Liam Collins, head of YouTube Space L.A., works to level the playing field for independent video producers
By Joe Piasecki
The biggest, busiest television studio west of the 405 has nothing to do with traditional TV.
With seven video production stages, a pair of broadcast-quality digital control rooms, 10 private editing suites, a 50-seat high-definition screening room and a vault stocked with top-of-the-line cameras and sophisticated film equipment, You Tube Space L.A. aims to bridge the resource gap between giant media companies and underfunded Internet video entrepreneurs.
The $25-million, 41,000-square-foot Playa Vista campus is both a creative workspace and a business incubator. YouTube — which shares advertising revenue with users who upload to the video-sharing website — grants free access to the facility and its equipment for the medium’s more prolific content producers, who retain all rights to videos shot there.
But the man in charge is no Hollywood mogul gone rogue. Liam Collins, head of YouTube Space L.A., cut his creative teeth assisting Navy engineers with innovative designs for nuclear-powered submarines.
Collins, who worked as a business attorney after the Navy, eventually became chief operating officer of New York-based Internet video production company Next New Networks, which was purchased by YouTube parent company Google in 2011 and rebranded as Next Lab.
Google tapped Next Lab to build video production spaces for YouTube in L.A., London and Tokyo, with a fourth currently under construction in New York.
YouTube Space L.A., four times larger than the London and Tokyo spaces and twice the size of the space planned for New York, opened in November 2012 and saw about 11,000 visitors in its first 12 months, Collins said.
Next Lab staff run classes on how to use the facility’s cameras and equipment, assist on difficult shoots and even scope out — and sometimes invest seed money in — budding YouTube production companies.
“At Next New Networks we always had studio space, and we found that creators came together and began to form a community around our production resources. That was sort of the inspiration behind these facilities, which do that on a much bigger scale,” Collins said.
The lofty ambitions of You Tube Space L.A. are evident in the design of its lobby — a high-ceilinged work area where production teams gather around laptop computers at moveable tables and on bright blue couches to plan the day’s work. YouTube videos stream on a cinema-sized flat-screen monitor above the check-in desk. During a tour of the facility with Collins on March 27, the screen was divided into panels that show four feeds at once, but it can be modified to stream as many as 25,000 separate viewing panels. Video producers gather here for special events and monthly networking happy hours.
The lobby, said Collins, “is intended to be a place that’s always busy, cacophonous — a place for people to come together. It’s a town center for the video community.”
He might as well be talking about the entire space. Video makers are at work in every nook and cranny of the building: the lobby, the tech cage, crow’s nests — they’ve even shot in bathrooms and closets.
“Collaboration is really a headline in the facility. One of the most important ways to build audience on YouTube is to collaborate with other creators, so we design a lot of programs to encourage and facilitate collaboration between [YouTube] channels. The building is designed to enhance that … to give people a place to break out and chat with each other,” Collins said.
YouTube channels with 10,000 subscribers or more can book one production day per month at YouTube Space L.A. At 100,000 subscribers, channels get up to three shooting days a month and assistance building complex sets. Channels that hit the one-million mark can apply for residencies that include help from Next Lab crew members in all aspects of production.
Located just behind the lobby is a production stage, known as “the quad set,” that includes ready-made but fully adaptable sets depicting a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bar.
That afternoon, Kurt Hugo Schneider, a musician and video producer whose YouTube channel has more than four million subscribers, was running his crew through rehearsals on the quad set for a one-take music video sponsored by Coca-Cola. The video — a rendition of the band Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound” that utilizes Coke bottles and cans as musical instruments and follows Schneider and other singers as they walk through the various sets — was uploaded to YouTube on April 2 and has already tallied more than 580,000 views.
“The space is really accommodating,” said Schneider, 25. “You grab the equipment, shoot right here on the stage, go over there to edit the dailies and then send them out — all in one building. There’s nowhere else where you can do that.”
The following Tuesday, Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln Neal — better known as “Internetainers” Rhett and Link — were at another large stage setting up to shoot a music video PSA against texting and driving sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Rhett and Link operate multiple channels with more than one million subscribers, and their more popular videos have received more than ten million views. The PSA, a split-screen comic rap-battle that involved synchronized front and rear green-screen projections, was posted April 7 and received more than 850,000 views in just two days.
“We needed a big sound stage for the idea we had,” said McLaughlin. “We do a lot of music videos and the visuals are always different, so I think having access to a place like this gives us the opportunity to produce things that are bigger.”
Jessar Nygard, a partner with the 400,000-subscriber YouTube channel The Strength Project, was on campus planning out another of the group’s fitness demonstration videos, which often feature tutorials for performing back flips, handstands and other impressive physical feats.
The equipment at YouTube Space L.A. has allowed the Strength Project to pull off green-screen, special effects and slow-motion shoots “with great cinematography that creates a visual story and shows off our moves properly, which allows you to teach properly,” said Nygard, 25.
The Strength Project, said Nygard, does not produce sponsored YouTube videos. Both the Coke-sponsored Schneider video and the Rhett and Link PSA, however, point up YouTube’s increasing attractiveness for large-scale advertisers.
And, unlike the traditional network television model of interrupting featured content with commercial breaks, on YouTube it can be difficult to tell which is which, as the two often blend together.
“Kiss,” an artful short film that showed strangers awkwardly making out for the very first time, went viral throughout social media after it was posted to YouTube on March 10, breaking 77 million views in less than month. Days later, news reports surfaced that the kissers were actors and the film was actually a subtle advertisement for the clothing line that dressed those actors.
The majority of content created by Rhett and Link is sponsor-free entertainment, paid for entirely by YouTube-managed advertising that runs before the videos.
The duo sees their sponsored videos as partnerships that, like the one with YouTube Space L.A., give them the resources to increase the overall quality of the videos they produce.
While sponsored YouTube videos may not be labeled as such, Rhett and Link say they are religious about disclosing brand partnerships.
“It’s important to note that we have a fan base, and we’re in a constant conversation with them. We have a daily talk show, and whenever we make a main-channel, high-production video like this one, we’re talking to our fans about it on our show, ‘Good Mythical Morning.’ That’s an opportunity for us to educate them that, yes, there is a sponsor involved,” said Neal.
“We’re not trying to pull the wool over your eyes or trick you into watching. We want to educate our audience that we’re able to create something that we otherwise wouldn’t if it weren’t for the partnership,” Neal continued. “There’s also education for the sponsors — they’re not commissioning us to make a commercial, they’re buying into the opportunity to work with us and help us create something for our audience.”
“The tide of the comments is very positive,” McLaughlin added. “People get it. They’ve seen [partnerships] before.”
An important driver of YouTube’s new media paradigm is the youth of its creators. Rhett and Link, who are in their mid-30s, and 25-year-olds Schneider and Nygard can be considered veterans of the medium.
Collins counters, however, that YouTube — and YouTube Space L.A. — aim to be inclusive of veteran talent as well as emerging creators.
“There are a lot of people who are young entrepreneurs, starting their careers in a way that was different than a generation before,” said Collins. “But we have people of all ages. We had George Takei shooting [a video] with AARP just a couple weeks ago. Part of what attracts George and an organization like that is the ability to reach people all over the country, all over the world, from different walks of life.”