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Feeding the YouTube monster

Image: YouTube.
5 minute read
Image: YouTube.

YouTube is one of the most important websites out there, acting as a 'second search engine', but what's it like keeping a monster fed?

I've been making a more video content recently, and whilst I can't exactly claim to be giving Peter McKinnon sleepless nights, I have been learning a lot from making self-shot YouTube content. TL;DR it's not easy.

First, a background. For a long, long time I was a bit of a YouTube sceptic. When YouTube became a reality it was for long while considered a joke. A place where people posted pointless videos of cats doing silly things, or worse, holiday video clips. The low quality of the video streaming held back professionals from becoming involved in it, even though the potential of the site was always there.

Sometimes the limiting factors of existing technology prevents people from using it in the first place. I'm guilty of this myself. As a young wannabe games animator and designer, myself and my programmer whiz friend often gave up on ideas because we felt the computers at the time just couldn't do our ideas justice. It was a big mistake to make of course. While famed games designers and programmers such as Peter Molyneux and David Braben just went with it and did what they could, producing all time classics like Populus and Elite in the process, we held back, likely missing our real vocation in the process.

The games industry in the early days was a bit like YouTube in that, whilst 'nerdy' people played games or made them, the wider population often struggled to see the point of them. At school, myself and my circle of friends were outliers because computers simply weren't anywhere near as widely owned as they are today. My own foray into games design and animation was frowned upon by anyone from careers advisors to family, because "drawing video game graphics all day" wasn't considered a serious job choice at the time.

Unsurprisingly those who got in early, before games creation required Hollywood level budgets, were most successful. YouTube, again, is very similar, with people like Casey Neistat seeing its potential very early on and reaping the rewards from it before there was any real competition. Now YouTube is considered to be the second most popular search engine in the world next to Google. In other words, if you aren't ranking in YouTube for content, you could be losing a quite sizeable audience, not to mention income. This is further exemplified by the fact that Google will often feature video content first at the top of search results for many topics.

Recently I've started making more YouTube content, taking that leap of inflicting my facial presence upon anyone who dares watch. Not because I'm some sort of narcissist or because I want fame and fortune, but because I enjoy making videos and it's good to keep my hand in now that I'm not producing video on a full-time basis any longer. In the course of doing so I have a new found respect for the much maligned 'YouTuber', a category of person who is often spoken about by some professionals in the same way that an Oscar winning  Hollywood star might refer to the acting skills of a local amateur dramatics society. It has become fashionable to knock them, forming the basis for shallow narcissistic characters in sitcoms and other comedy series.

Some 'influencers' and YouTube celebrities might well be deserving of the negative labelling they have attracted; I can think of a few who make quite ridiculous demands of manufacturers in order to look at products. However, many others do in fact create compelling content without the ego, and my hat goes off to them for doing so, the work of Simon Whistler being a prime example.

Making any decent video is hard

Self-shooting content to any degree of decent production value is tough. It's one reason why anyone with any decent experience of filming on a professional basis will run away screaming from any production that refuses to pay for an actual crew. Crews work. And while some top-flight YouTubers will pay for someone else to edit their videos, or even help shoot them, there are some who make some extremely good looking content all on their lonesome. To be able to do that on a regular basis is really quite something, and, given my own experience, possibly extremely draining.

It isn't easy putting yourself in front of the camera, it's torture having to watch and listen to myself during editing, and I'm sure I've developed a thousand new wrinkles on my face from cringing at my editing monitor. There was a reason, after all, why I've spent most of my career behind the camera and not in front of it! Writing a camera review is difficult enough, with the testing of the gear needed, and gaining as much of an understanding as possible of it in what is often an extremely short amount of time. Making a camera review video on the other hand is an order of magnitude more difficult.

It's easy to miss things, forget to include things, fluff up your lines to camera, and even say totally the wrong thing, only to notice the mistakes during the edit when you've packed up all your gear and lighting. For my Ronin 4D review for instance I had to film my entire segment to camera and many of the product shots twice. Why? Because due to a brain fart I had put the LiDAR focussing module on the camera back to front! Quite how I managed this I don't know. It just happened and is just one of those silly things that will forever remain a mystery.

And that's why making a video, any video, is hard, because very small mistakes can have a big effect. With self-shot videos the chances of errors being made goes up quite substantially because you're focussing on pretty much every aspect of the production as well as actually being in it. At least with a personal video like this there is the luxury of reshooting it without needing to grovel with a very red face to a client. But while self-shooting like this does have its advantages, unlike client work the effort put into it isn't reflected in any monetary reward. You have to absorb the cost of travelling to film, pay for the music licenses, spend lots of evenings and weekends shooting and editing when you could be spending the time with family. For every successful YouTuber there are dozens who are possibly equally as good, but for whom the audience numbers are barely a blip, yet they still put the effort in because they enjoy the process.

It's easy as a jobbing professional producer, or camera op, or DP to lament the sheer amount of rubbish on YouTube (there's a sheer amount of rubbish in Hollywood, too). But on the other hand there are a lot of people making very good videos purely for the passion of doing it. This breeds creativity, informational, and educational content, and that's a very good thing. There's certainly no money in it for the majority of people.

YouTube does have a problem, though, and it's one that isn't great for the health of creators who have taken it on full-time, and that's burnout. It's an issue that has been touched upon by a few content creators before now. YouTube is a monster that needs feeding, and it rewards those who make content regularly. Not only that but the site will only allow monetisation on videos above a certain length. This means that by definition the easiest to make videos are excluded from monetisation. Things are only going to get harder. The smart creators, such as Rene Ritchie, have branched out into places like the subscription platform Nebula, were a real income and visibility is more guaranteed.

Of course nobody is forced to make videos for YouTube. They could 'go out and get a proper job' as critics are prone to saying. I guess all I'm saying is that I have respect for anyone who puts themselves out there and has the tenacity to keep producing content through passion for what they do. It's easy to mock YouTubers and criticise what they say or do, but the platform is just as valid as any other and it's given visibility to niche topics and subjects that would never have seen the light of day on a mainstream broadcaster. 

Although equally I know it has given us 'celebrities' for whom the decision between clawing our eyes out or watching them would make for a very easy decision...

Tags: Production Opinion