Hollywood creatives have always dreamed of having total control of their work. For most of them, it has been just that: a dream.
But that doesn’t hold true for a new breed of content creators: YouTube influencers. These individuals, with no corporate boss to answer to, and whose work is growing in scope and impact, have emerged in recent years as maverick producers and built large audiences.
Take YouTuber Ryan Higa, who began shooting lip-synched musical parodies on VHS tapes in 2005 while still in high school in Hawaii. When YouTube launched in 2006, Higa — acting as writer, actor, director, cinematographer and editor — found a platform on which he could distribute his work.
He soon became a pioneering influencer — the term for individuals who build a following among their audience over the internet and end up with the power to impact fans’ purchasing decisions.
In the early years of YouTube, Higa rapidly grew his NigaHiga channel and set up his own production company just as YouTube began producing serious revenue for its top performers. From 2009–11, NigaHiga garnered the most subscriptions on YouTube. Today, the 28-year-old Higa is a multimillionaire with two YouTube channels, NigaHiga and Higa TV. He has millions of followers.
“The fans are the motivators that keep me creating my style of content,” he says. “[They keep] me wanting to make each video better than the one before.”
Higa writes all his own comedy and works with a group of friends who have developed into a production team. He moved to Las Vegas in 2008 to begin college, but with the growing success of his company, he decided instead to become a full-time YouTube star.
The entrepreneur remains fully committed to do-it-yourself production. “One of my first videos on VHS, unknowingly at the time, was a stop-motion of a cup moving across a countertop on its own,” Higa recalls. “I was pretending that I was performing some kind of magic trick. It was my way of doing effects without understanding how to edit.”
Soon Higa was doing stop-motion with his toys and creating what he calls “some bad animations, drawing frame by frame on Microsoft Paint.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Early on he was called out for using copyrighted music for his parodies, so he struck back by writing his own music. His lack of film-school credentials hasn’t slowed him down a bit, and as a self-taught animator, he has produced a significant number of stop-motion videos.
Higa’s path from teen filmmaker to YouTube producer parallels the history of video technology.
As analog television gave way to digital, in 2009, Higa switched from an analog camcorder and webcam to his first Sony digital camera. In 2014, he started using a Panasonic prosumer camera with a sophisticated sensor. Today Higa shoots on a Canon 7D DSLR with interchangeable lenses and a full-frame sensor — essentially the digital equivalent of 35mm.
As for editing, his earliest videos were cut on Windows Movie Maker, then Corel Ulead VideoStudio, then on the Mac, moving from iMovie to Final Cut Pro. Recently Higa has been using Adobe Premier.
This path from prosumer to professional hardware and software was less about feature envy and more about the input from the video professionals Higa began to hire in order to free himself to concentrate on writing for a punishing weekly posting schedule.
A viewing of “Nintendoe Paper,” one of Higa’s most ambitious live-action and stop-motion videos, makes it clear that his productions are now the work of a team and not that of the solo filmmaker Higa was in his early years.
Today, he frequently hires up to five contractors to shoot a video, including four videographers/editors and a costume designer. The crew also performs in the videos, making Higa’s shop essentially a tech and repertory company rolled into one. Even with help, “Nintendoe Paper” took three weeks to complete.
Higa Prods. has office space in a house that doubles as a studio equipped with LED light panels, soft lights, reflectors and typical portable gear a news crew would enjoy. But tech is just a means to an end. Higa understands that what sets his work apart from the thousands of other YouTube sketch comedy channels is the quality of his writing and concepts; the execution is secondary. While he sometimes uses shot lists, his highly portable equipment and his young team can quickly adapt to new ideas.
In response to audience trends, Higa recently began a weekly podcast alternating with his videos, allowing him to relax his upload schedule and avoid YouTube burnout, a common complaint among prolific YouTubers who, unlike traditional television stars, have no time off.
So what’s next for Higa? While many YouTube influencers are still raking in enviable revenue, none has been able to fully translate that success to mainstream media. So while a Hollywood career could be in his future, Higa is happy to have control over his content. His loyal fans know where to find him.