ClearView Flex REVIEW – Remote Real-Time Collaboration (From the Editor’s POV)

Editors note: During lockdown, Sohonet approached top Hollywood film & television editor Zack Arnold to give us his honest review of using our real-time, remote review tool, ClearView Flex in a home working environment. The positives, the negatives–we wanted to hear it all. His feedback is invaluable in helping us achieve our aim for Flex — to provide the same seamless, high-quality and secure experience for users working from home as it is in a facility. 


by Zack Arnold, Editor

As a twenty-year veteran in Hollywood who has cut trailers, studio & independent features, documentaries, and scripted television for networks, premium cable, and streamers (recent credits include Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Underground, Glee, and more), I will admit that I have become “that editor” who loves to tell stories but hates the tech side of the business. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need my assistant to turn on my Avid for me every morning, but I do rely heavily on my assistant for everything tech-related. The fancier the equipment and the more confusing the feature-set, the more fearful I am to adopt change. I just want to cut!

Unfortunately due to present circumstances working from home is my only (safe) option for the foreseeable future, therefore I’ve had no choice but to become my own in-house IT department. That means whatever new technology I must adopt for my home workstation to facilitate the collaborative experience with my directors & producers needs to be simple to set up and even easier to use. (And if you think the tech has to be easy enough for me, it needs to be ten times easier for anyone I’m collaborating with remotely.)

Enter ClearView Flex – rackmountable hardware that streams (in real-time) encrypted video streams from any source via HDMI or SDI to your team members and clients and enables them to review and approve content from anywhere on their tablet, phone, PC/MAC or via Apple TV (from anywhere in the world with a fast internet connection). It’s about as close as your team can get to watching a monitor “over your shoulder” – without physically being in the same room.

I recently gave ClearView Flex a test drive to see if it’s a viable solution not only for large post facilities and production companies but also for independent creative professionals like myself who require affordable, easy-to-use tech to collaborate remotely.

Unboxing & Installation

I will admit that when I initially requested a product demo I hadn’t done my research as thoroughly as I should have. So I was a bit shocked when a giant box arrived, only to be more shocked when I opened the box to discover this was a rackmountable device (1RU). I was expecting a smaller breakout box type of product (like an AJA or Blackmagic box). For those who work in facilities this isn’t an issue, but for an independent editor working from home (WFH), this posed a bit of a dilemma – where will I put this? I do have a rackmount cabinet, so if I needed to do a semi-permanent install I have the rack space, but my assumption is most editors WFH will not have the necessary equipment to rack mount the ClearView Flex, so if you plan to try this out for yourself, anticipate needing a decent amount of desktop real estate (especially if you’re cutting from your dining room or kitchen table right now).

Now that my box had a home it was time to install it. This was also incredibly simple and only required three cables (all of which were provided…i.e. I didn’t have to dig through old boxes and drawers of random cables to find what I needed).

Cable 1 – Power: Self-explanatory.

Cable 2 – Ethernet: No surprise here, you need to be hard-wired in order to stream real-time from your workstation. If you’re working via Wi-Fi from a laptop on your kitchen table, start running Ethernet cable now, there’s no way around this.

Cable 3 – HD-SDI/HDMI: The only video signal the ClearView Flex requires is an HD-SDI (or HDMI) input from your output device…which could present a challenge for some offline editors like myself who have transitioned from formerly having hardware breakout boxes to using a second or third computer monitor for playback. Luckily I had an older AJA Io XT in my closet, so after spending 5 minutes hooking up my 2011 iMac to the AJA box via Thunderbolt, I had a clean HD-SDI signal input to the ClearView Flex. (Starting to see a pattern with my lack of modern technology? If this works for me, it should work for anybody.)

Setup & Testing

Immediately upon powering up the device I was greeted by an incredibly loud, whirring fan. I immediately swallowed a nervous gulp thinking, “If this is going to run this loud all the time, I won’t be able to mix audio properly.” Luckily by the time I had completed the thought, the fan stopped running and the device has been virtually silent ever since. False alarm.

With the device powered on, the internet hard wired, the HD video signal fed into the device, and the flux capacitor fluxing, my next thought was…now what?

According to the help documentation and install documents, I was done. But…how do I actually use the device to stream the signal from my computer to the interwebs?

At this point I was on my own. No further documentation was provided in the box. In the paper documentation (which had been printed from an online page, I presume) it had a blue “hyperlink” saying “check out our Help Center,” but guys…hyperlinks don’t work on physical paper. An actual URL would’ve been super helpful. So I went to the Sohonet website to the ‘Resources, Tools, & Downloads’ section hoping for a whitepaper, a ‘getting started guide,’ anything to walk me through the software end of setting up the product. And I ran into a “paywall,” so-to-speak, where in order to download any documentation I was required to enter an email address. Not cool. After fifteen minutes of chasing my tail downloading random PDF’s (and entering my email 3 separate times), none of which explained how to activate the device and stream my signal online, I gave up and called the support line. (Note to those at Sohonet: Nobody likes getting on the phone anymore. It’s a last resort.)

Despite the grumpiness I was experiencing having to jump on with phone support, I was pleasantly surprised that a real person answered immediately (with no automated service in between), and within 5 minutes my account was activated and I was streaming the video signal from Adobe Premiere to the internet. All it took was one activation email and a single click. Simple. Painless. Done. The lack of setup information to activate my account and connect it with my physical device was really the only hiccup in the entire installation & setup process. (Reminder: This is coming from an editor who hasn’t done his own outputs for over a decade and HATES tech). Once my account was set up only then did I have access to their extensive User Guide and Help Center documentation (all of which is incredibly thorough and intuitive).

With a signal streaming from the ClearView Flex to my Chrome browser, the next step was testing to ensure I could view that signal on other devices. There’s no way I’m going to use an actual client to make sure the system works properly, so I walked myself through the process of viewing a signal on another device (in this case an iPad and an iPhone) as if I were the client viewing the signal.

This is where the setup & installation process blew my mind.

I’ve used many different real-time streaming devices over the last decade to collaborate with directors & producers remotely, and by far the most painful part of the setup process is helping a director or producer install whatever equipment is necessary to see my feed on their end in real time. Sohonet has this process wired. They nailed it.

All you do is enter your clients’ email addresses (the max viewers is based on your account type, my maximum was 5 members to a session), they click on the red button, and they’re watching the real-time stream from your NLE. Even better, once members accept the invite you can see the quality of their internet connection (which is crucial, as I discuss later in this article). Two clicks and they are watching my live video feed.

I tested the invite process with ten different people all over the world in multiple countries and on multiple devices. Not a single person had an issue installing and connecting directly to my session. Furthermore, it didn’t take a single person more than 60 seconds to install and be invited to my private session.

Anyone with a basic working knowledge of how to click a hyperlink can use ClearView Flex as a client.

Core Functionality & Playback Quality

Of all the things I can say about the ClearView Flex, perhaps its strongest feature is its simplicity. You install the hardware, you activate the software, you walk your client through the installation on their end (which takes two clicks)…and then you press ‘Play.’

It’s literally that simple.

For all the gearheads reading right now, if I haven’t made my point clearly enough yet – I’m not a tech guy. If you want to know what’s under the hood and you love tech specs, click here for all the ClearView Flex details. I’m here to talk about functionality specifically from the POV of a working editor (who’s terrified of tech).

I tested playback using a 2011 iMac (don’t judge me) using Adobe Premiere as my NLE and a 1080p ProRes 422 sequence with a 4-minute timeline that included fast-paced graphics, lots of action, music, sync dialog, fast-cut broll, fades from black…a multitude of visual stimuli. This codec format and mixed media timeline will be fairly standard for most “offline” content creators and editors collaborating with directors or producers, especially in the longer form world where it’s cost-prohibitive to store and edit native 2k or 4k footage when you have hundreds of hours of raw dailies.

My test “clients” were spread across the Western Hemisphere from literally down the block to across town, to across the country, to South America. I had several people connect via Wifi with portable devices (iPads & laptops), I had some connect via a hardwire connection to their desktop stations, and I had one person connect via 4G wireless to simulate a director or producer out in the field with limited bandwidth.

For everyone who had a solid connection, they had a wonderful review experience with almost no lag time, little to no loss of sync, and superb image quality. The latency was imperceptible, and the lag time between them saying “stop” and me hitting that same moment on my timeline was within a second. It’s as close to “real-time” as you get in the virtual world. They all loved it!

On the flip side, for those with less-than-stellar internet bandwidth, the experience was an unmitigated disaster. Choppy playback. No playback. Stuttering video & audio. Loss of sync. Intermittent buffering. The video signal was essentially unusable, and had it been a real client session, I would’ve been dead in the water. The moral of the story: Bandwidth is king.

It’s as close to “real-time” as you get in the virtual world. They all loved it!

If you have enough of it, real-time streaming and collaboration is no longer the future, it’s here (and it’s spectacular). If you don’t have a solid connection, you’re screwed. 

To be honest, internet bandwidth will be an issue no matter the technology you are using to stream your real-time signal. This is a problem independent of ClearView Flex that is ultimately dictated by your internet provider. And therein lies the rub. If there is one giant red flag about this technology, it’s the following stated in the setup documentation that came with the unit

“Your ClearView Flexbox needs a minimum of 20Mbps of upload bandwidth in order to stream successfully.”

I’m fortunate enough to live in a location where I have affordable access to 1GB fiber internet (up and down). If I were forced into a position where I could only use the current broadband infrastructure, my upload speeds would be at-best 10-20Mpbs. And this would mean as a WFH editor, my dreams of real-time collaboration would be shattered.

Additional Features

As I mentioned above, my favorite feature is that as long as you have sufficient internet bandwidth on both sides of the connection, all you have to do is click ‘Play’ and the tech just works. But beyond hitting play, there are a few additional features that I really appreciated about the ClearView Flex.

1) Creating new sessions. This is a piece of cake. As soon as you login to your account the interface is as simple as it gets where all you have to do is create a new session. With other hardware and software platforms this step is usually quite cumbersome, but with ClearView Flex it was incredibly intuitive. I created my first session with zero guidance or support in 15 seconds

2) Selecting multiple bitrates. Another very simple but absolutely vital feature that’s incredibly easy to use is being able to toggle between various bitrates (Super-low, Low, Medium, and High) depending on either your internet upload speeds, your clients’ download speeds, or both. When I tested my streaming signal with a multitude of people on various devices (iPhones, laptops, desktops) and different connection speeds, the visual difference between ‘Low’ and ‘High’ was profound. They were incredibly impressed by the image quality (and I was only streaming 1080p ProRes 422).

 

3) Watermarks. For anyone concerned about security, you have the ability to place an optional watermark on your output that slowly floats across the screen as you stream your signal. This can either be your Session ID (the default setting), the project name, the session start time, the session name, any combination of the above, and you can even customize this text to be anything you need. You can also customize the location, behavior, and text. Super simple yet super powerful.

4) Custom sessions & multiple projects. Another feature I really appreciate about the ClearView Flex is the ability to create multiple custom sessions as well as manage multiple projects. With other streaming platforms you often just get a signal output without any session names, and with other devices you might get a standard ‘Room’ but no way to organize sessions or people. Being able to create individual sessions allows you to track your history, the users you invited to individual sessions, and if you are an assistant editor who manages multiple editors with multiple devices, with the multi-project interface you can do so. It’s all very clean, simple, and intuitive.

5) Weekly Credits. For independent content creators who might not have the budget to pay for full months or a multi-month (or even yearly) contract, I very much appreciate Sohonet making this technology accessible to those who only need to collaborate for a short period of time using the ‘weekly credits’ option at a reduced price.

What’s Missing?

As I’ve stated multiple times above, the strongest feature about the ClearView Flex is its simplicity. However, the weakest area where ClearView Flex is also lacking…is its simplicity.

1) Collaboration. If I want to collaborate real-time with someone remotely, I want to “collaborate.” And this technology offers no technology to enhance the creative process beyond pumping my signal to someone else’s screen.I’m unable to communicate using this technology, therefore I either have to have a separate phone call or Zoom session running independent of the video feed.

This might seem like a minor detail, but if you’re in the field with only one device (e.g. your iPhone), you can’t simultaneously be on a Zoom call and watch your real-time feed (especially if you barely have enough bandwidth as-is to stream the session).

Another hugely crucial feature, in my opinion, is the ability to interact with the footage. Even via something as simple as a free Zoom call I can share my screen and annotate areas I’d like to make changes or revisions. I can’t imagine how frustrating a call would be regarding visual fx if all I could do was talk someone through what I wanted as opposed to visually interacting with the footage and being able to mark it.

While I wasn’t able to test this feature myself, as I understand it the ClearView Flex has a secondary HDMI input that you can use to share your screen (my 2011 iMac doesn’t have an HDMI output and I don’t have the dongle for it). Even if I was able to test this feature, I’d still prefer the ability to interact directly with my video stream and not have to toggle between my HD-SDI stream as opposed to my HDMI stream to visually collaborate with whatever I have on my desktop.

2) Price. Let’s be honest…ultimately price is what it all comes down to, right? If I’m an independent content creator or editor WFH who wants to make myself more desirable to potential remote clients, I need hardware like the ClearView Flex to transform me from a local hire into a global one. But the pricing options as currently offered are 100% prohibitive to independent professionals like myself. Therefore the only way I can use technology like this is if I can convince each producer on a per-project basis to consider this as a necessary line-item in their post-production budgets. And to be frank, I don’t have the energy for that. What I want is tech I can add to my permanent “kit” that enhances my hireability, and while the tech is the perfect fit, the price is not.

I experienced one of the simplest setup processes I’ve ever had with real-time remote collaboration hardware & software

Worth It Or Not?

After working with the ClearView Flex I quickly fell in love with its simplicity, its slick interface, and its ease of use. I anticipated an incredibly cumbersome setup process, overly-engineered menus, and bloated settings. Instead I experienced one of the simplest setup processes I’ve ever had with real-time remote collaboration hardware & software. I would have zero hesitation if a producer or director asked me to use this in my daily workflow to collaborate remotely…with one giant caveat: It has to be on their dime.

With the current price available to me as an individual content creator, I’d rather take my chances with a patchwork screen sharing process via Zoom, even it it meant lag times and loss of sync, or even if it meant slowing down the collaborative process using a more standard upload/download service like Frame.io. Unfortunately there isn’t any room in my post-pandemic budget for ClearView Flex’s price of admission.

But if you can afford it, if all you need is a way to transport your high quality video signal from your box to someone else’s across town or across the globe, and if you don’t need additional collaboration features, then the ClearView Flex is worth it and gets my seal of approval.