Executive Spotlight: Interview with Bluescape’s Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the CEO of Bluescape, the leading visual work platform. He is a serial entrepreneur and advisor with a broad and deep knowledge of technology, business and financial markets. Prior to Bluescape, Jackson co-founded Ziploop Inc. (acquired by Snipp Interactive in October 2017), served on the boards of Eventbrite, DocuSign and Kanjoya; took Intraware to IPO, and was president/COO of DataFlex following its acquisition of Granite Systems, among other achievements. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Jackson about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Bluescape and the services it deploys to the media & entertainment space.

Kenneth Williams: Peter, thanks so much for joining me today. Normally when we’ve been talking to industry executives and technologists about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their companies, we’ve been talking to people who have been grappling with learning new tools and new work modes for handling the social distance implications of this crisis. I wanted to begin our conversation by giving you an opportunity to describe the Bluescape offering.

A number of our readers who are currently working in collaborative software applications such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams or BlueJeans may not realize the very different sort of higher end visualization experience that you can have collaboratively with the Bluescape product. So maybe you could just spend a minute talking a little bit about it?

Peter Jackson: Thanks, Ken. It’s interesting because we just spent a good couple of hours with one of the biggest production movie studios in the world. You can probably guess who it is and we were talking through our tools and sort of, at the same time, answering the question you just asked. You suddenly have this need for security, you need to have things not be hacked while you’re producing. And when you are inside your studio lots or wherever there was a sense of trust there that these things weren’t going to get out of there.

And now we’re being forced to work remotely and then even post-pandemic, maybe work remote 50 percent of the time moving forward. So trying to find tools that allow us to say, the Fort Knox type tool where you can be working and not have the risk of it being hacked. If you remember from your Sony days, you know, the big hijack that happened with North Korea.

That was sort of the beginning of saying, hey, we can’t afford to have these things get out into the Wild West. Now people are at home, and they’re not able to use the existing tools that they have. So in this studio conversation, we went through Bluescape.

And Bluescape was really built in the federal government for the agencies, the intelligence agencies, so we dealt with this idea of security is number one. Unfortunately, when I got on board three years ago, UI UX seemed to be way off in the distance. So, it’s kind of a frustrating product in the sense that it was kind of a battleship. It was something everyone in government had to buy because of security, but the use case of trying to maneuver and do things wasn’t there.

And so we hired a couple hundred really talented people that start coding — people that came out of BlackBerry, people came out of Adobe — and today we actually have a very usable product. Most of the productions you’re seeing today are influenced by our technology, whether it’s the distribution, the storyboarding, what are we going to do for casting, what are we going to do for costumes. All those things are happening in a variety of ways across, let’s say, a dozen to two dozen studios and content creators as we speak.

KW: So, contrast the capabilities that make it user-friendly to workflow and production with some of the tools that most business people are dealing with in terms of the just the sort of simple collaborative Zoom type of activity. I mean, to me, Bluescape is this secure visual workspace essentially that allows everyone to play. It’s a big visual sandbox that is open to everyone to participate and have collaborative input into the production process.

PJ: You’re hired!

KW: There’s a lot more to Bluescape than just share your screen and show a spreadsheet or a static video or PowerPoint.

PJ: Yes, I think that you said it really well because if I’m talking with my team right now and there are 10 people on the call, and unless Van Gogh’s on the call, there’re 20 ears and that’s all they’re doing. I’m talking and you’re all listening and now you call it collaboration on a conference call. We’ve all had these Zoom cocktail parties or whatever with our family and sometimes no one gets a chance to speak. So what do you do? I think what we did was we take Zoom or we take a Webex and we put it in this container, the visual workspace canvas you were talking about.

I think of Zoom as a radio. I think of us as a smart TV set and everybody can be in there. At the same time, I may want to work on something over here, and when it’s my turn to talk, my stuff comes up or I could put a post-it note over your face and say, “I disagree. Everybody who agrees with me put up a red dot; everybody disagrees, put up a blue dot.”

So you can start to have these interactions that really take production time down by some cases 50-60 percent because everybody’s in the same workspace. The conference call is truly happening.

Let me finish by saying when the conference call happens inside our container, you now are fortified against the bombing that’s going on in these calls. You are now are fortified who can be in the call, and you have a fortress, as you pointed out, around the content. When you’re screen sharing, you’re opening that up to the world. When you’re doing it inside of our container, we can see who can see this document. Someone else who is authorized can iterate on it. The other person can’t. So you can make rules around pieces of content and video at the same time, and I got something really exciting to tell you in a second, but let’s keep going. I want to talk about video and why that’s so important inside our container.

KW: I think that was the point I was trying to make. For visually complex, multi-cycle development exercises like storyboarding for film sequence or what have you, there really are few options out there. Another aspect of Bluescape which I appreciate is that it’s not just about the moment you’re in. Since sessions can be archived, it also has the ability to track the process from the inception through the development. Archiving those prior versions of the conversations and the visual development process allows you to understand how you got to where you are.

Who was influential? Why you didn’t pick this and you picked that look or version instead? And so this visual continuity is, I think, very important. Probably not just for the movie business or the entertainment business, but I can imagine any design intensive process.

I know that Ford Motor, for example, has become a major client of yours, I think, and I can imagine why this would fit perfectly with what they want to be doing. And in fact, maybe it is better than what they were doing before and possibly would be continued even after the pandemic.

PJ: I saw a quote today, on a Ford thread, where the person said, “I’ll never have to go back to the office today because of Bluescape. I’m able to actually get more done here.” You know we recently signed the two largest commerce companies in the world. I’m not allowed to say who they are but you can guess.

I will tell you that they do a lot of engineering and a lot of design and if they’re promoting products or they’re iterating advertisements or distribution through social, they have to have all that stuff sitting somewhere, will need to print it, put it on a wall, and everybody would decide.

You know Waller up at Lululemon (Tom Waller, SVP advanced innovation, chief science officer)? Every product they design, they have these like smoked-out glass rooms. You can’t bring your phone in there. It’s highly secretive, but they can’t do work unless they’re in that room with their vignettes and cloths and all stuff. So this ability now — and Tom Bell is actually doing this as well at Nike — where they’re now looking at it, saying, “Hey, we need to produce product,” and “We need to innovate and we’re not in the privacy of our campus.”

Due diligence … Where are all the documents? Where are all your contracts? Do we need the data room? Data rooms are always arduous, right? It’s like going to the box; like going to the library where you have every book you’ve ever read, every newspaper article and you’re trying to sort and catalog all of your documents, so you can quickly find and share them at the moment’s notice. When you share it and people make comments and edits, and search and find where they left off and what happened before, by whom, how do you keep track of all of those versions in a secure place?

All of your data and documents can be a top-secret thing now that it’s all digital. It started digital then you printed it and then you put it in around with a bunch of stats. All that stuff is going away really rapidly to the detriment of the industry.

KW: Yes, I would agree you. You commented on the importance of video in your product. You want to talk a little bit about that?

PJ: Yeah, it was an interesting debate between a couple of executives about six months ago. Where, if I started to play a video now on a PowerPoint or a Zoom, when I play it, it plays for me. It doesn’t play for you. Right? You can’t sync that and it’s like, “No, no, I started it,” and then the sound is off and you’re trying to work together.

We demoed this for, you know, you name the studio over the last two weeks, we’ve been able to figure out that when you put the content in its natural form and high-res in the container, this is going to blow movie producers away. Everybody can see it at the same time. They can stop it. They can tag it. They can duplicate it. And I can say, “Well wait. Let’s go back. Go in reverse. Look at the scene here.”

And then they put a little note on it and then you can see in the thread below it. I’m a blue dot, you’re a green dot. It’s where all the notes are on the production. And so, this is people working around the world in one container with multiple clips and everybody can go through them together, which should really enhance the speed in which these things get produced.

KW: Yes, I think that there’s a huge need for this type of tool and that need predated the pandemic. First of all, it’s been a global business for some time, especially with respect to visual effects and animation. It’s done all over the world. And so these tools are long overdue, and the ability to collaborate at that quality level has been lacking for a while.

But I also think that, when we come back, we won’t come back necessarily the way we used to work. And I think it’s going to be — I call it — “least-touch workflows,” and by that I mean you’re not going to have people lined up in a control room in chairs, doing some of the traditional editing and post processes that used to take place.

You’re going to have one guy maybe in the big room and everybody else is going to be outside the room, possibly not even on site at all, but they’re still going to have all the comments they used to have, and all the creative input that they wanted to make.

PJ: So it’s great. I think it’s great for the enhancement of talent. I think of Jerry Jeff Walker, if we could just get off of this LA freeway without getting killed by a car. You know, this whole idea of the quality of life is terrible here in San Francisco and it’s terrible in LA. You know, just to go from Manhattan Beach to Hollywood can take hours.

And I think people are getting out of LA. They’re wanting to go live somewhere a little more — maybe up in Rhode Island or — they want to go somewhere, you know, comfortable, and they want to be productive. And I think this allows you to get better talent — maybe save some money — and get things done faster. This whole idea about the studio being a physical place is, I think, going to become less important.

KW: I also think that if you look around LA — I’ve lived here since 1990 — and the air quality had already improved significantly from what it was in the 60s and 70s, but we still have had our bad days, even in recent years. LA has some of the best air quality in the country right now; right off the ocean edge and cars are down 80 percent and you look around and you can get places when you really need to get places. I mean I got downtown the other day in 12 minutes from the Westside. I was like, “What in the world is this?”

With the pandemic there’s certainly no shame now in working from home, so maybe even post pandemic, that sticks for a couple days a week, right, and maybe companies just start to revisit the idea that you don’t need to come into the office so much. A lot of companies already moved that way for their sales and marketing, and you can pretty much live wherever you wanted to live. You just get on a plane and show up at the meeting or get on the video conference call.

In this case, you get on Bluescape or whatever tool you have and you come to the meeting that way. But, you know, LA could be a really neat place. It’s got mountains. It’s got beaches. If you had about half the traffic and the work patterns were properly adjusted to reflect the ability to work remotely, this might be a pretty nice place to live again.

PJ: I think the billboard companies will suffer. I think you said it really, really well. I mean, the only addition, I would say, from my perspective is that we are doing something really good environmentally. I think traditionally we felt like you had to be in the office. I tweeted this yesterday, that look, before COVID, remote work was already at 25 percent. When we come back at full strength, it’ll be two times that. It’ll be 50 percent or at least work one day.

Wait. Now let’s talk about square footage. I believe square footage will go down by 75 percent, but TI enhancements will go up 2,000 percent. Meaning when you show up for your environment, it’s like a club. It’s got leather chairs, it’s got a kitchen, it’s got all this stuff and Sales meets in there on Mondays and Engineering is on Tuesday. And so when you come in, you need to have this feeling of people and projects and meetings, but it’s going to be much different. There was a while there when we were trying to make the office the home and the home the office. That’s really what’s going to start to happen.

KW: If you think about it, before this health crisis, the biggest issue on many people’s plate was global warming and climate change. And by dealing with this issue that we’re now having to face, by developing remote, non-resource consuming ways to work together and create things and build things, you’re also creating best practices for when you do come back for how you begin to address, let’s face it, a much smaller carbon footprint.

If you’re working at home and the office itself is much smaller because it only serves as a hub, not as permanent housing and you’re not in your car, half the time, you’ve just prototyped how to deal with climate change in a positive way in a matter of months, not years. So it’ll be interesting to see which practices remain after the crisis.

PJ: And whatever religion you follow, whatever spirit, whatever turns anybody on out there, you have to think that, you know, in some ways, the world sort of said, “hey puke on you. You know you’re doing this.”

This is sort of a wake-up call for all of us, to your point, and as sad as it is, the only benefits I think that come out of it are going to be that we’re helping this global warming issue, which is real. It’s not unreal. And so, look, and I was talking about this yesterday, that our carbon footprint is down at a 14-year low right now. I’m surprised. I thought it would be more like a 20- or 25-year low and maybe we’re getting there, but you know, I can see across my valley, trees I didn’t know existed.

KW: No, I feel the same way.

Before we wrap up, I want to ask you a couple of final questions, just sort of filling out the balance of how the industry is using your tools. I’ve talked to a number of companies, many ETC member companies who are now very, very committed to filling in the gaps for remote collaborative cloud-based workflows — primarily post production — but also everything from capture on-set to automatic very high speed 5G-based uploading of imagery to the cloud and everything being done on virtual machines and what have you.

What are you hearing about the gaps right now that exist because people are essentially saying, “We don’t really have this fully figured out. We have a lot of the pieces but there’s still a lot of thought and integration that needs to take place here,” and I should think you’d be in the absolute center of the process of the conversation.

PJ: Yes, so the cloud creates, I think, tons of insecurity relative to data, and in the security of that data. I think that’s what’s really held back a lot of SaaS-related technology platforms. People just don’t have the trust factor.

They are scared of that stuff, even though it’s available and I get it. I do get it. Getting a hold of some of those clips? Not good. I think what Dell’s VxRail is providing which is this hyper-hybrid cloud. We’re seeing a race to that. Certainly, I know IBM has one, but I think Dell has a lock on this business right now. If you start to go to this, it’s sort of going back to on-prem, but it’s using cloud-based. And so there’s a way that you can manage this now, with these products that are coming out, to eliminate the security-related challenge.

With that said, I think production times once again are going to go down by about 50 percent once we allow ourselves to do that. Because of security, we really layer on production costs — time to market, time to produce — and I believe it’s the time now because we’re forced with everybody having to work remotely anyway that you just install security. You put Bluescape in and I promise you that’s the best decision you’ll make. Obviously, I’m a little prejudiced on that, but also start looking at hybrid clouds, things like VxRail.

KW: I would tend to agree. I’ve talked to a number of post and visual effects companies, who will tell you that for years they’ve had the ability to provide some semblance of distributed workflows to the home and to home studios. But their creative client companies have just not trusted the cloud enough to have their resources be distributed and have people working at home.

So consequently for higher end work and commercial animation, many artists don’t have the secure connectivity that they need to be able to actually deliver high rez imagery from home. They can work with storyboards. They can work with branding and marketing campaigns, all that can be done pretty well. But much of the infrastructure needs to be upgraded. And of course, now in the wake of the pandemic every content company is like, “How quickly can you get that artist functionally working in their home studio.”

And it’s going to take some time, but I also think it’s one of the things that is going to give value to the use case for 5G in our industry. People would say, “You know, 4G’s pretty darn good. Why would we go and retool the entire telco broadband infrastructure again?” Well one reason is to get to zero latency for interacting with high quality imagery. So my feeling is this could also be a huge turbo charge for the 5G companies.

PJ: It’s an accelerator for sure. You’ve always been at the forefront of technology. That’s obviously from your Sony days and then, you know, transitioning it, really preaching it and really educating it. I’ve always been impressed with the fact that you’re thinking that way, but I do think 5G would be a 2022 or later reality, because they still have a couple trillion dollars worth of work they have to do between all the telcos and who’s going to pay for it. Right?

Well, now people are going to pay for it because there was this gap of saying we don’t have enough people demand out there. Doctors don’t want to have MRIs on their phones. Now they have to have MRIs on their phones. You happened to say it in a different way. I would just articulate by saying we got a two-year jump on what we need, and I think it’s going to fund things like 5G which, for the most part, seemed unfunded. Who’s coming up with the trillions of dollars to build it out? The thing about 5G too is that you have to have these little subcenters around that, actually, houses the data. It doesn’t just go to the mothership and have these little pods…

KW: Edge computing. You got to build out the edge computing network to get the value of the zero latency and that’s all that’s to be done. I mean, I actually think that would be one of the big growth recovery industries, when people can really get back to work.

PJ: You know, think about it. But you’re right.

KW: In a physical sense, that’s all going to get built out and probably sooner than it would have otherwise been without this kick in the pants, so…

Last question and I’ll let you go. For most companies I talked to I ask, “How’s this disrupted your business. How are you coping with it?” But I know that Bluescape has been a distributed company in terms of its human resources ever since I’ve known you. Your CTO is one place. Your coders in another. You’re anywhere in the world you need to be. Has this really significantly impacted your ability to do business at Bluescape and what have you done differently to tweak the work model so that you can get done what you need to get done?

PJ: It’s just what I’ve been preaching. You heard me speak on why about the zero-hour work week. You know, I’ve always said that we do a lot of dumb things as humans. And so I really practice what I preach with my employee base and I’m constantly in contact with them. You know, we did more business in the month of March than we did in ‘17, ‘18 and ‘19 combined. We added contracts for nearly 400,000 users in a two-week period — just two weeks. We have more interest from the investment community than ever before and I’ve been able to do it all above my garage.

Putting on my nice tie and my shirt and everything else. But yeah, I’ve been telemarketing these investment calls. We’re closing millions of dollars of contracts without ever physically meeting anybody which used to be a requirement in the past. So I think this is the new normal. And I think that hopefully — we haven’t had an outage of Bluescape since last June — and as you mentioned, Ford quadrupled their use with us just in the last month.

We’re really working hard on the scale stuff and trying to recruit or hire 100 people and doing that remotely without having people come in and meet them. Those are challenges for us because you really don’t really get that feeling when you’re not physically getting a chance to meet somebody. So that’ll probably cause some indigestion for us down the line because we didn’t have that.

You know, we’ve used up most of our Rolodex already bringing in good people, but there is good talent out there. I mean, unfortunately, there are all these riffs going on and we’re finding A talent wants to work for us because we’re growing.

So I don’t know, I’m not happy about anything that’s going on in the environment right now, but I am happy about the fact that I’m able to stay productive and I’m part of something that it’s solving a problem.

KW: Peter, thank you.