We catch up with YouTube’s Patrick Willems: the man who makes films about making films...

There are 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute. And with so many of us producing and sharing so much content, it’s no surprise that a whole range of video genres have evolved since the site’s launch in 2005.

In the last couple of years, the video essay has risen to the fore; narrated video shorts offering insight and criticism – more often than not on an aspect of popular culture, and frequently focusing on film – using movie clips, music, stills and original film to explore an argument more thoroughly than most entire media degrees manage.

But what does it take to create compelling video essays? We recently caught up Patrick H Willems, the man behind the wildly popular YouTube channel of the same name, to talk about the rise of the video essay – and how to make a living doing of the thing you love…

Laying the groundwork

Like many a gripping narrative, we’ll begin the story with a flashback.

Back in 2010, Patrick found himself newly graduated from university and turning his attention to the small question of: What next? He knew he wanted to make a living doing what he loved most: filmmaking. But like many recent graduates, he didn’t know how to get started.

“I knew I wanted to make movies, but I had no idea how I’d make that a job,” he explains. “I realised that there were filmmakers on YouTube making short films and vlogs, so I basically spent a whole year after college watching YouTube and trying to work out how I could do the same.” As it turns out, it was a year well-spent.

By June 2011, Patrick had enough ideas for short films to launch his own channel, making and uploading weekly videos to “put my degree in cinema studies to good use,” as he describes it.

Cut to five and half years down the line, and the channel was making money. Another two and a half years later, Patrick was making YouTube videos full time. Today, the channel has well over a quarter of a million subscribers.

The turning point

Patrick’s channel shares videos about pretty much whatever he happens to be interested in that week. Dig around a little and you’ll find narrative shorts and video essays exploring the work of directors, discussing filmmaking itself or focusing on aspects of popular culture that have captured his imagination.

These days, the channel is no longer a one-man-and-his-camera operation; Patrick has an established team who work on his various projects with him. But when did things change? Does he see one key point at which the success of the channel started to gain momentum?

“There were three main videos in my YouTube career that I see as fulcrum points,” he recalls. “In 2011, I made a video called Film Students Getting Punched. It was the third film I’d made and up until then the highest number of people that had ever seen anything I’d made was, maybe, 300. Then this film got 40,000 views and was picked up by media outlets. That rocked my world and told me I could reach a wider audience.

“Then in 2015 there was What if Wes Anderson Directed X-Men? That’s still the most-viewed thing I’ve ever made.” The film he’s talking about, a whimsical short that presents exactly what its title suggests, has clocked up a cool 2.9million views since it first appeared online.

“But the film that really changed the channel and brought it to where it is now was Why do Marvel’s Movies Look Kind of Ugly? That was my first proper ‘video essay’. At that point I think I had around 18,000 subscribers. The video doubled that in a week.”

Taking his cue from the success of this video essay, which Patrick had expected to be a one-off, he made more. Suddenly, the channel was growing on a scale that meant he was able to focus on it full-time the following summer. But that brought with it a challenge: how do you stand out in the long term, amid a sea of video essayists?

Standing out from the crowd

The popularity of YouTube video essays has exploded in the last couple of years, with the likes of Every Frame a Painting, the Nerdwriter, Lindsay Ellis and Lessons From the Screenplay proving the platform is capable of meaty, intelligent analysis of everything from action movies to 18th century literature.

So, with the an increasingly crowded field, we wanted to ask Patrick how difficult he’s found it to ensure his own content stands out?

“A year ago, I did a piece called On making video essays. While I was making it, I realised I’d fallen into using the same voiceover-over-movie-clip style I’d used for my first video essay in all the ones I’d made since. It was a pretty standard format and, to be honest, I was getting bored with the process. I wanted what I was doing to stand out a bit more.

“I realised I didn’t actually like the way I was making [videos] anymore.”

“So, while I was making this video essay about making video essays, I realised I didn’t actually like the way I was making them anymore. After that, I changed my whole approach and started to develop a style that was more like a narrative film.”

It’s an approach that takes a lot longer to do, but watch any of Patrick’s videos from the past year or so and you’ll see that the effort is paying off. His newest series – an epic three-parter about the Marvel Cinematic Universe – intercuts footage from the films with cinematic storytelling, comedy, and even an industry interview:

He’s not alone in this, though. Just as Patrick’s own video essay style has developed over time, so, too, has the wider video essay genre. But what does he see as the most significant change?

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the rise of longer videos, which is something that still surprises me. Back in 2011 and 2012 the general thinking was that you should keep videos as short as possible because the audience had a short attention span online. Any time I’d be editing a video and it crept over five minutes, it was a real concern; I’d worry that people would see the running time and not even click on the link.

“So the idea of making a 10 minute video was just absurd. Then videos started getting longer. Today, I might make a video that’s well over 15 minutes long, but when I’m working on it and it gets to 10 minutes, I’ll almost hold my breath because I’ve been so conditioned to think anything longer than that won’t fly.”

Clearly, Patrick’s longer format videos (some clocking in at over 30 minutes) are flying just fine. In fact, the channel is flying so high that he’s now launched a second, Patrick Willems Presents – a home for his short film projects.

It’s proven to be a clever piece of housekeeping that has allowed him to organise similar content together, giving fans what they want, where they want it.

‘Don’t put it off’

Over a few short years, Patrick’s achieved what many aspiring YouTubers can only dream of – enough success to make making videos a full-time job. So what advice would he give to would-be filmmakers who want to follow in his footsteps?

“I guess I’d give them two main pieces of advice. The first is: Don’t put it off! Don’t wait until you have the best equipment or the right camera or whatever. Just make a start and work with whatever you have.

“The second is to map out some kind of plan before you get started,” he says, “even if that’s just writing down a whole bunch of video ideas. You need to think longer term to make sure whatever you start is sustainable; that it’s something you can keep up for months and years.”

You can catch Patrick’s video essays here, his short films here, support him on Patreon here, follow him on Twitter here, or join his own dedicated subreddit here.

Get more insider YouTube advice… Check out our interviews with Austin McConnell and MrMobile here: