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Blackbird's Moment Arises as Video Industry Embraces Cloud-Based Collaborative Editing

As business professionals, educators, and others around the globe rely on web conferencing solutions like Zoom to communicate under current conditions, post houses, broadcasters, and video rights holders are either acquainting themselves with cloud video editing solutions like the popular Blackbird platform, or moving once-peripheral distributed production workflows to the center of their operations.

Remote (REMI) production has become a hot topic and an increasingly popular approach over the last few years in a number of live production verticals—sports in particular--as robust and widely available telecommunications infrastructure, WiFi-ready cameras, and more have enabled crews to accomplish most production tasks at a far remove from the site of content acquisition. Powerful collaborative editing platforms have leveraged that same infrastructure to facilitate remote postproduction workflows.

While remote workflows have made video production more flexible and economical than the traditional in-the-field production truck approach, never have remote video workflows become as necessary as they are today, to maintain the viability of collaborative work under the social distancing measures required to limit the spread of COVID-19. As business professionals, educators, and others around the globe rely on web conferencing solutions like Zoom to communicate under current conditions, post houses, broadcasters, and video rights holders are either acquainting themselves with cloud video editing solutions like the popular Blackbird platform, or moving distributed production workflows to the center of their operations.

The London-based Blackbird plc, profiled on Streaming Media's Global site in mid-2019, has found itself much in the news in recent weeks as highly visible concerns like the Arsenal Football Club announced plans to leverage the platform to produce short-form content mined from the club’s vast video archive for its millions of Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube followers, via the collaborative efforts of editors in multiple locations. Meanwhile, A+E Networks announced that it was dramatically expanding its remote video production capability on the Blackbird platform, and quickly accelerating the repurposing of file-based content in the network’s vast archive. In a report on sportsvideo.org (SVG), A+E Networks SVP Production Operations Ed Russo indicated that its reorganization of editing talent around work with the Blackbird platform was happening as a direct result to the new realities of social distancing. “We have moved swiftly to enable our video production teams to work safely and remotely,” Russo told SVG. “Blackbird gives us all the tools needed to do this by providing professional-grade cloud video editing and publishing capabilities in a browser, even under low-bandwidth conditions.”

Just this morning, Blackbird launched a new website to showcase its enterprise-level browser-based video editor and explain its capabilities to video production outfits around the world who are shifting operations in a way that might benefit from leveraging its features and workflow.

In a “demo day” webinar last Friday designed to introduce their solution to production studios and post houses who unexpectedly find themselves implementing remote operations, Blackbird walked attendees through the platform and explained its positioning in the postproduction world. Blackbird VP Strategic Accounts Daniel Webster made the case for remote postproduction: “The traditional on-premise workflow provides great quality, but it’s slow, inexpensive, and inflexible.”

Although Blackbird integrates with traditional Premiere Pro, Avid, and Final Cut workflows (even fondly if distantly remembered FCP 7), its focus is browser-based, frame-accurate editing that requires a relatively modest (sustained) 2Mbps connection. “No special apps needed, nothing needs to be installed,” Webster said. “It runs in javascript in a browser environment. Nothing is required to run it other than a web browser.”

The primary enabling technology is Blackbird’s proprietary video codec. When editors upload their source video to the cloud, Blackbird converts the video to a high-quality proxy version of the file, which enables frame-accurate editing in a single browser window in the Blackbird Forte NLE. Eschewing the feature compromises usually associated with notoriously limited online editing solutions, the javascript-based Forte editor (Figure 1, below) reportedly offers most of the features of a professional on-prem editor that Premiere Pro or Avid editors use in a typical project. These include 18 video tracks, 36 audio tracks, multichannel audio mixing, multicam editing, alpha-channel overlays, real-time transitions, color correction, voice-over, standards-compliant subtitles and closed captions.

Figure 1. Blackbird’s browser-based, timeline-oriented editor. Click the image to see it at full size.

Blackbird runs on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (aka Amazon EC2). Content uploaded for editing in Blackbird Forte is ingested through AWS Elemental MediaLive.

As with other proxy editing workflows, Forte builds an EDL while editors work with their source material in proxy form. The EDL can be output to Avid, Premiere Pro, or another on-prem editor for further edits. Or it can be applied to the original uploaded source assets for export to on-prem storage or MAM, or transcoding for publishing to a CDN or social media. Figure 2 (below) shows quick export options.

Figure 2. Blackbird’s customizable export options

Blackbird Head of Global Sales George Maddocks demo’d Forte during Blackbird webinar. He showcased several aspects of the UI, which he described as feature-rich but also “optimized for non-video editors.” He showed how the NLE’s built-in text tool can be used for titling, “hard” captioning, or calls-to-action. He provided a look at Blackbird Forte’s library of animated assets. He also explained how Blackbird facilitates easy transitions between NLEs for Premiere Pro, Avid, and FCP users by demonstrating how users can accelerate their work in a familiar editing environment by customizing the online NLE to use the same keyboard shortcuts of the popular on-prem pro NLEs (Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. Customizing keyboard shortcuts

The other essential component of the Blackbird solution, of course, is collaboration by multiple editors in the same or disparate locations, as the case may be. Maddocks described the collaborative cloud video editing approach as analogous to working in a Googledoc as opposed to Microsoft Word. Maddocks noted that collaborative access is available as soon as video assets are ingested into the cloud. In Blackbird’s management portal, team leaders can establish clipping, logging, editing, editorial production roles, and publishing rights, as well as review statistics on usage, editing, and publishing.

Even before social distancing, collaborative editing, according to Maddocks, was critical for video production facilities using Blackbird who frequently repurpose source material in different ways as part of their multifaceted monetization strategies. He described a typical collaboration scenario for Blackbird clients, where, “At the same time an expert is saying what’s important in the video, an editor somewhere else can make the edits in real time.”

Webster emphasized that Blackbird is not a solution designed for small operations with occasional, ad hoc, or one-off collaborative or cloud editing needs. It’s an enterprise-based solution, both in terms of install, and in terms of the multi-year contracts to which most Blackbird clients commit. (Perhaps time will tell how or if that changes, depending on how long companies whose editors typically worked in a single office continue to require remote work operations.) Figure 4 (below) shows a sampling of sports networks around the world that use Blackbird for editing.

Figure 4. Blackbird clients from the professional spectator sports world

Fast-turnaround sports content and highlights remain essential products of efficient collaborative editing workflows, even—or perhaps especially—in the absence of new live sports action, as rights holders devise new strategies and leverage viable workflows to entertain their fans and monetize their existing assets.