He’s made a name for himself with ambitious, whimsical, narrative-driven videos, and his short film Oscar’s Hotel has just become a game-changing web series. PJ Liguori talks creativity, development, and sticking to his guns. Also: foursomes.
You know how it is. You’re talking to someone clever, talented, and creative, who’s putting the finishing touches to a pioneering online video project that stars the likes of Patrick Stewart, but all you really want to ask is ‘WHY DID YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS REFER TO YOURSELVES AS THE FANTASTIC FOURSOME’.
“Okay, okay, let me give you some context,” laughs PJ Liguori when, 26 minutes in, we can’t not ask any longer. “I don’t think many people know the origins of it. And I think the origins are important to understand what it exactly was.
“We were approached by a website called VYou, where you could answer questions in video format. I instantly loved the idea, and they asked us ‘Would you four guys want to have a channel on that website together?’. So we all jumped on Skype – me, Chris [Kendall], Dan [Howell], and Phil [Lester] – and we just agreed ‘Yeah, that sounds like a cool thing’.
“We were saying ‘We need a name for the channel, what shall we call it?’,” he recalls. “And Dan, Phil, and Chris thought the name ‘Fantastic Foursome’ would be brilliant. I said ‘Please, let’s not call ourselves the Fantastic Foursome. Let’s not have “foursome” in the name’. And I was overruled. And we called ourselves the Fantastic Foursome. I very soon fell in love with it afterwards. I was just very much like, ‘Guys, it sounds like the Fantastic Four having a foursome, I don’t know if that’s a good idea’.”
Titles are important, particularly with PJ. His KickThePj channel is almost eight years old, and has had over 42 million views, but words like ‘vlogger’ or ‘YouTuber’ don’t quite fit what he does.
“I would say that I define myself as a storyteller,” he suggests. “I’ve got all these ideas and stories that I want to tell. I happened to fall into the bracket of making things on YouTube, and as that progressed, that’s where I stuck to. Essentially, whatever platform I’m making content for, I’m still telling stories.”
And he was doing so long before he discovered YouTube. “I’d been making short little sketches with friends for a few years,” he explains. “I was always really into Drama at school, and then my dad gave me this DV Tape camera, and I’d been making stuff, just cutting it together in camera – like, starting and stopping recording to put together whatever it was I wanted to make.
“We just made ridiculous things that didn’t really have a proper narrative, and didn’t really go anywhere. First, it was for fun, and then the more I did it, it was to practice the skill. Although editing in-camera is a nightmare, eventually I got really used to it, and it was just how I worked.
“Then, in late 2006, I stumbled across YouTube. I’d been watching other people’s videos for like a month, and eventually I thought ‘Maybe I should start posting some of it? It’d be easier to show my friends that way’. So I started uploading these things that I’d been making.”
“There are video games I’ve played that are all about the adventure, and I just tried to harness some of that…”
Soon, they got noticed. “The themes of some of the videos were Pokémon and Nintendo and all these things that I loved, so they started to get views from that, I think,” he says. “And when more and more people started watching them, I eventually stopped making them just to show my friends. I thought ‘Now people are watching it, I’ve got a new audience’. Granted, a tiny audience, but still. Posting something and getting, like, ten comments and 150 views – that was actually pretty amazing back in 2006.”
PJ remembers watching James Rolfe (aka the Angry Video Game Nerd) who, he says, was “making fun things about video games in his own way. At the time, I was also making things related to video games, and they were in my own way. That gave me a little bit of a push to start honing my own style, cos I just admired the guy so much. I don’t know if I knew whether I was going to carve out some kind of a style, but I was just going to keep finding what it was that I loved to make.”
Gradually, his worked developed an identity of its own. “I think you have to kind of learn Making Stuff by… not copying people, but taking heavy inspiration from all sorts of different things,” he says, “and reimagining that inspiration into something new.
“A lot of my very early inspirations spawned from the stories that I would find in video games. Once I got past that phase of making, like, ‘Mario Kart in real life’, I wasn’t trying to emulate a video game story in a film. I was just taking inspiration from games I enjoyed. There are games that I’ve played that are all about the adventure, and I just tried to harness some of that, some of those feelings, and try to see where that takes me with an idea and a story.”
Getting his hands on editing software allowed PJ to be as ambitious with the way his stories were told as he was with the stories themselves. “The first editing software I used was this thing called MAGIX, and it was super basic, so I had to manipulate the software to try and do different things,” he recalls. “Rather than stay doing the same kind of sketches that just relied on the comedy, I think I wanted to try and start honing a style that embraced editing and, eventually, visual effects. When I learned After Effects, every time I did a new video, I wanted to try and do something new – a different technique, or a different skill.
“After making stuff online for a couple of years, it got to a point where every time I made something new, it was a little bit different from the last, so people didn’t know exactly what to expect. I could make something with music, or with animation, or digital effects, or in-camera effects, or like a comedy thing, or sometimes just talking to the camera… Like I said earlier, storytelling – but in any medium that felt right for that specific story. I didn’t restrict myself. Like, I was never a musician, I was never a vlogger, I was never a visual effects artist. I just did whatever felt right for a different idea.”
It took PJ several years to become happy with the work he produced. “I think the tipping point, for me, was as soon as I went to university,” he asserts. “Everything I made before university, I personally would never go back and watch any of that. I don’t want to delete it or private it, cos it’s important to show people this is where you started, but I just feel that everything before university was just kind of like… experimenting. And then university became like the playground.”
PJ had taken a gap year before going to uni. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “I didn’t really have any friends local any more. A lot of my friends, I had made through YouTube, but we were all scattered across the country. I was just stuck in Peterborough by myself, trying to make stuff by myself. I just wasn’t enjoying it.”
Why was university the solution to that? “I mean, if I’m honest, I wanted to kind of treat university as three years of more time to make stuff whilst in the safety net of not being in the real world!” he laughs. “And I wanted to learn the skills. Before I went to university, I expected that university would teach me those skills, but it didn’t really. It was being with people, and making things with people, that taught me everything I needed to know about filmmaking.”
“Making things with people taught me everything I needed to know about filmmaking…”
At the University for the Creative Arts in Surrey, he met Jamie Swarbrick, Sophie Newton, and Louis Grant – “a bunch of other like-minded people, who just wanted to make cool stuff. So we started making cool stuff together, and I felt that was the first moment where I felt I was really happy with what I was making, and it was like ‘There’s a clear direction I want to go’.
“I wouldn’t say the things I started making at university reflect what I make now,” he clarifies, “because I went through so many different phases. I did some really surreal stuff. There was a wave of content that was really, like, unnecessarily dark! And then I went into more of a fantasy type genre. So I definitely went through a lot of different themes. [But] for me, that was the tipping point of like, ‘Now I have a good idea of what I want to do, and I’m just going to roll with it from here’.”
It was collaborating with Jamie, Sophie, and Louis – who he still works with today – that made PJ realise storytelling could become his job. “When I started making stuff with them, and I started getting approached by companies that wanted to work with me, I kind of thought there was something there, that I could start to build a career from this.”
When he works with companies today, whether it’s to teach young people how to look after a drunk friend or sell them biscuits, the brand’s message is always filtered through the KickThePj prism.
How important is it to PJ that he puts his own stamp on content like that? “It is more important that anyone could ever imagine,” he emphasises. “Every conversation through the process of working with a brand is a constant sticking to my guns, and making sure that I’m making the right choices. I always just set out to make cool stuff, and if a brand can accommodate me making cool stuff, to the standard that I feel is best, then that’s great, and I’m more than happy to work with a brand.”
What are his other requirements for those deals? “If a brand comes to me and says ‘Hey, we want you to do a certain thing, with full creative control’, and ‘We won’t be intrusive with our brand, we’ll just let it be what it is’, obviously the next thing is ‘Who are you, and what do you stand for?’, and I’m incredibly picky when it comes to that.
“A lot of the time, it has been a thing of just making sure that I can have as much creative control as I can over stuff. Especially when it goes on my channel. It’s not just selfishly for me. If they force me to say something that isn’t natural for me to say in a video, it’s going to look bad on me, sure – but it’s also going to look bad on the brand, cos people are just going to laugh at the brand.
“So I’ve tried to look out for everybody’s interests,” he sums up. “Myself, the brand, and also the audience. I don’t want to put them through something where they’re clearly being advertised to – I want to show them, as an independent storyteller, that I’ve been helped to create the next cool thing that I would not have been able to create had I not worked with this brand. That’s my standpoint, and I’m very firm with that. There’s pretty much nothing that can topple that.”
Do brands tend to respond well to that sort of proactivity? “Sometimes they love it, and they’re like ‘That’s great, let’s just do it’,” he smiles, “and of course there’s going to be times where they’ve said ‘Yeah, no, we just wanted you to kind of eat it on camera and say how much you love us’, and I say ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that was the kind of project this was – no thank you, this isn’t for me’.”
PJ’s come a long way from the days of in-camera editing. “The reason I did that, actually, was because I didn’t know how to put it on my computer,” he admits. “I didn’t have a cable to connect it, so I literally didn’t have an option! I was like 14, 15 at the time, so I didn’t really have any money to go out and buy editing software, or a new camera. It was a case of just working with what I had.”
These days, he has far more resources at his disposal. Earlier this month, his big-budget web series Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures launched on Vimeo’s new On Demand platform, following a one-off pilot last year.
“I was initially approached by New Form Digital,” he explains. “They knew of me as a creator, and they were running this Incubator programme, where they were funding YouTubers to make short films. My name came up, and they thought I would be a good fit, with a bunch of other YouTubers such as Tim H and Bertie [Gilbert], and a bunch of American YouTubers as well. They approached me and said ‘We have this amount of money that we’d like to give you to make a short film of some kind’, and the aim of the short film was to make something that they could then sell as a series.
“I thought, firstly, ‘That’s cool – they just want me to make something cool, which is great’. I love getting approached with stuff like that. So I rounded up my usual creative team, which is Sophie, Louis, and Jamie, and we went from there.”
The team were faced with a deadline. “Forcing yourself to try and think of an idea is always poison,” says PJ. “The story you want to tell should just come to you when you least expect it. We were under a bit of time constraint, and so we were just bashing through so many different ideas, all of which we weren’t too keen on.
“Eventually, we got to the idea of ‘What if it was a boarding house or a B&B, and by day all of the residents were humans, but then at night, when the moon shines on the hotel, they turn into monsters?’, and we thought ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool’. And so we started writing that – we started coming up with the story, we wrote characters.
“We were getting very close to the deadline, and we’d written like a 20-page script. They only wanted a ten-page script, but we’d written a 20-page script! And we were looking at it, and we were like ‘Do we love this? Is this the thing that we would want to go on to sell a series of?’, and we just kind of collectively decided ‘Not really’. We thought the concept was cool, the world was cool, but there was something about it that just didn’t have the ridiculousness or the whimsy of what we would usually make.
“So we scaled it all back down,” he continues, “and we went at it with the mindset of ‘Well, what if they’re just always monsters? What if you check into the hotel because you’re a monster? What if everybody in the world is a creature apart from Oliver? What kind of dynamic does that give us?’. Eventually, we got a script that was hilarious, and I loved it, and it was perfect. It’s what would happen if KickThePj made a short film that wasn’t attached to a brand in any way. It was just its own thing, and it was weird, and I loved it.”
The team were pleased with the final film, but convinced it wouldn’t go to series. “In this round of Incubator shorts, we felt ours was the most amateur, because we shot on a 5D, there was such a small crew, it was very homemade,” PJ recalls. “But that’s our style, that’s what we enjoyed, so that’s what we stuck to.”
But films like Sawyer Hartman’s Parallax and Joey Graceffa’s Ethereal, PJ says, were “so high-quality. We were like ‘Well, damn. They’re going to get bought up instantly, because they look very Hollywood’, and that’s what we assumed was wanted.”
A couple of months after its release, Oscar’s Hotel became the first of that Incubator series to be picked up. “It was amazing, to hear that we did it,” PJ smiles. “That was an amazing feeling. By December 1, we were all sitting in a room together, coming up with the story.”
How much creative control has he retained over the new series? “New Form get the final say on everything,” he explains. “But because it was a KickThePj production, they wanted it to maintain that homemade feel that we work so hard on to achieve. If I turned round to my audience and said ‘Hey guys, I’ve made this – it’s all CGI, it’s perfectly slick’, I don’t think it would have been very well received, and I personally wouldn’t have liked that.
“So it was in everybody’s interests to make sure it has the style, and it has the feel, but it is just done on a scale that is grander than I could have possibly done with myself and my small team. Although I had a lot of creative control, the thing that New Form wanted to do was bring in different departments, and expand the team, to make sure that we could just make it more creative and more ambitious.”
So it’s that Mighty Boosh thing of preserving a rougher aesthetic even though the production itself is slick? “It’s funny you’ve mentioned the Mighty Boosh,” PJ replies. “They are a huge inspiration to us in the sense that they are not afraid to do something that’s rough around the edges – and they choose that as an aesthetic thing, a stylistic choice. That’s exactly how we treat it. It started as we didn’t have the funds to make something high-quality, but at the same time, we thought ‘Well this is actually kind of cool’. Making stuff out of cardboard has a fun aesthetic to it. Because it’s all meant to be fantasy anyway, it is suitable for the world.”
“Despite being a large production, Oscar’s Hotel has the soul of everything I believe in, and everything that I love…”
Oscar’s Hotel is by far the biggest project PJ has ever worked on. “I work in a crew of four, and on the first day of shooting, I was directing a team of like 50,” he laughs. “So it was a huge step up that I had to pretty much just learn on the go. Although it was a little bit intimidating at first, I very quickly gelled with it all, and I did my best to keep everything running to the best of my ability.
“Despite being a large production, and it being content that you have to pay for, I want people to take away that it still has the soul of everything I believe in, and everything that I love and want to create myself. Because I believe it does. It’s a KickThePj production. Although it’s made for Vimeo, and New Form Digital produced it, and the Jim Henson company partnered to make creatures, it has the soul of a KickThePj production.”
What’s it like being the centre of attention when the show is such a team effort? “I try not to think about it too much,” admits PJ. “I don’t like that kind of stuff. I mean, I don’t think it would go to my head, but I don’t give it the chance to. Whether I’m the face of it, whether I’m not the face of it, I just want to make stuff that people enjoy, and that I love making and love watching.
“I think recognition’s important,” he adds. “To be able to continue making those cool things, you need to get some kind of recognition from it, so more people see that and think ‘Ooh, I saw you made this cool thing, so I’m going to give you some money to make another thing’.”
It’s particularly important for Oscar’s Hotel which, if successful, could change perceptions about what online video content can be. “We’re trying to set almost like a… not a ‘standard’ or a ‘bar’ or anything like that,” says PJ. “We’re trying to set what could be seen as cool online entertainment that’s a bit more next-level than shorts on YouTube. That’s why the attention’s important. To show people that.”
Success could also mean a second season of Oscar’s Hotel. “There’s a lot more I want to tell, a lot more I want to expand on,” PJ says. “I would welcome a second series to be able to tell all those stories, but in terms of how far along I am with that right now, it’s just kind of in our brains, and it’s on paper, but nothing’s officially in motion. I think we just need to get the first season out, and see what the reception is.”
He’s still exploring other stories (“I still have lots of ideas of other films I want to make,” he says), and new ways of telling them (“Now that I’ve made a 60-minute series, I feel ready to tackle something of feature length”), but not all his ideas are confined to video.
“I really, really want to make a game,” he reveals. “This is something that’s just been rattling around like a hamster on a wheel in my brain for so long. But I really want to make some sort of tabletop game. It’s so out of the realms of what people would expect from me, or what I would usually talk about online, but I love tabletop gaming, and it’s something that I would love to try venturing into that realm with storytelling, and see what can be done there.
“I have lots of ideas floating around that could go in different mediums. Like I said at the start, I’m a storyteller, and I have lots of stories to tell – whether that’s in a film, or a series, or music. I’ve been writing an audiobook for such a long time that I started to think ‘Well what if that was like a graphic novel instead?’
“I’ve just got lots of stories,” he concludes, “and I’m trying to find the right way to tell them all. So yeah. I just want to keep playing and experimenting with different ways to tell them…”
Photos by Rebecca Need-Menear.
Want more from PJ?
Why not check out these exclusive photosets:
- PJ Liguori TenEighty 2015 Cover
- PJ Liguori TenEighty 2015 cover shoot: Photo-set 01
- PJ Liguori TenEighty 2015 cover shoot: Photo-set 02
- PJ Liguori TenEighty 2015 cover shoot: Photo-set 03
Or catch up with our exclusive Oscar’s Hotel coverage:
- Meet the Team: Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures
- Meet the Cast: Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures
- 10 Things You Need To Know About Oscar’s Hotel
- Vimeo On Demand: Beyond Oscar’s Hotel
Alternatively, revisit some of our favourite recent cover stars:
- Ciaran OBrien: Pulling Focus
- Alex Bertie: Being Trans On YouTube
- Emma Blackery: The Jekyll and Hyde Within
- Carrie Hope Fletcher: All She Knows Now
- Luke Cutforth: Cutting Out The Dark