Do What You Can’t: YouTube Filmmaking & Casey Neistat
Casey Neistat is raising the bar of YouTube filmmaking, leading a new generation of creators that are democratizing the process of filmmaking.
“When you’re a creator all you need is your phone, an internet connection, and a good idea. A story you want to share, something you need to say, and the rest is history.”
Filmmaking is one of, if not the, most exclusive art forms in the world with the Oscar as the most coveted award. When only certain few are allowed to make films there is a constant decrease in creativity, but in the times of low creativity, there are alternative means of production to bring it back. In the 70s it was embracing the rock ‘n roll spirit of independent filmmaking and today it is seeking complete and total creative control.
No one believes in it more than Casey Neistat, a film veteran who has dedicated his career to investing in the internet as a home for creators and an essential distribution platform. He’s constantly raising the bar and showing the potential of what he calls, YouTube filmmaking, leading a new generation of creators that are democratizing the process of filmmaking.
Luck is Where Opportunity and Preparation Meet
Casey Neistat didn’t rise to the success he is today by sheer fairytale luck, it was a long haul of hard work and an undying love for filmmaking. In 2001 he left his life in Connecticut for New York City with the dream of being a filmmaker. All he has was a camcorder, iMac computer, and a will to survive. He spent most of his time making films for anyone that would commission him and making personal short films in his free time.
In 2003 he got his first breakthrough with a short called “iPod’s Dirty Secret”. Frustrated with Apple’s battery replacement policy and the terrible lifespan of the iPod, he set out on a mission. With his brother, he spray painted “iPod’s irreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months” on every Apple billboard in the city. The video that was posted on a website and collected over a million views in six weeks and continued to escalate crashing almost every server it was posted on. This was three years before YouTube and the first time a video was ever described as viral.
His success led others to notice Neistat, leading him to more jobs and eventually private funding. A New York artist Tom Scott financed Neistat and his brother, Van Neistat, for a year to make a project that turned out to be an eight-episode television series titled The Neistat Brothers. They sold the show to HBO in 2008 and it premiered in 2010. Simultaneously in 2010 an independent film he produced titled Daddy Long Legs (Originally Go Get Some Rosemary) premiered at Cannes, Sundance, and went on to win the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards.
However, after making his rounds in the mainstream film industry, he gave it all up and committed to a career on YouTube while supporting himself through making branded content. In 2011 he made his second viral hit, “Bike Lanes”, a satirical public service announcement that criticized the NYPD’s strict ticketing on bikers riding outside of the bike lanes. In New York, the bike lanes often have obstructions like parked cars or construction, in the video Neistat rides in the bike lanes and crashing into whatever is in his way. The video forced the mayor, Michael Bloomberg to respond to the ticketing epidemic and made even more people pay attention to Neistat.
Nike was the first to give their full trust in Neistat with a three video series promoting their Fuelband. For his third video rather using the budget to film a commercial about what it means to embody the slogan “make it count”, he used it to travel the world for ten days and documented everything. The final product was a four minute short of Neistat and his friend Max Joseph traveling the world with quotations about how to live life to the fullest. It became Nike’s and Neistat’s most watched online video to date (Nike now has another video with more views but the record still stands on Neistat’s channel).
“Make It Count” was the first of many partnerships for Neistat who has been called the poster boy of branded content. Though his ability to make the most inspiring and exhilarating commercials that are able to gain mass views, it is only a portion of what Neistat has managed to do on the internet.
In the new media landscape, Neistat has quickly become the face of YouTube Filmmaking. When he started YouTube in 2010 it was primarily an outlet for him to post a series of short films he would make in his spare time when he wasn’t creating branded content. It wasn’t until 2015 when Neistat took on the challenge of daily vlogging did he become an internet celebrity and the name to know when talking about YouTube videos.
Daily vlogging wasn’t pioneered by Neistat and amongst tutorials and gamers, it is a popular genre. It was praised for its amateur spirit and thrived on the personality of its creator. Neistat had been becoming and auteur in his own right but his work in vlogging pushed him to own the title.
To Neistat daily vlogging wasn’t just documenting his day, it was a challenge to make a short film every single day, an interesting piece of content that told a story that was his life. Every video, he wanted to improve his content and part of that process was raising the production value. He completely revolutionized the genre by using his prior years of filmmaking and using traditional techniques in his vlogs.
Elements as basic as setting up a camera to show him walking into frame at a new location and beginning of every vlog with a time lapse of the sun rising wherever he is as a way to establish the setting. He values high image and sound quality and rather than recording his day on the point and shoot camera everyone else uses, he switched to using a high-grade SLR camera with a Rode microphone on a Gorillapod.
Despite him using all of these elements to raise the production value of his videos, they are undetectable to his audience who are more focused on him and the story he is telling. He maintains the authenticity that comes from the amateurism of vlogging by creating a style that appears to be effortless. His audience is attracted to his videos because they are extremely well made and he himself is an engaging person, but they stay because it doesn’t feel like he is trying to be anything other than himself.
Though his outstanding following, Neistat’s magnetism is shown by the undeniable influence that he has over other YouTube creators. To young YouTube filmmakers, he is their Godard and Kurosawa. Almost every vlogger has switched to the filming rig he uses and there is no shortage of time lapses or drone montages.
It’s easy to call all these that try to capture his aesthetic as “wannabes” but those who are committed to craft recognize that he has raised the bar for content and they have to at least match it to be in the game. But what these young creators show most of all is that there is something about this medium that’s more powerful than pursuing a career in the mainstream film industry.
Because the Internet
He does all of these things because he believes that the internet is a viable place for the distribution of film. After hitting his first million subscribers he explained his choice to drop his career to commit to YouTube by breaking down his ideology behind it. The internet and YouTube had been viewed as a stepping stone into mainstream media. Justin Bieber and many others used to post videos of themselves singing on YouTube as a way to be discovered and eventually were. However, Neistat sees the internet as the mainstream, it is the place to put content and it has a more reliable audience.
What excites him most is the accessibility and interaction. Filmmaking is one of the most elite and exclusive art forms to get into and once you’re there, there are a number of hurdles that you have to jump through to get a film made. You have to pitch; get funding; obtain rights as well as a number of other legal clearances; plan as thoroughly as possible in pre-production; cast strategically; shoot; go through post-production and quality control; work the film festival circuits; market as widely as possible; and finally distribute.
Though the studio system is outdated in the textbooks, a new version of the process is very much alive and to Neistat it halts creativity. On YouTube, you might do a little bit of planning, then shoot, edit, and post. As a YouTube filmmaker, you have complete creative control, you find success by believing in your voice and making something you’re proud of. It’s a craft that welcomes amateurs and beginners and urges them to grow and flourish. As he says repeatedly in interviews and his videos, it is a complete and total meritocracy.
This past Oscars, Samsung released a commercial in partnership with Neistat called, “The Rest Of Us”. It captured the new generation of content creators that exist on the internet that, like Neistat, committed to creation wholeheartedly. The commercial captures a small portion of the thousands of creators that are fueled by a love to create and search for success anywhere and everywhere. It was crucial that the commercial was released in tandem with the Oscars, the end all and be all of film. It wasn’t a call to anarchy in creation or to bash on mainstream media. It was speaking to those that put the Oscars and filmmaking on a pedestal and asking them to open their eyes to the new world of possibilities that exist online.
YouTube Film School
Even with the understanding that anyone can create there is always the fear of beginning. The internet is vast and the possibilities are endless. Many look to Neistat as their guide and they should because he has revolutionized the medium, but it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to copy instead of finding your own way. For that reason, I have sifted through Neistat’s videos for all of his words of wisdom to hack together a basic guide. (But I urge you to spend time on his channel and invest in some motivation or at the very least experience his intensity.)
Use Any and All the Resources You Have
The beauty of YouTube filmmaking is that anyone can do it with anything. We’re at a place in time where you can make a film on your phone. Tangerine , an indie darling that captures the unofficial red light district in LA through a story about two transgender women, was filmed on an iPhone 5s. Camera quality doesn’t matter when you have a good story. The reason why Neistat uses the extensive rig he does was because he was using it to shoot a commercial but needed to vlog and decided to use it. It became a staple but in that moment it was what he had.
If You Don’t Know the Way, Find the Way
What all artist are concerned with is their voice, the perspective they have and how they share it. The only way to find your voice is to create and create until it comes out and speaks for itself. When it comes to putting your film together and you’re teaching yourself, there will be problems and frustrations, but those moments are opportunities to find your style by figuring it out. Handwritten title cards and diagrams seem essential to Neistat as an auteur however it is because he hadn’t learned how to create titles or animations so he chose to use his hands.
Only Make Something That Interests You
With a platform that is so oversaturated with content, there is no way to cater to everyone but there are so many users that you are guaranteed to find your right audience. The only way to do that is to make something that excites you and have something substantial to say about it. The internet audience wants authenticity, they want you. Everyone wants to be Neistat but the reason his videos work is because he holds it together. Everyone can mimic his style but they can’t bring the life that he does. Find your own motivation and in that it is a guarantee to make something original.
Do the Work
You have to do the work, create constantly all the time and always look to improve. Neistat had made dozens of videos before he made one that went viral, but when he did and when people asked what else he had made he had an archive to show them. His body of work on YouTube also acted like a resume to companies like Nike and Samsung since they can see his reach on the platform through views, allowing him to have more creative control of the content he makes for them. If you’re constantly creating you’re bound to improve and when you do, don’t stop, keep going.
Do What You Can’t
Neistat is one of only thousands of creators on YouTube and of the elite, he doesn’t even have as many followers. What makes him a big deal or one of the most recognizable names is because he has dedicated his YouTube career to legitimize the art of YouTube filmmaking and validating the internet as a distribution source.
It’s undeniable that he has a natural talent for storytelling and an effortless aesthetic that has been developed through working on his own, but the reputation he has to evoke change couldn’t happen without his time in the industry. His rejection of the mainstream mode of filmmaking and video production is validated through experience and not a rejection that is founded in a simple hatred for corporations and money. He dedicates his interview time as well as time during his videos to push his mission and ideology but he has the experience and body of work to prove he knows what he is talking about.
Of all the words of advice that he gives to young creators, he summarized it in his latest short “Do What You Can’t”. You are all you need to create in the internet age, but you have to commit to it and fight against everyone that tries to tell you can’t. It is an exciting time and more faith should be put into YouTube filmmaking as a viable future for storytelling. It’s not to say that Hollywood is dead, but we have waited years to see a story as honest and compelling as Moonlight to win at the Oscars. Stories like Moonlight can and should be told all the time and the place for that to happen is on the internet.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.