YouTube: Home for the Independent Filmmaker

Over the course of film and television’s young history, it has seen a constant evolution of new media and developments outshining its predecessors. Sound and colour gave new life to the moving image while the advent of television kept more people in their homes and away from the cinema. And now, thanks to the arrival of the the internet, going to the cinema and catching the latest weekly episode on television have become novelty experiences.

Now more than ever, social media outlets are making it easy for anyone to become someone. The arrival brought forth by new technology and new media platforms have industrially and socially changed and challenged what is now considered 'traditional media' at a rapid pace. Twitter has bridged the gap between celebrity and fan while also allowing anyone to build a following towards the 'celebrity' treatment within 140 characters. Instagram has made every smartphone user a photographer by measure of followers and double-taps. Vimeo users are considered more 'high art' and professional compared to the bloggers, vloggers, and personalities of YouTube.

Yet YouTube was the first platform that revolutionised the potential of new media since 'Me at the zoo' was first uploaded on the 23rd of April 2005. Over the course of the site's cyber existance, YouTube has proven to be more than just a hub for Keyboard Cat and the Cinnamon Challenge, and it has definitely come a long way since the days of the  Back Dorm Boys' lip sync videos, Chris Crocker's Britney meltdown and the Flambé Disaster of 2005. By giving a platform to creatives, cultivating subscribers into a culture and turning 'online content creator' into a career, YouTube dominates and leads in online video content.

More than just a place for vloggers, beauty bloggers, gamers and Buzzfeed, YouTube remains the leading platform for independent content creators to gain exposure. The following five YouTube channels are just a few examples of those who have maximised the opportunities of the internet to cultivate global audiences and produce independent content under their terms.

PJ Liguori – 'KickThePJ'

With over a million subscribers, PJ Liguori has come along way from making films during his secondary school days on a DV tape camera. Having spent most of his teen years telling stories before deciding to upload his films to YouTube in 2007, Liguori has cultivated an audience and made a name for himself across the internet as 'KickThePJ.'

Subscribers of KickThePJ are a prime example of the power audiences have in supporting online content creators. PJ's following of Tiny Planet Explorers have helped their favourite YouTuber win an award for his animated short My Utopia (2009) and the Virgin Media Short's People's Choice Award (2012) for PJ, Tiny Planet ExplorerAs a result of the audience’s influence seen for My Utopia, Liguori continued to pursue the potential and opportunities that only YouTube and his audience could have provided for him, his films and his career.

Since 2009, PJ Liguori has traveled around the world, earned a BA (Hons) degree in Digital Film & Screen Arts (2013) from the University of Creative Arts in Farnham and continued to grow KickThePJ and develop his skills as a filmmaker.

The shorts featured on KickThePJ showcases Liguori's distinct filmmaking style that usually involves a degree of space, psychedelia and fantasy in every film. From the utopia of tiny planets, the parties hosted by everyone's favourite clown Wiggles, to the diner of a Chef who is stranger than his cakes and shakesit is clear that audiences want to get lost in the worlds along with the characters born out of PJ's fantastical imagination. Not only does he serve as writer and director for films, Liguori's additional contributions to his films often range from acting, creating props, costuming, producing and editing.

The dedication put into over two hundred videos – ranging from short films to sit-down and travel vlogs – on KickThePJ, Liguori has attracted the attention and support of various third parties. BlackBerry commissioned the ride that was the Forever TrainColourTV produced the night with Hades, Aubrey and Robin at Hair and Brimstone. And in 2014, New Form Digital partnered with Liguori to produce his ten part series Oscar's Hotel for Fantastical CreaturesDue to the immense following behind KickThePJ, New Form along with the help of Jim Henson's Creature Shop put their faith in giving life to over thirty new characters from Liguori's imagination.

Wong Fu Productions

A production company before YouTube even existed, Wong Fu Productions’ founding trio of Wesley Chan, Ted Fu and Philip Wang met in 2004 in a visual arts class at the University of California, San Diego. Wong Fu has been producing content for over a decade, and long has gone the days when Phil, Wes and Ted use to pay for a server and bandwidth in order for people to watch their sketches from a download link they passed around the internet.

Before their first upload to YouTube in December of 2007, a trailer for their first feature film A Moment with You (2006), Wong Fu had a feature film debut at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, a twenty-five university US tour, a number of freelance jobs, plans to move to Los Angeles and three Bachelor’s degrees between the three of them. 

In 2007, the company released the short that has now become  synonymous with Wong Fu Productions, Just a Nice GuyWith thousands of new fans asking to purchase the brand of 'Nice Guy' clothing that was specifically designed for the short by Wesley, the 'AreYouANiceGuy' shop was born – giving Phil, Wes and Ted the financial freedom they needed to focus solely on Wong Fu Productions.

Following the success of A Moment with You and the growing popularity around the channel, producers and managers approached the trio with prospects of a new feature length film, The Sleep Shift. After various meetings with studios and independent production houses, a disagreement with executives on casting an Asian male in the film's lead role and efforts of people trying to change the company's three founding members, Wong Fu Productions shelved the project in favour of focusing on their company's original vision.

Since then, Wong Fu has uploaded hundreds of videos to YouTube – that range from comedy sketches to shorts that pull at the hopeless romantic heartstrings of their viewers – earning the company over two million subscribers. Audiences relate to Wong Fu's content as they laugh about the common predicaments they find themselves in, in an attempt to find love like in This is How We Never Met and She Has a Boyfriend. However with narratives that tell the cycle of couples becoming Strangers, Again to the pages that need to be turned to move on in Untouchable, audiences widely associate Wong Fu Prod uctions with capturing the heartbreaks of falling in love.

Over the years, Wong Fu has collaborated with independent musicians, like David Choi, on music videos, teamed up with Domics in telling animated Awksome Adventures, made Agents of Secret Stuff with YouTube's own Ryan Higa (Nigahiga), and worked with Glee's Harry Shum Jr. and Fresh Off the Boat's Randall Park on a number of shorts. In addition to the content created as a company based in Southern California, Wong Fu  has also expanded globally and traveled around the world making films in Hong Kong, Italy and Japan; each film made in the country's respective language.

As their audience grew so did the attention the company received from third party sponsors. AT&T sponsored the audience driven and interactive web series Away We Happened. Subaru partnered with the trio in creating the most awkward 'meeting-the-parents-and-the-kayak' conversation in Meet the Kayak. JC Penny helped capture the struggles of back to school in Picture DayAnd in 2016 New Form Digital partnered with Wong Fu in creating the company's first studio-funded project: an eight episode web series, Single by 30for YouTube Red.

After years of creating content, in February of 2015, Wes, Ted and Phil announced their plan to make their first proper feature length film. Thanks to the supportive fan base that continually gave Wong Fu Productions the freedom of independence and the 6,678 backers who surpassed the goal of $ 200,000 by $ 158,308 on Indiegogo, the company was was able to independently create, produce and release Everything Before Us on the 23rd of April 2015.

Wong Fu Production has come a long way from the lip synching videos Phil use to make around the UCSD campus in 2003. Wesley, Ted and Philip were the first of their kind in utilising YouTube's platform  for producing and creating original films. Thanks to YouTube and the support from their ever growing following, a new world of opportunity and exposure opened up for Wong Fu Productions to independently grow their company, brand and content into what it is today. For over a decade Wong Fu has continually told stories on their terms while bringing forth a voice for and shining a spotlight on Asian and Asian American voices and creatives.

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared

'What's your favourite idea?' For Becky Sloan and Joe Pelling it's probably their brainchild Don't Hug Me I'm Scared.

Over the course of the series's original five year run, the British animated surreal-horror-comedy web series graced, and continues to grace, the internet and people's nightmares with graphic plot twists and jump scares blanketed under catchy songs.

Born out of the free time Sloan and Pelling had while studying Fine Art and Animation, respectively, at Kingston University, on no budget and with the help of a few friends that made up the THIS IS IT Collective, the first episode of Don't Hug Me I'm Scared was uploaded to YouTube on July 29, 2011. Although Don't Hug Me I'm Scared was initially developed with the intention of becoming a series, the idea was quickly dropped after the first episode was completed. But thanks to Sloan and Pelling's puppets who sing, dance and eat raw meat, the original short became a viral internet sensation and its newfound audience convinced the duo to expand the series.

Due to Don't Hug Me I'm Scared's large following and the viral potential behind the series, the second installment – uploaded to YouTube on the 8th of January 2014 – was commissioned by Channel 4's Random Acts and the series continued to attract the attention of mainstream commissioners. However, Sloan and Pelling turned their offers down in favor of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the final four episodes of the six part series.

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared's crowdfunding campaign began on May 20, 2014 with the goal of £96,000 to finish guiding and teaching the show's characters and its audience about the most important subjects of life. With an overwhelming number of cosplayers, fan artists and subscribers that have dedicated hours to analysing the show's every detail and formulating theories, the Kickstarter campaign came to an end on the 19th of June 2014 with a total £104,905 raised by 3,540 backers.

Pelling and Sloan's decision to crowdfund – and successfully crowdfund – the remainder of their project that required £24,000 per episode to uphold the first two episodes' production quality that mixes live action, stop motion, 2D animation and puppetry, is a testament to the power of the internet in supporting independent content creators. Turning down mainstream support for Pelling and Sloan was a matter of creative freedom and refusal to compromise their collective brainchild. The cult phenomenon of Don't Hug Me I'm Scared was born out of the internet and it deserved to stay on the internet – funded by the people that cared the most about Yellow Guy, Red Guy and Duck Guy. As a result, Sloan and Pelling were able to keep all the quirks of their anthropomorphic Sesame Street inspired puppets, rotten pig heart cakes and baskets of dead fish to its final episode that was uploaded on June 19, 2016.

Bertie Gilbert

Probably most well known for playing Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Bertie Gilbert has put his wand away and made a name for himself aside from the Malfoy family name through YouTube.

A 'YouTuber' in the conventional sense since he was fourteen years old, Gilbert got his start on the site through vlogging. But at the age of sixteen through his 'what i'm thinking about' upload on October 11, 2013, Gilbert expressed his concerns about his future on Youtube, wanting to pursue filmmaking and wanting to be taken seriously as a filmmaker within the home of people who eat cinnamon for views. Since then, he has dedicated his time and channel to producing shorts and films.

Part of this rising generation of independent, self-taught filmmakers who are cultivating an audience on the internet, Gilbert's involvement in his films are relentlessly hands-on. Bertie Gilbert's name can be found at least three times in the credits of his films. Serving as director/co-director on all his uploads,Gilbert's credits across all his films also include actor, producer, writer and editor.

Not only has Gilbert's idiosyncratic filmmaking style, carefully constructed colour pallets and melancholy-coated original narratives earned him thousands of subscribers and views, his films have also attracted the attention of third-party distribution and production companies, New Form Digital and ColourTV. Of Gilbert's nine films, New Form funded two of his films, one in collaboration with ColourTV.  

Will Darbyshire

From uploading skateboarding videos to YouTube when he was thirteen and making shorts throughout his teens with his childhood friends, Jack and Finn who would be later known on the internet as the twins of JacksGap, Will Darbyshire has come a long way as a filmmaker.

After graduating the Met Film School in 2013 with a BA (Hons) in Practical Filmmaking, the next logical step for Will was to continue and further his presence on YouTube as a way into directing. Since 2014 Darbyshire has put his own cinematic spin on the typical 'YouTube vlog.' From sharing his opinions and fears through sit down vlogs – that occasionally incorporate elements of animation – and visual snapshots of his life and travels, Will's distinctive minimalistic filmmaking style has earned him thousands subscribers and views.

In addition to his personal YouTube channel, on the 9th of October 2016, Darbyshire announced that he had teamed up with his friend, and vlogger, Adrian Bliss in co-creating, The Watercooler, on their collabortive channel 'vanilla.' The series is a dark comedy that follows the mundane work week of two men repressed by a female staff member told in five parts, each under three minutes. Although The Watercooler has a much darker tone than the videos on his personal channel, the series is indicative of Darbyshire's intricate, detail oriented and minimalistic filmmaking style.

End Screen

Although these five featured channels are mainly independent, it is clear that new production companies like New Form Digital and ColourTV and a number of companies and brands have caught onto the power YouTube and its content creators have in reaching a global audience. In addition to the aforementioned films and series supported by New Form, the company has also reached out in helping other YouTubers produce films and web series, such as the films by Sammy Paul and Emily Diana Ruth’s series Cold

With YouTube joining Netflix and Hulu in creating paid subscription based services, it is obvious that new media has radically changed and challenged itself and traditional media since 'Me at the zoo' was first uploaded.

In recent years, the lines between new and old media have blurred and crossed over. Showtime took Web Therapy from the web to television from 2011 to 2015, Issa Rae found HBO fame out of her YouTube web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, the Kotex sponsored Carmilla gained an online cult following, the Vimeo original High Maintenance found a national audience on HBO and Broad City made its way to Comedy Central with a little help from Amy Poehler.

But as seen by these five feature channels, YouTube was the first and continues to be the leading platform in opening up opportunities for independent filmmakers that go far beyond a computer screen.

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