Some Principles of YouTube filmmaking

Here are some lessons learnt and observations I’ve made from 14 years of uploading videos to YouTube and making YouTube videos (there’s a distinction between posting videos to YouTube and making videos for YouTube):

To make videos for YouTube you must acknowledge the audience.

A YouTube video is the start of a conversation – a conversation between the filmmaker/ videographer and the audience.

This is one of the distinctions between YouTube and other video sharing platforms such as Vimeo which act as passive showcases.

This dynamic breaks down the hierarchies of filmmaker and audience – it is a peer-to-peer form of communication. It is democratic.

There are fewer barriers to access than conventional filmmaking – all you need is a digital image capturing device and an internet connection. If you have a smartphone, or access to a smartphone you have everything you need to plan, shoot, edit, distribute and promote your films.

YouTube is its own Film School. There are a plethora of tutorials demonstrating every step of the process. You can frequently see the progression of novice filmmakers from single take videos shot on their phones to accomplished cinematographers. This is not the death of the expert it’s the democratisation of expertise.

Institutions have no role or influence.

Academia has largely overlooked or failed to recognise YouTube as an artform and the evolution it represents in filmmaking (Discuss.  Film-maker Casey Neistat here succinctly states his view on this subject).

There are no gatekeepers. No submission process. No set format. It is regulated by an algorithm.

There are no selection committees and Awards panels.

There are no entry fees.

Many of the celebrated avant-garde filmmakers of the past, if they were starting today, would not emerge from the Universities, film festivals, or galleries, but would be working on YouTube.

There’s far more that could be added to this list. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Nam June Paik quote

“Television has been attacking us all our lives, now we can attack it back”

Nam June Paik, 1965

The above quote from Nam June Paik came from his first experiments in making art with the new technology of the portable video camera. You could say this sentiment found its ultimate expression with YouTube, which for many people, has replaced television altogether.

source: A History of Experimental Film and Video by A.L. Rees

Fields of View Film, Art and Spectatorship by A.L. Rees

I had the great pleasure to meet the eminent film historian and teacher A.L. Rees a number of times, although we often ended up talking about his beloved Plumstead rather than film. However it was easy to see the enormous impact he had on the generations of students who were fortunate enough to study under him at Maidstone College of Art and the Royal College of Art. My sister, experimental film-maker Cathy Rogers and former student of Al’s at the RCA, forwarded me this information about the posthumous publication of Fields of View, Film, Art and Spectatorship (Volume editor: Simon Payne), published by Bloomsbury/BFI books on 29th October 2020. A book Rees had been working on before his death in 2014 and dutifully edited by Simon Payne. It stands to be every bit as influential as his A History of Experimental Film and Video.

Fields of View AL Rees

“Drawing on film theory, literary modernism, psychology and art history, Fields of View elucidates an expanded network of connections between avant-garde film and wider culture. In this bold and original work, A.L. Rees identifies three key terms – ‘field’, ‘frame’ and ‘interval’ and charts their use by filmmakers and theorists such as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Bruce Baillie, Maya Deren, Malcolm Le Grice and Werner Nekes, from the 1920s through to the present day. A seminal voice in film culture, Rees left the incomplete manuscript for this book on his death, and Simon Payne has subsequently carefully prepared the book for publication. Fields of View is an important work that establishes a unique perspective on experimental film.”

Table of contents
Foreword: Harvesting Fields
Acknowledgements
Fields
Film Machine
Film as Optic and Idea
Expanding Cinema
Room Films
Film Objects
Projection Space
Time Frames
Realisms
Asymptote
Digital Dialectic
Fields in Braque and Gehr
Classic Film Theory and the Spectator
Field and Gestalt
Monet, Lumière and Cinematic Time
Displacement, Sculpture
Bodies in Motion
Intervals
Methods of Montage
Frames
Frames and Windows
Constructivism and Computers
Geometry of Intervals

Notes

“Al Rees’s testament is a cinematic thinking: film and world swooping towards each other across a landscape of fields and intervals, projections and geometries, movements in and of time and space. On every page, the generosity of the man, the curator and the teacher shape new insights into our audiovisual century and its lineage. A work of permanent illumination.” – Sean Cubitt, Professor of Screen Studies, University of Melbourne, Australia,

“In this posthumous collection of essays, A.L. Rees has woven his outstanding knowledge of avant-garde film into a startlingly original, and non-linear, reconfiguration of its history. With great agility and lightness of touch, his perceptive but unexpected juxtapositions between theorists and artists, ideas and technologies, movements and moments throw new light on key issues of film theory and aesthetics. This radical rejection of chronology, however, has an underlying message. Rees traces ways in which experimental art and artists’ film have challenged traditions of space and time that, rather than abrupt rupture, create a direct connection with the forms of digital art. In the brilliant last chapters of the book, he zeroes in on this dialectic.” – Laura Mulvey, Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, UK.,

John Smith Tate interview

My work changed quite a lot when the possibility of making hand-held video work of quite good quality came about. I was very eager to take on the possibilities of spontaneity which hadn’t been offered working with film.’

– John Smith, “one of the most famous experimental film makers in the world”.

Talking about the Hotel Diaries: ‘I really wanted to make work which looks like anybody could do it. I thought if I make something which looks like a home video and I just force myself to not edit it at all so I’m going to say stupid things that I’m going to regret and I’m going to mess things up and stuff like that, this should undermine any kind of potential didacticism. That work was intended to be quite conversational on a kind of equal level with the audience.’

Editing DV tape footage in 2020

The lockdown has sent me rummaging through old hard-drives trying to generate videos from fragments of completed projects of the past. I import the rushes from my first feature documentary (2009) into a new Premiere Pro project and start watching the clips. It quickly strikes me how different the footage feels, and the process of editing.

Wembley

The camera roves across the landscape – you’re waiting for it to settle, panning through undergrowth and across street scenes. A roaming lens hunting for a subject. The long clips of ingested tapes 20 something minutes long feel odd now, accustomed as I’ve become to shorter clips shot on digital cameras.  I remember the bins of subclips I created for the film to organise these great chunks of footage. I’m out of practice editing like this.

argenta house

The camera (Sony PD150) pans and zooms, something you avoid with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras due to the tendency to produce rolling shutter and the clunkiness of the zoom mechanism on cameras designed for stills photography. The limitations of these cameras has produced a style of film-making that has become an orthodoxy, a more studied gaze, measured shots, no more crash zooms and shooting from the hip. The PD150 shares more in common with the 16mm film cameras of Direct Cinema than a DSLR cinematography allergic to spontaneity. It makes me nostalgic for a simpler era of videography.

thistle

But I think I can make something from this footage, I’m really enjoying the process – I just have to re-tune my sensibilities to a tape-driven age.

Harun Farocki – Interface

The era of reproduction seems to be over, more or less, and the era of construction of new worlds seems to be … already here”

Harun Farocki, Tate Shots 2016

In this 1995 film, Interface, Harun Farocki sits at his edit station explaining in detail the process of video editing. “This is a work station, an editing station, for the reworking of images and sounds”, he says in narration. He is editing footage shot by Paul Cozighian in Bucharest where he pans between the TV playing footage of Ceausecu giving a speech, and the real world reaction to the event on the streets outside his window.

John Smith film
Frozen War, John Smith 2001

There was something about this relationship between the image on the TV screen with the reaction of the film-maker filtering it through their camera, that put me in mind of John Smith’s Hotel Diaries, particularly Frozen War, shot in his hotel room in Cork the day after the bombing of Afghanistan started in 2001.

What we see in both films is the film-making process laid raw, Smith’s single take video diary, Farocki’s deconstruction of the editing process. I first saw The Hotel Diaries in a retrospective of John Smith’s work at the Royal College of Art in 2010 where all seven films were played on a row of monitors, not unlike those used by Farocki in Interface. It slightly sterilised the intimacy of the film. You could imagine Smith editing the footage on just such a monitor.

Video essays still mostly amount to words commenting on images”

Kevin B. Lee, Interface 2.0

Kevin B. Lee’s video essay, Interface 2.0, responding to Farocki’s original, updates the video editing workflow for the digital age where digital files play from an external hard drive to a desktop computer displaying the two images side by side, rather than tape playing from one machine and monitor to another. It’s a further deconstruction of the production of a video essay, and another film in which the only original footage is of the editor at their work station. However the process is largely the same: the playing of rushes in one monitor to an edited timeline, the use of picture-in-picture, text (on a digital document rather than a notepad), found or third party footage. It’s surprising how little has changed between the production of the two films, the ‘analytic’ retreatment in Lee’s film does little to change the overall effect. It’s an editor engaged in the ‘reworking of images and sounds’.

The QuickTime Revolution

quicktime old logo

“QuickTime was one of the fundamental technologies that formed part of the videoblogging practice. Apart from a very small number of users who relied on Windows Media Player, the majority of the independent videobloggers I interviewed relied on QuickTime (both the application and the codec) in some way through their videoblogging practice. As Cubitt argues, ‘there is no internet without the standardisation of internet protocols; and there is no exchange of moving pictures without standardisation of the codecs on which the various proprietary players can function’. I highlight QuickTime because it was such an important codec for the videobloggers to know and understand, and because, as it turns out, the development-cycle of QuickTime was significant to the videobloggers. QuickTime was also the first consumer-based video handler that actually worked, both as video support and as a shared platform amongst a large group of users. Manovich argues that the ‘introduction of QuickTime in 1991 can be compared to the introduction of the Kinetoscope in 1892: Both were used to present short loops, both featured images approximately two by three inches in size, both called for private viewing rather than collective exhibition.’”

Trine Bjørkmann Berry, Videoblogging Before YouTube p.54-55

Dream English Kid – Mark Leckey at Tate Britain

Mark Leckey Tate Britain

“The work was prompted by Leckey’s discovery of a YouTube video of a Joy Division gig he attended in 1979. This led him to speculate whether he could compile a collage of his memories. Acting as a form of self-portrait of his early life, the video explores ideas about personal history and collective memory and how the past has been enhanced and amplified in the digital era.”

Quote from exhibition leaflet for Mark Leckey’s show at Tate Britain O’ Magic Power of Bleakness describing the background to his video work Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD 2015

Mark Leckey Tate Britain

Single Take – videos by John Smith

John Smith is one of the most widely screened British artist film-makers, and as one-time drinking buddy, artist Cornelia Parker noted, “Most of John’s films have been shot within a few hundred yards of his front door, or inside his house.” In fact the house itself became the centre of one of Smith’s most poignant films Home Suite – a video love poem to his home of 12 years.

John Smith Home Suite
John Smith – Home Suite

“Home Suite is a close-up journey through a domestic landscape and a journey through memory.  Playing upon ambiguity and the unseen, the tape uses physical details of the space to trigger fragmented verbal descriptions of associated memories.”
John Smith

Composed of three thirty minute single take video monologues, ‘Home Suite’ presents us with an intimate anatomy of Smith’s home in Colville Road, Leytonstone, East London, prior to its demolition to make way for the M11 Link Road. The first two parts of the film examine in detail the toilet then the bathroom, comically describing the life of each room, unpacking its history, zooming in on a crack in the toilet bowl, panning across an eccentric Artex job on the walls. The house seems to be coming apart from the inside out, slowly giving up the ghost, merging with the landscape as Smith shows us where the Russian Vine has forced its way through the window frame in the kitchen and has snaked its way across to the gas pipes.

In the final third we emerge from the respectful silence of the condemned house and step out into the street where the mass ranks of police move in with bulldozers to evict the die-hards camped out in Claremont Road. Smith passes by with his video camera, shaken by the scenes he has witnessed, before crossing the road to walk around the corner to his new flat in a nearby street, where all is calm and as Smith notes, where you’d probably never realise what upheaval was happening over the road.

Smith had built an international reputation as a structuralist film-maker shooting his previous films on celluloid. ‘Home Suite’ was one of his first video works and in the commentary you hear him getting to grips with this new technology.

John Smith Hotel Diaries
John Smith – Hotel Diaries

“Worried and confused, I picked up my video camera and attempted to talk about what was going on inside my head. I had no idea at the time that this spontaneous recording was the start of a project that would occupy me for the next six years.”

John Smith

He used the Home Suite formula again in Hotel Diaries – a series of single take video monologues shot between 2001-2007 in hotel rooms around the world as Smith toured festivals with his films. The videos chronicle a personal reaction to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel-Palestine. Smith’s trademark wit evident throughout, the banal setting of a hotel room evoking the everyday locales of earlier films (home, a pub toilet, street corners etc.). The camera often dwelling on a detail in the hotel room, a black television screen, ceiling tiles, the unmade bed, an image on the wall, as Smith unravels his improvised voice-over.

Hotel Diaries are either screened as individual single screen works, as a whole series, or as a multi-monitor installation as at Smith’s retrospective solo show at the Royal College of Art (2010).

“I’ve got myself into trouble at film festivals when I’ve won prizes for those films, particularly in Cork when I won the main prize for Museum Piece. I had to make a speech, and I said that it gave me particular pleasure to get a prize for this film because I’m a great believer in economy, and this film cost €7, or the price of one DV tape. And afterwards I had so many really angry young filmmakers coming up to me, saying “I borrowed £10,000 to make my film, and yours is a load of shit!”

Sight and Sound interview

Hotel Diaries excerpt

Watch Home Suite on Vimeo via Lux