Yikes, I’ve been a terrible blogger this year. Sorry. Will definitely try harder in 2013. In the meantime, here’s a feature I recently dug out from the bowels of my MacBook, which was commissioned for a magazine but never published. (Grrr). It’s from two years ago, so my selections probably aren’t very up to date – but it was fun to hear their backstories. Merry Christmas!
IT ONLY TAKES five years to become a cultural phenomenon. Nobody is more aware of that than Steve Chen, Jawed Karim and Chad Hurley, the three former PayPal employees who founded YouTube in 2005. These days, YouTube is as much an integral part of the internet as Google, Facebook and Wikipedia; it has made stars out of keyboard-playing cats, lightsaber-wielding teenagers and was even where one of the world’s biggest popstars, Justin Bieber, was first discovered.
But that doesn’t mean that our little kooky corner of the world wide web has been forgotten about; Ireland’s internet stars are just as noteworthy as their international counterparts. Here’s a selection of rising and established YouTube stars; and nary a Riverdancer in sight, either.
“ROWAN SIDE NOW”
Don’t mention showbiz: you’ll make Rowan very angry. And you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry. Actually, that’s not true; Rowan (surname kept under wraps upon request – like we said, don’t mention showbiz) is completely oblivious to the stir she’s caused on YouTube over the past few months. And even if she was, it’s unlikely that she’d either care or understand. Since her mum uploaded a video of the Dundalk schoolgirl singing American folk singer Caitlin Rose’s tune ‘Own Side‘ a few weeks ago (upon Rose’s request, to boot), the family have had interest from regional, national and even international media. Once high-profile US blogger Philip DeFranco highlighted it on his site, things started to get a little crazy.
But it’s easy to see why: this isn’t just an ‘oh-look-isn’t-that-cute’ sort of YouTube clip. Rowan’s sense of timing, melody and style is astonishing, considering she’s just five years old. Yes, read it again: she’s five years old.
“We did notice that she seemed to pick up songs very quickly,” said her dad, Eamon, who accompanies her on guitar in the video. “The first time I really remember going ‘Jesus, that’s quite scary’ was when we were taking a walk up to King John’s Castle in Carlingford. She was about two and a half, and I had her on my shoulders – and she started humming the theme tune to the Harry Potter films note-perfectly as we were walking up,” he laughs. “It’s normal around our house to hear her singing – but once you make a point saying ‘Oooh, that’s a lovely song, will you sing that for me?’, she won’t do it. And that’s her prerogative – she is five!”
There are no delusions of fame in Rowan’s household: in fact, Rice Krispie buns had to be used as bartering currency to persuade the reluctant sensation to be filmed in the first place. “I think people get the impression that she’s all-singing, all-dancing, but she’s not like that at all,” Eamon explains. “Even there, last weekend, I asked her to sing with me in the kitchen, and she turned around and told me ‘No. It makes me a headache’. So that sort of says it all – when she wants to sing, she’ll sing, but more often than not, she won’t.”
“We were asked to go on a couple of shows and that, but it wouldn’t be fair on her, to be putting that sort of pressure on her to perform. She’s not that kind of kid. It’s great, but at the same time, we do realise that it’s a cute little video for Rowan at the moment. Hopefully it will develop into something more in the future – we have her doing piano lessons at the moment – but we don’t want to be parading her around like a performing monkey. She doesn’t really know about it at all, and we kind of want to keep it that way. We kind of know ourselves that it’s just gonna be a flash in the pan kind of thing, it’ll be forgotten about in a couple of weeks.”
“THE MONK AND THE FLY”
The Irish Film Board‘s ‘Virtual Cinema’ scheme, which aims to encourage filmmakers to use the Internet and social media to promote their films, has had modest success on YouTube since it was launched in 2008. Its latest hit is ‘The Monk and the Fly’, a three minute-long animation that was written and directed by New Zealand-born animator Matthew Darragh, which depicts a Buddhist monk’s quest for solitude in the face of insistent opposition posed by a pesky fly.
The simplicity of the short, as well as its dialogue-free storyline and witty punchline, made it a popular hit at the 2010 Galway Film Fleadh – and it so impressed YouTube staff that they recently made it a ‘featured video’ on their homepage. The video jumped from a couple of thousand views to over 64,000 literally overnight, and it continues to gain momentum daily.
“I had an image in my head of a novice monk trying to be serene under a tree, and something triggering this hysterical pent-up reaction. The story just developed from there,” said Darragh, who worked on the short in his spare time away from a full-time job with Brown Bag Films. “Humour always works better for me when it’s played straight, and I tried to put myself in the monk’s frame of mind when animating him.”
The short has been well received to date, being selected for a screening at JDIFF 2011 and generating interest in film festivals on the continent – but the modest Darragh claims to be surprised by the recent surge in interest on YouTube.
“It’s wonderful that so many people are watching it – it makes all those late nights seem worthwhile,” he laughs. “Internet media, and YouTube in particular, has really changed the nature of this craft. Even five years ago, you’d be lucky if your film was seen by a few hundred people at various festivals – and now 60,000 people can watch around the world in one day! It’s fantastic for filmmakers. These films are usually made for love, and often for tiny budgets – so to have the opportunity to reach this many people is inspiring.”
“RUBBERBANDITS – ‘HORSE OUTSIDE'”
“I laughed my ass off and then put it on repeat in my iPod.” Peter Foott remembers the first time he heard ‘Horse Outside‘ well. The song by Limerick musical/comedy duo Rubberbandits chronicled the attempted wooing of a bridesmaid by a horse-owning wedding guest, and gave X Factor winner Matt Cardle a run for his money in the race for the Christmas Number One.
But it was the video, directed by Foott for RTE sketch show Republic of Telly, that had everyone talking. It was shot with a tiny crew over the course of a day at University College, Limerick, with real-life friends and family of the band stepping in as extras. Sourcing an elusive Mitsubishi proved problematic, however – until the crew arrived at the car park to find one miraculously parked there, just waiting to be made infamous. “Halfway through, the owner came back to find a crowd of people surrounding his car shouting ‘F**k your Mitsubishi’,” Foott laughs. “Luckily he was a nice guy with a sense of humour, and waited patiently for the crowd to finish verbally abusing his car before driving off.”
Foott, who has worked in film for ten years and co-founded successful production company Vico Films, has reaped the benefits of his video’s success as much as the band have. “Before, I would have dished out showreels, where now all I have to do is mention ‘Horse Outside’, and most people have heard of it. When James (Cotter, Republic of Telly producer) gave me the job of directing the video he had two goals in mind – firstly, he wanted to get the ‘Bandits to number one at Christmas, and secondly, to reach one million hits on YouTube. The team worked hard at making it go viral, but I don’t think anyone thought it would hit 5 million.”
“GROOVY DANCING GIRL”
If anybody is aware of the power of YouTube, it’s Sophie Merry. In 2007, the Dubliner was studying animation at Ballyfermot CFE. Experimenting with camera techniques for a college project, she asked a friend to film her dancing to Daft Punk’s ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ in his back garden, and uploaded the video to YouTube, thinking nothing more of it. When the hits started clocking up at an alarming rate, however, she knew something strange was happening.
“We were given a broad brief (for the project) and it was a style of video processing I had always wanted to try, called ‘undercranking’,” she explains. “It’s used a lot in hip-hop videos. I love to dance, and studied ballet and modern dance in school. Nowadays I mainly get inspired by music festivals and going out to gigs; dancing chills me out.”
As the hits poured in for ‘Groovy Dancing Girl’, so did the remixes and tributes to BandyToaster, the name that Merry went by on the site. She has subsequently uploaded three other ‘Groovy Dancing Girl’ videos (which collectively generated a further 3 million hits), has starred in a music video, spoken at viral marketing conferences and was even picked up for an ad campaign by French clothing line Etam, which ran in 51 countries.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that the YouTube success transformed my path in life,” she nods. “I’m now a director with Jumper Productions, who approached me as a direct result of my videos’ success. It’s amazing to think that jumping around like a mad yoke in my friend’s back garden – a moment of madness – is helping me to achieve such a goal. That, and the fact that I have my own little place in pop culture history.”
“MAN FALLING ON ICE”
(This is a new version with fewer views re-uploaded, due to copyright infringement on original)
Does Man Falling on Ice actually exist, or was he a comedy skit coordinated by RTE’s news crew to deflect attention from the misery of The Big Freeze of January 2010? If he is real, he’s the most unwilling cult hero in Irish YouTube history, if our investigations are anything to go by. We spent over a month trying to track down the elusive slippery-footed pedestrian, with numerous public appeals, false hopes (“My brother’s cousin knows him – oh wait, he was actually only joking about it being him”, etc.) and leads that ended in wall-punching, dead-ended frustration. We were pointed in various different directions, covertly given numbers to ring, email addresses to badger, names to follow up on. We eventually came nail-bitingly close to speaking to the man we were assured was the original Ice Man – “But I doubt he’ll want to meet,” said a supposed acquaintance of his. “I think he’s happy that its so big and very few know it was him, and that he’s faceless.”
Man falling on ice: we know you’re out there somewhere. We applaud your spectacularly graceless tumble, your stunned kneejerk reaction (‘Oh sh*t!’), and your impressive cloak of anonymity. We just wanted to make you a hero, that’s all. Call us.