Look At My Video

The days of using Vimeo or Dropbox for video review are very quickly coming to an end. True, it still works, and in many cases it is still free of charge, but the only thing that either of these two offers is the ability to play the uploaded video files or download them. These days we want more than to pass notes over email.

During past year I had a pleasure of giving a test drive to a few platforms dedicated towards video review and approval. Most of them you have most likely already heard about, some might be new to you. I thought I would draw a short round up of the solutions which caught my eye.

Wipster

Wipster is definitely the most rounded and easy to use of all. They’ve been around for quite some time, and their website just works. All the projects which I’ve done for THAT Studio went through Wipster. The site is nice, simple, it sports a dark UI with rounded corners and just enough of space not to feel crowded. The dark UI is not necessarily my thing on the web, but Wipster’s tasteful enough and bearable, and there is enough contrast and colour that I don’t feel surrounded by sets of indistinguishable monochromatic icons.

Feature-wise, Wipster offers project and team management, video uploading, versioning, sharing and commenting. Playback is smooth and supports keyboard navigation, which is nice for judging vfx shots or more difficult transitions. Like in any other solution, you can have team members, who can upload and manage videos, and collaborators, who are invited, and can only share their feedback – ideally by pressing a large, green “I approve this version” button.

Comments are not only tied to a given timecode, but also to a given position within the current frame. While it’s not possible to draw shapes, very often just clicking on the offending spot is enough to point it out. When Wipster first appeared, it was revolutionary at its price-point. These days some of us expect a bit more, and perhaps there will be some additions in the future, but for now we have an Apple way of addressing the issue – if it’s good for 95% of the cases, it’s good for everyone. This type of intersection of simplicity and usability is definitely Wipster’s hallmark. They make it as easy as possible, but don’t dumb it down. By definition, it works most of the time.

What’s also unique to Wipster, is its pricing structure: instead of paying per GB of storage, you are paying for a number of minutes uploaded per month and per team member on higher tiers. This makes it so much easier, and gets away with the decision how to setup one’s compression for upload. A minute is a minute, period. Of course, all the files are recompressed on the server for preview to 960×540 2 Mbps H.264 (unless you have already done it for them), so perhaps there is no point in sending too large files, but still it’s a nice touch.

Screenlight

When Screenlight first launched, I was not very impressed. However, because of their partnership with Editstock, I became a bit more familiar with the interface. It works reasonably well, although the UI is a bit ascetic, even after the facelift, and despite the slogan claiming that Screenlight “Puts Your Media Front and Center”, most of the interface is still taken by the comments and white space.

If you can live with it, the basic functionality is there: upload, review, comment, share, download, manage user groups and user rights. Various assets are supported, not only video files, and theoretically you could use it as your production hub, but when you take a look at pricing structure and storage space at each tier, you quickly realise that this is not necessarily a viable solution. However, you can always contact the owners, and perhaps they will be able to tailor the package to your needs.

Screenlight’s unique feature are the comment markers which can have a duration longer than a single frame. For certain types of projects this might be something that makes you choose this solution over the others. Myself, I remain unconvinced.

LookAt

I was invited to participate in testing of LookAt about the time it launched, and its simple, subtle and functional interface definitely struck a chord with me. Even though at the moment the functionality is not dissimilar to other available options, for some reason I really, really liked it. Perhaps I’m just tired with dark, monochromatic UIs, but there was something in the LookAt simplicity that appealed to me at first sight. It offers most of the functions that other platforms do – project folders, inviting people for review, versioning, comments – but it does it in a soft, gentle way.

On top of the standard, you can add a drawing to your comments, although from time to time the comment bubble may obscure the drawing area. Possibly this gets fixed in the future. The UI is fast and responsive, playback is fine. I missed keyboard navigation a bit, but hopefully it will make it through the feature request list at some point.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is the ability to divide invited people into groups, and have different discussions about the same video within different groups. I don’t necessarily see this as a feature I would often use, but it certainly is something that at the moment differentiates LookAt from other platforms. The team is also working on some interesting technology which can detect shot and scene changes and relocate the annotations across versions, but until it ships, it remains just a tease. But at present the most important thing about LookAt is the fact that the preview resolution is the same as the file that you upload, meaning that at the moment it is the only service offering you a true 4k review, should you need it.

I used it extensively for a review of one of my vfx projects, and found it very good for this type of work. I did not try any longer forms, though I don’t think there are any significant show-stoppers in this regard. Because I used Adobe toolset on Windows, I missed transcoding from Cineform codec a bit, but I’ve been told it’s in the works and has a high priority.

The recently announced pricing is based solely on a number of videos you currently have in the system, therefore in the end it might not be as good for vfx work which I tested it with, however, the team is willing to work with you, if you are looking for a custom solution, so there is still hope. Since the platform is in the late development stages, the creators are offering it free of charge until the end of the year 2015.

Frame.io

I only tested Frame.io briefly, and honestly I want it to succeed. Beyond the usual standard, it has some very interesting ideas, including comment drawing, cleverly implemented hover-scrub, and version compare. However, video playback from my area was sketchy at best. Short demo assets were extremely responsive, but for anything longer than several seconds, including the 30 minute test movie that we uploaded, I was unable to play the video at all. I’m certain this issue is going to be ironed out in the end, but at the moment the solution is not really working for me, which definitely is a shame. This is most likely connected with Frame.io using their own servers located in the USA.

The UI is flashy, Apple-like, though sometimes a bit too distracting with its elaborate animations. The grey, monochromatic palette does make it not as legible, as I’d like, and especially the video selection highlight could have been more pronounced. But these are minor gripes, it’s much more important that there is keyboard navigation and a separate waveform preview for audio files. These minor details tell me that the makers of Frame.io are definitely on to something good. If they can keep up the user experience on the level of short demo assets, this solution has great potential.

Security-wise, Frame.io boasts its own high-security data centres and is looking into MPAA certification, which is something that you might require when working with larger clients and studios. They also recently announced their planned integration with Box, another secure content storage platform. Most certainly they aim high, and if they succeed, Frame.io might become a Mecca of numerous freelance vfx artists.

Uploaded videos are converted to H.264 and WebM, although the resolution and bitrate are not specified. From the comment on the pricing page I gather, that the two lowest tiers get 540p preview, and the other ones are at 1080p, which is a fair deal considering the money involved. The compression is visible on quickly changing scenes, but that’s expected. If you want to look at the original files, you can always download them.

Their pricing is definitely very enticing for the freelancers, perhaps a bit less for teams, but still a great deal nevertheless, considering the amount of storage space that you receive. If you are working with numerous clients though, especially corporate, it’s possible that the limit of collaborators might at some point become a bottleneck for you.

Frame.io made a great splash on NAB 2015, showing native integration with FCP X (including publishing markers in the video) and support for Android and iOS browsers. From my perspective it’s the most modern, and the most advanced of the solutions available. If only it worked for me…

MediaSilo

On the opposite end of the spectrum there is MediaSilo. When it comes to collaboration, it does not seem to offer much more beyond asset upload, quick sharing and simple approval or timecode commenting. The UI for team members and project managers is still a bit daunting and clunky, looks more like a desktop application, and definitely requires some learning curve, and perhaps even looking into the manual. There are numerous options hidden in places which become obvious only after you start using the software more, but can be intimidating and confusing at first sight. It’s definitely far from the usability and simplicity of Wipster. Fortunately the client side is much simpler, and the client experience will be much more appealing. Videos can be shared via either a QuickLink or an ad-hoc automatically built branded mini-webpage. Comments are text-based and bound to timecode, so in these terms this is the weakest of the solutions examined in this article.

However, MediaSilo also ventures a bit further towards a true media asset management system. A list of supported file types is considerable and includes various audio, video, picture and document files. You can tag and assign grades to your files, enter and change metadata, as well as locate them using various search options. It integrates nicely with Adobe Bridge and can import tags and keywords created therein.

If you are using Premiere Pro, MediaSilo team developed a panel that sits as a part of Premiere interface and lets you login and browse the current state of projects, download assets or export a project straight to the server. It is convenient, and considering the relatively complex UI of the management panel, it is a nice addition for less tech-savvy editors and team members.

In terms of more high-end features, MediaSilo offers ASPERA upload integration, a transcription service, an API which you can use to hook into the application and write your own tools that use its engine, and applications for iOS and Android for offline work. It is also already MPAA certified, which is important for larger clients like corporations and studios, and also has several delivery features like publishing on various social networks and FTP upload.

Of course, you will pay significant premium for all this, and it is clear, that MediaSilo is simply a different league. Even considering optional 24hr phone/email support, it is not inexpensive, neither to a freelancer, nor to a small team. If you are already using Amazon S3 storage, you can work it into MediaSilo architecture, perhaps lowering the price. And if your clients demand security, MediaSilo will still be less expensive than anything you would come by with yourself, and perhaps you are in the market for that.

Summary

As you can see, there is choice aplenty. Depending on what type of work you do, and the clients you work for, each service will have something to offer. Video review and approval has never been easier, and for Indie filmmakers or freelance artists this variety means only good things – less time spent on managing client notes and better communication throughout. What more can one wish for?

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