The same can be said of online video in general; big things are happening, fast. Advertising money is pouring into video-hosting sites. Hulu and Netflix have made deals with Hollywood. YouTube has put up millions of dollars for media partners to produce original channels. In the rush to colonize and monetize the online video space, however, Vimeo has gone its own way. Launched in 2004, just before YouTube, Vimeo was the first site to offer HD video sharing, and continues to set high standards for video playback online. Vimeo's world revolves around videomakers, not advertisers, offering uploading on a freemium model (the basics are free, a "Plus" account costs $59.99/year). As a producer and "video curator" myself, I've used the site to discover videos and share my own work since I joined three years ago. Even as the web video space gets more crowded, Vimeo continues to be the destination for content creators and viewers looking for cutting-edge videos, beautiful playback, and a remarkably positive community. A world away from cat virals, Vimeo is winning by nurturing the next generation of filmmakers (well, videomakers) and promoting their most innovative work. Their festival last week provided a fascinating look at how they're doing it.
A NEW FESTIVAL FOR A NEW PLATFORM
"We believe video is ready to step into the spotlight," festival director Jeremy Boxer wrote in his introductory notes:
The end of the beginning means something amazing is happening: Online video and creativity are transitioning from and age of observation to an age of participation. We see it on Vimeo and throughout the Internet -- widely accessible tools for fundraising, filming, editing, and distributing are helping more people make films they believe in and share them with the world.
The two-day series of talks, workshops, and parties drew 1,800 video junkies to Frank Gehry's glossy IAC building in New York. Unlike at most film festivals, screenings weren't the focus -- all the videos are on Vimeo and most viewers had already voted for their favorites. So the Awards took place the first night, getting them out of the way so that festival-goers could get down to the good stuff: conversations and hands-on projects. This scheduling decision is indicative of Vimeo's democratic, DIY, let's-make-stuff philosophy.
The categories of awards, too, represent the micro-genres of video content on the site. Some are pretty classic: animation, music video, narrative, series, documentary. Others, like remix and lyrical (yes, "lyrical" is a category), are more native to online video. Three new categories (added since the first Vimeo Awards in 2010) have the potential to be huge in the future: advertising, action sports, and fashion -- all ideal for brand sponsorship.
Lyrical, another new category, might as well be a shorthand for "Vimeo's greatest hits" -- the kind of eye candy that is so popular on the site: slow-motion, time-lapse, and tilt-shift videos, travel diaries, and personal stories. These videos wow viewers with visual storytelling and technical novelty. This kind of video might never appear on cable or get made under YouTube's partnership program, but in the Vimeo universe, it's a hit. It's unsurprising and fitting that a video from the category, Symmetry, won the festival's grand prize.
GOING PRO ON VIMEO
A collaboration between a production team in northern California, Everynone, and Radiolab, Symmetry is an audiovisual exploration of balance and connection, a playful philosophical journey via video. While YouTube, with its Google search optimization, usually drives more traffic to videos than smaller video sites, Symmetry has more than four times as many views on Vimeo as on YouTube. Though anecdotal, this seems representative of Vimeo's audience and the kinds of videos it supports. Everynone's Will Hoffman, in his acceptance speech summed up a sentiment echoed by a number of directors at the festival:
Here's the deal: I think we have to thank everyone, you know. All you guys at Vimeo and the community, and everyone here and on the Internet because ... we started putting work online, and then that work started getting popular, and then it became our life to do what we've dreamed to do. I don't know how it would have happened without Vimeo as a platform. I really don't. So thank you.
Other videomakers at the festival credited Vimeo with doing more for their careers than their film school experience. A panel on "Going Pro," with Hollywood agents and a veteran music video director, while interesting, felt like a throwback to a pre-web era. No doubt agents are still necessary, particularly in the cutthroat music video industry, but now videomakers can get started, at least, by making good work and letting the Internet run with it. A small production company called Stillmotion led a workshop, "Proactive Storytelling Instead of Reactive Coverage," with tips and advice for documentary filmmakers, but their backstory was its own lesson. They started out shooting wedding videos (sometimes considered a just day job by snobbish filmmakers) with basic tools and a small team. Their vignettes caught the eye of ESPN, who hired them to film The Season, a TV series about the NFL. Now, they're producing a feature-length documentary, A Game of Honor, about the Army-Navy football rivalry, for CBS. And they're still making wedding videos.
That high-quality work bubbles to the top of the Vimeo ecosystem is no accident -- curation, by staff and by users via channels, is a core priority. Of Vimeo's roughly 70 employees, one third are on the Community team, which includes three curators, in-house video producers, and support team. Vimeo Staff Picks, curated by Sam Morrill and Jason Sondhi, surfaces new videos of all kinds on a daily basis, and from there, many go viral. Within 24 hours of appearing on the channel, a video can receive tens of thousands views. The director duo DANIELS (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan), who received an honorary award for New Creator, credited Staff Picks with launching their career:
Vimeo has been such a huge part of our creative career. We started working together at the same time we started using Vimeo. Our first-ever movie together was a goofy short film called Swingers. Vimeo Staff Picked the short and we were all like "!?!?!?!?!!!!????" And seriously that Staff Pick inspired us to keep making stuff together.
The duo also took home an award for best music video for Manchester Orchestra's "Simple Math." In under two years, they've made a name for themselves with eye-catching special effects and (sometimes morbidly) hilarious physical comedy. They've explored skateboarding on dogs ("Dogboarding"), vomiting fireworks at a party (The Hundred in the Hands' "Pigeons"), and killing an entire rock band (Foster the People's "Houdini"). Their recent commercial for Weetabix spot features teddy bears dancing to dub step. Their careers, like Stillmotion's, seem to stem organically from their success on Vimeo, and they continue to make their own goofy, low-budget shorts, just for kicks.
COMMUNITY ALSO RULES
A quality community drives Vimeo's success as much as quality video does. At the festival, meeting Vimeo users "in real life" -- fans, aspiring videomakers, staff, and pros -- felt as friendly and democratic as connecting online (bonus GIF). Especially in contrast to comments on YouTube, the conversations on Vimeo are unusually positive and constructive. This is thanks, in part, to Vimeo's role as a forum for low-budget filmmaking. Since Canon released its 5D Mark II DSLR, a digital still camera with HD video, in 2008, the proliferation of inexpensive cameras has driven both an explosion in high-quality video content and a cottage industry around working with the cameras. Because DSLRs aren't optimal for video production, videomakers have had to figure out workarounds, using new accessories and strategies for shooting. Meanwhile, Vimeo has become a go-to platform for sharing these tips and tricks. The company picked up on this and launched Vimeo Video School in 2010, with video lessons in everything from cinematography to storytelling. The School enlisted Philip Bloom and Vincent LaForet, two filmmakers who made a name for themselves as DSLR gurus early on, to host the videos and lead workshops at the festival.
IMAGINE A FUTURE WITH NO CAMERAS
DANIELS' workshop, "99 Secrets Every Filmmaker Should Know," tempted festival goers with an educational angle and then threw it out the window. There were no 99 tips -- just a hilarious discussion of creativity and the importance of ideas over techniques and equipment. A haphazard Power Point presentation pinned the remarkable unoriginality of recent Hollywood hits (why so many sequels? why so many films about filmmaking?) on a world in which everyone lives and breathes film. In a massive group brainstorm with the audience, they encouraged seeking out new experiences, sharing ideas, and fighting in slow motion (it was awesome). To practice cross-pollination, audience members were asked to come up with ideas and then merge them with their neighbors' ideas. "You are here because your ideas want to have sex with our ideas," Kwan elaborated; "as a creative person, your ideas should be really horny!"
DANIELS have a point; video equipment is now good enough that it doesn't need to need to take center stage. In one funny anecdote, a Kodak representative called to ask what film stock they shot their Manchester Orchestra video on. Film stock? They shot it on a Canon 7D, a relatively inexpensive digital camera, and added the film look in postproduction. Cameras, they explained, might be obsolete soon enough. Scientists at UC Berkeley have successfully recreated crude video based on the brain activity of subjects watching YouTube, so the Daniels joked that it's just a matter of time before people will "make movies with their brains." What?! Just think about it for a second.
What will online video look like in 10, 20, or 50 years? Currently, the industry is trying to figure out things like pre-roll ads, licensing, and TV/web convergence. Companies are making more video available on more gadgets, and Google came up with a futuristic way for us to watch videos via glasses. That's all great, but what will we be watching? Creative people who love making stuff, people you'll find on Vimeo, are working on it.
ONE LAST VIDEO FOR THE ROAD
If one video represents the idealistic spirit of the festival, it's Mickey Smith's Dark Side of the Lens, which won the Action Sports category. Smith is a surf photographer, but the piece is actually a meditation on living a creative life, as seen through his eyes (and stunning cinematography). His narration is a personal manifesto:
I see life in angles and lines of perspective. A slight turn of the head. The blink of an eye. Subtle glimpses of magic other folk might pass by. Cameras help me translate, interpret, and understand what I see. It's a simple act, and keeps me grinning. I never set out to become anything in particular, only to live creatively and push the scope of my experience, for adventure, and through passion ... I want to see wave riding and document it the way I see it in my head, and the way I feel it in the sea. It's a strange set of skills to begin to acquire, and it's only achievable through time spent riding waves -- all sorts of waves.