He’s spearheaded the rising production values of UK YouTube, worked with all the community’s strongest creators, and got lost in like Belgium. Director of photography (and rap superstar) Ciaran OBrien talks to TenEighty.
There was a time when making stuff for YouTube was about sitting in your bedroom talking to a webcam. Things have changed. “There were a couple of times where I had to rather hastily run back to the support vehicle,” says Ciaran OBrien, casually, “cos I maybe had an angry mob following me a bit?”
This was a location shoot for Benjamin Cook’s The War of the Word, which dealt with the Syrian refugee crisis. “Everyone in Jordan was very lovely and humble,” Ciaran explains, “and they had nothing, but they would invite you into their tent and give you tea, and give you food. But ultimately, in Zaatari – this refugee camp with about 100,000 people – you get some angry alpha male types. There had been some quite unfair news reports about them recently, and they were also worried about people filming for the Syrian regime, so there was a real hostility towards camera crews.
“So I was up on the top of this hill, in Zaatari. We had this support vehicle, and they said ‘It gets a little bit hostile around here – sometimes they throw stones at cameramen, so just watch out. We’ll go as low-profile as possible, so you and one guy from Oxfam get out, and everyone else will stay in the vehicle’. I had Ben speaking into his radio mic in the car, and I had headphones on, so he was directing me.
“The security guy gets a phone call, and gets distracted for a moment, and I’ve got the camera to my eye so I can’t see anything other than what I’m shooting. And then suddenly, in my ear, Ben goes ‘Ciaran, can you can come back to the car quite quickly please?’. I pan my camera around, and see what can only be described as an angry mob walking up the hill, directly towards me! I didn’t run, but I sort of… walked with purpose, shall we say, back to the vehicle.”
The average YouTube project is less dangerous, but increasingly, it’s no less ambitious. The last few years have seen a dramatic upturn in the scale and production values of the UK community’s content, and Ciaran OBrien has been heavily involved – but without drawing much attention to himself (from angry mobs or otherwise).
“I’m behind the camera,” he nods. “It used to be I was more involved in a lot more of the production, so I would sometimes co-direct and edit. As our crews have got bigger, I’ve specialised more into what I really enjoy: being… I’m always conscious about calling myself one, but a director of photography.
“On an ideal project, that would be meeting with the director beforehand, shot-listing, doing some test shots and lighting setups, and nailing an aesthetic. On the day: managing a camera team – which is typically me and one or two camera assistants – lighting the thing, normally operating the camera – sometimes I’m behind the monitor and I’ll have a camera operator. I will colour-grade as well; we typically shoot everything very flat, and very grey, so in post-production [I’m] adding all the colour, and normalising everything that we’ve badly shot! But basically, ‘Head of Visuals’, I guess.”
His road to YouTube started at university. “I did a Practical Media course, with a view to ‘I’ll give myself a year after university to find an unspecified media job, and if that doesn’t work out, I’ll go and work in an office’,” he recalls, “and then gradually got more confidence as I went along. In the second year of uni, I bought myself a DSLR, and started shooting little horrible rubbish things, and gradually got more and more experience on my course, shooting with different cameras.”
Ciaran always wanted to shoot scripted comedy (“everything I watch recreationally is either a film or a half-hour comedy format,” he says), and the opportunity arose in his third year of uni, when he met Khyan Mansley. “Basically, we met, he’d already graduated, and he wrote to me and said ‘Hey, I’m going to start doing some sketches on my YouTube channel’ – I think he had maybe a thousand subscribers or something at the time – so I said ‘Yeah, that sounds fun’. Over the course of the year, we shot about 12 sketches together. We gradually grew his channel to, like, five, ten thousand subscribers, and we were very much in isolation from any kind of YouTube community. It was normally just me and Khyan in his house, and he would pay me in cheese and pickle sandwiches! I was happy to do it, because we were making creative stuff, and three or four thousand people were viewing the stuff I’d shot, and that felt exciting.”
At the end of Ciaran’s final year, Khyan was one of 25 recipients of €20,000 via the YouTube NextUp scheme. “He gave me a nice share as a thank you,” Ciaran explains, “and then gave me some more to keep shooting some stuff”.
That money allowed Ciaran to turn down a job he had been offered on a long-running TV series, and instead pursue YouTube further. “I was like ‘That sounds horrible, but y’know, it’s a media job, and they’re hard to come by’,” he says, of the TV gig. “Cos we won that money, I sort of went ‘Nah, fuck it, I’ll go freelance’, so I did a mix of corporate videos – talking heads in offices, people wearing suits talking very boring things about business – and this YouTube stuff.”
“People were viewing the stuff I’d shot, and that felt exciting…”
Soon after the NextUp win, Ciaran and Khyan attended their first Summer in the City gathering together. “Suddenly people knew who Khyan was, and then he’d go ‘And this is the guy that shoots my stuff!’,” Ciaran smiles. “It was at the point where no-one necessarily had anyone shooting their stuff for them, so the fact that I was doing that was kind of a novelty.”
How aware of other YouTubers had Ciaran become? “Since that second year of university, I’d been watching as a fan. When it came to that Summer in the City, I was quite invested in it. I had the shrewdness not to fangirl at people! Even when meeting people who I look up to, I’ve always tried to act like a peer, cos otherwise it’s very hard to pull yourself up to that kind of level to the point where they go ‘Oh, I want to work with you’, as opposed to ‘That was a lovely person who complimented me’ – I think there’s a mental separation.”
He pitched it right; that event led directly to Ciaran working on the groundbreaking Becoming YouTube series. “Ben Cook came up and was very complimentary about Khyan’s stuff, and very excited,” Ciaran remembers, “and Khyan introduced him to me. I sent him a message afterward and said ‘Hey, if you ever want to shoot something together, let me know’.
“He said: ‘Well I’m doing this series, and it will be a mix of talking-head interviews and sketches. I’ll shoot all the talking heads myself, but if you want to come and shoot some of the sketches, that would be really appreciated – I haven’t got the budget to pay you to do the talking heads.’ I went ‘Maybe I’ll come and do the talking heads for free, eh?’, so I basically got to go around and meet every well-known person in the community, and go ‘Hey, this is my job, and this is all the kit I come with, and if you’d love to work with me, please do!’. So that slightly shrewd, slightly calculated thing… Ben was obviously very aware of it as well. I think he sort of dangled that out in front of me – ‘If you want to come and do this for free, it would be good for you’. It just carried on from there, really.
“It was quite a new idea at the time,” he emphasises again. “People didn’t necessarily have a dedicated person shooting stuff for them.” Was it ever tricky to persuade already-successful creators that he could improve their work? “I’ve always sold myself as, like, ‘Here’s my stuff’. I’ve never – even if I’ve maybe thought it in my head! – went ‘I can make your stuff better’. It was like ‘Here is the things I’ve done, hopefully that speaks for itself’, and ‘If you want to hire me, I come with all this equipment, so you don’t have to worry about anything like that’, and ‘I’d love to make stuff with you’, and things. I was never really doing the hard sell. I’d just present myself to people, leave it in their minds, and wait for the calls – which I was lucky enough to get.”
The benchmark for Ciaran was US YouTuber Julian Smith. “It was nicely lit, well-composed shots and things, and at the time it was just like ‘Whoa, this guy’s stuff looks like it should be on TV’. It was just really impressive – the production values he was getting on YouTube, when no-one else did them. It was slightly arthouse-y, and filmic, and just pleasantly shot. Some of his composition and lighting ideas, we definitely… ‘borrowed’! We never did as well, to start with, but that was always kind of the watermark.”
Outside YouTube, he’d also learnt from feature films. “At uni, two of my housemates did Film Studies, so I just watched everything that they were fed, and tried to consume as many films as I could. At the start of my first year, I downloaded the IMDB Top 250 Films list as a Word document, marked all the ones I’d seen, and then tried to tick off as many as I could. I still have the list, and occasionally go and update it! I think I’m on about 175 at this point, but there’s still plenty of gaps. And that’s the original list – there have since been newer films added to it, which I’m just disregarding!”
Is it hard to watch films as a detached viewer, rather than a filmmaker? “I would say I only do it with repeat viewings, or bad films,” he says. “I’m kind of okay at switching off. And if I am stuck watching some really tedious blockbuster sort of thing where robots are hitting each other or whatever, at least I can then go into technical mode and go ‘This will now be two hours of analysis!’, as opposed to two hours of boredom.”
Today, Ciaran estimates that YouTube accounts for about a third of his workload – “and it tends to be the most slapdash of the lot,” he laughs. “Normally just because of the budgets, sometimes just cos of the people as well. They’ve not all done— Well, I didn’t do film school, but they’ve not all got that training battered into them.
“On an ideal project, I will do about two days of preproduction. The chance that I actually get to do that is pretty rare. It’s something I’m trying to change, cos I’m pretty self-critical – I hate everything I make, basically. I particularly look back at everything I made last year, and I don’t really like any of it. I think it’s all quite weak, and there’s no real progression there. So this year, I’ve been making an active decision to up the level of my stuff, and actually do less projects – and earn less money as a result! – but output better stuff.”
He cites his first project of 2015, Bertie Gilbert’s Rocks that Bleed, as an example of something he feels is solid. “We had two days of preproduction, so we had a day of shot-listing, and we also had a day where he came over and we did some lighting tests, because there were some fairly specific lighting things we wanted to do with it. So I got the chance to do all of that.
“With Rocks that Bleed specifically, the first draft of the script I read had, for me, quite a lot of plot holes in it, and I was happy to tell Bertie that. I sort of said ‘This isn’t really ringing true’, and ‘If the Earth were crashing into the sun’, or whatever the conceit is in that film, ‘it would be really humid and sweaty and hot’, and all these sorts of things. So I spoke to Bertie and said ‘We really need to get good makeup artists on this, and they need to make everybody look sweaty as hell’, and for all the stuff in the flat, as it gets hotter and hotter, I said ‘Okay, we need to hire a hazer’. And also the orange light thing, which isn’t really how it would look – I think it would actually be quite white light – but we decided that a kind of orange light would communicate that best. We wanted it to look like a perpetual golden hour, when the sun’s setting and is biggest in the sky. So as well as shot-listing it and stuff, those were the things I brought to it, from that creative standpoint.
“Then it becomes more of a technical thing – ‘How can you achieve your director’s vision?’, to sound poncey,” he laughs. “Bertie wears his influences on his sleeve – pretty openly, I think – and basically he’d just seen Birdman, so I opened the script and it goes ‘Long tracking shot of man walking into flat, and then the camera goes all around the flat’. You go ‘Okay, that was done with a huge crew, on a set, with specially-built stairways to allow more room for the Steadicam. We’ve got next to no money, how do we achieve something that is comparable?’ – so you have to troubleshoot that, basically.
“At the start of the film, there’s two fairly long tracking shots. In Bertie’s head that was one shot, and went on for quite a lot longer, so you speak to him and say ‘That, for this money, is not possible – we’d need to rent this, and we’d need to rent that, and we’d need this much rehearsal time, and we’d need this much extra time on set to make that happen’. But I never want my job to be, like, ‘No, you can’t do that’, so you go ‘Okay, here’s the next best thing: if we split it up into two parts, and we hire an electronic gimbal for a couple of hundred pounds, we can do this much for you.
“You’re trying to input as much creative stuff as you can, and also figure out ways to logistically do what the director’s got in their head. They don’t always understand what’s possible to do with the gear and things, so it’s your job to educate them, and try and give them as close to that as you can for the money, and to bring it in on time – especially on YouTube stuff, where you don’t always have a First AD who’s there cracking the whip and going ‘We need to finish at this hour’. It’s balancing those things.”
Rocks that Bleed was a demanding project. “That was three-and-a-half days of shooting, and they were probably 14- or 16-hour days, very hard work the whole way through,” Ciaran recalls. “And then it has to go through so many edits. So quite often, when you see someone and they’re only putting out stuff a few times a year, you get [comments] like ‘What are you doing, you lazy…? You’re just sitting around doing nothing’, but there’s a lot of time that goes in behind the scenes.”
Is that lack of understanding frustrating? “I think, saying that, a lot of people do understand,” he counters. “I’m always thrilled when I go to something like Summer in the City, and I always expect to be completely anonymous, and then will have queues of people coming to speak to me. What I really like is a lot of them actually have proper conversations. Cos I’m not like ‘Oh my god, you’re Dan and Phil, you’re so pretty, here is your fringe’, and then a photo and you’re gone. I get…”
Told you’re ugly?! “Yeah – ‘I am so not impressed by your looks or your status!’,” he laughs. “No, half of them will stop and go ‘Oh, I really want to do the same job as you’, and ask real questions, and get it. The fact that I have any people who acknowledge that and are excited by that – that’s great, I’m really happy with that.”
“I can forget about Twitter for a couple of weeks, go online and insult everyone, and then go away again!”
There’s a degree of anonymity that comes with the job – if what Ciaran does is too noticeable, it’s probably not working – but beyond that, on social media and in his own comedy, Ciaran projects an exaggerated caricature of himself, like he actively wants to distance himself from his audience. “I mean, it seems somewhat contradictory, cos I’m here, doing an interview,” he observes, “but yeah, I guess I’m not fussed.
“Like, I value the people who are interested in the same areas of production and things, and I’m really happy that I have those people following me, but I have no desire for any more. Outside of a YouTube event, I’ve had one person in the street ever go ‘Oh you’re that guy!’, and I don’t want any more than that. If someone does see me, they’re more than welcome to come and say hello, but I’m completely fine with not… It’s not something that appeals to me, really.”
Nonetheless, he has plans for a more serious online presence. “Something that’s been on the backburner for ages is a website where I could talk about projects I’ve worked on, and explain more about what goes on behind the scenes,” he reveals. “I’ve had an entire website built, and I’ve been taking photos on set, and writing down ideas, for months, and the website’s been built for about a year. I put a survey out, forever ago, saying ‘What would you want to see on it?’, and 600 people filled it out in two days. I feel really bad that I haven’t made the thing yet! But I really want to have a dialogue with people who want to discuss filmmaking.”
Whereas Twitter, he says, is “kind of fun, cos I don’t really have to take it seriously, in the way that everyone else on YouTube is like ‘I’ve got to keep people engaged so they stay being my fans’. I can forget about Twitter for a couple of weeks, and then just go online and insult everyone, and then go away again!”
Recently, an increasing number of prominent content creators have expressed growing discomfort with YouTube as a platform, or the culture that’s grown up around it. “I feel like YouTube has somewhat normalised itself, in the way that most other mediums do,” Ciaran suggests. “If you look at TV, the challengey, vloggery, taggy aspects of YouTube are like reality TV – it’s very popular, and relatively easy to produce. I’m not saying there isn’t a degree of skill that goes into being that personality, but it’s fairly easy to produce regular stuff, and it is popular and it works.
“On the fringes of that, there are then the people who want to make… I would say ‘deeper’ stuff, but a lot of the stuff we make is really stupid comedy sketches, so I think that would be snobbish, to say that! But I guess the narrative, scripted stuff, is often – in TV – harder to get commissioned, harder to get through, and harder to thrive and find an audience. But I don’t see the point in complaining about people who are doing better and doing something that works – they’re not cheating, they’re just doing something that works for them.”
Ciaran does feel the balance between those different types of content has shifted since he started. “It’s easy to blame the platform – and I will!” he grins. “If you were a big creator, and you clicked ‘Like’ or ‘Favourite’ on a thing, you were able to drive loads of traffic to a video, so we were all able to make more stuff, and make regular stuff. We were sort of making it just for ourselves, and kind of to impress the people we were friends with – which I think is quite a healthy way to be doing stuff, because it means you’re not pandering to your audience so much. If you did something well, everyone would Like it, and the video would become really successful, and that was a nice motivation to make lots of stuff. And you could somewhat live off the AdSense a bit more than you can now.
“Also, YouTube was maybe more of a niche thing, a few years ago. It’s more mainstream now. This is a huge generalisation, but maybe [it’s] less just the nerdy kids at school watching stuff; it’s now everyone at school is watching things, so they’re more likely to be drawn to a different kind of content.
“So there’s no one thing to blame it on. I think it has definitely shifted, but I think it’s due to lots of factors, audience and site.”
“The thing that’s so exciting about YouTube is you can literally just make stuff, and if you’re good, you should rise up…”
But it’s a change that might be damaging. “I’ve been doing this thing with my old university where I’ve been talking to students,” Ciaran explains, “and one of them recently said something that kind of broke my heart a bit. They were doing the same course as me a few years ago, and I remember YouTube being such an exciting thing for me at the time – like ‘Oh, this is where I can get my stuff viewed, and fulfil this creative thing I want to do’ – and they just said ‘Yeah, I wish we’d been around when we could have done it, we sort of missed the boat on it’.
“There was a feeling for them that all these people are such big brands. You’ve got all these people on billboards, selling books, and it already feels like an inaccessible stardom to people. The thing that’s so exciting, to me, about it, is that you can literally just make stuff, and if you’re good, you should rise up. I think it’s much harder now, but I think it is still possible. I guess it’s more daunting. What gave me confidence to do it was looking at stuff going ‘I can do better than that!’, but now, if you’re a film student, it’s probably a more daunting thing because everything’s a little more professional. So I would say just make loads and loads of shit.”
And at first, it really might be shit. “All you have to do is go back to any of the people you like, and – as long as they haven’t deleted their first stuff – you can see that it’s all very amateurish,” Ciaran points out. “You only learn by doing it. One of the things that always really excited me about YouTube versus making short films was that you make a three-minute sketch every week, and as a person working on it, you will make some sort of horrible mistake, and you’ll feel really bad about it – and then you won’t make that mistake again.
“The same thing is true when you work on a short film, but it takes you two or three months to make that short film. So the rate you can learn – and the rate you can make horrible fuckup mistakes! – is so much higher, and so much faster, on YouTube. There will be horrible people online who will say ‘Why have you done this, you cretin? What an idiot!’, which will hurt, but as long as you go in with the mindset that you will make lots of mistakes…”
What’s in the future for Ciaran? “I’m kind of platform-agnostic, I think, in terms of where I’m making stuff, so I’m doing a sort of sketch show for CBBC this year. I’m DPing it, so I’ll have a camera team, a gaffer, a spark, all that kind of stuff. It’ll be kind of the biggest gig I’ve had so far, and that’s really exciting to me. I just want to make good stuff that I like, and I don’t really care where I’m making it.
“I just want to make stuff that I would like, and want to watch,” he concludes, “and just keep getting better at it. Hopefully the scale of the stuff that we do will just keep going up…”
Photos by Dave Bird.
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