Mandy Jiroux, from her music video for "I'm Still in Love"

Behind the Scenes of Room 301; BlackBoxTV, Collab, and the Future of Free Content

It’s hard to explain the concept of a “YouTube star” to anyone over the age of 30. “YouTube?” they parrot, brow furrowed and tone questioning, “you mean that thing I watch cat videos on?” The reality is, young people are more and more getting their entertainment from free and ubiquitously available user generated sources. Places like Twitch, Vine, and the aforementioned YouTube are perfect for delivering an endless stream of rapid, bite sized, new content in line with a limitless spread of interests. Wanna watch makeup tutorials all day? Done. How about prank videos? Of course! How about music videos? Just type in a genre/song/artist, and see the endless parade of videos, remixes, fan dubs, AMVs, etc.

It’s easy to be critical, lumping it all under the blanket category of clickbait for kids. I have a harder time judging, since I watch at least an hour of YouTube Hearthstone videos daily. Besides, I got all my news from Jon Stewart, so what if kids get theirs from Philip DeFranco? There have also been a few stars/channels that have used YouTube as a platform for more mainstream success. David Sandberg is a great example, as his recent Lights Out gained original notoriety as a YouTube short film.

However, it’s far more often the case that YouTubers are unsuccessful at breaking out of their niche. Setting aside the monumental task of transitioning from YouTube to mainstream media (for example, 2012’s Smiley), most find it near impossible to even branch out into different kinds of YouTube content. The bottom line is that YouTubers make their money on views. Unlike a traditional acting role where you get a paycheck even if the show flops, you don’t eat if you don’t get likes and subscribes. So when you have one million viewers waiting for your next prank video, branching out into politics can quickly lose the following you have.

It’s a conundrum that the people in charge of YouTube are looking to address. With the YouTube Spaces program, content creators have access to professional level equipment and studio space they would otherwise be unable to afford. With nine locations around the world, any creator with over 20k subscribers can utilize these services for free.

Making the equipment available is just one part of their plan for diversifying content. Another big part is projects like #Room301. Working in collaboration with Blumhouse Productions, Room 301 draws from over 100 of YouTube’s most popular content creators in a collaborative effort to create new content around a singular theme. Focused on the titular Room 301, each installment is shot on the YouTube Studios set with a 360° camera.

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For when you absolutely need to film just everything

A Blumhouse/YouTube partnership with 360° cameras created by and starring YouTubers? Color me interested. So a few weeks ago, I took a trip up to the YouTube Spaces LA location to check out some of the filming. I was pleased to find that on set that day were the people from BlackBoxTV, the video production company that most recently filmed Fight of the Living Dead. Working with the digital talent network and entertainment studio “Collab,” BlackBoxTV is unique in Room 301 as a truly collaborative project. Providing production talent and direction, BlackBoxTV worked with Collab’s network of artists to create their unique visions. The final product was four different videos: DSharp’s “The Ghost of You,” Liane V’s “Creep,” Meghan McCarthy’s “Haunted Halloween Horror Story,” and Mandy Jiroux’s “I’m Still in Love.”

Mandy Jiroux - Behind the Scenes of Room 301; BlackBoxTV, Collab, and the Future of Free Content
Mandy Jiroux, from her music video for “I’m Still in Love”

They were filming two segments that day—Liane V’s “Creep” and DSharp’s “The Ghost of You”—so time was tight. I arrived just as they were starting with Liane V, so I got to sit down with Derryck “DSharp” Gleaton first.

DSharp: “When I saw the set, I became fixated on the idea of this guy who comes to the room for inspiration. I created this character in my head who came here, maybe every year, and used it to commune with these spirits. As a musician myself, that communion became music. So in the video, I wanted that music, the actual playing of it, to be how the spirits communicate. I love the idea of all of these spirits playing together, creating a kind of visual reflection of the artist’s past. I was struggling with the question of, “who are these ghosts?” for a while, and at first I was thinking some kind of ancestors telling my history. When I started writing the song, it became clear that all of these “ancestors” I was envisioning were actually me. Different pieces of me, people that I had been that were still lingering inside. The song “The Ghost of You,” is about the struggle with the self, confronting the person you really are and reconciling with who you want to be.”

As talented of a musician as he is, DSharp was clear he wanted to branch out.

DSharp: “The opportunity I’m being given with this collaboration is incredible. I knew I had to do something really special, which is why I wrote this original song. It all came together so fast, and the pressure was on to make something great, but that just pushed me even further. I’m showing my fans that I can do more than just covers. But honestly, I don’t want to stop there. I really want to branch into more acting. One of the reasons this project jumped out to me is because I’m a big fan of horror. I’d love to work in the genre. I actually just recently finished a horror short film me and some friends shot for Halloween.”

Dsharp - Behind the Scenes of Room 301; BlackBoxTV, Collab, and the Future of Free Content

This is a sentiment I hear a lot around the YouTube community. Back when I was interviewing Dennis Roady and Shanna Malcom for Fight of the Living Dead, both were most excited for the chance to break out of their niche. The opportunities that YouTube is offering through their shows and collaborations is giving creators a chance to show people what they are capable of. Not everyone is looking to break out into new genres though. Many, like Liane V, just want to be the best at what they do.

Liane V: “I’m really not a huge fan of scary stuff, but this project made me step out of my comfort zone. I was really excited to do a new kind of music video with a 3D camera, so I looked at this as an opportunity to grow as an artist. I write my own music, do my costuming and choreography, so there’s a lot that goes into every video. As for the scary aspect for Halloween, I went with the song “Creep.” It’s not about ghosts or anything, but about the real life issue of cyberstalking. Every girl has to deal with it. I can’t tell you how many people I have to block daily because of disgusting and harassing comments. To me, that kind of real life stuff is the scariest. But we also wanted the video to be fun, so that’s where the spooky ghost stuff comes in.”

It’s interesting that two artists making similar music video projects could have such different goals. This creative freedom and potential is the essence of the YouTube ideal. It’s not the traditional audition and hope method of building your portfolio, and there’s no guarantee of success. But the path you take to get where you want is your own. Companies like Collab and YouTube are providing these creators the tools they need to build that road.

But what about the people behind the camera, the creative talent at BlackBoxTV? I got the chance to talk to Tony Valenzuela, founder of BlackBoxTV and director of the four collaborative videos. My primary question was, “Why Halloween music videos?”

Tony: “Hah, yeah, I get that question a lot. “Tony, this is horror, why is there so much singing and dancing!?” Some people really hate it, but I just love it. I have a real love for electronic music, and when you’re shooting something that’s this experimental you have to go bold. We reached out to Collab for the creative talent, and these four are fantastic artists. Since we’re using this new technology that people aren’t familiar with, I wanted the interaction to be as organic as possible. So we went with what we were strongest with: music and horror. So sure, you might not be used to thinking “scary music video,” but we aren’t shooting in 360° because we’re doing the same old stuff. Besides, Michael Jackson did horror music videos 30 years ago!”

BlackBoxTV has seen a lot of success lately with their filming of Fight of the Living Dead. I was curious what made them fit the Room 301 project into their busy schedule.

Tony: “Real talk, a big part was getting to film with the 360° camera. I’m like a kid on Christmas with that, I just want to play with the new toy. There’s just so much cool stuff we can do with it, and everyone’s still figuring out just how it all works. I also really love working on collaborations like this. I mean, who doesn’t love hanging out with great artists and bringing their ideas to life? And horror is just such a great genre! Like I said, I get a lot of flack for focusing so much on music, but I really don’t think that horror and music are at odds. I mean, horror is all about emotion, about fear and change, the unknown. That’s exactly what musicians do when they create. Tapping into that raw emotion is what I’m all about.”

All said and done, I spent about eight hours that day hanging out on set. Talking to the production crew, artists, directors, etc., I was impressed with what they all managed to pull together. Between the artists, BlackBoxTV, Collab, and YouTube, they mustered together something far greater than the sum of their parts.

The Room 301 videos are still coming out, and you can find many of them on this playlist. As a reminder, you don’t need a VR headset to actually watch, as you can move the screen by clicking on it. My personal favorite is the “Haunted Halloween Horror Story” by Meghan McCarthy, which also happens to be another BlackBoxTV/Collab production.

I’m going to get a bit philosophical here. I’m not writing this article just because I really like the artists or videos. To me, Room 301 is a signal of what’s to come for the future of YouTube content. When my dad associates YouTube with cat videos, it’s not because he’s wrong. YouTube as a platform has grown faster than most people’s perception of it. Eight years ago, I couldn’t conceive of a YouTube “show” being part of my daily life. Now, I tune in every day around noon to watch whatever Kripparrian has whipped up for me.

This isn’t a market that YouTube is alone in. With their subscription service, YouTube Red, they’re throwing their hat into the ring against original content creators like Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s a monumental task, that frankly I am skeptical about. I just don’t see how they can compete with shows like Daredevil. Then again, I didn’t see years ago how one Swedish gamer could reach 48.9 million subscribers and make it onto Time’s Top 100 Most Influential People list.

pewdiepie - Behind the Scenes of Room 301; BlackBoxTV, Collab, and the Future of Free Content

There is one thing that YouTube has that its competitors doesn’t: a massive network of independent artists. The legion of active YouTubers is expanding, and accessible to anyone with a camera and an idea. With projects like Room 301 and YouTube Spaces, YouTube can’t be viewed as just another network. It’s becoming a bustling community of creators with an ever growing network of resources. There’s no executive that needs to say “yes” for a new series to get approval. They just do it.

By facilitating these collaborative efforts, YouTube is pushing towards creating the kind of collective creative commons that philosophy students love talking about. As any college professor will tell you, the greatest resource schooling provides isn’t the instruction, but the community of peers. You never know what you’ll get when you mix two minds, and that kind of creative spark is what YouTube is banking on.

It’s a bold conclusion to draw from Room 301, but not an unreasonable one. In the coming years, it’ll be interesting to see how the platform evolves. For a horror market that many feel has grown stale, this kind of creative thinking is exactly what the industry needs. The quick, experimental nature of YouTube is perfect for horror short films, and YouTube is already a proven platform for their success. We are already seeing series like “The Marble Hornets,” adapted into film with Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story. Who knows what else the future holds for these artists?

Written by Ted Hentschke

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