WeVideo Makes Cloud Video Editing Look Like Kids’ Stuff
Video editing software is way too hard to use.
At least, that seems to be what most consumers think. It explains why most of the videos you’ll find on YouTube and other video sharing sites are so raw, with no cuts, titles, or other effects. Apparently, people have a hard enough time just getting video off their smartphones or videocams and onto the Web; they can’t be bothered to whittle their footage down to just the best parts, or to jazz it up with music, graphics, and the like.
Well, you know what? Consumers are right. Video editing is too hard, especially if your first exposure to the craft is through Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Adobe’s Premiere Pro, Avid Studio, or one of the other professional-level video editing packages. These programs are powerful, but they’re also finicky, time-consuming, difficult to learn, and hard on your computer. (Don’t even bother trying to run them if you don’t own the latest, greatest Mac or Windows machine.) Even entry-level video editing tools such as Apple’s iMovie and Avid’s Pinnacle Studio force users up a pretty steep learning curve.
At the opposite extreme from the professional editing programs are the automated video creation tools from startups like Animoto. To make a slick music video at Animoto, all you have to do is upload a collection of still photos and video clips and select a theme and a soundtrack tune. The startup’s cloud servers do the rest. It’s a great boon for busy people whose videos might otherwise languish on their cameras or hard drives; the only downside is that it takes all the creativity out of the process.
Now there’s a startup that’s trying to stake out some middle ground, by offering a freemium, cloud-based video editing tool that’s full-featured but easy to use, and doesn’t tax your computer. It’s called WeVideo, and it’s led by a Norwegian serial entrepreneur named Jostein Svendsen. If you follow the tech scene in Silicon Valley, you might have heard of these guys—they won a DEMOgod award at the Fall 2011 DEMO conference in Santa Clara, CA. But you probably didn’t know that the software was originally designed for schoolchildren in Scandinavia, or that the startup follows the same principles as the video game business—i.e., if it’s easy enough for kids to use, then at least a few adults should be able to figure it out, too.
I met with Svendsen last month and got the whole story behind WeVideo. I’ve also been trying out the system myself—the video below, made up of clips from a recent weekend trip to Mendocino, CA, is my first attempt. I spent about two hours making it, plus another hour to upload the original clips to the Web. (Story continues below video.)
Now, if you’ve done any video editing at all, you probably did a double-take two paragraphs back where I mentioned that WeVideo runs in the cloud (on Amazon’s EC2 compute infrastructure and S3 storage infrastructure, to be precise). Traditional video editing involves such large files that it’s almost the archetypal desktop application—it’s the last thing you’d expect to see migrating to the cloud. But that’s the whole point of WeVideo, and it’s the factor that Svendsen hopes will allow the company to pull ahead of the other consumer-level video editing providers.
“We’ve found a process which is extremely fast, easy to use, and efficient by utilizing the cloud to take away the bottlenecks on the desktop that have limited people, especially when they’re working with high-definition video,” he says. “Just like YouTube represented a new way of distributing video, we represent a new way of producing it.”
But is cloud-based video editing really ready for prime time? My experiments indicated that it’s close enough to be a decent alternative for non-professionals who might otherwise turn to the low-end video editing programs like iMovie and Pinnacle Studio. But there are some wrinkles that still need to be ironed out: I uncovered at least one technical bug and a few stylistic shortcomings in WeVideo, which I’ll detail in a minute.
But overall, the service works surprisingly well. The concept of cloud-based video editing is still so new that firing up WeVideo is a little like watching a dog play the piano: You don’t really listen to the notes— you’re simply amazed that it’s happening at all.
WeVideo started out life under a different name: Creaza Education. Using technology licensed from Creaza’s parent company, Oslo, Norway-based Inspera, programmers at Creaza built a whole package of multimedia tools for kids, including a brainstorming tool, an audio editor, a cartoon editor, and a video editor. The video tool proved especially popular; it’s got about 250,000 users in K-12 schools across 10 countries. Creaza pulled in Svendsen, a six-time startup founder with a background in online banking and financial trading, when they realized they had a potential general-market hit on their hands.
“The founders of the business came to me and they said, ‘Jostein, we have developed the world’s leading online video editor, but we are only selling it to kids in Europe. Why don’t you take a look and see if you could take it global?’ I took a look and it was amazing. I said, ‘If you are going to take it global, we shouldn’t be sitting in Oslo, we should be in Silicon Valley.'” The company re-incorporated as WeVideo earlier this year and moved to the Plug and Play Tech Center, the startup oasis in Sunnyvale, CA. (The Creaza tools are still available free at creazaeducation.com.)
Like every other video editor I know of, WeVideo employs a familiar three-box user interface. In the upper left, there’s an area for the building blocks of your video—your clips and still images and audio files. Along the bottom, there’s a timeline, with multiple tracks for video, audio, titles, and effects—this is where you put your clips in order, trim them for the right rhythm, and insert transitions such as cross-fades. And in the upper right, there’s a window where you can play a preview version of your video.
But there are two factors that make WeVideo so different from other editing programs. The first is that there’s no manual, or even a help menu. The program is sufficiently pared down that you can learn the whole thing from the tool tips that pop up the first time you use it.
The second factor is WeVideo’s responsiveness, which is an indirect result of its cloud architecture. In most video editing programs, you’re operating on the actual, full-resolution video files as you go. If you insert a special effect like a dissolve between two clips, you have to wait for the software to render the effect on your local machine before you can preview it. The secret to WeVideo—the thing that makes cloud-based video editing possible—is that you’re not working with the original files. Rather, you’re modifying proxy files, low-resolution representations of the actual clips, which you upload to Amazon’s servers before you begin. The video in the preview window is so low-res (only 320 x 240 pixels) that your browser can instantly render effects—think split screens or rotating titles or funky color alterations—that a normal video editing program would take seconds or minutes to process.
Svendsen demonstrated for me by previewing a video with a grid of nine clips running simultaneously, Brady Bunch-style, then adding a 10th on top. “Try running 10 blended videos without any delay on a desktop,” he says. “You cannot do it. That’s why most people say, ‘Holy shit, this is amazing.’ We’ve even had professional video editors at the Fox television network say that we are faster than their multi-million-dollar Avid editing suites.”
The hard computational work happens once you’re finished editing your project. At that point, your browser transmits a change log—a detailed list of the edits you made—and the actual rendering of your full-resolution video (up to 1080 x 1920 pixels) happens in the cloud. That part is pretty slow: my two-minute video above took about half an hour to render. But you can get other stuff done while you wait for WeVideo to e-mail you to let you know that the file is ready. The default output format, for those who care about such things, is H.264, which means the videos are automatically compatible with YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and Twitter—and in fact, WeVideo can output videos directly to those services.
WeVideo is still pretty new, and the truth is that it still bears the imprint of its origins in the world of K-12 education. Its biggest flaw, at the moment, is the disappointing range of choices when it comes to effects like transitions and titles. Most of the transitions the program provides are pretty kitschy—I can see how they’d appeal to kids, but more serious videographers won’t be crazy about all the bubbles, stars, and waving flags. (In my video I stuck to the simplest available option, a cross fade.) Similarly, there’s only one font available for title graphics, and it can’t be resized. After spending quite a bit of time with Final Cut Pro and iMovie, I miss Apple’s emphasis on aesthetic details like these. But it’s probably only a matter of time before WeVideo’s engineers load it up with additional options.
I found one bug that makes me think WeVideo hasn’t fully perfected the proxy-editing scheme. In my Mendocino video, most of the video clips included ambient sound. As I was editing, I reduced the volume for each clip to zero in order to let the music carry the soundtrack. It worked great in the preview window. But in the final, rendered video, the ambient sound was still there—as if that part of the change log hadn’t been uploaded to the rendering program. I e-mailed WeVideo about the issue, and I’ll update this story if they send me an explanation.
WeVideo’s co-founders, including Svendsen, put $1.4 million in seed funding into the company this spring, and he says they’ll be going back out for more funding soon. The publicity from the DEMO win will undoubtedly help with that. The company’s business model is simple: entry-level membership is free, but if you want to export more than 15 minutes of video per month, you need to sign up for the “Plus,” “Ultra,” or “Commercial” plans for a monthly fee of $6.99, $39.99, or $79.99, respectively. (Those prices are discounted to $4.99, $29.99, and $59.99 through December 31, 2011.) If the company can recruit a bunch of newcomers to video editing while also converting some old Adobe, Apple, and Avid customers, it could build a pretty nice revenue stream.
Of course, if you stay signed up for WeVideo for a year or more, your subscription costs will eventually exceed the price of a desktop video-editing package like Final Cut Pro ($299) or Adobe Premiere ($799). But Svendsen points out that to make that software smoothly, you also need a high-end computer. “With our platform, you don’t have to invest in new hardware, because you do all the rendering in the cloud,” he says. “We haven’t had anybody really pushing back on the pricing. On the other hand, we are very ready to listen to the market.”
WeVideo’s big goal now is “to convince people that video editing is not as difficult as they think,” Svendsen says. He says he’s familiar with automated alternatives like Animoto, but he says consumers go to Animoto for “a completely different use case. If you want to make a video for your company or your baby shower or your wedding, or if you’re an online journalist and you want to make a new story, you need more freedom. One of our goals in the coming months is to come into the market and say, ‘There is a new way of doing video editing that is fun and easy and takes away a lot of the headaches associated with traditional video editing.'”
Fun, yes; easy, yes. If WeVideo can add styling options that make its tools feel a little more professional, I’ll be a happy camper.