As of tonight, it has been ten years since we published RSS in Plain English on YouTube. I can't believe it's been so long. We owe a debt of gratittude to those of you who were with us in the beginning. It makes our day to know that you've stuck with us. We'd love to hear from you!
To mark the occasion, I wrote about how we came up with the idea for making RSS in Plain English and what happened the day we published it. Here's an excerpt:
YouTube was a year old at the time and growing incredibly fast. Soon, our discussions turned to ways we could ride the YouTube wave to new destinations. But how? We had no background in video production. What kinds of videos could be useful? What could two people and a cheap video camera do?
In 2006 YouTube was not alone in experiencing incredible growth. This was the dawn of the social media revolution and ideas like wikis, blogs and social networking were just starting to become known and adoption was slow. Being a big fan and user of these new tools, I wanted more people to use them. I believed they could be adopted quickly by the mass market.
But I also saw problems. These powerful, free and useful tools all suffered from the same malady: confusion. They were so new and different that most people couldn’t make sense of them intuitively. It was like a huge mountain of value was being obscured by a dense shroud of foggy, technical communication. Clearing that fog was the problem we decided to solve. We set out to make these new tools understandable for people like our parents using the power of YouTube videos. For the first time, we thought about what it means to explain an idea effectively using video.
People often ask about the origins of what has become known as “Common Craft Style” and what inspired us to use paper cut-outs, hands and a whiteboard. The truth is, it was a solution to a problem.
I had been experimenting with drawing on a whiteboard in live action videos and found it frustrating. I felt like such a dork trying to draw and look at the camera at the same time. It felt forced. Sachi, always the problem solver and adult in the room, suggested our current format. She had seen me reach for paper and use drawings when trying to explain something and saw the format as a natural extension of that tendency.
Many years later, here we are. The original format of that first video, RSS in Plain English, is still very close to the videos we make today.
As it turns out, our videos use the same principles of some of the very first animations. They are live action recordings, with stop motion and other visual effects that create animations. I was amazed to see the video below, which was recorded in 1900, 111 years ago:
American animation owes its beginnings to J. Stuart Blackton, a British filmmaker who created the first animated film in America. Before creating cartoons, Blackton was a vaudeville performer known as "The Komikal Kartoonist." In his act, he drew "lightning sketches" or high-speed drawings. In 1895, he met Thomas Edison. Can you guess what this meeting with the famous inventor inspired him to do?
There is amazingly little difference between the animation above and what we do at Common Craft. It's a simple process of holding the camera still and changing what appears on a frame-by-frame basis.
For another example, consider Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python, which doesn't use video, but photos. He was the creator of the colorful animations that became one of the most memorable parts of the show. Here’s a video of him talking about his process in 1974 (via CartoonBrew).
Again, it’s very close to our process. It’s just stop-motion with cut-outs. Take a look at the example of his storyboards from the video above:
We start each project with “thumbnail storyboards” that look like this:
Here’s his lighting a set-up
His hand moving the cut-outs...
So what we do has roots that go back to the very beginning. While these examples came to us recently and were not a part of our early process, I think it’s fascinating that the simple idea of live action animation has changed so little over the years.
It's true. Two years ago today, we posted our very first video, RSS in Plain English. We had no idea what we were doing, or how that video would transform our lives.
We had a tripod, camera and a whiteboard, and that was about. The video was lit with bedroom lamps and I was speaking directly into the microphone on the camera as I moved around the pieces of paper. The video was edited with Windows Movie Maker. It was inspired by a blog post from 2004 with the title "RSS Described in Plain English."
Of course, the technical quality of the video clearly shows that we had many, um, many opportunities to improve:
We posted it about 10pm on the night of the 23rd and by noon the next day it hit the front page of Digg, partially thanks to our first comment by Rob Cottingham, minutes after it was posted. We were both blown away by its popularity. Here are a couple of tweets from that day:
This blog post (which makes me smile) captured some of the initial buzz:
Of course, the big question for us became, can we do it again? Soon after we started work on our second video, Wikis in Plain English. Once that was complete, we started to feel confident that this was something we could do.
Looking back at the RSS video, it's a bit painful to see how rough it is compared to our work now. However, I'm struck that the roughness didn't matter. It was the message, the script, the communication that mattered far more than the bad lighting and sound. While we feel good about technical quality now, we still focus the majority of our attention on what made that first RSS video work: a simple and clear explanation.