Video Editing in the Cloud
There are many cloud-based editing solutions available, nearly too many to count. Who should consider using them and why? How can you tell them apart? That’s what I’ll cover in this article.
Let’s start by explaining the concept. Cloud-based video editing means that you upload your source video files to the cloud service, then edit and encode them within your browser. The actual edits are performed on machines provisioned by the cloud service so you can edit from a notebook or underpowered computer.
If you’re concerned about the upload time, don’t be. Most services let you start editing while the clip is being uploaded. While you might not want to edit a full-length feature film in a cloud service, producing a 1- or 2-minute production for social media distribution should be a breeze.
All services charge on a monthly basis, with different tiers for different feature sets. Some offer a free tier, some don’t. Few offer full-function trials (other than for press types) that allow you to actually test the editor in real projects, which I, personally, found frustrating.
In general, there are multiple motivations for cloud-based editing. First and most important is collaboration. If you’re working with a team, the ability for multiple editors to access and edit the same content from disparate locations can be critical. Most cloud-based editors enable some form of collaboration, as I’ll discuss later.
Of course, you can also collaborate with traditional desktop editors like Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, and Avid Media Composer. I’m most literate on the Adobe platform, so I’ll discuss the options later, with links to resources on collaboration with Apple and Avid.
Beyond collaboration, online editors attempt to distinguish themselves with features that are not generally available from less expensive desktop editors, including accurate text to speech. Some include templates for common videos and destinations, while others provide access to stock audio, video, and still-image clips, as well as features that auto-generate content from scripts and blog posts.
From an ease-of-use and functionality perspective, there are two classes of cloud editors. Some, like Blackbird and Vimond IO, emulate the feature set and flexibility of desktop editors, focusing on collaboration as the key value add for cloud-based operation, along with easy accessibility. Ease of use and the operational scheme are similar to those of desktop editors. If you’re an Adobe Premiere Pro user, it would take only an hour or so to become proficient. If you’re an editing newbie, however, you’ll find the learning curve steep.
Others, like VEED.IO and WeVideo, offer less pure-editing functionality in a much easier-to-use interface. Here, the reverse is true: If you’re an experienced editor, you’ll be frustrated by the lack of features that were available back in 2005 in Adobe Premiere Pro and by a totally new and different editing paradigm. If you’re a newbie, you’ll find operation much simpler than most professional desktop programs and probably won’t notice the lack of ripple deletes or the inability to split audio and video into separate clips.
That’s the overview. In terms of structure, this article will start by reviewing the collaboration options available with traditional desktop editors; move to the most functional editors, like Blackbird and Vimond IO; and then pivot to editors that are more tailored for consumers and small businesses. I’ll conclude with a brief description of what Frame.io is and why Adobe just paid $1.275 billion for the collaborative features enabled by its namesake product.
Collaboration With Desktop Editors
Adobe offers multiple schemas for collaborating with other video-editing professionals, including Team Projects, Shared Projects, and Productions. The latter two are designed for editors working with projects and videos stored locally and thus don’t apply to remote collaboration. Team projects use videos stored online with Adobe Creative Cloud, which usually means that each team member must copy the files to his or her local computer for responsive editing.
An alternative to copying files to a local drive are services like LucidLink and its “cloud NAS” (network-attached storage) called Filespace. As with Dropbox or Google Drive, you can access files in Filespace from Explorer or Finder or from any local application, but the files are only in the cloud, not in your local hard drive. LucidLink’s secret sauce is the ability to make those files available so quickly that it feels like they are local.
So, if you had three editors working on a single Team Project, you’d upload the content to Filespace and make it accessible to all editors in a shared account. All three could access and edit the project from their Filespace account without downloading the videos to local storage, with overwriting prevented by the standard techniques available in a Team Project.
I have very little experience with Final Cut Pro X, but if you Google “collaborative editing” and “Final Cut Pro,” you’ll find several how-to articles. I’m also clueless on Avid Media Composer, although a quick search revealed a feature called Cloud Remote Playback that appears to enable remote editing. Finally, in addition to working with Adobe, LucidLink also works with Avid and Final Cut Pro, so it may also offer remote collaborative editing with those video editors.
Now let’s transition to actual cloud-based editors, starting at the top of the pyramid.
Blackbird offers an editing interface and functionality that belie its browser-based operation, due to innovative architecture, shown in Figure 1 (below), and excellent engineering execution on the interface, performance, and feature set. The result is an editor that, for many projects, compares well to Adobe Premiere Pro and other desktop editors.
Figure 1. Blackbird’s Edge and Editor architecture ensures high performance and low latency.
There are two components to the Blackbird architecture: Edge and Editor. Edge lives on-prem or in the cloud, and it serves as a bookend for all editing projects. During ingest, Edge converts the high-resolution source into a low-resolution proxy for upload to the cloud. You can start editing after the first few moments of the proxy file reach the cloud, with the remainder of the proxy file uploaded transparently. All associated metadata comes with the proxies.
Editor is a provisioned service from Blackbird, so it runs on its machines. Since you’re working with low-resolution proxies, performance is excellent, even when executing complex, multiple-clip operations such as multi-camera editing.
Once you’re done editing, Editor sends essentially an edit-decision list to Edge, which renders the project from the original high-resolution assets. Since you control the configuration of Edge machines, you control how fast the proxies are created as well as the project rendering time.
Editing in Blackbird is frame-accurate and highly responsive, and you can play the timeline backward and forward to check your edits and flow. The editor can contain up to 18 layers of video and 36 tracks of audio and can work with both static files and incoming live streams, with the latter feature great for creating highlights or short social posts from live content. The multicam feature (Figure 2, below) is especially impressive, as it’s able to incorporate up to 18 video-on-demand (VOD) or live inputs.
Figure 2. Multi-camera editing in Blackbird
There are many available keyboard shortcuts, and you can map the keyboard for editors like Avid, Final Cut Pro 7, Edius, and Adobe Premiere Pro. You can also create and save your own interface layouts. With collaborative projects, Blackbird avoids overwriting edits by developing a separate version for each person editing the project, with the ability to choose the edits saved in the final version from all previous versions.
As with most cloud-based editors, Blackbird can publish to multiple social media accounts and other outlets in a range of aspect ratios. Blackbird goes far beyond this, however, with the ability to output in formats accessible by other video editors, including the Advanced Authoring Format (AAF), the Avid Log Exchange (ALE), XML for Final Cut Pro, or output to an edit decision list (EDL). In addition to H.264 output, Blackbird can also output in Avid’s DNxHD format.
Pricing-wise, Blackbird starts at $1,000 per month for a five-user license.
Whereas Blackbird wants to replace Adobe, Apple, and Avid, Vimond IO wants to augment these tools, particularly for live content and content already in the cloud. Vimond IO offers a professional-looking and -performing interface, but it lacks many of the features provided by Blackbird. For example, although the product supports multiple audio tracks, it only supports a single video track (Figure 3, below).
Figure 3. The Vimond IO interface
Unlike Blackbird, Vimond IO uses a cloud-native architecture that ingests all source files into the system for editing and rendering. You can speed access to editing these files by storing them in the cloud or by using different media asset management systems. But, ultimately, you’ll have to upload them into the system. Like Blackbird, Vimond IO can input live HTTP Live Streaming feeds directly into the timeline to produce highlights and other clips.
In use, Vimond IO looks and feels like a traditional video editor, which will appeal to experienced editors. The version that I worked with had no features to help users avoid stepping on another’s work; if you had access to another editor’s project, you could make changes to the project even if the other editor was editing the project at the same time. This will change in an upcoming version, which will notify editors when others are working on the same project.
Vimond IO’s pricing model includes a “tenant” fee, or a yearly price for unlimited users, plus a monthly license fee for live input. Beyond this, there are hourly charges for live video actually edited on a timeline, plus VOD video imported and rendered. There are no usage charges for actual editing or for live inputs that aren’t viewed in the timeline.
Editors for Non-Video Professionals
User-generated content sites like Facebook and YouTube, combined with other social media outlets, have spawned incredible demand for video. Even outside of these mediums, there is significant demand for marketing and other forms of video for distribution on corporate and other organizational websites.
Editors like Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, and Avid are fabulous for feature-length movies, and you can certainly use them to create a TikTok video. However, they’re expensive and difficult to learn and provide little by way of templates and other tools to speed the work of a corporate marketing or training type, not to mention they have few accessible collaborative features. Blackbird and Vimond IO fall into this category as well.
Serving these needs are a seemingly endless number of cloud editors with a more accessible user interface and a range of features that should appeal to short-form editors creating marketing and social media videos. They include services like Adobe Spark, Canva, Clipchamp, Creatopy (formerly Bannersnack), FlexClip, Lumen5, Renderforest, VEED.IO, and WeVideo.
I spent several days touring these services, experimenting with tools available in the free versions and with a full version of VEED.IO, courtesy of the company’s PR department. As pure editors, most are functional but very basic. However, many offer highly useful features that are unavailable in professional editors. Starting at the beginning, a lot of these services provide templates that give you a jump start on your video production, many including different genres and destination points. You can see this in the FlexClip templates shown in Figure 4 (below).
Figure 4. Templates from FlexClip
Most of these tools offer a range of content like the audio clips shown on the left in Figure 5 (below) from Clipchamp, with the video shown also from a template. I’ve spent endless hours trying to find just the right music, background, or stock image, and access to a good source of content would accelerate many projects.
Figure 5. Clipchamp offers a good range of functionality and ease of use.
Most editors use either a storyboard, which shows each video separately in what looks like a slide show, or a simple timeline, which is what you see in Figure 5. I liked the Clipchamp interface, since it offers a nice balance of functionality and ease of use. Also shown in Figure 5 is another common feature: the ability to output to different aspect ratios for different services.
Companies and Suppliers Mentioned