on the, on the whiteboard that says. It’ll be a custom if somebody wants it.
and not just that, but I mean, there’s a lot of obscure cameras out there that people approach us.
To discuss taking them underwater. So we’re doing a lot more custom work than We ever have in our history driven by one by technology, but also driven by our brand name is You know, i’m going to toot our own horn here Our brand name is very strong for what we do for it. It’s synon gates is synonymous with reliability.
So we are known for Uh when when you come to do To us for custom work, you’re going to get the Gates name on the side of it, which which candidly comes with a price tag attached to it. And those people with budget are not hesitant to do it because they’re involved the entire way through the design process.
And when we get it finished, it comes with the service and support the Gates name on the side of it. And it’s exactly what they wanted from the beginning.
So That is, um, a lot of our business model these days.
[00:16:04] Brett Stanley: Well, let’s kind of explore that. So what is entailed in getting a custom housing made? What steps do you need to go through in terms of someone’s brought you this obscure camera? They want to have a housing for what do you need to do in terms of design and Technology to make that work,
[00:16:20] John Ellerbrock: Good question. There are a number of steps in the process. The first one is try to suss out the, the budget the person has for what they’re seeking. Uh, and nine times out of 10, they’ve got, um, what’s the phrase? They’ve got a champagne taste in a beer pocket.
[00:16:35] Brett Stanley: right? Yeah
[00:16:37] John Ellerbrock: so we, we right up front, we try to see if there’s a match between the budget and the task.
So. If the budget’s there and the will is there, then the next step is we start putting requirements to what they want. So we’ll get on a video call, discuss their application, what they want to do back and forth about what features are going to be important, what’s not important, and we’ll wrap a statement of work around it.
So they know exactly what the product’s going to be when it’s done and what the price is to create it. And then they, uh, take that digested, they come back and say, let’s go. Then there’s some, you know, legal documents. We have a development agreement that they’ll sign NDAs are almost always in place.
And. Then we proceed, we start down the design path. We have them involved at, we have three steps. It’s a, uh, preliminary design review, which can be broken and generally broken into one or two of those to make sure we’re going down the right path. How that, this is how they want to, how, how, what our design approach is exactly what they want it to be.
So once we do that and they give their approval on the preliminary, that’s the okay to then proceed into the next step, which is all the details. We have a then a, um, A critical design review with them, which is, uh, say, continue down and finish all the final details, prepare it for production, and then we have the final design review and that’s the okay to proceed and to make the thing.
So they’re giving their blessing that this is what I want. Let’s go. And then we go make it. And, um, all the work, as you can probably imagine, the, the, all the cost of the development of a custom product goes into that R& D phase. The actual making of it is really just execution. I don’t want to say it’s a trivial amount, but it is a smaller part than the R& D process is.
So then we, uh, we make it and, uh, you know, I want to say it’s as simple as make it and deliver it. It’s not always that simple, but you know, when we’ve planned, when we’ve, when we’ve planned well and developed it well and thought it through set it up for success, then getting the manufacturing done and delivering it is a pretty straightforward process at that point.
[00:18:46] Brett Stanley: Yeah. So I mean, the actual design of the, the housing itself, do you have, I guess, you know, you’ve been in business for so long, you must have some pretty, you know, kind of good ideas of how things are going to work in terms of controls and how the camera is going to sit in there and, and, you know, uh, volume to buoyancy sort of calculations, is there much, that’s kind of a surprise to you guys now?
[00:19:10] John Ellerbrock: Um, well, some things come out of left field that. Are a surprise. I’ll give you an example. Just last week, we got an inquiry from Europe for a laboratory application. It’s a camera that’s used generally in forensics for criminals crime scene forensics. That they have a very particular application for in a lab environment.
And the challenge there was not particularly the controls or fitting it into the housing. The challenge there was we had to find a material to go in front of the lens and the, um, they have light emitters on them that emit in specific frequencies. So we had to find glass that would go in front of that and not block out any of the frequencies.
That they’re using in this particular camera. So, you know, when those things come along yeah, they’re challenges, but that’s what makes it fun. That’s the really, uh, things you can sink your teeth into and, and, uh, develop something really fresh.
[00:20:12] Brett Stanley: Oh, no, totally. I mean, that must be like talking about cameras and stuff, just, you know, usual, you know, video cameras or imaging, you know, you’re dealing with a set amount of, of the light spectrum generally much, pretty much the same all the time. So when you get something like this, it must be, it must be a lot of fun, uh, and, and also frustrating to try and work out how to solve this problem.
[00:20:32] John Ellerbrock: Uh, yeah. But again, that’s the, the, the fun part, you know, come overcoming those obstacles and, you know, uh, diving in as it were with, uh, uh, jumping in with both feet and, and seeing it through and getting it done. And you’re right. Um, you know, we deal with the visible spectrum in our everyday things for the professional.
Uh, you know, imaging crowd, but this one was unique. It was you know, it extended into the UV and infrared range. So we really had to take that into account.
[00:20:58] Brett Stanley: Yeah, so how, so if you’re dealing with custom optical glass and all that sort of stuff, do you guys make your glass domes and ports in house or is that something that’s outsourced?
[00:21:08] John Ellerbrock: That’s outsourced. We try to do everything we can here in our our own facility in, uh, Poway, uh, California for those people that aren’t familiar with the area. We, we try to do everything here that we can, but there’s a number of things we certainly can’t and glass is its own discipline. We don’t even want to get close to that.
So, so no, we outsource, uh, the glass manufacturer the anodized process for our, uh, housings for the aluminum, uh, that’s an EPA nightmare that’s best handled by the professionals as well. So there’s certain things we don’t do here and, and, you know, rightly so
[00:21:42] Brett Stanley: Because it’s an entire business on its own, I
[00:21:45] John Ellerbrock: it is, it is, yeah.
[00:21:47] Brett Stanley: in, in terms of, cause you said you went from, you know, he started making them, uh, in Plexiglas and then, you know, sort of moved into using metal and all that sort of stuff. What are the kind of the differences between say making something out of Plexiglas or making it out of metal?
Are there, I assume there’s specific reasons why you’d use one or the other.
[00:22:06] John Ellerbrock: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, um, we’ve worked with a variety of different materials over the years and, and even way back when L1 was doing his first housings in the 70s. He was working with aluminum in a different way he would get, I mean, literally get sheets of aluminum and mill them, hammer them into shape, weld them and then he would, he could machine acrylic.
Acrylic happens to be a, a very machinable, uh, material.
[00:22:32] Brett Stanley: Right.
[00:22:33] John Ellerbrock: And it also has the advantage of being the same, uh, index of refraction as water. So when you take it in the water, the water to acrylic interface basically disappears. So you’ve probably seen acrylic domes or anything acrylic that’s looks horribly scratched and you’d never want to take that underwater.
Well, as soon as you take it underwater, all those things disappear.
[00:22:54] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:22:55] John Ellerbrock: of magic that
[00:22:56] Brett Stanley: Yeah. It’s amazing because I’m very rough with my housings and uh yeah I I’ve have uh acrylic domes pretty much for that reason.
[00:23:04] John Ellerbrock: Yes, exactly. Andy, Andy Casagrande does the same thing. He’s constantly sticking his housing in the mouth of sharks. So he didn’t want to have to replace a glass dome every time he does that. So he shoots on acrylic
for that reason.
[00:23:17] Brett Stanley: It’s good. It’s a good thing. Yeah.
[00:23:18] John Ellerbrock: Yeah. So we’ve used a number of different materials. Uh, the, uh, so there’s acrylic, there’s aluminum, uh, the, uh, there’s a sedal or Delrin as some people know it.
And stainless steel. We. We rarely machine stainless steel because it’s just harder and it’s more difficult. But sometimes we have to depending on what we’re doing. Uh, And so those are the, you know, basic materials that go into what we do, although that’ll lead me into something else that we’re really, uh, it’s going to use too many puns here.
We’re deep into, the, uh, we have been doing 3d printing now for, gosh, I think six years, uh, And it’s, I encourage you to come by. It’s much more dramatic to see this in action, but we have a room that’s now dedicated to, uh, I think we have four or five, maybe six printers in there running. And when we got our first one six years ago, to see what could this do for us.
In the very first week I had a, a part that it was essentially a gear that would go on a lens to adapt it for use in the housing, and I gave it to one of my machinists to make it on the machine, make it in our factory, and it took him a full week to design it or to, to program it, cut it, and produce the finished part.
Well, we took the same gear and put it onto our 3D printer. We had to tweak it slightly, but, uh, for printing, but we put it on the printer and came back the next day and it was done.
[00:24:44] Brett Stanley: It’s it’s crazy. Yeah.
[00:24:46] John Ellerbrock: And so that immediately, immediately demonstrated the power of where this technology was going. And so we have, uh, for prototyping now we use them for production parts.
We use them. Uh, we’ve cut our teeth on what to do and what not to do. So we’re pretty good at how to design things for printing. So they’re going to be, uh, reliable in the product. And we’ve now got The latest 3d printer has a, let me think here. It’s a 24 by 24 inch bed that we’re printing port caps on and.
Yeah, it might seem like not a good use for a 3D printer for a hard poured cap but the thing is that when we were machining these the cost of the block of raw material to go and Make this port cap was Extraordinary. I’m talking, you know 7, 500 just for the raw piece of material to make a simple port cap.
And so It took us a while to, um, uh, to work out the details of how to print something that big. We eventually got there and, uh, we’re printing them. Not only are they they’re superb for the application, but they can be printed in colors. We’ve, we can make them custom now too. Uh, commander rentals in Atlanta, for example, is one of our top customers, uh, and they have a number of these hard port caps now for their systems that say commander right across the front of it.
It’s very impressive.
[00:26:12] Brett Stanley: Oh, that’s the thing I think with 3D printing, I’ve been doing a little bit of that myself just because I’ve had, some things I need to make for my studio that are custom and you know, I can’t, can’t buy them. So, okay, well let’s try out three day printing. So I’ve, I’ve been doing a little bit of that, but the, the, the brilliance of it is like you say, the, the, the lack of wasted material and even the material that is kind of wasted can even be recycled back into the system to be used to print again.
[00:26:38] John Ellerbrock: yeah, very true. The, uh, the power of it is, um, is, is, is the lack of wasted material. Like in contrast to machining, of course we, I mean, so much has cut away to make this final product. In our application, 90% of the aluminum that we, we get an aluminum block in, uh, and we cut away 90% of it to make what is ultimately an underwater housing.
So, in the 3d printing environment, exactly all, all you’re using is the amount of material you need. To make that particular part and that’s it.
[00:27:11] Brett Stanley: So that’s a good question is, so when you are milling stuff and say it’s a block of aluminum, what do you do with all the waste? Does it get sent back and put back into a, into a new block or what do you do with it?
[00:27:22] John Ellerbrock: We have a chip bin right outside our door that when it’s full it gets picked up by the recycling guys
And um, they basically give us a bunch of beer money
[00:27:31] Brett Stanley: Okay. That’s good. Yeah.
[00:27:33] John Ellerbrock: it all gets recycled It all goes back in made and it might end up in your beer can it might end up somewhere else But no, the the recycling industry for metals is very well developed.
They take Anything we produce for chips metal chips, they will recycle and I, I just gave them something I didn’t know they recycled. A lot of our tooling is, um, is, uh, carbide material and, uh, solid carbide, which is superb for machining aluminum, but you know, we break them, we, they chip, they can’t be used anymore.
So we just been tossing them into a bin. Well it turns out they can recycle that too. And it’s not just recycling, but it’s worth quite a bit of money. I. I was shocked that, uh, that, uh, how much it was worth. So, yeah, you know, one thing in general, one thing we do pretty well here in the United States is recycling things, uh, you know, across the board.
Not as, not as good as some other countries, but, uh, everything we produce is chips. Finds a new home when it’s done.
[00:28:35] Brett Stanley: Right. And it’s, it is, when you said beer money, it did remind me, I did a season in, in Canada snowboarding and we would go and buy a lot of beer from from the grocery store, drink all that beer. And then when we took it back, you know, we would keep all the cans, but if we took it back, we would get money for those cans, which we would then spend on beer. So there was this beautiful, vicious circle of, um, of beer drinking and recycling.
[00:29:01] John Ellerbrock: yeah, yeah. wonderful.
[00:29:02] Brett Stanley: Um, I think that’s the other thing too. With, with metal recycling, I think there is so much, I guess money to be made in the recycling process. You know, like, you know, collecting cans, uh, recycling, you know, copper, all that sort of stuff. There is such a good return of investment in terms of that recycling system.
Whereas I find plastic, not so much. Like, it seems to be very, like, reduced returns.
[00:29:27] John Ellerbrock: Yeah. Well, uh, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure that plastic recycling is a completely subsidized effort. Whereas metals recycling is self sustaining. It’s, um, the the, the demand for the chips to be recycled is less than it is to mine it fresh for certain applications. So, yeah, your points well taken.
[00:29:47] Brett Stanley: So, and to digress a little bit, I mean, I kind of find it interesting that, I heard this statistic, I don’t know, a few years ago, of like 90% of all the aluminum that’s been produced is still in circulation because of the recycling systems,
[00:30:00] John Ellerbrock: Could be. I wouldn’t be surprised.
[00:30:02] Brett Stanley: which makes you wonder why. People do tend to, you know, make water bottles and all these things out of plastic when they could be quite easily made out of Aluminum and and recycled. Yeah.
[00:30:12] John Ellerbrock: Yeah. Well, you know, I do, I mean, more and more I see people with their, you know, their, their water bottles, their aluminum or stainless things and when they’re working out or whatever. So I think that’s, I think the good news is we’re shifting that direction. We just have to the incentives have to be changed a little bit more so that, you know, the cost of buying it in plastic is higher than the cost of having your own reusable container.
[00:30:37] Brett Stanley: Yeah, exactly. Yeah
[00:30:39] John Ellerbrock: I mean, it all comes down to incentives, doesn’t it?
[00:30:41] Brett Stanley: no, no exactly and I think this is a beautiful and unintentional segue of of your housings being used to film, ocean, conservation, shows and, and kind of documentaries, that show the kind of the, the devastation that these, these plastics are actually making out there.
who is using your housings? What are they being used for?
[00:31:00] John Ellerbrock: our, uh, um, our legacy, if you will, is in the natural history market. Elwynn as a diver and the things he was making for many, many years, uh, the housings were for National Geographic Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, you might recall that program.
[00:31:17] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:31:18] John Ellerbrock: uh, PBS, uh, and, uh, and of course, uh, over in the UK in, in Bristol, there was the, uh, BBC Natural History Unit that, uh, was using Gates equipment for a very, very long time to make their programs.
Um, you know, Sir David and the whole crew. There, so that’s what Gates has been known for, for, uh, Wow, we’re on 53 years now of being in business. So, you know, that is the market the That is getting the word out to the world about hey, we’ve got a problem here Uh, we are we humans are making too much of an impact on this You know this spaceship we call earth and we need to change it and they’re the ones leading the charge so our part of it as you say is to we make the equipment that they can Take, document it, uh, make the images and show the rest of the world.
And so in an, in an indirect way, uh, we are, um, supporting that effort and we’re really happy. I mean, it’s, it’s a great it’s not the main reason that we do what we do. I mean, we’ve got a business and we’ve got to continue to stay in business. But the next thing right behind that is we can help all these people go and change the world.
And indeed, all these productions, I mean, countless names and companies that are indeed changing the world out there by that method by that effort. And it’s just great to be part of it.
[00:32:37] Brett Stanley: Yeah. No, exactly. And, and so I’ve spoken to a lot of, you know, wildlife underwater shooters. and I think quite a lot of them are using gates, you know, for their, for their actual own rigs. Especially the Deep Komodo, I think it’s got a, a great, representation out there. Are you getting a lot of feedback from people using it and does that kind of inform you to sort of make changes and sort of make things more usable or more functional?
[00:33:03] John Ellerbrock: Oh, all the time. Uh, we, we, a large, um, a large part of our customer base, our owner operators for sure. And, uh, if you want to point to, uh, one of our more recent successes, uh, is the supporting the Komodo and soon the Komodo X. They’re very popular cameras and that has, you know, been popular in turn for us.
But well, Coming from the, the background that I did, there’s, you, if you, if you worked here, you would often hear the phrase, it’s our job to break it, not the customer. So, We try to put through everything through its rounds, test it, make sure that when it gets out to the field, it’s going to be the reliable Gates product that people expect, you know, things happen in the field.
And when they do, we take those things very seriously. And we go through a process of, we want to find out what happened, what are the details of what happened, everything we can, and then try to get to the root cause. Of that problem. And very often, the apparent cause is not what is the actual root cause of it.
And so if that leads back to what we’re doing here at Gates, then absolutely, we will change our processes or the product design or something to make it better in the field. And, um, there are, uh, you know, there’s some examples of that, that, um, I could share with you. Let me think here. There’s one, one of the things we’ve had, we’ve struggled with is, um, We’ve been with the RED system for a long time, and if you’re familiar with the 2 platforms, the interface between the camera and the RED LCDs is an HDMI like interface. It’s proprietary to RED, but it’s very similar to HDMI. Well, HDMI is just a bag of hurt in many ways.
There’s 19 conductors in a full on connection. There’s 19 conductors. And, uh, It’s, uh, it’s high speed data going over that line. So having a very reliable interface in a marine environment like we are, uh, has, has posed its challenges over the years. So, the cable that we make we, uh, we’re able to take, uh, the red, uh, spec and.
Make it marinized, if you will. So we make it with a really tough jacket on the outside. We do other things to it so that it’ll stand up in the marine environment. And then, and then, uh, uh, we’ll, so we adapted to what we’re doing. But even with all the measures we take, uh, the beating that they get in the, in the marine environment and, uh, is.
Just so harsh on it. So there’s, um, we don’t have the big margin between the design and what it’s doing and the failure rate that’s in the field. So we have candidly struggled with a failure rate out in the field for those cables. So to make the point, we have made design changes to that. Uh, over the years and another one fairly recently to try to make these even more reliable in the field.
So we’re we’re on a constant process of improvement to with that singular goal in mind of these things got to be reliable They’ve got to work because if somebody’s down in the field and can’t get the shot then, you know They’re screwed and my name or the gates name is on the side of it. And you know, we’re culpable if you will
[00:36:30] Brett Stanley: No, and that’s the thing too. Is that, you know, it might not be your operator who’s, who’s, uh, kind of pissed off. You know, the production is, is going to see the equipment they used and then maybe say, you know, let’s not use that on the next production. Yeah, it can make things quite hard.
[00:36:43] John Ellerbrock: Yeah. And you know, and I think that, that, that effort, that, um, mantra of reliability for us is one of the key reasons that, uh, we are now, I mean, as you’ve seen, we have been moving away, I shouldn’t say moving away from our brand is spilling over into the, to the cinema and TV world more and more of these days, you know, it’s a market that has been owned by Pete Romano and Hydroflex for decades.
And, um, and it wasn’t, um, By any particular intent that we’re finding our way into that market. It’s just that what we do finds it’s word of mouth around to them. And uh, we’re making housings now for all the airy cameras. Uh, we, I mean, we’ve been, we’ve been doing, um, red cameras forever, but in more recent years, now we’re finding that we’re supporting the airy cameras and things like surface control of camera lens, all the things that you need in the cinema world.
So we’ve become somewhat experts now in surface control of. Some everything going on underwater. So just because of what, of that spill over into the market.
[00:37:45] Brett Stanley: Yeah. And that’s interesting as well as having to kind of retool the way your housings work because with the, you know, with the wildlife stuff, it is the operator who’s down there doing everything. And they are, you know, untethered a lot of the time. They might be out there by themselves actually just, you know, shooting days and days of footage.
Whereas in the cinema world, you know, you’ll have focus puller on the surface, you want a surface feed, you have, you know, director on the surface and all those controls. Was, was that much of a shift for you or did you kind of already have a lot of that in place?
[00:38:15] John Ellerbrock: Um, well, it’s easier to make a housing with no controls on it. So,
uh, to go, to go that direction was not a big step. I mean, the know how of sealing, uh, uh, uh, housing for underwater use, um, that’s completely transportable, but what we had to really get up the curve on was understanding the, um, uh, all the protocols that are involved between, you know, the lens control systems or Interfaces from camera to whatever is going to control it.
So is it going to be wireless? Is it going to be wired? What’s the protocol involved? Is it Ethernet? Is it RS 232? You know what’s happening here? So there’s a lot of work to do to figure all that out. And As well with the cables that we’re using for surface control, they have to meet certain criteria to be robust and reliable.
And, you know, when you step on it on the deck, it’s not going to break through the jacket, for example. Uh, so there’s a number of things that went into it and, uh, yes. We’ve been doing this now, uh, started, oh gosh, maybe 10 years ago, maybe more than that. When we introduced the original red one housing in 2008, we started down that path of having to learn more about how do we support these surface demands, uh, in that market.
[00:39:29] Brett Stanley: Yeah. I mean, cause even with some of the wildlife stuff, they do want like surface control of stuff. Do you ever do anything with their You know, they’re locking a camera off down on a tripod and then basically retreating.
[00:39:41] John Ellerbrock: Oh yeah. Uh, yes, exactly. The natural history crowd has. Moved in a remote, uh, application, uh, more and more, you know, as you can imagine that they’re always looking for the, the latest way to capture the images of whatever creature, critter they’re going after. And so, um, if they can leave something down with the critter and disappears because the divers spook them all the better.
And yeah, there’s a lot of that happening for sure.
[00:40:06] Brett Stanley: Yeah. What’s the longest you’ve had a housing sit on the bottom of the ocean?
[00:40:11] John Ellerbrock: Oh, you know, that, uh, the longest has been, uh, when people lose them.
[00:40:15] Brett Stanley: Oh, yeah. I mean, intentionally.
[00:40:18] John Ellerbrock: Oh, well, it’s, you know, it can be days at a time, but that’s about it, but no, we’ve gotten housings back that got lost and were down for months, maybe even, uh, extending into years
and they come back and they’re perfectly fine. They’re just, you know, totally encrusted on the outside, but everything inside is perfectly fine.
[00:40:38] Brett Stanley: I do remember there was a show, I think it was a Netflix show, it came out a few years ago called Chasing Coral and it was a kind of a docu series about the bleaching of the coral and, um, I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but they, um, a lot of the show was, concerned with them building a camera system that they could leave down there for months at a time to be able to over, you know, sort of time lapse document everything.
And it was very interesting watching them go through different iterations of this. of this housing basically with a dome that was self cleaning
and how that would work whether it was like windscreen wipers or whether it would constantly rotate or any of that sort of stuff. Do you find that your, people are asking you for that sort of stuff?
[00:41:18] John Ellerbrock: No, our, uh, we don’t have anything that would, uh, to do. I remember that. It was a, it was a wiper that would go across the dome to knock off whatever little critters decided they wanted to start attaching their barnacles or
[00:41:31] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:41:31] John Ellerbrock: Uh, no we haven’t done anything quite like that. Um, our housings might go down for, uh, days at a time to document something, but yeah, that’s about it.
Nothing as long as what they were doing on, um, on that docuseries.
[00:41:47] Brett Stanley: Yeah. I think it was like, yeah, months, six months at a time or maybe a year as it was interesting.
[00:41:52] John Ellerbrock: Yeah. That was a unique challenge too. I would have been fun to be part of it, but uh, they found somebody to take care of them and that was good.
[00:41:59] Brett Stanley: Yeah, no, exactly. What do you guys do in, in terms of accessories and stuff? Do you, are you, are you delving into the lighting side of stuff as well?
[00:42:06] John Ellerbrock: You know, we we do occasionally depending on market demand I think it was in 20, I want to say 2014, 2015. There was a clear opening for As as L. E. D. S. Became more and more powerful, uh, it could be battery driven and producing enormous amounts of light. That’s where the where the two things intersected.
You could you could produce this enormous amount of light and make it battery driven. So on the L. E. D. Technology was was Just getting to that point. So we decided to make a set of lights. They’re called the GT 14s and the 14 is for 14, 000 lumens, which today doesn’t sound like a lot, but at the time that was a huge amount of light to come out of a battery powered setup.
[00:42:49] Brett Stanley: Oh, yeah, for sure.
[00:42:51] John Ellerbrock: so we, um. Um, you know, decided this would be worthwhile and we developed it and we’re, uh, still selling them. Uh, they don’t sell quite the way they used to because the other things have passed by, but, um, we do that and, um, we did a custom project in, let’s see, two, three years ago that is for, are you familiar with the Astera Titan tubes used in cinema?
[00:43:17] Brett Stanley: Yeah, yeah. The, the sort of four, eight foot long LED tubes. Yeah.
[00:43:20] John Ellerbrock: Yeah, they’ve got a two foot Helios, a four foot Titan and a eight foot, uh, other name, uh, anyway, the four footer, uh, we developed a, um, basically a clear polycarbonate tube to take that underwater with uh, not only access to the touch screen on the, on the tube itself, but it can be tethered to the surface for full DMX control.
[00:43:42] Brett Stanley: Oh, wow. Okay.
[00:43:43] John Ellerbrock: Yeah, so we’ve got a number of those out in rental houses and, uh, uh, doing their thing. So that’s the extent of the lighting that we’re doing right now. And, um, yeah, so it’s, uh, it’s, it’s not our main thing to do. Uh, we, we did it, the GT14s we did because it was very opportune. We saw the, uh, that. This was something the market needed.
And the, uh, Astero was a custom project that, uh, in this case, we had free license to go sell it to other people. So that was, uh, that was nice. And, uh, that’s about it for lighting.
[00:44:18] Brett Stanley: So if you sort of come up with a project or someone comes to you and they’re like, you know, we just want to try this out. We don’t want to invest a lot of money in it. Where, where do you spend the most of your money? Is it, I would say it’s not so much in the manufacturing anymore cause you’ve, you’ve kind of dialed that in with the 3d printing and the prototyping.
Do you spend, is the R and D and the design of it sort of where you spend the most amount of your time, I guess. Yeah. Okay. Thanks.
[00:44:42] John Ellerbrock: Yeah, for sure. Uh, that’s where I would say 80%, maybe, uh, 90% of the cost is in R and D maybe more like 80% and the reason is because what we do here, the. The knowledge base of what we do is so highly specialized that our rates for R& D are, are not insignificant. They’re, uh, they’re, um, what you get for what we know and how to produce it is where you’re making your investment.
So that’s where it goes in, is in the upfront part. And then, uh, The manufacturing, as I mentioned earlier, you know, all the planning, all the preparation, all that goes in, uh, at the beginning. So that when we get to the manufacturer, it’s really just execution to get it done.
[00:45:29] Brett Stanley: Yeah. It’s almost, yeah, kind of hitting play on that, on that Miller or that the, the printer and then, you know, everything,
[00:45:35] John Ellerbrock: Yeah.
[00:45:35] Brett Stanley: know, God willing should all just fit together and, and do what it’s told. Yeah.
[00:45:40] John Ellerbrock: Most of the time it does.
[00:45:42] Brett Stanley: What is, um, I, I love this question of what, what is your worst? Failure. What is your best achievement and what is your worst failure?
[00:45:49] John Ellerbrock: Uh, you’ll remember this, uh, 2013 when avatar first came out and the entire industry was talking about 3d I mean, 3d was everything. Uh, and, uh, I think if you went to NAB that year, it was just the most amazing thing to see how many companies were announcing. We have something about 3d. We are, we’re going to do 3d.
I remember a booth that the company, I think they made batteries and they had nothing to do with, with anything really 3d, but they’d put a little sign up in their booth that said, we do 3d.
[00:46:27] Brett Stanley: Oh, right.
[00:46:28] John Ellerbrock: It was. It was a mania of 3D. And so, frankly, I got swept up in this thinking, okay, there’s, there’s, if everybody’s behind it, it’s going to go somewhere.
So, uh, we made a housing for a Panasonic 3D. Basically a camcorder, you know, if you looked at it closely, what they did was take one of their camcorders and put a, a dual lens on the front of it. So much like you see the, you know, Canon’s got their dual fisheye lens out on the market now, very similar to that, but they had to switch lenses actively so that one frame would record left image, one frame would record the right image back and forth.
Yeah. So it was very light hungry and it had other limitations to it. But Panasonic put all, many of their eggs into the 3D basket. And so we made a housing for that. And I don’t want to tell you how many we sold because it was a frighteningly few of them. Because by the next year, the next NAB, Nobody was talking about, barely anybody was talking about 3D anymore.
It was just such a, such a wild panacea that just fizzled as fast as it came. It was really remarkable to watch. So, that was my lesson in, you know, when these new things come along and everybody’s in hysterics about it, to just take a step back and say, let’s. Evaluate this a little closer.
[00:47:49] Brett Stanley: Well that, I mean, that’s a good question. How, how long do you wait to see if something’s going to be, you know, with, and risk losing the advantage? How long do you sort of wait to, to sort of do that gamble?
[00:48:01] John Ellerbrock: Uh, I think a good measure of that, one of the best measures of that is how many people are contacting us and saying, I want this and are willing to put some money where their words are.
[00:48:15] Brett Stanley: And then so what was your, what’s one of your biggest achievements?
[00:48:18] John Ellerbrock: I would have to say that, um, uh, establishing a relationship with, uh, with, uh, red digital cinema back in, uh, 2006 when, uh, they showed up at NAB. And, um, I was actually speaking with a friend in the cannon booth and, um, he grabbed me. He said, John, you gotta, you gotta see this. So he, he walked me out of the cannon booth and he walked me over to the red booth and he walked up to, uh, Jim, uh, uh, Jim Gennard.
Is that I’m pronouncing his name, right? Yeah. Uh, and, uh, he said, Jim, I’d like you to meet John. He makes the best underwater housings in the world. And. I barely got a word out of my mouth when Jim said, all right, we’ve got our underwater housing guy.
[00:49:07] Brett Stanley: Oh, awesome. Yeah.
[00:49:10] John Ellerbrock: So, and I’m just looking around at what, what is red? What are you doing? What? And so, that was the start of, uh, a Really good long term relationship with the company now you know, you’ve seen They’ve had their trials and tribulations over the years with so many different things but um, we’ve been there with them all the way and Uh, maybe maybe I don’t know if we’re the only But one of the few companies that were there at that time that are still doing what we’re doing Because there’s been a number that have come and gone but I, you know, the relationship with the people that read is first rate.
They’re just great people. And, uh, we love them. And that’s not to say that we don’t, uh, you know, the, the relationship with other camera manufacturers is terrific too, they’re all wonderful people and very supportive of what we do.
[00:49:58] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:49:58] John Ellerbrock: Making, making a decision on a new digital cinema camera that was, you know, it was not like 3d was, but everybody was.
Looking at it, and there was some, a lot of buzz around it, a lot of things, people thinking, you know, what’s going to happen? Is digital cinema going to be a thing? Or is everybody going to continue shooting on film? What, where is it going to go? But, you know, we took a chance and said, all right, let’s, let’s go and see where this, where this runs.
And, uh, and we did. And it was a good, that was a good decision.
[00:50:30] Brett Stanley: Yeah. No, that’s paid off definitely. Uh what do you see happening in the future? Are there any technology you’re you’re excited about?
[00:50:37] John Ellerbrock: Oh, that’s a really good question. You know, these days. You know, these technology waves of higher resolution, how many K’s can you have, has kind of plateaued. Uh, we’re, we’re looking more at very specialized things that are in the market. So, uh, that camera I mentioned earlier that came out of the blue as a custom for forensics.
Uh, I started thinking about, well, what could this be used for, for, you know, natural history stuff. And, uh, so there’s these things oh, here’s another one. These, these things that fall into the cracks that, uh, other people aren’t doing, uh, we, we love the, uh, Lowa lenses, uh, the, the shout out to all those people who, um, uh, and especially the designer, um, who’s doing this amazing stuff, these, their lenses seem to fall in between the cracks of all the other manufacturers out there and, uh, a couple of the things that they’ve done, uh, We really like.
Are there probe lenses there? Have you seen those?
[00:51:33] Brett Stanley: Yeah. Yeah. Like, they’re like, you know, sort of a foot 18 inches long and a tiny little lens on the end so you can sort of get into spaces you couldn’t normally get into,
[00:51:41] John Ellerbrock: Exactly. That, you know, probably lenses have been around for a while. Topside. But Lowa came in and made this probe lens at a nice price point. Good performance for, you know, for a first effort. It was light hungry, too. It’s an F 14 lens. So, um, but you so you really had to light up your subject. But, uh, the natural history productions just Grab hold of it and took off with it and started shooting.
I mean, whole productions shot about macro subjects and largely a lot of them shot on that probe lens. So these kinds of specialized things are are where we like to look for opportunity. Another one, we, we took a chance on some years ago that has paid off was doing a housing for the phantom flex 4k.
[00:52:25] Brett Stanley: Oh yeah. Yeah.
[00:52:26] John Ellerbrock: And as you can imagine in the natural history world, there are things that happen very fast and being able to slow it, not only slow it down, but also have that pre record capability so that you don’t miss it is, has been a big deal. That’s, that’s been a very popular thing for natural history as well.
[00:52:45] Brett Stanley: Oh no, I can imagine. Yeah. I mean, that thing shoots like, you know, one a thousand frames a second and being able to, to grab that chunk of time and then slow it down to 24, like it gives you so much content. Yeah.
[00:52:57] John Ellerbrock: And, and, and to that point, so many of the cameras out there, one of the things red did supremely well is, uh, they, they, I want to say they became the defacto camera for the natural history market, uh, largely because they made a small package with a high performance and specifically resolution and frame rates.
And it was the frame rates that in particular, that the natural history people. Picked up on, um, because just about anything you shoot underwater, even things you think are moving slowly. If you slow it down even just a bit further, you know, just 20%, it gives it a very graceful look and a more appealing look.
So, you know, just even a slight bit of slow mo has really grabbed hold in the natural history market as well. So, uh, that’s why one of the reasons that red. did exceptionally well in the natural history market.
[00:53:49] Brett Stanley: Oh, no, totally. Yeah. Being able to have that resolution and that, and that being able to slow that down and to be able to have that kind of beautiful content, but that hasn’t really been seen that much before. Um, that’s what came in.
[00:54:02] John Ellerbrock: exactly. They were able to shoot things they’ve never been able to do. And you know, who’s a big, a big, um, uh, uh, who really made that all happen as well is of Sean Ruggieri, who you’ve had on your. On
[00:54:14] Brett Stanley: Yeah. Sean’s the best. Yeah.
[00:54:17] John Ellerbrock: He’s great. And, um, he was leading the charge in natural history, uh, ever since red came out with all this stuff.
And so, you know, shout out to him for for, um, you know, the, uh, for making, uh, taking what red produced and getting it into that market. So well, and so entrenched as it is now.
[00:54:38] Brett Stanley: And that’s the thing too, right? Like as a, as a company, you need these, these kinds of champions of your product who are out there working with it every day, you know, you, you want to be able to give them something that they’re proud of.
[00:54:50] John Ellerbrock: Absolutely. And you know, we do have our ambassadors and Sean is at the top of that list. Uh, and, but you know, every customer we have out there is really an ambassador. And that’s kind of the way we look at, uh, you know, we get, we, we take care of the customer and they’ll take care of us. So, um, they are, everybody out there is an ambassador for us.
So we have to be, you know, we have to be on our toes and make sure that they’re happy.
[00:55:13] Brett Stanley: No, no, no, totally. John, this has been amazing. It just, you know, I think we take kind of, you know, housings for granted. We kind of just, you know, they’re a tool that we have. So to be able to hear, you know, where yours has come from and, and kind of where you’re going, it’s, it’s amazing. Thanks so much for sharing.
[00:55:29] John Ellerbrock: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the invite.