A 10-Year Filmmaking Career on YouTube, From the Director of "Dog Wick"
“Short films take a lot of time. These could take up to six months… I always wanted to make something better than my last piece of work, which was tricky with YouTube. YouTube is all about consistency. That’s the reason why my channel isn’t around right now."
Clinton Jones, Co-Director and Cinematographer of the recent RocketJump short “Dog Wick,” was a filmmaker born from the YouTube Partnership program. In 2007, YouTube allowed its members to earn money from ads paired with their videos. Not long after Jones, who was running his own page under the name Pwnisher, struck Internet gold with the action short “Cardboard Warfare.” Six years later, Clint is still turning fun, action-packed, shorts into Internet blockbusters. However YouTube, in that same span, has changed very much and not always for the better. Clint’s story is one YouTube success that probably can’t be replicated by young filmmakers today, and he shares plenty of reasons as to why.
Part 1: Pre-“Cardboard Warfare”
Clint grew up in California and moved to Canton, Georgia as a teenager. He would first hear about YouTube from a friend just a few days before the move.
“He was like, ‘Hey, have you ever heard of this website called YouTube?’ I remember him asking me that, which is kind of funny. I was like, ‘No, what’s YouTube?’ At the time, I was really into my PSP and I was playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto and I had my PSP all hacked out to record in-game footage and stuff. I was doing this with my buddy and we would record all of this footage and add music and post these Grand Theft Auto stunt videos. At first, we were posting them on Myspace because that was like the hot spot for videos. As soon as we heard of YouTube it was like, ‘Alright, let’s post it up on YouTube, might as well.’”
Clint’s early YouTube experience began with the kind of content that would upend the very business model that would make him successful later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After posting a few stunt videos, Clint became interested in the technical side of filmmaking. He started doing test videos with his brother’s point-and-shoot camera, which led him to exploring the version of Windows Movie Maker that came with his computer. He would create cheap VFX by bringing a gunshot frame into MS Paint, drawing a muzzle flash, and exporting it back into the video.
On YouTube, Clint found the channel of phildwill (Philip D. Williams), who made tutorials on effects work. Williams’ effects were so far above Clint’s capabilities that he made it a point of learning how they were done.
“I sent him a message and was like, ‘Dude, how are you doing that? What is going on over there!?’ He actually was kind enough to send me a copy of After Effects, it was a ripped copy of After Effects… So he sent me a copy and thank God because I wouldn’t have been able to pay for a copy of After Effects then… Honestly if it wasn’t for Phil I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
With After Effects in his toolbox, Clint had a new world of possibilities open to him. He discovered VIDEO COPILOT, which Clint describes as, “The best website for anyone trying to learn visual effects.” It’s still around today. VIDEO COPILOT tutorials showed Clint how to maximize his video effects capabilities, including everthing he used on “Cardboard Warfare.”
Part 2: “Cardboard Warfare”
You can’t talk about “Cardboard Warfare” without mentioning Freddie Wong, future Co-founder of RocketJump and YouTube filmmaking pioneer. His channel at the time, FreddieW, featured effects-driven action/comedy shorts and was already attracting the kind of audience Clint would gain with “Cardboard Warfare.” Clint was a big fan. When he reached out to Freddie like he did with Phillip Williams Freddie, to Clint’s excitement, already knew of and respected Clint’s work. To see how perfectly their sensibilities jive together, check out a video Freddie released just before Clint made “Cardboard Warfare.”
“Cardboard Warfare” came together like any big project someone fresh out of high school would create; it was big, messy, and completely uninhibited by formalities. Attempting to write about the process or concept elegantly would betray everything that was (and still is) compelling about it, so here are the basics.
- Clint’s friend, Tyler, wants to build a life-size tank that can be mounted to a pickup truck. Clint agrees to help, just for fun.
- Wood, paper mache, and scrap metal are considered, but are too heavy. They decide on cardboard mounted on PVC pipe and sewn together with zip ties.
- Tyler makes the tank his high school senior project to give them a timeline. After a year, the tank is complete.
- Freddy Wong sees Clint’s work on the tank and encourages him to make a short film with it.
- Clint expands the short to include cardboard weapons of all kinds.
Here’s the result.
For all of you gearheads out there, here are the tech specs on “Cardboard Warfare” straight from Pwnisher himself.
“Dude, those were pre-T2i days. That was, like, some Sony Handycam [laughs]... The video almost didn’t go up because I was working off of my dad’s computer and it was not prepared for what I put it through. It was an old Alienware computer and you might think, ‘Oh, Alienware, those are nice computers,’ but no, not this one. By the last three weeks of post-production on “Cardboard Warfare,” I was having five to ten computer crashes - blue screen of death - like, power-out, per day… It took minutes to go from one frame to another. It was like editing blind while in quicksand. It was the worst.”
Clint was so burned out by the time the video was completed that he had no expectations when he put it up on YouTube. His hard work, however, almost immediately paid off. The next morning, he woke up to the video having over 100,000 views.
“It was like Santa. You don’t believe in Santa, but then he comes and you go, ‘Oh my God, Santa is confirmed.’ It was like that.”
Later that night, Clint got a text from a friend informing him that his video was on Attack of the Show, a popular program on G4. The video quickly reached 4 million views before hits began slowing down. It has over 11.5 million today.
Part 3: Monetization
The success of “Cardboard Warfare” encouraged Clint to sign up for YouTube’s partnership program, allowing him to make money on the views he was getting. The path to his first check, though, wasn’t clearly cut.
“You could sign with a number of different companies. You could be monetized with YouTube, you could be monetized with Machinima, which is what I was monetized with, you could be monetized with Fullscreen, a bunch of other companies started popping out of the woodwork saying, ‘Sign with us! We’ll pay you for your videos!’ Each company had a different offer. YouTube would give you 50 cents per 1,000 views and another might give $2.50 per 1,000 views. All of these different companies would say, ‘We’ll give you a higher CPM [cost per mile, or cost per thousand views].’”
The money came in slowly at first but grew steadily. At his peak, Clint was making $1,500 a month in YouTube revenue.
“That was Pwnisher in his prime.”
Part 4: Pwnisher in His Prime
Today, Clint only makes around $100 a month from his Pwnisher channel, but he also hasn’t posted anything new in three years. As Clint’s videos evolved, so did YouTube, and not in a friendly way. For a while, though, things were good. Clint put out “Cardboard Warfare 1.5” and “Cardboard Warfare 2” which were paid for out-of-pocket and profited only from monetization. Soon, Clint found a more practical way to fund videos.
“This is around the time when video game companies started to see that YouTube has some pull with their target audience… And these video game companies are like, ‘Let’s see if we can’t put some money in these content creators’ hands to make up something for our game with our marketing budget so that some kids can see their favorite YouTubers’ videos and they’ll buy our game.’”
These were called “brand deals.” Clint made a Killzone fan film paid for by Machinima that served as a proof of concept for the deals that came later. Machinima became Clint’s representation.
“They [Machinima] would say, ‘Hey, we’re doing a Dead Island video. The new Dead Island video game is coming out, and they’ve got $50k, so you can take this and make a Dead Island video and I was like, ‘That sounds like a dream come true.’”
“Dead Island: No Retreat” turned into a Sleeping Dogs short film that highlighted Clint’s deftness at directing Kung-Fu sequences. “Wolfenstein: Liberation of London” was his last brand deal as Pwnisher. Two years in, Clint’s business model was already losing steam.
“Short films take a lot of time. These could take up to six months… I always wanted to make something better than my last piece of work, which was tricky with YouTube. YouTube is all about consistency. That’s the reason why my channel isn’t around right now. You have guys like Corridor Digital and RocketJump who are posting videos consistently, and some of these channels are posting things every single day… Channels like LetsPlay and these gaming personalities where they play the game and done. It’s done. You can film three episodes in a day as opposed to three films in two years. It’s way more efficient and effective from the marketing side… Those jobs stopped coming.”
Part 5: Switching to RocketJump
Shifting to the necessary quantity-over-quality approach to YouTube was in complete opposition to Clint’s goals as a filmmaker. If Clint couldn’t work harder to make his films bigger and better, why make them at all? Clint’s decision was made easier by the fact that he had already moved back to California where Freddie's new company, RocketJump, was located.
RocketJump churns out content with the same action-packed, gamer-friendly, irreverence that both Clint and Freddie made their names with, only it operates in a much more sophisticated manner. Clint and Freddie, who used to write, direct, star-in, edit, and market the videos that made them famous, now work in a team with more assigned roles. Everyone has a hand in the creative process, but individual responsibilities are pretty classically defined. It’s a system that, with Clint’s instincts as a do-it-all filmmaker, took some getting used to.
At this point, though, Clint has very much warmed up to the team environment at RocketJump as he finds it alleviates some of his perfectionist anxieties. “Dog Wick,” for example, was funded by Lionsgate after RocketJump pitched the idea to them. Lionsgate’s approval moved the short forward and gave the RocketJump team a week to turn the video around. The projects are just as fun to make but don't carry the weight of a one-man production team. This no-nonsense approach allows Clint to funnel his intensity on more personal projects, like the kung-fu comedy he’s writing to be his feature film debut.
RocketJump is a full production house, and YouTube is only a slice of the projects they get. YouTube videos are more valuable to the company as a way to stay engaged with its audience. RocketJump will be on YouTube as long as it's where the fans are.
This business model is appealing to Clint, who believes that what launched his success on YouTube six years ago isn’t available to young filmmakers today.
Part 6: YouTube Is Not the Same
Clint refers to the period of time that he and Freddie Wong were first ascending with their videos as “The Wild West days of YouTube.” Today, Clint sees the website as a much more rigid place.
“YouTube is definitely a whole different world now. There’s a lot more fluff on YouTube, there’s a lot more to sift through, so your videos kind of get lost. I’ve heard for the last year or two that YouTube is broken… You’re supposed to be able to subscribe to a channel and be alerted on the front page of YouTube of those channels’ videos. It doesn’t work anymore but that’s they way it should work.”
The way it does work, though, is to prioritize similarity over authorship. Clint describes it as:
“You watch one monkey video or one baseball video, and in your sidebar you’re getting recommended all the monkey videos or all the baseball videos that YouTube has to offer. You’re not getting hit up with your subscriptions… It doesn’t prioritize the content creators anymore. It’s like a big ad. The whole thing is like a big ad… I would be overwhelmed if I had to restart”
Part 7: Post YouTube?
In Clint’s eyes, YouTube’s changes aren’t entirely grim. YouTube is just one website. There here are others Clint finds exciting.
“[For young filmmakers] I’d probably be doing Patreon or something. The thing where people pay money every month to get your content. I’d probably be doing that. There’s Kickstarter… Video Game High School was funded heavily through Kickstarter, it definitely works. I just found this app, this is more specific, called Twenty20, where you can upload your photography and it’s thrown into a pool of other photos that ad companies can buy for commercial use.”
Clint’s relationship with YouTube, though, clearly isn’t over. “Dog Wick” has over 1.5 million views. He’s still doing something right. After all, there’s at least one more big project left in him.
“I would definitely do ‘Cardboard Warfare 3,’ like a sci-fi mixture of District 9 and Killzone, and have there be mech warriors and dropships and crazy pulse rifles and just go all out with stuff. Like Elysium meets District 9 meets Titanfall, so I’d definitely do something sweet like that. All practical effects, build the mechs, build the guns, blow stuff up, it’d be raining all of the time, it’d be filmed in, like, a construction site with giant construction vehicles, it’d be great, dude.”
Regardless of YouTube's changes, Clint's mantra is a positive one. "The important thing is to keep making things," he says. After all, he's made it though zero budgets, daily computer crashes, and cross-country moves through grit and productivity. YouTube isn't going to slow this guy down.
Clint encourages other filmmakers to check out the RocketJump forums as "A place where we can learn and grow together."