I’m writing to you from Paris, my first visit back in nearly a year. It’s been a fantastic week of late night conversations with old friends in the pleasant heat of the summer air.
Paris carries a certain emotional weight for me — it’s the only vivid example I have of a parallel universe unexplored: What if I had never left? What if I had made an active choice to build my life here? Would C & I be living in a lovely old Haussman apartment with a balcony, drinking wine in the spring sun, feeling more relaxed and creative? Detached from the gloomy responsibilities of Britain, would I have fully embraced the artist’s life? Or would I still be a bit of a mess, running away from those responsibilities?
Or — would our lives be basically the same, except with nicer bread?
Visiting this week, I realised I’m finally at peace with that last option. You can make your home in any place; you make good memories in the toughest cities and bring your problems to paradise.
A debate I’ve been having with myself — literally since, wow letter #001! — feels resolved.
Paris was where I started the creative journey I’m on now. It’s where I committed to making and sharing my own videos more than a decade ago and in fact where I made almost all of them.
As I mentioned in #131, those memories resurfaced recently when I received emails from people telling me that five of my old films had been deleted from the internet.
They were commissioned by the now-defunct network Fusion, a Univision & Disney backed attempt to grab the millennial audience by spending more money than anyone else. They hired top talent like Anna Holmes and Alexis Madrigal and, for some reason, me.
Through 2015 I wrote, directed and edited five video essays for them before recommitting to my own films.
Apparently Fusion could never figure out what it was and failed to cut through; it was shuttered last year and with it went all the videos I made for them.
On hearing this, I dusted off an old hard drive and re-uploaded them all for posterity.
I worked really hard on these little films — but I haven’t seen them in eight years!
Watching them with completely fresh eyes, I can see objectively the results of creative decisions I sweated over back in 2015, a novice filmmaker trying to master this medium.
Here’s a quick summary of lessons I learned rewatching each film.
A Briefer History of Time
I’m struck by how narratively singular this video is: it comes to make one point and every word and image is in service to that idea. There is zero fluff. It’s elegantly circular too, setting up visual ideas at the beginning and then coming back to them.
After years of making these videos, I had figured out how to tell these kinds of stories. But this was hard work! I remember spending weeks designing these little visual ideas.
And it’s just the kind of video I used to love making: raiding history for a little-known story that tells us something profound about how to live our lives today. I love the editing in this one too with its nods to Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera.
The Unluckiest Person in History
Eight years on, I still absolutely love the opening scene to this video; it’s one of the coolest visual ideas I’ve ever pulled off, where the images run almost parallel to the words, and their connection only becomes clear at the climax of the scene.
This is, to my mind, what great visual storytelling can be: not just a perpetual “say what you see” of wallpapered footage, but an elegant dance between word and picture.
Using a plugin like Geolayers, an animator today could build the bomb drop in about 20 minutes. But back in 2015 the only way to make it was by taking dozens of screenshots of Google Earth and then painstakingly sewing them together, it took me and my wheezy old laptop a week!
What Are These Things Called Love?
Something I reflect on often is how I have matured as a journalist and filmmaker while lucky enough to be working at The New York Times (entirely through being consistently exposed to people much smarter than me). I’ve grown intellectually more than anything else and that is really clear to me when I re-watch this video.
Although the thrust of the video is interesting and counterintuitive (our concept of love, it’s fluid!), the script makes a couple of bold claims that make me squirm today. The stories of love I tell are all white and European, excluding the majority of cultures, and I don’t acknowledge that.
Visually, this one is a little all over the place without much consistency, but the Young Wether scene is deftly done.
Money For Nothing
This video has probably dated the most out of them all. Back in 2015, there were no videos about the Universal Basic Income and of course now there are many, all of which go into much more detail. It’s a sign of how YouTube has changed since I was making videos; I’ll come onto that in a moment.
Again, with the exception of a couple of nice moments (the looping of the packaging footage, for example) it doesn’t have the visual flair of the first films.
This last video isn’t bad at all, but I don’t harbour much affection for it. The climax reveal that “Google is quite literally in the business of distraction” doesn’t carry the profundity that I’m trying to give it with all the music and editing.
But it’s a nice piece to complete the set. Stepping back I’m struck by how all of these films feel like part of a coherent whole, with a narrative and stylistic consistency. They do all feel like they’re made by the same person, someone who has figured out how to make this very specific kind of video really well and is pressing home their advantage.
No-one else was making videos quite like this back then — or since!
Some thoughts on YouTube
Yes, YouTube has evolved a lot since 2015.
Back then, technology necessitated shorter videos; the art was in how profound you could be in a short runtime. But as file storage and broadband speeds have improved, audience tastes are now for much longer videos; it’s not uncommon to publish an hour-long video that’s more like a podcast or a lecture, without any of the narrative efficiency I described above.
And the longer videos are, the harder it is to achieve elegant visual storytelling, especially with the algorithmic demands of a weekly upload. (There are many exceptions of course: Phil Edwards is making rather excellent short videos about history right now.)
Some of the comments below my five videos reflect these changes: people are frustrated by my lack of substance or detail, or dismiss my videos as a pointless bit of pop. They want non-stop facts!
I don’t feel sad about this, but perhaps a little relieved.
You see, there was one other unexplored parallel world in my mind: What if I had never stopped making YouTube videos? What would my life be like? In this instance, I feel glad to have left this all behind when I did.
Until another Sunday soon,