This week, we release the first in a series of interviews on the topic of remote collaboration. OWC Radio host, Cirina Catania talks with CEO, Ian McDonough, of Blackbird about their well-established track record in this arena. Although the latest tech talk is heavy on the subject of “new” innovations on the remote collaboration front, Blackbird, one of the world’s fastest and most powerful cloud editing systems has been working quietly in the background providing browser-based editing for a host of incredibly prestigious clients for quiet a few years.

Companies utilizing their services include, Tata Communications, A&E Networks, aws (Amazon Web Services), the U.S. Department of State, Google Cloud, IMG, NRL, Microsoft Azure, Eleven Sports, LiveXLive, IMG, TN Town News, deltatre, Object Matrix, Riot Games, numerous live sports teams and eSports leaders such as GFinity.

According to executives at the company, Blackbird, is, “the only professional video editor in a browser. Edit remotely, be first to market, scale effortlessly and flexibly, ensure content quality and drive massive efficiencies across your organization.”

And the added benefit of all this innovation at Blackbird is an ultra-green solution supporting the sustainability goals of the media production industry. OWC prides itself on being one of the greenest companies on the planet, so we are in good company!

For more information about our amazing sponsor, Other World Computing, go to MacSales.com or OWCDigital.com, where you’ll find hardware and software solutions and tutorial videos that will get you up and running in no time.

For more about our host, filmmaker, tech maven and co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival, Cirina Catania, visit cirinacatania.com.

If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and tell all your friends about us! We love our listeners. And, if you have ideas for segments, write to OWCRadio@catania.us. Cirina is always up for new ideas!


In This Episode

  • 00:09 – Cirina introduces Ian McDonough, the CEO of the UK-based Blackbird. Blackbird is one of the world’s fastest and most powerful cloud editing systems.
  • 01:47 – Ian talks about how the company got started and how he got involved with it. He also explains how Blackbird works and its interface.
  • 10:16 – Ian shares the partnerships that Blackbird has with Tata Communications and Editshare.
  • 16:34 – Ian explains how people can access Blackbird.
  • 20:20 – Ian reminisces about his journey in the tech world.
  • 23:49 – Cirina and Ian encourage listeners to check out Blackbird’s website for more information and email Blackbird at commercial@Blackbird.video if they are interested in more.

Jump to Links and Resources


Transcript

There’s been a lot of talks lately about remote collaboration, especially since fieldwork for media creators has become more challenging, if not, almost impossible. Most of us are working remotely. This week, on OWC RADiO, we released the first in a series of interviews on the topic of remote collaboration. Today, I’m speaking with Ian McDonough, CEO of the UK-based, Blackbird. Blackbird is one of the world’s fastest and most powerful cloud editing systems. Works quietly in the background providing browser-based editing for a host of incredibly prestigious clients, including Tata Communications, A&E Networks, AWS, the U.S. Department of State, Google Cloud, IMG, NRL, Microsoft Azure, Eleven Sports, LiveXLive, Object Matrix, Riot Games, and numerous live sports teams and eSports leaders such as GFinity. Since I recorded this interview with Ian a few weeks ago, the company has recently won the Emerging Tech Company of the Year, OTT Award from Sports Pro. Welcome, Ian!

Thank you Cirina. It’s a pleasure.

We have a lot to talk about so I’m obviously a curious person. Tell people how the company got started and why you got involved in what you think is important about what you’re doing now.

When the company was founded by Dr. Stephen Streater about 20 years ago, it’s been a while. He foresaw by quite some distance that people not only would be downloading photographs on the internet, but one day will be watching video on the internet. Back at the turn of the millennium, he started to invent a codec that would allow people not only to view the video at low bandwidth but also to be able to frame accurately, edit that video to a high standard. His first idea was to launch a YouTube back in 2000. But he couldn’t secure the digital rights because they didn’t exist. He was law-abiding and didn’t want to break the law. So, he invented the editor instead, and somebody else invented YouTube. That’s how that one went. We started off working in the post-production sector of SOHO, in London. Still today, we’re pretty much in every major post-house of London, where we are a part of the workflow that involves Avid to high-level production of reality shows, shiny-floor shows, and documentaries. I joined the company about three years ago, I was involved in the media industry. I was previously at Turner, of course, now WarnerMedia. But prior to that, I was at the BBC, Viacom, and A&E. I joined because I really saw where the market was going, where the industry was going in terms of OTT, in terms of the nonlinear distribution of DoD Distribution, etc., and how everything was migrating to the cloud, at quite some rapid pace. The clouds have been around for a while, but the pace is really starting to pick up. I joined for a multitude of reasons. But the key reason was I noted that forbidden technologies, as it was called then, had effectively patented, professional video editing browsers, nobody else had it. They own all the patents. I was like, “This was very appealing.”

Dr. Steven Streeter foresaw that people would not only be downloading images on the Internet but would be watching television on the Internet. Click To Tweet

That’s just amazing. I actually saw something many years ago and I’ve been trying to remember who I ran into at NAB, and it may have been him. At that time, I started telling people about it, nobody believed me that it was going to be really possible. But here we are, fade-out, fade back in, and now you have an incredibly viable company. We have a combination of tech listeners and listeners who are interested in creativity and lifestyle. Your company appeals to both. Could you, in more layman’s terms, explain to us how this all works?

When I say we’ve patented video editing in a browser, that means that from any standard web browser, from a Google Chrome interface, any web browser. You can access the Blackbird interface on low bandwidth. It can be on any laptop, and it can be on bandwidth as low as 2-megabits per second. You can edit professional video, it’s all in the browser to JavaScript, very much like a social media page, you would access it and all of the tools will be there. You can professionally edit the video from there and you can publish from there as well. You can publish literally anywhere, to social media, or back into the storage infrastructure, broadcast, OTT, wherever you need to publish to. It’s a complete end-to-end solution in terms of ingesting your access media which you’ve never downloaded onto your laptop, it’s always in the Cloud, we download the frames that you would require. Everyone’s heard of web-based tools and inexperienced them. They always imagine that you work with a web-based tool, suddenly, there’s a lag, there’s a couple of seconds delay to anything. Well, that’s literally the exact opposite of what you get with Blackbird. Blackbird glides, it is an instantaneous response to every keystroke. When we say keystroke, this is a professional toolset. So we do complex transitions, we have multiple video and audio tracks, 12 video tracks, 36 audio tracks, multicam, we can have captions with capturing control. It’s a fully stacked professional editor. That’s the key to what we do, which allows our solution because it’s all in a browser, and all on a laptop with various types of internet. It’s incredibly scalable, you don’t have to have the heavy-duty, early equipment that you would do with the cloud versions of our solution.

This is radio, which makes it a little bit more difficult. We can’t show people what they see when they log onto Blackbird. Can you describe it? Are we actually looking at an NLE? We’re looking at a proprietary nonlinear editing system that you have on your servers, but we’re accessing our media locally from our servers, is that correct? 

You’re accessing a central cloud to all the Blackbird version of the media, the actual high-res doesn’t move. So for instance, if we’re talking about sports content, or we’re talking about news content, or documentary content, that can stay exactly where you want it to stay. That’s one of the first major plus points of our solution is, it saves a lot of time and a lot of money, and energy shifting content around. All we’re doing is we would take viral Blackbird edge software, it’s a piece of software, it sits near that media, we would transcode that into the Blackbird version. That can be done on the fly seconds after live or from a file faster than live. So if you’re editing a football match or baseball game, then five seconds after any action happens on the field, there is a version of that sitting in the cloud that can be edited as it grows, as it comes in live. We’ve been talked about as being the fastest video editor in the world because you can turn around a clip to wherever you need to whether it’d be social media, or to the OTT in literally seconds. For instance, the NRL, which is the National Rugby League in Australia, imagine how far away Australia is, they are turning clips round of points being scored on the field, and publishing them to Twitter less than 30 seconds after the actions actually happened on the surface of the pitch. They say it’s the fastest video to come across. They haven’t gained clipping rights that are carved out as part of their rights package. Speed is hugely important to them. It’s one of the reasons why they selected us.

Blackbird is being tagged as the fastest video editor in the world because you can turn around a clip to wherever you need it to be in seconds.
Blackbird is being tagged as the fastest video editor in the world because you can turn around a clip to wherever you need it to be in seconds.

So this is similar to working with proxies like the media is transcoded? I want to understand that so let me get to the bottom of this.

You could call the Blackbird version of the media, a proxy. But this is a very special version of the proxy, this is high quality, it doesn’t come in linear form. It comes in only the frames that you need, which gives at the speed, you don’t have to wait for content to load up, it loads immediately. Thinking about a piece of content and the piece of content could be an hour-long, or it could be 24 hours long or a week-long, doesn’t matter. It is loaded instantaneously and you can access that particular piece of the content instantaneously. There’s no delay, no latency. When you go to a piece of the content that you want, the frames around it will start to load.

Similar to the way torrents work.

Similar to that, but it’s different. If you’ve got a 24-hour piece of video, let’s say it’s a long piece of video, you can pan out from that using our video waveform, which again is a patented piece of our interface. You can see the entire 24 hours, a representative image at the bottom, you can then go to each particular cut instantaneously. You’re not having to wait for anything to come through in a linear fashion. You can pick any piece of media. One way to describe it or to make it easier for your listeners, it’s on our website under the Blackbird.video, you can go and see a piece of video that’s in our format and play around with that video waveform at the bottom. It gives an idea of what I’m trying to explain visually.

You can actually play with it there. Because I was looking for something like that last night when I was researching all of this in preparation for speaking with you. That’s awesome! I’d like to do that. I’d actually like to play around with it. It’s wonderful! Who are some of your clients?

We work a lot with sports and a lot with news. Your listeners will definitely have heard of the sports clients we work with within the U.S., we work at the NHL. We work with the NFL through our partner Deltatre, where we are creating all the European SFR to the European OTT service, which is called the NFL Game Pass, it’s all created on Blackbird. We work with MSG Networks in New York, which’s in the sports area. IMG, of course, you’ve heard of IMG. In terms of entertainment, we work with A&E Networks. We work with eSports, Riot Games. News, we work with the world’s largest financial news organization. For confidentiality reasons, I’m not allowed to say that is, but your listeners probably know who that is.

You just announced EditShare. Can we talk about that for a moment? 

Absolutely. The key thing about Blackbird is, we’ve patented an amazing piece of technology. But we’re an industry specialist and we have this piece of software that you can replicate a billion times easily. The key thing for us is to get it into the hands of the people that can use it. We’re a modestly-sized UK company that has this special patented piece of technology. We want to work with the best of breed partners that are around the industry, in the world to be able to get that to the right people. We’ve announced a couple of things. First of all, we’ve announced a partnership just a few weeks ago with Tata Communications. They’re an Indian company that is one of the world’s largest telcos. Physically, they own about 30% of the world’s physical internet. They’re enormous. They have around 500 customers that are broadcasters and sports leagues, etc., around the world with their video connect product. Blackbird has now seamlessly integrated into the video-connect product to allow Tata to offer that to all of their broadcasting clients around the world. This is exciting for them because it means they don’t have to download and upload every piece of content that they want to edit and work on to an external NLE, which they would have too, currently. It saves their end customers a great deal of time and money to download and upload. It’s proven to be very popular amongst their customers.

For security reasons, this is safer too, right?

There are lots of security advantages. Not having to store high-res media on a local machine or a local hard drive, or portable hard drive. It has come with its own benefits. Everything is transcoded into the Blackbird format, which can only be itself decoded by another Blackbird piece of software. We’ve also achieved SOC 2 Certification, which is a U.S. certification, which was acquired by one of our customers, the U.S. State Department, who’s one of our customers, and others require that. We are very secure and take that very seriously. It’s a high priority for us.

I was reminiscing last night on the phone with someone that I worked with when I was in charge of the post-production on the Mi3 Special Edition DVDs. One of our editors took it upon himself to take footage home to work on without our permission, but it became an issue. When I was thinking about Blackbird, one of the things that seem very appealing is the level of security with what you have. Because particularly in our industry, that’s potentially a big problem. That’s absolutely wonderful. Now you talked about going to an OEM version of this. Can you discuss that for a moment?

Absolutely. You mentioned EditShare previously, with a little EditShare onto an OEM, for us, EditShare does share characteristics with that, because of the completely interoperable end-to-end solution that we built with them. It means that, EditShare storage and asset management solution stores a whole lot of media for a whole lot of companies around the world. That content can now be seen directly in the Blackbird interface. It provides an interoperable solution for the end customer, making it quicker and faster with a lower technological footprint for companies to seamlessly edit the content on the fly and remotely. One of the key reasons to do it is that we can be part of an end-to-end solution for another company’s technology stack. There was a great deal of demand out there now for web-based that can be easily accessed from anywhere on any kind of browser. We’re satisfying that demand through our OEM strategy.

How are you viewed by Avid, Premiere Pro, Final Cut? Are you in competition with them?

I’d be flattered if they know who we are.

If they don’t, now, they will very soon.

We’re small, microscopic, compared to those guys. We have a great deal of respect for the solutions that they offer. In some cases, we are complimentary. There are lots of our customers that have both Blackbird workflows and traditional NLE workflows. They offer solutions at the high end of editing features that we don’t and we never will, we’re not going to chase that kind of business if there’s a diminishing of returns for us in terms of chasing that up too far. With our platform, we can do 85% to 95% of the work with the feature sets that we have. We offer other advantages, for instance, the remote aspects, the scalability, the ability to do things faster than they do. But they do have a tremendously powerful toolset for workflows that we don’t currently.

The biggest advantages of Blackbird are scalability, speed, and remote aspect. Click To Tweet

I believe that you can export out the work that you’ve done on Blackbird and import it into whatever NLE you’re working with, perhaps Avid. I’m not sure if you’re compatible with Premiere Pro, but is that possible with, for example, Final Cut? Could I work on Blackbird published to social media, to the web, or to clients, and then bring that back into Final Cut to do a different end or final version for Netflix of the entire work? I’ve tried to picture the workflow as someone who is on both sides of production, post-production, and also working with remote crews, because you’re solving a lot of problems. Can I export what I’ve done on Blackbird and bring it into Final Cut?

You can. That’s one of the key advantages of the long history that we’ve had is that we were always in that SOHO environment where NLE is more important and still is. So yes, you can edit to the point you need to whether it’s sync poles, logging, storyboard editing. Whatever you want to do on Blackbird prior, and you can take it to a more advanced standard. As we’ve said, in many workflows, we also do the finishing tool, but if we’re not the finishing tool, then yes, you can export it into Avid Media Composer, or to a Premiere Pro, or to Final Cut. The other key thing there is, that we have keyboard shortcuts in the interface, which means that any editor that has a traditional NLE and has meticulous keyboard shortcuts, can be completely mimicked in the Blackboard interface. It’s fairly seamless so, if the editor wanted to work at home on low internet for four days a week, but finish off on a Friday, or whatever day they chose in the edit bay, that’s possible. They would be fairly seamless for them.

Is this enterprise level that we go through one of your contractors in order to access Blackbird? I’m trying to picture how, for example, a production company that sees what you’re doing and says, “Oh my goodness, I want to try this.” How did they get involved? How do they buy it? How do they rent it, how to subscribe to it? Explain that part of it.

We have a direct sales team, so they can absolutely contact us directly through www.Blackbird.video, which is a great way. We also have our relationship with EditShare, which is fantastic, we just announced that, and with Tata. We’re also completely interoperable with all the major public clouds, with GCP, Microsoft Azure, AWS. Around half of our deployments now are actually on a public cloud. AWS is probably the one that the majority demands. Wherever the workflow is best located, we can interact with and we can pick up and fit around.

The key thing about Blackbird is it has patented an amazing piece of technology.

Is this an only enterprise level? Or can a single producer work on a film or series access it? Would it be something that would be affordable to them?

Yes. The biggest advantages of Blackbird come into play are when you look at those things that we are superior to others in terms of the scalability, the speed, and the remote aspect. They’re the key areas where we have a competitive advantage, we believe over some of the key competitive workflows that are out there. We would absolutely admit that some guys have an advantage over us in some areas. But those three areas are key; speed, remote aspect, and scalability.

You have the ability to export in various codecs. If you’re working on Blackbird, then you can export to, for example, all the social media and whatever codecs most appropriate to them. You can choose that and send it out, and it uploads instantly into your account, is that how it works?

That’s a good point. Because one of the key things I didn’t mention is, whatever you put in, you can get out or whatever you need to get out. So if you’re putting 4K in, you get 4K out, there’s no degradation of quality. We’re not publishing from our Blackbird codec, we are returning that edit decision list, the EDL. That is selected from the editing collaborative or singular editing, the actions back to the original source, and then we publish from the source. We’ve got hooks into that original content, and we can form against that original content all the time. There’s absolutely no degradation of end quality at all. Or as you say, Cirina, you can publish in any codecs that you do require.

Ian, this is amazing! You must be very excited about this. What are you most proud of?

The progress we’ve made in the last three years with the technology. Turning everything from a Java instance into a JavaScript instance, meaning it’s completely scalable, which was very exciting. It completely changes the game for us. But also the team that I’ve got around, the dev team are just world-class and world-leading. They’ve been around for quite a while and continue to absolutely amaze us with our innovation. Our front office team, the marketers and the sales guys, the operations guys. We had a note yesterday from our client over at the State Department, who said that our service is absolutely second to none. We’re absolutely first class in all areas. It’s really gratifying to hear that. One of the other things I’m very proud of is the fact that we brought a real big hitter in the cloud industry. A gentleman called John Honeycutt who some of your listeners might have heard of. He was the CTO at Discovery Communications for 15 years, and led the migration of Discovery’s back end, and played out into the cloud over a period of time. He’s really a visionary in terms of cloud migration for broadcasters. He then joined Google Cloud and was quite a coup because he did all his work with AWS and then went to Google Cloud, which is fantastic for Google. We’re very fortunate to have John as a non-exec to advise us and to mentor me personally in the ways the cloud and on where it’s all going. We are delighted about that. 

Congratulations on that! That’s wonderful news. I’m so happy that we got in touch with you. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Blackbird for years. Talk to me about you. Where do you come from? When you were younger, what did you want to do? How did you end up in the tech world, to begin with?

I don’t think I ever had the tech world written on my CV in the future. I was enthralled by the media world from an early age. It was trying to combine that media world with the entrepreneurial spirit that my dad gave me. My dad was a serial entrepreneur, a successful one in many different areas. Trying to find a way to combine my love of the media and my entrepreneurial ambitions was key. I was in the media business for 15 years, in various parts of the world, in Asia and Europe. I wanted to get out of the big blue-chip bubble and back myself in a venture. This company came along at the right moment. Not only did I become the CEO, the hired help for Blackbird, but when I saw how innovative and how bursting with a possibility the company was, I also persuaded my dad and my family to invest quite a lot in the business. Three months to four months in, we took the company to get refinance to our profit listed company and refinanced on the London Stock Exchange, and my family and I led the fundraiser. It gave the investors in the City of London quite a lot of confidence. We were successful, oversubscribed in the fundraising. We’re in about seven percent of stock moments. It’s a real adventure for us all.

There’s a great deal of demand out there for a tool that can be easily accessed on any kind of browser. And Blackbird is satisfying that demand through its OEM strategy.

It’s almost a dream come true when you can work with your family, and do something that’s successful, and help other people at the same time. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful.

There’s a long way to go. We were just at the beginning.

I have no doubt that you’re going to be even more successful in the future, in the new era today. Ian, there was one thing I didn’t ask you about, a little bird told me that you also worked on the Democratic National Convention. Is that true?

We did. It seems a while ago now. A lot has happened since then. But yes, the Democratic National Convention had to go fully virtual, because no one could actually attend in-person, then they needed to have the best in class remote production kit. Blackbird became pretty much the backbone in which that was produced.

Wow! That’s awesome. That was a big undertaking.

It was great. We weren’t in the end. We were meant to be the Biden for President platform as well, but then it was literally lost at the last minute, they decided to go with something far inferior. I don’t know why. 

Onwards and upwards, there are good things in store. You’re gonna fly very high with this.

Thank you very much. “Blackbird fly into the light of a dark black night.”

I keep singing that song. Did you guys do that on purpose?

I’m from Liverpool, I do love that.

The Beatles song. It’s been going in my head ever since we’ve been talking about doing this interview. How’s the quarantine treating you? Where are you? And how are you working around all that?

You could call us “Lockdown 2.0” in London. Business-wise, it’s accelerated a trend that was happening anyway. There was a trend where people were reducing their tech footprint and looking to outsource infrastructure and work more remotely, build operational resilience, and build freedom for their end-users. But, COVID massively accelerated it. We’ve been there for our customers, which has been fantastic. We’ve seen the news in the last couple of days where hopefully, fingers crossed, this is the beginning of the end of the crisis, hopefully, with new vaccines that are being announced as the beginning to end. While our profile has been raised an enormous amount through the last few months, we’re delighted that there’s going to be health put back to end the media sector. Because that’s where we’re really concerned about, how the advertising, the live sports, the lack of crowds and audiences at sporting events are impacting the industry. We’d have to be delighted if that comes to an end, hopefully soon.

There was a trend where people were reducing their tech footprint, looking to outsource infrastructure, working more remotely, building operational resilience, and building freedom for their end-users. But COVID massively accelerated it. Click To Tweet

Yeah. But you are solving a big problem for a lot of producers. I mean that in the broadest sense, in finding a solution for them, that allows them to work remotely with their teams in a much more comfortable way and still accomplish what they need to accomplish in terms of delivering their product. I have to tell you, I have for years been quite wary of the cloud and doing anything involving media that I’m involved with within the cloud. For several reasons; number one, the pipeline has always been too small for large projects. It’s hard to move your media efficiently enough without losing packets or whatever happens in transit, you can damage your media, it takes way too long. A lot of us are still shipping hard drives out, If I have an editor in Australia, I’m literally shipping a hard drive out to that person. You’re solving the remote access issues, but you’re also doing it in a way that makes all of us feel comfortable about the security of it. So I thank you for that. I am going to be watching this closely. I do wish you luck with it. Thank you so much for coming on today. I urge all of our listeners to go to Blackbird.video and rummage around, see what you can find there. Is there anywhere else they can get in touch with someone on your team if they have questions?

Yes, absolutely. Please email Commercial@Blackbird.video and you will get a response quickly, I can assure you.

That’s wonderful! Thank you again, Ian. It’s been great talking with you. Remember everybody what I tell you, get up off your chair and go do something wonderful today. This is Cirina Catania, I’m signing off. Talk again soon.



Checklist

  1. Find the best video editing software for your needs. There are many video editing software programs around, so check the features to find the best fit for you.
  2. Organize the media of your project to save time and energy. Make a folder for your project with a subfolder for all the raw, unedited files. Also, don’t forget to name your files to recognize the sequence you are creating. 
  3. Find and assemble your best takes. This is important to ensure the highest quality for your final product.
  4. Go easy on the effects. Too many effects can overpower the project you make.
  5. Carefully consider your music choices. Music can elevate your video, but do not let it be distracting for your audience. Also, think about the copyright implications of your music. Royalty-free music is the safest.
  6. Take a break for your mental well-being and your eyes. Things can start to look the same after staring at a computer for too long.
  7. Checkout Blackbird’s website for more information, and email them at commercial@Blackbird.video, if you are interested in more.

2 comments on “Cloud Video Editing and Publishing – Ian McDonough, CEO, Blackbird

  1. Joe says:

    Hi Cirina, great interview with Ian , pl;ease could you tweet this as I am sure a lot of interest in the Bird!!!

  2. Sean says:

    Great interview, I hadn’t considered the security aspect previously.

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