Poster for Ayoade's film The Double, by Empire Design
Speaking at Ad Week Europe in London yesterday, director Richard Ayoade, YouTube film maker Thomas Ridgewell (TomSka) and Dave Bedwood, creative director at M&C Saatchi, discussed how platforms like YouTube are influencing filmmaking, how online content differs to traditional media and what the ad industry can learn from online video.
As a director, Ayoade is best known for his feature films Submarine and The Double, but previously directed TV shows Man to Man with Dean Learner and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, as well as ads for Citroen and LG and music videos for the Arctic Monkeys, the Last Shadow Puppets, Vampire Weekend and Kasabian. Ridgewell has been publishing short sketches online since he was a teenager and now has over three million subscribers on YouTube. He regularly posts spoof action scenes, sketches and cartoons.
Both provided very different takes on filmmaking, as well as how they deal with criticism of their work online, while Bedwood discussed how many young filmmakers are choosing to build careers online rather than pursuing traditional creative roles in agencies.
Asked what he enjoyed about making films for online audiences, Ridgewell said he liked the immediacy of it and the freedom to make mistakes. "I like the instant feedback [you get from] putting things online," he added. He also said he spends a lot of time analysing comments left in response to his videos online, often "deconstructing thousands" to gauge an overall consensus on what did or didn’t work and using that to inform his next film.
“Commenters definitely shape my work, but whether they improve it or not is a different thing – people can be stupid, and have a kneejerk reaction to change, so should you always listen to them?” he added.
Ayoade, however, said he paid less attention to comments about or reviews of his productions - "I suppose in general it's too late by that stage - you can't really do anything about it. It can be useful, but I wonder whether it ever helped the next thing - the demands of each new thing are individual to it, and at some level, reviews tend to be about the person writing it, and their response," he said, adding that with regards to comments on platforms like YouTube: "There's [often] a particular kind of person who responds online."
Bedwood said he was surprised at the amount of power online commenters have today, adding: "If one person says something, everyone thinks they need to react, but if they said the same thing at a party, you'd just think 'he's an idiot'."
With a new generation of filmmakers experimenting with sketches, documentaries and new kinds of content through platforms like YouTube, Alison Lomax, head of brand solutions at Google and chair of the discussion, asked Bedwood why he felt that advertising was still so focused on generating 30, 60 and 90-second spots.
"I don't know - if you look at some of the best advertising from even the 1960s [such as VW print ads] or the Michelin Guide [launched to encourage drivers to tour by road France following the launch of the brand's new tyre], creativity has always been there.
"It's difficult to understand why there's so much rubbish about in advertising, when the conditions for creativity are better than they've ever been. With tech allowing people to skip [ads] more often, you either need to do more PR or different kinds of sponsorship, or you need different content. So why don't we do it more? I don't know," he added.
Bedwood suggested one reason was that creatives are still keen to make traditional TV spots, seeing it as a step up to filmmaking and Hollywood - yet added that platforms like YouTube are attracting some of the best talent online instead of into agencies. "You want those people in your agencies but now they go on to other means," he said.
In terms of what else the industry could do to attract this kind of talent (Lomax cited YouTube and D&D's Global Next Director award as an example), Bedwood suggested that perhaps there could be a shake up of traditional creative teams: "There perhaps isn't enough in our industry of an eclectic mix of people - for example, a filmmaker and an animator. But you can't always afford to have people hanging about if the jobs aren't there," he added. "It's a shame you don't see more exciting work though, with all the tools we've got."
Discussing what ads could learn from successful YouTube content, and the kind of advertising that is best suited to the platform, Ridgewell said it was best to be up front and honest in ads, or incredibly subtle. "Everyone these days is so wise about advertising. The best way to do it satirically is to be upfront, almost by making an ad about making an ad - like Old Spice [with The Man Your Man Could Smell Like]," he said.
Ayoade agreed in a sense, adding that he felt there was a strong dissonance in advertising which try to integrate products or brands into narratives, "as if [characters] are all caring about this branded thing".
“I think it’s fine if you’re honest about what you’re doing, it’s when it pretends to be something else [that it doesn’t work]…it's difficult. With a story, you don’t want people to think a particular thing but in ads you do…you couldn’t be saying ‘what do you think about Diet Coke? I’m not sure',” he added. He said he found Jonathan Glazer's ads particularly interesting, however, as they could often exist as short films, with just a simple product shot or announcement at the end.
Asked whether YouTube was changing traditional filmmaking, Ayoade said he felt that much of film is still rooted in a cinematic language “that hasn’t changed since WD Griffiths, in terms of telling narrative with images. You have people like Tim and Eric disrupting that, but it relies on your knowledge of the old form," adding: "I don’t think you necessarily have to do new things, you just have to be interesting.”
One of the biggest challenges for platforms like YouTube, he said, was that the kind of short form content it encourages often struggles with a sense of meaning. “It’s hard to do that in short form. I think theres something about things existing in short form that dictates content. It tends towards surrealism and irony.”
Ridgewell agreed, adding that he felt content on YouTube was "very ephemeral". While the site hosts a vast array of content, he said it is also becoming a challenging and in some ways hostile place for filmmakers, in part because of "super aware audiences" who feel content has to be very self-referential or satirical, and due to the number of people watching films on mobile.
"[On a mobile], you need very straightforward content, not a sensory experience. It's not the place to watch a film...you'll miss out on the sound design and music," he explained. He also said it was difficult to make longer content for online platforms, adding - "I worry what will happen when I try to make a narrative longer than three to five minutes," but said: "What [YouTube] will contribute to filmmaking is encouraging people to try new things."
While Bedwood agreed about the ephemeral nature of online filmmaking, he said that even audiences watching online and on demand content still enjoyed sitting in a dark room "and watching a story unfold."