Animated Shorts and the Quest for the Ultimate Platform
an essay by Sean Buckelew
an essay by Sean Buckelew
from MM01, released January 2019
The impetus to write about platforms for viewing animated shorts came from a recent article about Vimeo and their new CEOs decision to pivot its business model towards incorporating its service into other, more centralized video platforms. This wasn’t particularly shocking, since it follows a more general trend on the Internet towards centralized power brokers for discovering content, but I had to remind myself that this wasn’t always the case and isn’t an inevitable conclusion.
Remember when independent blogs were powerful cultural influencers? Or standalone websites could maintain any amount of popularity? Not to cultivate too rosy of an outlook on the past, since it still involved its own share of gate keeping, but it feels important to remember those times when proposing any kind of alternative that would allow for serious niche content to thrive. Huge Internet companies now have a stranglehold on how we consume culture online, and there is no clear home for animated shorts that require a longer attention span and more serious thought and engagement.
This is not to bemoan the rise of big video hosting sites like YouTube, since at their core, these sites have allowed for a revolution in democratic/independent content creation, especially when coupled with the proliferation of cheaper and more accessible hardware/software for creating video. But these centralized platforms are hardly neutral in the way content is presented¹. In the great lowest common denominator race to the seemingly infinite bottom of viewing habits online, artisanally created animated shorts seem to have suffered the most. I don’t really like the term “artisanal”, but I use it to distinguish the kind of films I’m talking about from other animated content (primarily intended for children, and of varying quality) that does incredibly well on these platforms². This term “artisanal” is also not meant as a dichotomy between professional and amateur or commercial and noncommercial, as those lines, especially in the context of independently produced animation, have become increasingly blurred.
For artists in the United States in particular, artisanal animated shorts live in a nebulous zone. The best venue for discovering this work and seeing it in a serious, considered context is still at film festivals or curated screenings (in my opinion, which is heavily influenced by the fact that I am a programmer at the GLAS Animation Festival and therefore should be taken with a heavy grain of salt). Seeing a survey of animated shorts from the past year in such a concentrated environment is a reminder of how vital, important, and inspiring this work can be, and that it is worthy of thought and attention. However, the physical limitations of this context make it impossible to scale in any way that is quantifiably comparable to the possibilities of the digital age. So where is this kind of work meant to live online where it can be consumed in a meaningful way? Is it possible to recreate anything similar to a curated, theatrical context in an online space at the same time that online spaces are moving away from providing a platform for the singular cinematic experience?
This leads us to contend with how animated shorts are encountered and contextualized more generally online. Speaking about his move away from making shorts, filmmaker David OReilly said “The difficult truth is that the vast majority of interesting animation is experienced by people as random internet junk, and not this incredible artform it might be to you.” This leads to the first, and probably most difficult obstacle for creating a serious context for animated shorts online: the sheer volume and saturation of video content. Some animated films thrive in this endless stream of video — and even benefit from being presented in a contextless flow.
Films like Kirsten Lepore’s “Hi Stranger” and David Lewandowski’s “Going to the Store” trilogy exemplify this — they both had huge popularity online, are definitively amazing works of art, and are conceptually rooted in living online and being presented in an extremely wide variety of contexts. Both of these shorts have struggled with being auto age-restricted by YouTube (and thus demonetized), and so, despite their popularity, are fighting an uphill battle against the platform. There are obviously many other examples of great animated shorts that have found massive audiences on YouTube, but I would still consider these films exceptions to the rule in the context of the broader curatorial intention of YouTube as a platform.
Every piece of technology has its intentions and limitations, even if they are designed to be invisible³. Although YouTube is meant to function as a perfect video democracy with almost no barrier to entry for posting content, the dreaded “algorithm” reveals the true intentions of the design and skews users towards certain kinds of content. Perhaps the solution to this comes in understanding the implicit intentions of different platforms, where their curatorial biases lie, and determining which favor more serious content that requires a longer attention span. For example, you wouldn’t expect platforms like Instagram and Vine to be a good home for this kind of content, since there is an implicit understanding that certain types of work won’t thrive and others will (in this case, the limitations are specific and explicitly related to the actual format of what can be posted). It doesn’t feel like an insidious design flaw, but simply the function of the platform. YouTube can be approached in a similar way: it is designed to favor and reward certain kinds of content, and while daily vloggers and streamers who upload hours of gameplay footage every week command attention, it will never be a proper context for artisanal animated shorts.
Vimeo remains the sole platform that puts filmmakers and artists front and center in their design and curatorial approach. Over the years, a community of independent filmmakers has formed around the site, and has been championed through mechanisms like the Vimeo Staff Pick. This is still the only place I can imagine posting my own shorts, and find daily inspiration from the work people upload. This is why Vimeo’s expressed desire to shift towards integrating into other platforms and away from championing filmmakers in a standalone context is so disheartening: there is essentially no alternative that puts serious shorts at its intended center. Prior to this shift, it should also be noted, Vimeo failed to take meaningful strides to emphasize the curatorial side of their operation, implementing tools that seemed more intended to appeal to corporate “pro” level accounts (the late implementation of high cost livestreaming, a feature readily offered for free on YouTube and Twitch) or the newly introduced Stock Footage database. The UI/UX also reflects this shift, moving from a timeline-based model that emphasized discovering videos in a feed, to a content management model that is more akin to Dropbox.
To their credit, Vimeo has made various attempts over the years to offer tools for artists to create more self-sustaining practices, from the “Tip Jar” to the Vimeo-On-Demand platform (even producing original content on the latter, in an attempt to compete with the ever-expanding Netflix model). I had optimism for this “long tail”⁴ model that capitalized on the fact that, as Amanda Lotz describes⁵, “changes in distribution shifted production economics enough to allow audiences that were too small or specific to be commercially viable for broadcast or cable to be able to support niche content through some of the new distribution methods, particularly those featuring transactional financial models”. While this came true on other platforms, it didn’t quite work for Vimeo.
It’s unclear to me who is to blame for the failure of these tools/marketplaces. Were they not properly implemented and marketed by Vimeo or do we, the userbase, simply not want to pay for content? As Don Hertzfeldt notes in a recent interview, “the Internet is basically teaching an entire generation of artists that their work has no value… we have to reprogram audiences to actually support the things they want to see more of”.
Is it naive to think that there could possibly be a model where this work is seen to have intrinsic value, or did the advent of Napster permanently rupture how we value all content online? Again, I think the solution lies in identifying the context. The rise of the video game distribution platform Steam has shown that games, especially independently produced games, still have a value to consumers. There is also cultural power to an institution like the Criterion Collection, which manages to stay afloat by selling DVDs/Blurays, but continues to have an intellectual mystique that validates films as works of art worthy of attention. Is it possible to transmute this sense of branding or curatorial authority into an Internet space to create some sense of scarcity, or is that an impossible premise when the material is digital and fundamentally wants to duplicate and be free?
There is also the possibility that these spaces do exist, but are simply not on my radar as the online experience is becoming increasingly subjective, with each of us operating in our own individualized bubbles of algorithmically determined consumption. There could be walled off spaces in the internet where all this stuff is flourishing, it’s just hard to find and I don’t know where it is. And if it’s that hard to find, would it ever be the answer to a broad question of where to discover and engage with new animated films?
I can’t help but fantasize about certain technological trajectories slowing down or reversing, but also don’t consider myself a Luddite. I worry that, as physical spaces for consuming media continue to diminish, certain artistic practices that are unsustainable in this new landscape will simply cease to exist. I also feel that entertainment is like food, and if you only consume candy, it might be fun and pleasurable in the short term, but you won’t get any nourishment and eventually you’ll die. I’m worried that the internet has such a harsh bottom line, it moves towards a far lower lowest common denominator than any other form of media, and we haven’t yet seen the bottom. I don’t want to sit here and tell everyone to eat their boring vegetables, but I am craving a proper meal more than ever. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of places left on the internet that actually elevate that kind of content in a meaningful way.
I think it’s possible that a new platform could emerge that would be explicitly designed to emphasize films and filmmakers and could rethink the entire model of engagement with animated short films. It would need to pass some kind of niche tipping point to be successful, but I’m more ready than ever to be an early adopter of a new platform if the values feel right.
¹ I use the word “platform” a lot in this essay, and found this great formal definition of the word in this context in Tarleton Gillespie’s “Custodians of the Internet”, published in 2018, that defines platform as: “online sites and services that a) host, organize and circulate users’ shared content or social interactions for them, b) without having produced or commissioned (the bulk of) that content, c) built on an infrastructure, beneath that circulation of information, for processing data for customer service, advertising, and profit. For the most part, platforms don’t make the content, but they do make important choices about it.”
² For a more in-depth analysis of what I’m describing, check out James Bridle’s “Something is Wrong on the Internet” — https://medium.com/@jamesbridle/something-is-wrong-on-the-internet-c39c471271d2
³ The definitive work on this subject is Lawrence Lessig’s “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”, published in 1999 (and available in its entirety for free here — http://codev2.cc/)
⁴ A term popularized by Chris Anderson in his 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future is Selling Less of More: “The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.”
⁵ From her 2014 book The Television will be Revolutionized
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