YouTube turns ten this year. Ten whole years of talking cats, skateboard fails, music videos, book reviews, sketch comedy, vlogs, short films, beauty tips, game walk-throughs, and animation. But have changes in YouTube’s recommendation and search algorithm put one of these stalwart video categories in danger?
YouTube’s increased focus on watch time puts extra pressure on creators to upload longer and more regular content, a task which can be difficult to face in the labour-intensive world of animation.
It wasn’t always like this, however. YouTube has long been a breeding ground for animation talent. TenEighty caught up with some of the UK’s finest animators – from Cribble and Weebl, to the minds behind Starbarians, Burnt-Face Man and more – to find out their opinions and investigate whether or not there’s a solution to the situation.
“I think I was 13 when I first uploaded something to the site. Back then it was the best way I could see to share what I was making,” says Matt Ley, animator of videos including Tom Ridgewell‘s Designated Driver, reflecting on why he initially chose to upload his creations to YouTube. “Having grown up watching cartoons, the idea of having my own animations on the web for the entire world to see just blew my mind.”
The potential breadth of the YouTube audience was greatly appealing to many animators. Harry Partridge, the creator of Saturday Morning Watchmen and Doctor Bees says “I soon realised [YouTube] had a much wider audience than any other platform I was sharing my cartoons on, so I decided to stick around”.
Jonti ‘Weebl’ Picking, arguably one of the pioneers of online animation, was attracted to the user-friendly interface and growing community. “It seemed pretty cool and easy to use and there was a nice amount of creative buzz going on,” he says.
This buzz was due in part to YouTube’s own methods of promoting material from creators. Scott ‘Cribble’ Coello recalls how helpful the YouTube editorial team were. “Back in 2009 there was a nice UK team that – if emailed nicely enough – would help promote your stuff on the YouTube front page in your region, which helped massively,” he says.
Someone else who benefited from front-page exposure was the father of Salad Fingers, David Firth. “There was always a small chance a video could land on the front page, even if it had only a few views,” he tells us. “Handpicked videos had the chance to get half a million hits in a single day and shoot the creator into the spotlight for a while.”
Felt-tip Picasso Ed Stockham remembers how this promotional approach offered up-and-coming animators a lot to aspire to. “I do remember a lot of animation being featured on the front page when I was first starting out,” says Ed. “They were very much an inspiration in the sort of style and direction I took with my early videos.”
For young animators, YouTube was new, accessible and offered hope for their creativity to be seen. It was an easy way to share their work with the world, and a platform that would even help promote that work through recommendations and featured videos.
This would change on Friday 12 October 2012, with a post on the Official YouTube Partners and Creators Blog, entitled YouTube search, now optimized for time watched. The post features the following statement:
“We’ve started adjusting the ranking of videos in YouTube search to reward engaging videos that keep viewers watching. This is a continuation of ongoing efforts to focus our video discovery features on watch time.”
This was a fairly direct response to an increase in the amount of YouTube creators attempting to manipulate YouTube’s search and recommendation system in various ways. In an interview with Computerphile, YouTube engineering director Cristos Goodrow says:
“What we noticed was that when people looked for videos it was often the case that they would see one that looked like the video they wanted to watch, but once they got on that watch page it wasn’t actually the video they wanted to watch. People tend to know fairly quickly whether or not the video they’ve landed on is the one they’re looking for.”
Essentially, when you type something in the YouTube search box, rather than the top results being the videos with the most plays, it’s now the videos most people watched for the longest. The theory is that by focusing on watch time rather than view count, misleading thumbnails and irrelevant videos that piggy-back on popular video keywords and titles become much less profitable, which ultimately is a good thing, right? It certainly got rid of the Reply Girls.
It has also been hugely beneficial for gamers and vloggers, who can easily and quickly create regular, long-form uploads, allowing them to climb the YouTube rankings. If you don’t believe us, check out this Game Theory video about the meteoric rise of PewDiePie:
It is, of course, understandable that YouTube would want to catch out the people who were gaming the system, and in YouTube’s constant quest for ‘engagement’ it makes sense for the primary metric to be watch time and retention. However, in attempting to level the playing field, YouTube may have inadvertently tipped it in favour of gamers and vloggers at the expense of animators.
Some gaming channels upload two or three times a day. Can animators compete and make themselves heard in such a market place? After all, how hard can it be to make a cartoon?
For Scott, the process of making an animation can take anywhere between two weeks to two months, depending on length and method of animation. His pre-production workflow alone includes scripting, developing style frames, developing a shot list, soundscaping, storyboarding, producing animatics… and all of that before actually beginning production proper.
“Once a script is made, I then create a shot list which breaks down each line of script into text descriptions as to what will happen per line/paragraph of script,” explains Scott. “From the shot list, I create a few style frames that depict the video’s final look and feel. For character led animation, characters are also drawn up at this stage.”
By this point Scott has already spent two to four days on just scripting, shot lists and style frames before he gets into creating the animation. And that is the REALLY time-consuming part.
“If I’m animating tradish, I’ll flesh out scenes with keyframes to elaborate the animatic/storyboards further,” Scott says. “Thereafter, I do the inbetweening process, which is probably the most tedious, so I just zone out, listen to some music and churn out the frames needed to trick the eye. Final line clean up goes on top, then colour. This is the higher end of the days-per-minute rate.”
For traditional animation, Scott puts this average rate at between three and seven days per minute of animation. So a two minute animation would take six to 14 days, a three minute animation nine to 21 days, and so on.
“Videos can take anywhere from two weeks to two years,” according to Harry, so it’s easy to see why many animators feel there is simply no way to compete with other, more prolific content creators.
Scott says it took over two months to animate Khyan Mansley’s Metaphors for our Love, which is just over two minutes long. “In that time,” Matt points out, “a Let’s Play channel has uploaded 50 videos that are 10-30 minutes long.”
All of this means independent animators are facing an inevitable descent down the YouTube rankings. Unless, y’know, they possess superhuman cartooning skills. “You’d have bloody stumps for arms,” says Jonti. “There is no way to meet the required level of minutes or updates without massive financial backing or a huge team of poor animators working for next to nothing.”
Professional animators on YouTube rely on their work being seen in order to accrue a living wage through advertising revenue and commissions. Matt tells us animation losing favour in the YouTube ranking can affect this. “Animation alone just won’t generate the required traffic to warrant large advertising income any more, and for those who depend on that income for financial stability, it’s a very serious issue,” he says.
Aside from financial losses, animators who are struggling to meet the requirements of a regular upload schedule may also suffer creatively. “[The algorithm] doesn’t make animation cost effective and makes more of a push to quantity over quality,” explains Eddsworld – PowerEdd animator Anthony ‘Kreid’ Price. “Which is a huge shame to the art form.”
Some animators have already left YouTube entirely. Ross Butter – who animated Tom Ridgewell’s STUPID JUSTIN BIEBER PARODY – now uploads his own work to Vimeo. Ross agrees with Anthony’s suggestion that the algorithm encourages animators to upload mundane content. “Any animator who wants to improve their artwork is naturally going to take longer to make each film as they progress,” he says.
“Pressuring YouTube animators to make lengthier and more frequent videos in order to be noticed not only deprives animators of the chance to showcase their true talents, but also cheats the viewers out of great quality cartoons.”
David is even less forgiving of what he sees as a cultural shift away from creativity. “The whole thing seems to favour crap and the crap will rise,” he says. “I just wish more people would demand and support originality but I guess it just doesn’t matter to them.”
Jonti suggests that other creators – from sketch comedians to songwriters – have also been affected by the algorithm change, but were perhaps better equipped to deal with it. “A lot of these groups also do vlogging too since they’re happy in front of a camera,” he claims. “I know a lot of animators. You don’t want us in front of a camera.”
Ed has noticed animators having to diversify to meet demand as well. “I think it’s made a lot of animators panic and start making let’s play videos,” he states.
David seems to concur. “Maybe I should just scream over videogames seven days a week.”
So what other options are available to animators to climb the rankings and/or claw a living from their chosen vocation?
YouTube tells us that “the algorithm for suggesting videos includes prioritizing videos that lead to a longer overall viewing session over those that receive more clicks”. This means that the algorithm not only rewards longer videos, but it also pays to build playlists and include links to further videos on your channel.
But what kind of material do animators have to build playlists from? “A lot of animators have started posting ‘filler vids’ like speedpaints, animatics, or even behind-the-scene vlogs as a way to adhere to this convention of longer, more frequent videos,” reveals Ed. “I like seeing work in progress stuff and seeing the people behind the drawings. I think it gives channels a fuller character.”
Nonetheless, Ed is concerned that this may distract from the initial intent of the channel — a concern shared by Jonti. “If you’re making animations or sketches or music or films but the main content of your channel is vlogs and Let’s Plays then something has gone wrong,” insists Jonti, “because that should be time you can spend on what you really create.”
Scott suggests that maybe animators should work in a series format akin to television, with a production period and a broadcast period. “Maybe animators need to work up a whole bunch of projects (maybe a series, or a collection of one-offs) to have enough to release weekly,” he says.
Wearing his most rose-tinted, optimistic YouTube reminiscence spectacles, Scott even suggests a return to the old front-page feature format. “Maybe there needs to be a better video spotlight function to help with discovery or those who post less frequently,” he says.
In order to create longer watch time sessions, it has been suggested that animators band together to increase their ranking collectively. This could be through forming Multi-Channel Networks like Frederator or, as Ross O’Donovan suggests in Does Independent Animation Have a Future on YouTube?, creating endless playlists that share one another’s videos in an eternal, algorithm-pleasing cycle.
For the cash-strapped animator, Anthony points out the importance of crowd-funding tools like Patreon. “These sites allow followers to donate to the channel with each upload and in return the creators can give them content such as sneak peeks or behind the scenes content,” he says. “This helps keep the audience engaged and also fund their channel.”
While these tips are helpful, they are more like survival-tactics for animators on the YouTube battlefield than actual solutions. As Jonti points out, the only way things will change is if YouTube step in themselves. “[They should] take another look at their algorithm, see it encourages quantity over quality (for want of a better term) and figure out a way to weight things based on video genre,” he says.
Matt isn’t hopeful: “I know a lot of us would rather YouTube fixed the problem they created, but we all know it’s never going to be that simple.”
Looking at the YouTube problem from the vantage point of Vimeo, Ross has even less optimism for animation on the platform. “You can’t expect YouTube to change. Their business model of lumping animators in with the Lets-Players and Unboxers is clearly working for them,” he says.
He does have some hopeful words for the animators left on the sinking ship, however. “It’s important to recognise that animated films have more artistic merit than just a view count. As long as animators are adaptable, entrepreneurial and hard-working, there will always be a way for them to make a living from their work,” Ross affirms.
Although his faith in YouTube is shaken, Jonti still thinks it is the best choice for animators online. “Maybe YouTube is entirely the wrong platform for animation, but there aren’t many other options,” he reflects. “And as bad as YouTube is, it could be worse (I hope I’ve not just jinxed it). It’s like choosing between a shit sandwich or a shit sandwich filled with glass and farts.”
There are certainly other video hosting site options for animators, but Harry points out that leaving YouTube often means leaving your viewers behind. “Giving other platforms like Newgrounds a shot would help,” he says, “but it’s the audience that needs to migrate over, not just the content creators.”
And where is YouTube in all this? We approached Google’s press office on the matter and they were currently unavailable to comment, but they did link us to the Creator Blog post on watch time and an AdAge story on watch time.
With the impact the algorithm is having on animators apparently going unacknowledged by YouTube, we are left to wonder if YouTube sees animation as collateral damage in the war for our attention. Here at TenEighty, we think there must be a way animation channels can be judged fairly. Maybe YouTube are quietly working on something to solve this problem. But, without word from them, a lot of animators are feeling left out in the cold.
What do you think?
Will YouTube’s second decade be one without new animations to match Amazing Horse, Eddsworld, or Salad Fingers? And how do you feel about this prospect? Share your thoughts on Twitter by sharing this feature and mentioning @YouTube and @YTCreators using the hashtag #saveanimation. Look, we’ve even created a click-to-tweet to do it for you!