A Series of Tubes
DVD Burners are a luxury item. You can still buy VHS at Best Buy. MiniDV cameras are $5,000 and compete mainly with Hi8 and 8mm. Windows XP is new and exciting. Four megapixel digital cameras are top-of-the-line. Online interaction is done largely through forums and chat applications. YouTube is a fantasy. Streaming video usually comes in the form of RealPlayer files and looks like a small mess of pixels changing shades, forming a vaguely recognizable moving picture. It takes hours to download a 40 megabyte file.
Welcome to 2002.
This was the state of things when I started making movies, beginning with a trilogy about a war set in modern-day Korea (a post in itself), which we shot over the course of a year on a 2.2 megapixel camera with 352×240 video resolution because, well, we didn’t know any better. In order for me to get those films into a format that most people could watch, I had to save them as .MOV files out of Quicktime Pro (having never heard of a NLE, much less Adobe Premiere), convert them to MPEG files with TMPGenc (a freeware encoder), burn them as a VCD (a CD-R with video data files that only some DVD players could play), play the disc in a DVD player, and record the screen onto VHS (as many people still didn’t have DVD players at that point). Even after all this, the most I could hope for was that it would be watchable for those of us involved, our friends, and families. I was 14.
Fast-forward 10 years.
One particularly gorgeous day back in July, I was driving a government vehicle up an uncomfortably narrow dirt road on the side of a mountain in the middle of absolutely nowhere, on account of I was getting paid a hilarious amount of money to do such things. I was supposed to be looking for bear rubs (google it), however, the chances of finding any was slim given the tree line had ended half a mile earlier. So in the interest of science, I pressed on and zoned out listening to music until the road ended. At some point or another I listened The White by Agalloch: A mellow, largely acoustic EP produced by a band that tends to use abrasive black metal as a spine for their sound. This in turn got me thinking about fall in Montana, vivid colors, Christopher Lee, and Nicolas Cage punching women in the face while wearing a bear costume. Long story short, several months later I found myself wandering the wilderness and back roads near my hometown, shooting footage of the fall with the intention of cutting it all together for a particular song from that album (“Sowilo Rune”).
The projects I work on are usually region-specific: Videos for independent bands, shorts done with friends, documentaries, etc., and while most wind up on YouTube, they generally don’t garner much attention outside my immediate area. There’s been a few exceptions, namely two fan videos I made for bands I’m particularly fond of- one for Explosions in the Sky, one for God is an Astronaut– both of which eventually got picked up via YouTube’s tagging system and gained popularity just by having the band name in the title. After two years, the God is an Astronaut video sits at 21,883 views and after four years the video for Explosions in the Sky is at 194,732. But again, I attribute this largely to both bands gaining popularity over the years (especially EIS) and in the big picture of view counts on streaming media, those numbers are still relatively small potatoes.
People will click things out of curiosity, watch two seconds and move on to find what they were really looking for. We all do it, and as a result the value of view counts is often over-stated. But because of the niche appeal for bands like those I’ve mentioned, I believe the people who wind up stumbling through YouTube watching unofficial content are mostly fans that love the music just as much as I do, as evident by the pages of comments I’ve received on both of those videos. YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, and Facebook have all interwoven in such a way that spreading the word about a band is often done just by pasting links from one to the other. As a result, thousands of such fans have seen something I made with a good friend on a whim one summer, favorited it, “liked” it, and commented on it in a generally positive fashion. It’s piggy-backing for sure, but if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years from that level of connectivity, it’s that there’s a sincerity amongst fans of genres like post-rock that’s hard to deny. At one point, a viewer from Italy found my Facebook profile and private messaged me after seeing the Explosions in the Sky video, saying that it had helped him feel better for a few minutes and thanked me for it (he seemed to be struggling with depression). I’m certainly proud of what I do, but no matter how many positive comments I get, I never expect them- especially ones like that.When I posted the video for Sowilo Rune, I’d kind of forgot about all this. Fan videos, while showing a lot of love for a band, generally aren’t something I care to be associated with as a) the legal implications these days are ridiculous and b) they’re usually (and rightfully) regarded as a low form of filmmaking. A fair amount of the driving force for making it was indeed wanting to do a tribute to Agalloch, whose albums I’ve spent countless hours listening to over the years (usually in the dead of winter when it was most fitting), but most of the purpose for the video was to show off the scenery I grew up with, specifically the fall. To the best of my knowledge, nobody had bothered shooting the landscapes around Troy in any reasonable quality and I felt that was a hole I should fill in.
I consider myself pretty quick on the uptake when it comes to technology, but I’m still dumbfounded by the speed at which some things get shared today. Consider the efforts we had to make in 2002 to get something seen by just a handful people, compared to now: Output to MPEG4, upload to YouTube in near broadcast-quality, post the link on Facebook, done. In less than an hour, without leaving your chair, and for anybody with an internet connection to see. While I understand on a logical level how sharing via social media can happen quickly, the whole process is somehow more surprising when your material is the subject.
650 views accumulated within just a few days, largely due to my hometown’s Facebook page posting it on their profile. Honestly, given my main reason for shooting, just seeing so many people from home say how much they appreciate it was satisfying enough for me. And then, something wholly unexpected happened: Agalloch posted it on their Facebook. I certainly wasn’t looking for that kind of validation, but having one of your favorite bands call something you did “one of the best fan videos out there” is an immensely wonderful feeling, as is their frontman complimenting you specifically on a separate page.
More amazing to me, however, was looking at the locations of people sharing, commenting on, and liking the video via Facebook: The United Kingdom, France, Australia, Spain, Russia, Serbia, Argentina, Honduras, Germany, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Poland, Libya, Iran, Brazil, Lithuania, Mexico, Israel, Quebec, and India, to name a few of the ones I randomly clicked at (and to say nothing of the ones from all across the United States). That says more about Agalloch’s fanbase than anything, but it’s still mind-boggling to me to see such a universally positive reaction from such vastly different areas. Shooting those slow-motion shots of the roads- sitting in the back of a truck going 20 mph down a narrow gravel road on a frigid day, holding a homemade steadicam and hoping Levi doesn’t hit a deer while he’s driving- the notion of complete strangers in places like Libya or Sri Lanka sharing the outcome of that moment wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind, no matter how obviously possible it is in hindsight.
I can’t help but think how this level of global connection would change things if I were 14 today. The first movies I’d shoot would be in High Definition- or at least a resolution comparable, and certainly nothing close to 352×240, which today is almost completely unwatchable. I’d have access to software powerful enough to cut high-budget feature films. I’d be able to post videos online in an era where literally anybody in the world can have access to them. That notion is both exhilarating and terrifying: Consider the potential caliber of filmmakers who start out today working with these tools and stick with it- where their skill level will be after 10 years of growth. But terrifying in that the internet is not forgiving to beginners, and I can only imagine the ridicule our first films would receive on YouTube. It takes a certain amount of maturity to learn to deal with the unbridled maliciousness of the internet at large without giving up, and that’s a hard skill for anybody to come up with, let alone a young teenager.
It’s not any sort of revelation that we’re all connected these days, but we seem to be getting a bit jaded to it. Looking at the list of places my videos have been viewed is viscerally exciting, but part of me still thinks “well no shit, that’s how the internet works.” I don’t mean to lament the evolution of technology, I just want to stop for a moment and reflect on how surreal it is for someone like me- that still feels like a kid from the middle of nowhere- to create something and have it seen, literally, across the world.