The decade’s greatest entertainment innovation isn’t in the entertainment industry at all. It’s online.
Founded by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim – supposedly after Mr. Hurley and Mr. Chen had difficulty sharing videos that had been shot at a dinner party – YouTube was originally created as an easy way to upload and share personal videos with friends and family members online.
YouTube’s evolution as an artistic medium has been an unexpected but not entirely surprising development. Because videos uploaded to YouTube are publicly accessible, YouTube was at first a kind of web site version of America’s Funniest Home Videos – many enjoyed watching, but were nervous that posting their own videos would lead to commenter ridicule.
But instead – perhaps because of reality television – viewers began regarding posted videos more as clips that might be broadcast on TV, turned on or off depending on interest, than as a peephole into the lives of their friends and acquaintances. YouTube became more of an entertainment medium than a voyeuristic gossip site. Artists took advantage of this perception, and the world suddenly had access to scores of talented performers who might otherwise never have been seen.
Mainstream music, film, and television studios began to take notice of YouTube postings. In some cases, posting a video could actually lead to a recording contract, a network television appearance (such as Chris Crocker’s infamous “Leave Britney Alone!”), or even a role on Broadway. Josefina Scaglione, an Argentinean singer who was found on YouTube by musical theater legend Arthur Laurents, was cast as the lead in his Broadway revival of “West Side Story” for which Ms. Scaglione was nominated for a Tony Award.
But YouTube’s rise as a true entertainment medium – not just as another opportunity at reality stardom – came from the blending of “reality” and artistic craftsmanship. Lonelygirl15 shocked the world: though initially appearing to be the reality blog of a lonely, angst-ridden teenage girl and her friends, it was eventually revealed that Lonelygirl15 was in fact a carefully constructed, fictional show – the first widely known YouTube series.
Lonelygirl15 had taken the “homemade” quality and reality show elements inherent in YouTube as a medium and used them to create a unique form of entertainment, a kind of episodic series that had never been seen before. A new wave of documentary style film techniques emerged – for example, the intelligent and often elegant use of webcams previously only associated with professional film camera equipment.
Suddenly it wasn’t just singers and musicians that were getting noticed – young editors began experimenting with the medium and editing their own versions of movie trailers, often carefully crafting them to comment on the film or cinematic medium in general by apparently changing the genre of the film they were editing, such as “Scary Mary,” which reedited Mary Poppins to make it seem like a horror film, or “The Shining Recut,” which paints The Shining as a romantic family comedy.
But possibly the most famous example is the now infamous “Titanic: Two The Surface” trailer. Created by 25-year-old Robert Blankenheim, “Titanic: Two The Surface” uses clips from every Leonardo DeCaprio film to imagine a sequel to the classic James Cameron movie. Frozen in a block of ice after the Titanic sinking, Jack Dawson is thawed out, and, according to the trailer, “must live life all over again in an unfamiliar town, and in the future.” The trailer was featured on VH1’S “Best Week Ever” blog, and Mr. Blankenheim has been interviewed by media stations around the world.
Directors, designers, actors, and writers have all showcased their work via YouTube. Neil Cicierega is officially credited on Wikipedia as being the “creator of a genre of surrealist Flash animation known as ‘Animutation.’” His YouTube series, “Potter Puppet Pals,” is like a Punch-and-Judy puppet show that incorporates elements of pop culture, and showcases his writing, directing, editing, acting, and puppet-making skills and rocketed him to online stardom. It led to live Potter Puppet Pals performances at mainstream Harry Potter events. Mr. Cicierega was recently commissioned by Plymouth Rock studios to create the online series “New Kids on the Rock” because of his previous YouTube work.
In the recent past, complete web series have been developed purely for YouTube, incorporating elements of all the artistic innovation that has come before. Perhaps the pinnacle of this artistic achievement is the tremendously brilliant worldwide phenomenon, “The Hillywood Show.”
Starring Hillary (19) and Hannah (23) Hindi, the show was created when AOL hosted a contest for teens to create their own YouTube series (the show placed third out of 100,000 entries). The series follows the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow (Hilly) and Will Turner (Hannah) who, having gotten a hold of the Delorean from Back to the Future, find themselves in different movies all while trying to get back to Port Royal. This paves the way for the girls to parody everything from Sweeney Todd and The Terminator to Beetlejuice and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
But if you haven’t seen the Hindi sisters’ episodic series, no doubt you, or someone you know, have seen their more recent Twilight parody set to Katy Perry’s song “Hot and Cold.” Though the sisters have been producing their show for three years, and have always had quite a fan base, it wasn’t until they produced parodies of Twilight and The Dark Knight (of which they are the most proud) that they became stars. The girls recently hosted Twi/Tour and made appearances at Comicon, Megacon, Casting Call in Las Vegas, and the Twilight Chicago Convention.
The sisters not only play almost every role in their show themselves with great aplomb, but also do everything else on the production. (Hannah directs and does makeup; Hilly edits; both produce.) What makes this so extraordinary is that these two girls single-handedly rival the original films – and they are completely self-taught. The girls claim that the very nature of YouTube as a “do it yourself” low-budget medium has actually helped them create better work – work that wouldn’t be the same if created and developed by a mainstream network with unlimited resources. The girls say that “everything has been ‘hands on’ experience for us and it has forced us to learn at a faster pace.”
Some of YouTube’s rules to enforce copyright laws, which have proved a hindrance to many would-be YouTube artists, have actually inspired the Hindi sisters to do even more creative work.”The difficult part [of YouTube] is not having copyright music. That is why we remix music ourselves now.”
Add music editors to their resume.
The work currently being showcased on YouTube can’t help but remind us of the creative brilliance at the turn of the twentieth century, when film was a brand new medium. Once again passionate and talented amateurs are finding themselves with a camera, complete artistic freedom, and almost no resources – forcing them to invent solutions. It is this combination of passion, talent, and limitation that causes great innovative art to spring forth.