DIY Cloud Video Collaboration with Dropbox

Dropbox

As mentioned previously, over the coming months I will be presenting a number of alternative solutions for cloud video collaboration. There should be no surprise that ScreenLight will be the foil for these posts as it is near and dear to my heart. While I believe that ScreenLight is the best cloud video collaboration tool for many video producers and editors, there are a number of general purpose tools, one of which is Dropbox, that can be made to work if you're willing to make some tradeoffs.

We’ll start off with an overview of Dropbox’s service as it pertains to video collaboration projects, compare and contrast Dropbox with ScreenLight to highlight the differences of the two offerings and provide a breakdown of some of the circumstances under which each solution may be the most appropriate.

Dropbox

Dropbox is the first broadly successful and easy to use storage-as-a-service product targeted at consumers. Since its inception, Dropbox has offered a free tier to their service that starts with 2 GB of storage that can be increased by referring people you know to sign up for Dropbox. For a referral to count, they need to download and install the Dropbox software and sign in with their account. Each referral will get you an additional 500 MB of storage.

Let's keep it simple and start with the base 2 GB of storage. I know it doesn't sound like much, and it may not be enough depending on the amount of work you have on the go at any one time. The 2 GB of storage that Dropbox gives you to work with acts like a hard drive - at any time, if you need more space, you can delete files you no longer need to reclaim storage space.

So what can we do with 2 GB of storage?

On the surface, answering what can be stored in 2 GB of storage sounds pretty straight forward. Unfortunately, it really does depend on a number of parameters, some of which are in your control, and some of which are outside of your control.

The goal is to make maximal use of 2 GB of storage. To do so, you need to optimize the bit rate of any video you want to store there. There's nothing magical to this, you can reduce the bitrate by reducing the frame size, reducing the frame rate or increasing the amount of compression. The extent to which these strategies will work will depend on your clients (changing the frame rate can change the feel of the video; too much compression will introduce artifacts) and the content itself (talking heads should compress better than action filled shots).

For this post, I have set up an example project using Dropbox that you can see by using this sharing link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/u9cuybksf8t3k82/70X2TfV3ZH

Handbrake
Handbrake
Settings used to transcode Sintel to a 4.8 MB/min file at 576 x 240.

I downloaded the 720p render of Sintel and ran it through HandBrake to reduce the frame size to 576 x 240 with a average bit rate of 500 kbps. The resulting file was 70.97 MB in size for its 14:48 runtime which amounts to roughly 4.8 MB/min. of video. If the full 2 GB were filled with video encoded in a likewise manner, there would be adequate space for approximately 425 minutes of video. That's a lot of video if you can get away with screening it at 576 x 240, so there's probably no little reason to want to squeeze more bits out of your video if that's the case.

For comparison, the original, 720p Sintel file is 642.71 MB which works out to 43.4 MB/min which would still allow a little over 45 minutes of video to be stored within the 2 GB limit.

Managing projects using Dropbox

Shared folders in Dropbox
Shared folders in Dropbox

Dropbox is little more than a cloud-based hard drive, and as such it really doesn't provide any direct support for projects. Like a hard drive though, you can organize files into folders. If you clicked through to Dropbox using the sharing link above, you may have noticed that there are a number of files in a folder named "DIY Video Collaboration".

With Dropbox, sharing links are available for both folders as well as for individual files. Getting the sharing link for a folder of file is as easy as right clicking on the item of interest and selecting the "Get Link" option from the popup menu. Note that this works in both the web and desktop versions of Dropbox.

Collaborating on projects with clients

Collaborating with clients on a project requires two tasks to be accomplished. The project files need to be shared with the client, and the client needs to be able to provide input back to you as to how to proceed with the next phase of the project.

Sharing projects with clients

There are two ways you can share your Dropbox projects with your clients. You can use the sharing link we've been discussing thus far, or you could use the standard Dropbox sharing.

Using a sharing link is the easiest of the two methods. In this case you would grab the links you need from Dropbox and simply email or IM them to your client. Nice and simple for you and the client can easily forward the links along to anyone else they need to have access the videos. Files shared using a sharing link are read-only and can not be modified by a recipient of the sharing link.

Standard Dropbox sharing requires that you know the email address of the client and that they have Dropbox installed and that they have enough space available in their Dropbox account to receive your files. They will have the ability to share the project folder with others using either a sharing link or standard sharing. One thing to keep in mind is that folders shared using the standard Dropbox sharing can have their contents modified by your clients or others who have had the folder shared with them using standard sharing.

Collecting feedback from clients

Again, Dropbox is little more than a cloud-based hard drive. Unfortunately this means you're left to email, IM or the phone for getting feedback from your client. The challenge with decentralized project communication is that it tends to get disorganized as important comments are divorced from their context, and someone has to organize and understand the comments to be able to collate them into one place for the editor.

Media type support

This is where Dropbox's cloud-based hard drive approach is most evident. If it's a file, you can store it on Dropbox. Even better, if you are using the desktop client, the only limit to the size of a single file is your storage quota.

For video, Dropbox will play H.264 files on devices that support it. This is even true for H.264 in an MKV container for devices with Flash installed, devices without Flash, namely iOS devices, will not play content in an MKV container even if it is H.264 encoded. The point is that Dropbox does not transcode your videos to ensure that they will playback on all devices. The onus is on you to make sure that you are uploading videos that will play back on the browser and device combinations that are used by your clients.

Files in other video formats are made available for the download, at which point your client will need the appropriate player and codecs installed to be able to view the video.

Building your brand

Dropbox sharing link branding
Dropbox sharing link branding

The branding in the web interface is all Dropbox and there is no ability to customize this with your logo or colors. One can't really complain about this as Dropbox isn't marketing itself as a white-labelled service.

Security

Dropbox's security is perfectly fine for a cloud-based hard drive. Sharing links allow anonymous, read-only access to shared files and folders whereas the standard Dropbox sharing allows all involved to read and write shared files. Further, communications between client applications and Dropbox are encrypted thereby ensuring that prying eyes don't get access to your files.

Further, with Dropbox the client can download the shared files and can extend the sharing to others by either forwarding the sharing link or by adding people using the standard sharing mechanism. In the latter case you, as the owner of the share, can see who has been added, but you won't be notified of these additions.

Dropbox vs. ScreenLight

Reliability

ScreenLight is deployed on the Amazon cloud and as such enjoys the benefits of the exceptional engineering talents that underlie those services. Thus far this year ScreenLight has had 99.99% uptime.

MonTools reports that Dropbox has 100% uptime this year.

As far as reliability is concerned, the two services are equivalent. The 0.01% difference amounts to 4 minutes of downtime.

Security

Both Dropbox and ScreenLight encrypt their communications used to transfer files and play back files and authenticate users via either a username and password or a sharing link. On this point the services are equivalent.

ScreenLight offers much greater flexibility in assigning privileges to a user for a given project which better represents the real world roles that a user may have on a project.

With ScreenLight, projects are shared with participants who are either users who have signed into the application with their email address and a password or they have accessed the project via the optional sharing link. By default the sharing link is deactivated and the only way to access a project is to be specifically invited to participate by the project owner. Further, videos are only made available for download to those specific users who are granted permission to do so.

From a practical standpoint, the greatest threat to security to either Dropbox or ScreenLight is the people who are granted access to the data being managed. With either system, if a user decides to share their credentials or publish a sharing link, from a practical standpoint, there is no way to eliminate the possibility.

Device Agnostic

A solution for remote video collaboration should allow people to access files anywhere, anytime, and on as wide a range of devices as possible.

Both services work anywhere with an Internet connection. Where ScreenLight and Dropbox differ is in their approach to ensuring that video files can be played back on a wide range of devices. ScreenLight accepts input video in virtually any container format and codec, and takes care of transcoding videos into formats that will work on desktop browsers, advanced smartphones, tablets and the Apple TV.

Dropbox does not automatically transcode your videos. If you want to ensure clients can watch videos on a broad range of devices, then you will have to find the right encoding specs and test it for them.

Further, sharing project videos using a folder sharing link will only play videos back using Flash. Strangely, a file sharing link will work on devices without Flash. Unfortunately, this greatly reduces the utility of Dropbox for anyone who has more than one file in a project and who would like to share a whole folder.

ScreenLight can offer significant time savings for people who are concerned about troubleshooting client playback issues or keeping track of what formats, frame sizes, and bitrates are required to support viewing on different browsers. A potential advantage for Dropbox is the ability to collaborate on non-video files. This is not currently a feature we offer in ScreenLight. Depending on the nature of the projects you work on, non-video file support and transcoding may be an important considerations.

Centralized Communication

Centralised communication in ScreenLight
Centralised communication in ScreenLight

While email, IM and phone calls are often adequate for collaborating on a project, such a fragmented means of communication will ultimately require team members to collate varied communications into a coherent understanding of what they need to do to get the project to the next stage.

ScreenLight helps reduce, and often eliminates, this time consumed reconstituting fragmented communications by centralizing communication about project assets. With all team members able to see and participate in the ongoing conversation, there should be fewer questions as to what is to be done next.

As a tool built to specifically support collaboration on video projects, ScreenLight has a significant advantage in centralising project communications.

Simplicity

Both ScreenLight and Dropbox offer simple and intuitive interfaces where people who are invited to collaborate on a project can get started without any special training.

The major difference in terms of simplicity comes from the approach to workflow. ScreenLight is purpose built for collaborating on video projects, hence it keeps communication centralized, it makes it easy to ensure collaborators can view videos on a broad array of devices, and it provides an easy way to control what participants on a project can do. You can still collaborate on video projects using Dropbox, you just have to invest the time and energy to make it work.

Branding

ScreenLight branding
ScreenLight branding

While easy to ignore, projecting a clean and professional brand should not be overlooked.

Dropbox presents shared files using its own branding and does not support white labeling or theming.

In contrast, ScreenLight allows for the customization of the interface for it to reflect your own brand to clients. Further, there is not any invasive ScreenLight branding to confuse your clients or otherwise dilute your brand. I have uploaded the same files to a ScreenLight project for comparison.

Bottom line

The main theme that will underlie any decision between ScreenLight or a more general purpose tools is the tradeoff to be made in the cost to be paid in time versus cost to be paid in money. If your goal is to acquire a house, do you want to spend a little money to buy lumber, nails and a hammer and then spend a lot of time building the house, or do you want to spend more money to buy a finished house and use your time for something else?

Anyone running a business knows first hand that there's always more to do than there is time to do it. Running a successful business requires that time is spent wisely and regardless of the stage of your business, you are almost always better off to be spending your time acquiring new business through sales and marketing activities or cementing an existing relationship to ensure access to future business. As a business owner, there is no free time, all time has an opportunity cost to it.

Updates

2012/05/09 - Clarified MKV issues on Dropbox for browsers without Flash support.
2012/05/09 - Added sample ScreenLight project.
2012/05/10 - Added description of differences of a sharing link for a folder versus one for a single file and that folder sharing links require Flash for video playback.