Media Orchestration + Cloud
This blog is one of a series of Media & Entertainment Cloud Ecosystem interviews.
Executive Interview with Art Raymond, CEO and CCO of Levels Beyond
While in-person events have been curtailed by COVID-19, innovation continues to advance in both tech and media and entertainment. I’ve been sitting down (virtually) with leaders of some of the leading AWS Partner Network (APN) Technology Partners involved in the M&E ecosystem—and their insights can offer a lens into the future of the industry.
With over 23 years in the industry, Art Raymond has been involved in media and advertising for the totality of his career. From the very beginning, Art’s goal was to build the most efficient multi-channel publishing platform anywhere. Through generations of technologies, Art has led Reach Engine by Levels Beyond as CEO for 15 years and became CCO in 2020.
In this interview, Art and I chat about media management and workflows, video delivery in the cloud, and what he sees for the future of the industry.
Q: For those that are not familiar with Levels Beyond, can you give an intro about the company and what you do?
A: We're a company that's been around a while. We came out of Hurst in New York, and it was a team of people that looked at the world and we saw that there was going to be a need for what we call a media orchestration production processing platform — much more automation, much more manufacturing. And we were very early in the stage of doing that. So Levels Beyond started with those roots.
Then we moved out to Denver, Colorado, brought a lot of the team along, and then saw that the industry really was going to need it around 2012, 2013. We started to productize and develop the platform as a marketable tool and brought it to market and have enjoyed some great growth. We believe we're one of the early — if not only — iPaaS platforms in the media space.
Q: How did you guys get involved in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud space? I know that's part of what you guys do. But when was that sort of change or adoption for you?
A: Pretty early. Almost five years ago, and I think when AWS was doing some of the early media, cloud infrastructure demos and showing — you know the media to cloud tools, taking your current production inventory and your current production operations that are on premise, and migrating the sensible parts of those to the cloud — I think we were in the very first NAB, IBC booth with them, being part of the demo environment for that kind of stuff. And then that whole team is fantastic. They've been great partners, for us for every step along the way. All we're doing is migrating our services, deeper and deeper and deeper into that basic infrastructure and platform.
Q: Now, I'm curious — total sidebar — but there's something about Colorado. I think there's something in the air over there. There's a number of folks that are in the media and entertainment space that have ended up there. Do you know why?
A: Yeah, you know. Maybe it's the same reason for us. But, I was in New York, and the team — we were all in New York. Half of our business was in Hollywood and LA, or Silicon Valley. So we were doing coast to coast, coast to coast, and part of what landed us here was travel. We just literally, as a group said, "Where should we live?" Where it's two hours one way, two hours the other way. And it's a great place to live. If you know, Denver/Boulder, it’s hard to beat. That's how we ended up here. I think that happens a lot. Now it's a California exodus. I mean, we're seeing tons of that.
Q: As far as media and entertainment, talk to us a little bit about how your company and how it fits into the overarching M&E ecosystem?
A: It's pretty easy. The media world — let's say you're producing a film, or an episodic show, and you go through a process of, “Hey, I'm putting together this infrastructure, and I'm going to get people out shooting part of the movie. I'm also going to distribute some of the work to be VFX. I'm going to produce models, and I'm going to create that programming element. That's going to be special effects, and it’s going to be in this background, and all this great stuff.” All that stuff starts to move, and it all starts to kind of get done. It goes through a media stream or work stream. But basically, any one thing goes through stages of “I got to get this work done, and I got to get this work out.” And in this industry, those stages include dailies, pieces of getting that film in, and then the Director/Producer choosing the parts and pieces they want that could be days of work. That could be four different platforms that are chosen. Then the next piece is a platform, and the next stage, and then that one edit piece is touching three different platforms.
So what Reach Engine does — it's really quite fun. We're the glue between every single one of those platforms, we have what's called connectors, connector services. And we're very different than API's. So don't mix us up with our Swedish competitor or otherwise, because we think it's more abstracted and more powerful. Basically, if we have connector services, and we have UI, that's another differentiator. We have this glue that says, "Hey, I got this stuff that just came in that we expected for dailies, and I auto transcode it in and I send it over to Avid people that are those are the editors that are starting to work on the primary production. I archive that automatically." So what we do is we bring in a combination of cohesion. We normalize the process. We automate. We — through those connectors services in our workflow engine — we automate every single thing we can. So we're the manufacturing layer that the industry has needed. We really are that manufacturing operations layer that needs to be in place.
Q: That tees up my next question perfectly because you mentioned the complexity. Are there any cloud technologies other than yours that you've read about or Reach Engine has interacted with, or that you've heard about that you find, especially interesting?
A: Yeah, a lot. AWS Stack has been great, right? And I think where AWS has gone — that's different than Azure and GCP right now — is the depth of the tools. They've got the Elemental stack, which is incredible, and it's all enabled in the cloud. And for me to go duplicate that somewhere else, I've got to bring in third party vendors, and I've got to enable things up in the cloud that are ready and things like that. So, you know, they've been great. And then you actually see really unique technologies. There's a player, Zorra. There's a lot of people that blackbox AI. So you send them an API request, “I want to get models trained to tell me all this stuff, and I want to get all this data back.” And then there's companies that have done a great job, but they blackbox it. So, you don't get to control your models. You don't get to control the data and everything else. These guys came out, and they put a framework in place that works with our fabric and works with our connectors. And yes, it's amazing, right? Because then there's nothing we can't do in that market space.
You know, we're working with some next gen player technology, that I won't give the name yet. But imagine this: micro communities all around an event — like a news broadcast or a reporter specifically giving an in-depth story from the New York Times — at a level that no one's ever done. You can literally segment people into micro communities that interact.
Q: Communities being able to interact? That's fascinating.
A: All this great stuff can go on. There's a lot there — so much that’s new. Say a concert is coming up on a weekend, like the Jazz Festival in San Francisco, and you and I are big into jazz. So we would say, "Hey, we're not going to be there, or we are going to be there." But this particular artist is actually going to do an early show at seven o'clock before this nine o'clock showing. We're going to get a chance to interact and do some new things in different ways. And my own micro community— that you're gonna be in — is different than this other one that's got ten people in this other one. And a lot of new tech is coming together — Amazon's launching some new live technology. That's incredible. Then there's a company — that did a lot of work for Netflix back in the day — that's doing amazing, cloud enabled live technology called IIO. They're doing some experimental projects in Thailand, and things like that, that are just incredible. So, the world's going to change. It's already 50% fruit basket upset.
Q: Yeah, and that's the next question. What do you think the impact of Coronavirus will be on the M&E industry over the next, I'm saying 12 months, but pick whatever horizon you want. Where do you think we have left to go?
A: Well, that's been part of what you've had in a few of these interviews, which is fun to listen to. It’s certainly changing productions forever, right? We all discovered that you can do a lot with virtualization — a lot more than we ever thought. You can do a lot with remote collaboration and pulling parts and pieces together. So I think there's going to be major changes along those lines. What's going to happen to theaters? I don't know. I mean, it's interesting, right? This whole thing? You know it's funny because I was with some guys at MGM yesterday, and then they're saying, “I don't know. I just don't think it's coming back.” And it's MGM! They're delaying Bond, and all this stuff is going on. I think it was AMC theaters that was so angry about DreamWorks with “Trolls” and that they released it. They're never going to let DreamWorks have a film in their theaters again. Well, of course, that won't happen. But, the whole the whole point being, who knows where that's gonna go? I will say this — like so many people, we now have a 65 inch TV with the most amazing soundbar and surround sound. It's a Dolby Vision enabled system that is incredible. We put that stock center into the middle of the family room, and I’ve got to tell you, it's just as good as being in a theater. So I don't know.
Q: I've heard people say they really miss it. I do miss the theater experience. But it's funny, when you first said theater, I was thinking musical theater because that's a whole other medium that's been totally upended, live theater. Who knows where that's going to go? You have a whole workforce that's essentially just on ice.
A: Yeah, I'm with you. We do the digital back end for a couple of major festivals, one of which is coming up around the corner. So, look at that. Sundance this year, hats off to them for major innovation. There is not a physical Sundance. I'm going to admit, I will miss it so much. The moment it's back open, I will be there because it's just such a special experience. But here they are. I think they have 300 locations, fairly COVID separation enabled in terms of tickets and how you go in. It's something that we were pushing them to try to launch for years, and they refused. Now all of a sudden, they're going to do it. So, you're going to have a premiere with the director, producer, actors, interviews, like you always have, and 300 remote locations that are actually going to be interactive the whole time. Will Sundance always have that as an add on to the experience, which I think is fantastic, because the quality of content is amazing? And Park City is too much for most people, right? I mean, how do you get there? It's expensive. It's ridiculous. You have to have an inside line to get a place. It’s just nuts.
So, you know, South by Southwest, what's going to happen? How's it going to change? We've got music clients that we do a lot with — a couple of people that are major musicians with a lot of indie artists. Whole new innovations of what's going to go for that and little micro thing for adjunct communities, micro concerts, extending live concerts. Is Beyonce gonna go to LA? And SoFi stadium is going to be this next generation music venue because it's so utterly amazing in terms of screen and sound presence. Then 100,000 extra tickets are sold for just the timing of the event to people in micro theaters around the community. When did that ever happen? COVID drove that.
Q: I think that theatrical release in the home was a big milestone. But I don't think you're going to get the genie back in the bottle. So, for the last question, we've been talking about the media and entertainment industry, but let's go bigger. What do you think the impact is going to be on business or life in general, when we think about a cloud over the next, say, three years?
A: Just cloud technology in general?
Q: Yeah, just cloud technology.
A: Well, it certainly changes everything, in terms of how we consume media. But, I think it's going to continue to change. It's funny — I'm a mixed person on social media because I think of the psychological impact of the individualism side of it. I still think we're better as community than we are as individuals. That probably classifies me, but I just think we are. That part is kind of negative. But, I also think companies and organizations are figuring out new ways to actually create that community piece and to relate differently. I think the reaction that's going to occur against social media is going to go towards the development of community and more verification and quality content. I actually think that's going to come back. We're actually involved in a couple of projects that relate to that AI enablement to analyze content and to actually give a rating to a content piece that tells you how fake it is in terms of factual information.
So who knows? Who knows, but those changes are going to be big for the next probably ten years, at least, maybe more. It is the best of times, right? Here we are. We're not at the sunset, where I look at it as I'm at the pinnacle in a career. And it's never been more fun. It's absolutely never been more fun. There's just so much change. There's not a day where I think, “Oh man, that is a tech turn that we should take a look at.” It’s so fun.
Q: Well, great attitude, Art. I know that Levels Beyond is really lucky to have you, and it's been a pleasure.
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