Digital Prospector: Digging for online video gold

Dick jokes, pickle electrocutions and home movies like you've never seen them. Veteran film critic Rustin Thompson mines the digital video vein.
Crosscut archive image.

Apha House, one of Amazon's 14 original online series

Dick jokes, pickle electrocutions and home movies like you've never seen them. Veteran film critic Rustin Thompson mines the digital video vein.

Crosscut archive image.

Editor's Note: Back in April The Daily Beast noted that "we’re waist-deep in the strange new waters of online original programming." Crosscut is wading in. Legions of amateurs have been churning out YouTube videos for years — some of them really good — and the pros have gotten in the game now too. Hell, Amazon commissioned 14 "pilot" series this year, including Onion News Empire with Jeffrey Tambor and Alpha House with John Goodman.

And Seattle is right at the center of it: Home-base for Amazon's content war with Netflix, and home to one of the world's premiere international film festivals and a vibrant indie film scene (when you stick so many nerds in one rainy bioregion, things are bound to get good). We asked filmmaker, film critic and indie deejay Rustin Thompson to go in search of the coolest, most unique online video — amateur, pro, whatever. This is his first report.

Home Video Commentaries wuth DVD Commentary
The Ramsey brothers (John and Richard) critique the home movies their parents shot when the boys were young. Zzzzzzzzzzz, right? Not these deft, deadpan riffs on pretentious DVD commentaries, voiced by the brothers as if they were snobby film scholars analyzing the seminal works of Andrei Tarkovsky or Orson Welles.

“This is an incorporation of what Vogler talks about when the Hero has to go into the innermost cave and face his inner, deepest, darkest fears,” intones Richard over a routine shot of him and his brother descending a staircase into the Mammoth Caves. You can hear mom behind the shaky cam urging the boys onward as John explains that “sometimes it’s love that drives them there and sometimes it’s an over-controlling mother.” John Ramsey has since produced a more sophisticated version of this home video commentary idea for a site called FunnyorDie, in which he interviews celebrities as they watch their own childhood films. Character arcs, subplots, camerawork, editing. It's all studied and discussed with comic gravitas as we too watch earth-shattering footage of ... a backyard Frisbee game.

His name is Scott and he’s a food geek. His specialty is modernist cooking, aka “molecular gastronomy” and it often involves the use of gizmos you’d only find in a  research lab. Watch Scott deploy his vacuum sealer to infuse jicama with Sriracha and coconut milk. Or whirl corn in a high-speed centrifuge to free the juice from the kernels. Or, in a terrifying Frankenstein-esque series of shots, watch as he sizzles a pickle, a slice of bacon and a puddle of soy sauce to life with two electrified wires. This mad kitchen scientist has an eye for exquisite close-ups and the simple elegance of thin, steely on-screen fonts, which compliment his arsenal of shiny hand-held tools. In one bit of culinary sleight-of-hand he spins a web of cotton candy out of thin air using an aerolatte (a milk frother) and a pan of hot sugar water. Scott will be getting his geek on with other vloggers during this weekend’s VloggerFair at Seattle’s Terminal 5.

Palma Violets/”Best of Friends”
This music video (NME’s 2012 “Song of the Year”), features the fledging U.K. band Palma Violets committing petty acts of larceny and performing for a surly crowd of unconvinced clubbers. The four lads are louche and mischievous and their gritty, guitar-driven neo-New Wave is matched by La Nouvelle Vague presentation: a playful homage to the silky, black-and-white noir of early Francois Truffaut and the spirited hedonism of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Palma Violets may not sound like the Beatles, but they cavort with the same self-effacing precociousness. And just so you don’t dismiss “Best of Friends” as a one-off homage, check out their previous “We Found Love” video, a claustrophobic debauch echoing Harvey Keitel’s drunken barroom lurch in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

In the dizzying blitzkrieg of online video channels, Smosh’s front line presence is notable for two reasons: The duo is both wildly popular and utterly banal. Anthony Padilla and Ian Andrew Hecox, both in their mid-twenties, are Smosh, a two-headed beast stomping through the swamp of regressive juvenilia. “Dick jokes” are the coin of this middle-school realm, delivered via flat-footed acting and the requisite cheesy screen wipes and sound effects. Smosh recently reached a milestone of 10 million subscribers, which requires a moment of silence for the spiritual death of horny teenage boys everywhere.

Peru+Bolivia: A stop-motion journey
Still photographer Piotr Wancerz snapped more than 12,000 photos during a recent trip to South America. Rather than forcing his friends to endure a marathon slide show (“Here I am petting a llama.”  “Here I am sucking on a cocoa leaf.”), he edited his carefully plotted pictures into a dazzling 106-second stop-motion travelogue. Wancerz posed his traveling companion in all the must-see locations (Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon, Salar de Uyuni, etc.) and directed her to take baby steps right, left, backward or forward.  One step, one click, one frame. Repeat. A jaunty panpipe and marimba tune from the group Soundroll sweeps us through 360-degree views of mountains and deserts. We glide along city boardwalks and float through ancient alleys. Wancerz cleverly matches on-camera handclaps or other motions pantomimed by his model to connect scenes shot miles apart. This imaginative take on the more than 100-year old art of stop-motion is not only stunning, it’s also a tantalizing invitation to travel to these vibrant countries.

For more nuggets from the Digital Prospector, go here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson is a filmmaker, film critic and indie radio deejay. He enjoys strong coffee, red wine, IPAs and his wife and grown children. He is comfortable with the fact he will never be rich, but grows petulant if he thinks too much about it.