One of the pluses of being knee deep in writing my next book is that I’m getting to talk to a lot of fascinating people. Among them is Patrick Boivin, a Montreal-based film maker who has risen in prominence thanks to YouTube. While the currently-melting-down and also-Canadian Justin Bieber is perhaps the most famous talent to have been discovered via the website, there are veritably many such people, including Boivin, who is best known for creating some amazing viral clips, including Iron Man vs. Bruce Lee and Dragon Baby:
Boivin’s route to success is remarkable. He didn’t much like school, but he did love to draw comic books. At the age of 18 he was pretty much resigned to a future of low-paid drone work in a restaurant or some such to support his passion. But he was enterprising, so he got together with a few like-minded friends and they made some sketch-like short videos on VHS tapes to promote their artwork. They showed the videos in bars on weekends, and they proved to be popular.
The tapes got the attention of the Télé-Québec network, which hired Boivin and his crew to create a TV show. The result was Phylactère Cola, a sketch show that parodied and otherwise sent up movies, TV and “society in general.” The show aired in 2002 and 2003 and served as a sort of “school” for Boivin, who used it to learn the ropes of film making. When it wrapped up, he bounced around jobs, making commercials for various clients.
It was around this time that YouTube began its meteoric rise. Eager to draw the millions of viewers that some uploaders were getting, Boivin put some of his short films up on the site, only to be disappointed when the big audiences didn’t come. He wasn’t completely disheartened, though – he studied what made popular videos go viral and set off to do the same.
He saw that some people were doing well by reconstructing scenes from the Transformers movie with actual toys. The movie was hot and people were talking about it, but he also thought he could do something much better given his background, so he created some stop-motion videos, such as an animated fight between Optimus Prime and Bumblebee.
The clips indeed went viral, prompting Boivin to think about he could make a living doing this sort of thing. He made more stop-motion toy videos with the idea of approaching companies and selling them his services. “Eventually, it worked,” he says, with the likes of Lego and X Games Energy coming on board. It’s what he’s been doing since, with YouTube serving as a sort of audition tape for employers.
The website’s effect has been two-fold for him. On the one hand, it has opened new doors. “It became a different way of making a living as an artist, which is amazingly rare because you usually don’t have many options, especially as a film maker,” he says.
Perhaps more importantly is the opportunity of exposure that YouTube promises. Before such widely available platforms existed, film makers often didn’t act on the ideas they had because they weren’t sure if it would ultimately be worth it.
“It also became an incredible motivation because the hardest thing I experienced as a movie maker – all the movie makers I know experienced the same thing before YouTube – to find an audience was so hard that most of the time you didn’t really care about doing something because you thought it would only be seen by a couple hundred people,” he says.
“When you know that doing something, when it’s good, will be seen by thousands or millions of people, now that’s something. The days we are living in now are special because you know that what you do can be seen by the whole world. That’s amazing. That for me is the really new thing. Making money is a good thing, but you could make money before.”
Boivin is now close to achieving his dream of directing feature films. He made and uploaded his first, the 68-minute Enfin l’Automne (Fall, Finally) to YouTube last year, largely just to see if he could do it, and he’s now on the verge of signing a deal with a Hollywood studio to do a proper film.
These are possibilities he never dreamed of back as a teenager back in the mid-1990s. “As a French Canadian, it’s an opportunity that didn’t exist before and it’s all thanks to YouTube.”
Switching over to my profession – the media – one of my frustrations is that it tends to focus on negatives, especially when it comes to technology. We hear a lot about how technology is breaking the bonds between people, taking away jobs or even paving the way for the destruction of the planet, yet stories such as Boivin’s – which are becoming increasingly common – just aren’t told enough.
I asked author Tor Nørretranders why this was when I visited him in Denmark a few weeks ago and I quite liked his response. He said that as a society, we’ve become far too focused on technology’s side effects, rather than on its actual effects. I’ll have more on that later this week, but I found the point particularly poignant when learning about Boivin’s story. It’d be nice to hear more of them.