With more than eight years of videos under his belt, and almost 300 million views, Charlie McDonnell is YouTube royalty. In the first of a two-part interview with TenEighty, he tells us about starting out on the fledgling platform, branching out from vlogs into music and film, and hitting major milestones…
If proof were needed of how much YouTube has penetrated the mainstream, Charlie McDonnell got it at border control recently. “I was off to see my girlfriend – she was making a movie over in Canada – and they asked me who I was,” he recalls. “I said ‘filmmaker’, because I don’t usually say ‘video-blogger’, because they don’t know what that is. They were like, ‘Filmmaker? What are you doing here? Are you making a movie? Where’s your camera equipment?’, and that sort of thing, and they brought me in for questioning.
“Eventually I said ‘I’m a video-blogger’, and one of the security people was like, ‘Oh, you’re just a video-blogger? Go on through!’ – so it clearly must be more of a thing now! I just found that really, really weird.”
YouTube is now so entrenched in popular culture – the biggest vloggers are fodder for gossip websites, their names becoming lucrative multiplatform brands – that it’s hard to remember how different things used to be. Back in 2007, it was only by chance that Charlie found the site at all.
“I literally just googled the word ‘videos’,” he explains. “That was it. I was in school, I didn’t really know what I was looking for. YouTube would feature videos on the front page of the website, and they featured a video which was just somebody mentioning a lot of video-bloggers that they liked. That was my first introduction to finding different YouTubers.”
He made his own channel, charlieissocoollike, to procrastinate during his GCSEs. “I’d just been given my first ever bit of study leave time, and I was realising that I didn’t actually have to use that time to study if I wanted to!” he laughs. “The style of it felt like it wouldn’t be too difficult to do, and I had that spare time, so I thought I’d just give it a go.
“I had a really, really basic setup. This was back in the days when having Windows Movie Maker and a webcam that cost £15 was enough. Everything on YouTube looked kind of terrible, so if you had a really bad camera, it didn’t matter too much.”
Vlogging was still a nascent medium, but a style had emerged (“A lot of the basic stuff, when it comes to the grammar of the video-blog, was already pretty well established,” he says, “so I was picking that up and having a play around with it myself”), and it appealed to Charlie’s existing interest in performing.
“I was a pretty shy kid, so my mum put me into acting classes just to try and help me with my confidence,” he explains. “That’s happened with all of my siblings as well. I was part of a youth theatre – did lots of plays through that. I used to be in a television acting workshop at ITV – I did that every week. So I’ve always kind of liked performing as a thing, it’s always been a part of my life.
“But I never really had an ambitions to try and make a film, or do anything like that, just because it didn’t ever feel like that was a possibility; I never really had the capability to do it. It was only when I had a webcam – I think I just borrowed it off my brother or something – that I was like ‘I can do something with this’.”
“I’d been talking to my computer for a month – and then suddenly my computer was telling me that it was really angry with me…”
Although the platform itself was still developing, a community was already established – and Charlie’s earliest success caused controversy. “My initial rise on YouTube came from YouTube featuring one of my videos on the front page,” he explains. “I went from having like a hundred subscribers that I’d amassed quite slowly to 4000 in a couple of days. At the time, it was like ‘Wow, I’m famous on the internet now, this is amazing’. But YouTube had been live for like two years already, so there was a bit of a community there – people who had been making videos for a very long time, and who didn’t really like the fact that I had gotten quite a large audience compared to what they had, without putting in a couple of years’ worth of time!
“So that was one of my first interactions with the community – them not really liking me!” he laughs. “I’d been talking to my computer for a month, and nothing had been coming back – just little bits and pieces – and then suddenly my computer was telling me that it was really angry with me for doing the thing I was doing! After a month, I almost got rid of my YouTube channel. I was like, ‘I don’t like this at all, this is not fun, to have lots of people saying you shouldn’t deserve the position that you have’. But after people started offering me support, I was like, ‘Actually, these people seem nice, so I’ll keep up with it’.”
But it was a sense of obligation rather than acceptance that kept him going. “It was less like ‘I really like that people are watching me’, and more like I kind of felt a responsibility to them, to be making stuff for them,” Charlie admits. “‘There are people who are expecting something from me now, and so I should probably keep doing it, for them’ – that was kind of what initially drove me. ‘I’m here to entertain these people, they expect it, so I should do it’.”
The milestone achievements kept coming: June 2011 saw Charlie become the first UK YouTuber to reach a million subscribers. “It obviously felt really lovely,” he says. “I did know that I was in a very lucky position. I don’t know that I really understood why I happened to be the one that was the most popular, at the time, in the UK. It was just sort of a thing about me that I was just generally pleased about. But even back then, I was like ‘I want to do good with this audience that I have, and try and do charity stuff’, that sort of thing.”
Last year, TenEighty interviewed Charlie’s mum, Lindsay Atkin (“I felt like I learnt more about my mum than I knew previously through reading it,” says Charlie, “because my mum wouldn’t want to let on too much about what she felt”), and she mentioned that she’d initially had reservations about YouTube.
“When I didn’t really have anyone watching me, I think she was a bit concerned, cos she just heard me up in my room talking to myself,” Charlie laughs. “And that’s a good reason for a mother to be concerned about her child! It was only after my channel got featured that I felt comfortable being like ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing, and it seems to be working’.
“My mother’s just incredibly supportive as a person. She’s always taken the mindset of ‘If this is the thing that Charlie wants to do, then I’m going to try and help him to do it’. I can probably comfortably say my mum is one of the most supportive YouTube mums out there. I don’t know if that many mums, hearing that their son or daughter is making a YouTube channel, would turn around and say ‘Well, I’m going to make one too, now – can you help me do it, Charlie?’. I feel like my mum knows more about the YouTube community than I do these days. If there’s any drama that she thinks is relevant to me, she’s the first person I usually hear it from!”
In 2007, it was impossible to conceive of vlogging as anything more than a hobby. “I don’t feel like anyone really had any kind of plan,” says Charlie. “Unless you were the people making lonelygirl15 and you were trying your hand at doing some scripted drama thing, it was very much just playing. I had no ambitions for it to be turned into my job. It wasn’t anyone’s job then at all.”
When did that change for Charlie? “YouTube introducing the partnership programme coincided with me deciding whether or not I wanted to go to university,” he explains. “To my granddad, I pitched it like ‘I’m going to take a gap year, and just try this YouTube thing out’, whereas to everyone else in my life, I was like ‘I’m just going to keep doing this’.
“It was quite a nice, slow transition for me, because I started earning enough money that I could be paying my mum rent, just to support her while I was still living at home. Then I was earning enough that I could move out to London. I was already starting to do bits and pieces with media companies – Hat Trick Productions wanted to make a show with some YouTubers, which ended up being Chartjackers – so I was going over to London quite frequently, spending quite a large amount of money on trains, and it got to the point where it was like ‘It might actually be cheaper if I was just living in London’.
“So that was the [turning] point. I feel like that’s kind of the thing that will legitimise it when I’m talking to people. Back then, a lot of people didn’t know what a video-blogger was when I said it to them, but when I could say ‘It’s giving me enough money that I can be paying rent’, they could be like ‘Oh, I guess it must be a job, even though I don’t understand it’.”
“I’m very aware of the reality that it might just not work out, as a thing. I’m not entirely sure what I would do after that…”
Before he was able to sustain himself with YouTube, Charlie had only vague ambitions for the future. “I knew that I really liked art, and I was kind of interested in doing something in graphic design. That’s kind of what felt like the right fit to me – I’d still get to do something cool and creative, but it’s also just a job. I knew a guy who was graphic designer, who I did work experience with, so that felt like something that was real to me as a possibility.
“But I hadn’t really settled on that as a thing. It was all very much… Well, I’m still figuring it out, really! I have much better ideas about what I want to do now, but it’s taken me a while.”
How secure does Charlie feel in vlogging today? “I’m doing this new show Cereal Time right now,” he says, of the recently-launched breakfast format he presents with fellow YouTuber Jimmy Hill, “and we’ve hired a producer for it. It feels like his job feels secure, even though mine doesn’t feel that secure. It’s a very weird thing, that.”
So there’s still a sense that it might all fall away? “I mean, I’ve obviously seen a drop-off in terms of my audience over the last few years, after I started making those short films on my YouTube channel. So I’m very aware of the reality that it might just not work out, as a thing. I’m not entirely sure what I would do after that. I hope I have amassed enough skills in terms of filmmaking, for example, that I could go and do something else if I really needed to. So there’s definitely that sense in there.
“I don’t think it would work at all if I kept doing the same thing over and over again. I mean, I’ve never really wanted to do the same thing over and over again anyway, because it’s quite boring to me. That’s why I made a bunch of short films a couple of years ago, that’s why I’m doing Cereal Time now – I just have to keep trying new and different things. If I wasn’t visibly trying to grow on my YouTube channel, that’s when I think it wouldn’t work.”
That sort of growth and expansion is also part of what makes Charlie special; as well as being one of the first British YouTubers to achieve huge success, he was one of the first to diversify. He’s used the site as a platform for his music, for example, forming bands with other YouTubers and releasing a solo album, This is Me, in 2010.
Music, like performing, had been part of his childhood. “I did a lot of music stuff when I was a kid,” he nods. “Went through many different instruments, trying to learn them – and then usually not liking my teachers and moving on! So I did recorder, piano, the drums, and saxophone as well. Saxophone was the one I did through secondary school, so I was in the school concert band thing.
“I was in a couple of my own bands, as well. I was in a band that was called Half Wink. I wrote a couple of songs with that, and we performed at our school Christmas fair. Which was incredibly awkward, cos everyone was in front of us buying bits of Christmas stuff for their families, while this group of four boys tried to do some kind of rock performance on stage, while our mums watched us and clapped politely! So again, that’s just always been a part of my life.”
But on YouTube, it’s becoming less important to him. “I don’t really see myself as a musician as much, any more,” he admits. “I always kind of saw that more as something that supplements my YouTube channel. It means that every now and then, I can do a song as a video. It took me a long time to make my first album. I was just writing songs to do as videos that I thought I would like to share with people, and then it was the audience that was like ‘You should do an album’. But I don’t really see myself as a musician as my main thing.”
Does his audience tend to prefer one specific type of content over the others? “It’s difficult, because I feel like I do so much,” he laughs. “I feel like the basic thing is a ‘classic Charlie’ video-blog of me just talking to the camera attempting to be funny while also talking about my life – if there’s a majority of people that want a specific type of content from me, I guess it would be that one.
“I definitely found that after I made the short films, they didn’t do as well on my YouTube channel,” he acknowledges. “Which I think is for many different reasons. My YouTube channel is so personality-based, although I really tried quite hard to be in all of the short films – have a main role in the initial one, and smaller subsequent roles in them, to try and get people used to the idea that I was this guy behind the camera working on them – I still feel like there’s this thing where it’s just quite hard to get into a brand new story.
“I feel like people watched them treating it more like an opportunity to do film criticism than just trying to enjoy the story. Which is nice, in a way, because they were trying to take the work I was doing seriously, which does feel good, but at the same time, it’s just quite hard to get people invested in a short film on YouTube, I think. I’d really love to do something more like a series – something where it’s a new channel, it’s its own separate thing, and it’s a story that goes on for quite a long time, where people can have the time to get more invested in it. I feel like that would work better. But obviously it’s much more difficult to do.”
Charlie made five short films between 2013 and 2014. He’d dabbled with scripted fiction before (“I’d made some music videos, and I always tried to put some kind of story into them. When I did any kind of sketch on my YouTube channel, I would set it in the universe of my video-blogs. So I was always pushing myself to do that sort of thing”), and a short film seemed like the next step. “I got to the stage where I felt like I’d done enough of those mini-stories on my YouTube channel,” he explains. “I was like ‘I kind of want to try this. This would be a fun challenge’.
“I came up with the idea for this short film, The Tea Chronicles, with my friend Khyan. We were living together at the time. I think it was his idea – he wanted to do an Alfred Hitchcock parody thing, plus tea, but we were very much just going to do it as a sketch on my channel.”
Then, YouTube approached him with an offer to participate in the Creator Innovation Programme. Previously, the site had experimented with the Original Channel Initiative – which were “YouTube channels that YouTube put literally millions of dollars into,” Charlie reminds us, “but they needed to produce an obscene amount of content, and you had to make a brand new channel” – and the Programme was a smaller-scale version of the same idea.
“It was ‘We will give you less money, but you can do it on your own channel, and you don’t have to make an insane amount of content’,” Charlie recalls. “Obviously I would have to pitch the idea to them, and someone would have to sign off on it at YouTube, but I could do what felt right for me. I said ‘Could I make a short film?’, and they asked me if I wanted to make a series of five of them, and so I was like ‘That sounds good to me’. After that, The Tea Chronicles, that Khyan and I were writing just as a sketch, turned into the first film of those five.”
How was the transition from vlogging to filmmaking? “It was pretty hard,” he admits. “I had quite a long period, before I got to making The Tea Chronicles, where I thought I wanted to make a feature film, or at least write a script for one, so I did quite a lot of my own research into how it would work, writing lots of different scripts for things that never really worked out or went anywhere – just playing around by myself, essentially, until I felt I had a good enough grasp on what I was doing. I wrote it with Khyan, so we had each other to help each other out: one of us wrote the first draft, and the other one wrote the second, and we just passed it back and forth until we felt happy with it.
“I still feel like that’s one of the hardest parts of the whole process, the scriptwriting. Which is probably why it’s one of the bits I enjoy the most. It feels like a really great puzzle, to try and figure out how to make everything fit together and work – a puzzle where you get to come up with the pieces by yourself. I feel like that’s the thing I get most enthusiastic about – writing with other people, and just playing around with it. Directing was more the thing that I had to fall into. I very much had to learn as I was going. With The Tea Chronicles, me and Khyan directed that together, so I got to ease in.”
“Scriptwriting is one of the bits I enjoy the most. It feels like a puzzle where you get to come up with the pieces by yourself…”
What’s the priority, then, with the short films? Is there any one discipline in which he’s particularly keen to make an impression? “I mean, the ideal scenario when you make a film is that nobody thinks about that stuff at all, because they’re too into the story; that they forget that it’s made by anyone,” he points out. “That’s always the thing you’re aiming for. It’s very, very difficult to get to a point where you make a film and have someone sit there and forget that they’re watching a film, and just get totally immersed in the story, but that’s always the goal for me.
“I kind of want all of that stuff to be good. I don’t know if there is any one specific thing. It all has to work in tandem, for sure. It’s much more difficult to direct a good film if the script is terrible and the actors are rubbish – it’s all the same thing, really, for me.
“Although I guess if I had to pick one, it probably would be on the writing side of things. I feel like, when I watch other short films on YouTube, that’s the one thing I usually come back to – like, ‘I wish they’d tried to spend a bit more time on the writing of this thing’, and ‘I wish I could talk to this person about how maybe they could do this thing differently in order to get it to work’. It’s obviously a privileged position to be in, when someone has made and finished a film, to look at it in hindsight and say ‘Okay, here’s the stuff you should have done differently’, because the filmmaker probably knows what they should have done differently anyway.”
The Tea Chronicles inspired Charlie to make the other four films parodies of specific genres – all “quite small British stories about something that is ultimately quite mundane,” as he puts it, “like a horror story about tea, or a disaster movie about losing the internet” – but he gradually veered away from that idea. “Strangers in a Bed was me trying to do a Western, but it wasn’t as overtly Western as OFFLINE is a disaster movie. After that, I was like, ‘I’m just going to do something that’s completely different, and just go way more dramatic’, and that was Our Brother.
“That film very much came out of the limitations I had with the project. I had to finish all of the short films by a specific date, as part of my agreement with YouTube – and I also had to make five, and I’d only made three. So I said, ‘How about I make one more, but I’ll make it twice as long, and I’ll split it up into two parts, and that will technically count as five movies?’. I took direct inspiration from Richard Linklater and his Before films, where it’s much more about the talking, it’s much more relaxed, with way less coverage in terms of actual shooting. That was super-helpful. So that film very much came out of just the logistics of ‘This is all I can do given the space I have, but how do I also try and make something that I’m proud of?’.”
With a CV that covers so much ground, how does Charlie describe himself in his own head? “I always go back to ‘filmmaking’,” he says. “That’s really my passion, at the moment. I don’t really feel like I’ve become skilled enough at it yet, so I don’t feel like I can call myself a filmmaker. I feel like I sort of have to still call myself a ‘video-blogger’ – just because that is my job, and it’s been my job for a very long time. That kind of feels right, whereas filmmaking is something that I do just when I have the time, and something where I really don’t mind whether or not it doesn’t do as well…”
Photos by Ollie Ali.
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