C3 Consulting Researcher Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. His book - Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge, 2004) - offers a new approach to exploring television genres as cultural categories as utilized by television industries and audiences. He just finished a textbook entitled Television and American Culture, which explores narrative complexity in contemporary American television. Below Mittell interviews YouTube sensation Vlad and Boris. This interview previously ran on Mittell's blog.
On October 14, a YouTube video appeared on a new account entitled "vlad and friend boris presents 'Song for Sarah' for mrs. Palin."
It bore no identifying markers of its creation beyond the names Vlad and Boris. A music video attesting a Russian crush on Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, it slowly began spreading via email, Facebook, and blog links. Within a week, it had surpassed 100,000 views, and appeared on television newscasts in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. Soon top political blogs like Daily Kos, Andrew Sullivan, and Talking Points Memo were linking to it; as of Election Day, it received over 430k views, over 600 YouTube comments, and maintains a perfect 5 star rating.
I was fortunate to be an early adopter of Vlad and Boris, having received the link from one of my former students. I've been tracking the video's spreadability, and have been impressed both by the quality of the piece (it's really re-watchable, which accounts for a good number of those views) and the dissemination with little effort by the producers. Certainly much of this success is due to how central YouTube has been to the 2008 election, as it's hard to imagine a video on any other topic making as big a splash so quickly. But I think much of its success is also tied to the underlying mystery surrounding the piece - is it really produced by a couple of Russians? Was it "professionally done"? (I've seen sites that suggest it was a stealth SNL piece.) What would it mean to the election if a VP candidate were the subject of sincere affection and/or mockery by Russian videomakers?
The truth is a bit more mundane, but still quite impressive. The creators of the video are four recent graduates of Middlebury College (three majoring in my department of Film and Media Culture) living in New York City. They told me about the video upon its release, and I've enjoyed monitoring its success. And I realized that the world of online video tends to be fairly anonymous, especially as videos are spreading. So I figured I would take advantage of the happenstance of my connection with Vlad and Boris to interview the creators and explore how they see their own practices and culture circulation.
Read the entire interview after the jump.
JM: First off, can each of you introduce yourselves, identify your role in the Vlad & Boris world, and explain your background and current work within the media world.
LK: I'm Lucas Kavner - I play Vlad and also wrote the song. I currently work as an editor for a recent web startup called Unigo (unigo.com) and am also a writer and actor here in the city.
JB: My name is Joe Bergan, aka "Boris." Astri put the extensions in my hair, Lucas put the mini keyboard in my hands, I bit my tongue in every shot and tried not to mess it up too much. I studied film and media culture in college and I have a deep intellectual curiosity about new media and its great potential in the near future. I currently work as a freelance AP in television production.
AvAA: My name is Astri von Arbin Ahlander, and I was the Art Director on Vlad and Boris- that means I made the boys and their house look Russian. I also have a tentative Executive Producer credit, but hopefully that will change once those Russian singers give me my money back. Perry and I have made several shorts together before, on which I worked as Art Director and Producer. I have also made a couple of short videos on my own. One of these was filmed in Russia, which explains some of my knowledge about the finer details of Russian dress and interior decorating. I am currently enrolled in the MFA program in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University.
PB: My name is Perry Blackshear, and I was the director, DP and editor of Vlad and Boris, which in this case, is about four times less important than it sounds. I'm currently enrolled in the MFA program in Film Production at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
JM: Can you walk me through the process that led to creating the song and video?
JB: Lucas is such a mad scientist. He and I are always G-chatting throughout the work day about the election. We both perform in "Really Good Doctors" a long-form improvisational comedy troupe in New York, and we're always kind of scheming about ways to make funny videos and break into the New York comedy world. I forget if making a video of the Russian perspective of Sarah Palin was something we discussed, but one night when I came home, "Song for Sarah" was waiting in my inbox. I heard it and said, "We have to make this movie, now." Lucas and I are always scheming, but it's amazing what a really incredible script or piece of original material inspires. I felt like I saw this video from the moment I heard the song, it was really a no-brainer.
LK: Yeah, this was just one of those instances where we had an idea, I actually went home and recorded it quickly, and was able to convince everybody based on the song that this would be a hilarious video. After that, all the pieces kind of just came together.
AvAA: It was a Friday morning. I was on g-chat when Joe told me he was making a music video with Perry and Lucas the next day because Lucas had written this brilliant song about Sarah Palin. I asked him to send it to me. When I heard it, I immediately got in touch with the three of them and asked them if they needed an Art Director, which it turns out that they did. That puts us at Friday afternoon. Because Perry is mad busy as a ridiculously talented film student, he had made it very clear that he could only do this during a few hours on Saturday. So I had three hours before the thrift stores closed to find believable Russian outfits for the boys and decor to make Perry's Brooklyn apartment look like the interior of a Moscow highrise. Luckily, I had recently spent a couple of weeks living in just such a Moscow highrise, so I knew what I was looking for. Saturday morning we met up in Brooklyn with a couple of bags of props and a whole lot of enthusiasm. Lucas is an incredible songwriter and both he and Joe have an electric comedic presence on stage as well as on screen. Add Perry-the-movie-magician and "Vlad and Boris" was in the bag. I knew we had something good after we had listened to "Song for Sarah" over fifty times while shooting and I still wanted to hear it once I got home. One highlight of the shoot was when we were filming the rooftop scenes and a real Russian guy who was working on the roof came to look at Joe and Lucas as they danced and crooned. I'll never forget his face: complete bewilderment.
PB: I was entering the most difficult phase of pre-production of my second-year film, which at Tisch is sort of "the big one," We had a little more than a week until we shot and I was rapidly losing my grip on reality. Lucas called me up with this idea for a viral, and I said "Absolutely not." Lucas and I had talked a little about doing virals before, and I had done some research into how they were shot and edited, but the timing could not have been worse. Then Lucas sent me the song, which was fantastic, and he managed to convince me. Lucas and Joe make a great team and when Astri came on board I knew before we even started that we'd have a winner. An hour before everyone came I wrote a bunch of notes and made a rather draconian shot list and time table for the shoot. We shot the whole thing in about four hours, doing I think only one or two takes of everything, and I then I edited it that night.
JM: You released it on YouTube with no self-identification besides Vlad & Boris. How much did you conceive of it as a hoax to make people think these were really two smitten Russians, or at least two Russians mocking Palin? How does the Vlad & Boris experience depend on believing that it might be "real" in some way?
LK: I definitely never wanted it to be a "hoax" or a trick for anyone to figure out...we just kind of decided, after some speculation, that it'd be a lot funnier if it were released from Russians, and YouTube allows you to put any country as your place of residence...
JB: The four of us were talking about this non-stop while shooting it that Saturday in Perry's apartment. We all agreed that it would be more fun to have it seem completely genuine - two Russians pining for Palin, rather than: "Lucas and Joe's wacky music hour" - it would have been dismissed as two lame comedians. Authenticity and amateurism rule on the viral web and I think staying Russian was important. As far as the no self-identification, Vlad & Boris kept silent due to the response from youtube commentors. We were so surprised people thought we were actually Russians. It told me that Astri is an art directing genius - that she gave absolutely no chance to our viewers, even Russians were fooled. She certainly deserves a lot of credit for the execution.
AvAA: I never really thought people would actually believe they were Russians- but they did. It became clear the first day it was online that the Russian myth was a big winner. So we went with it.
LK: I think the humor is definitely enhanced by the authentic nature of the whole thing - all our friends from Brooklyn can't believe that other people don't know the rooftop is in Brooklyn, but I guess it does look like it could be anywhere (one commenter even looked painstakingly at the graffiti on the walls to try and figure it out.) But genuinely I think the fact that it was made as a love song from a couple goofy Russian dudes, rather than a mean-spirited, mocking political video really helped it succeed on all fronts. It's a response to a very specific thing.
PB: I'm almost positive that our attempt to keep it "authentic," was the hook that allowed it to be successful. It really is much funnier if you believe that they are Russians making fun of Americans and themselves, and much more mysterious. A friend and I had just invested in a 35mm adapter for our NYU projects, and I decided to use it with my mother's Pentax lenses on my DVX100 to make everything look vaguely like 8 or 16mm film... the shallow depth of field, the vignetting, the wonky focus, which for some reason I thought people might equate with Russia. I think mostly it is a testament to two things: Astri's near perfect rendition of Russia decor and costume, and blind luck. People thought Brooklyn in the background was Moscow, I remember one comment saying, "It has to be Russia, it really looks cold on the roof."
JM: Once it was uploaded to YouTube, what strategies did you undertake to get it to spread? Did you try to get friends to perpetuate the hoax, or allow it to multiply regardless of attribution?
JB: This video has really shown me the power of social networking. Lucas and Perry posted the video on Youtube and on Funnyordie and we all sent out an email letter to family and friends. But like I said earlier, a viral video is all about the original idea, and if it's gold, it's gold, and Vlad and Boris was just funny. I think people found it funny so we didn't have to tell people: "pass it on to five friends or else you'll have bad luck for 7 years!" People just liked it. That's another thing - I love how the Youtube view counter works to show support. It's a brand of authenticity, I think once you get over 100,000 hits people notice it, like an album going gold - people will just consume it because it's popular. I think it took a week to reach 100k, but then almost over night it hit 200k. That was a bit scary, I was wondering: how are we going to keep the myth going? What if this ABSOLUTELY blows up? Will my life as a comedian always be a silent "Boris?" Would I have to go to the VMAs as Boris? Would I just end up on a bad VH1 reality show? I know it probably sounds narcissistic, but when you see something go viral with your face all over it for the first time, it's a bit scary.
LK: It was definitely crazy to hear friends say, "My cousin in Hawaii just forwarded this to me and I was like: that's my friend Lucas!" or "My friend in London just posted this link to her blog!" and to see it posted on all of these political blogs with "I want to fly into your airspase" as the headline.
AvAA: I think the real trick of going viral on Youtube is reaching that breaking point, which is around 50,000 views. Once you do that, it takes on a life of its own. And the more views it has, the more likely it is to show up on the Youtube feeds on their home page, and the more likely people are to stumble on it by accident. Basically, once you reach that breaking point, it takes off. The real work is getting it up to that point in the first place. We did that through a lot of facebook messages and emails to people in our personal networks. We were also fortunate enough to have the video passed along to media contacts in more established places pretty early on. Getting it on sites like the Washington Post and the Daily Kos during the first week certainly did a lot to up the numbers.
PB: I ducked out at this point, and Lucas, Astri and Joe became champions of the cause on facebook, and they did an amazing job. I agree that there does seem to be a tipping point at around 50,000... it was fascinating watching it double every day... just like something in a petri dish.
AvAA: My brother-in-law called me and told me that his aunt in Arizona had asked him, just by the way, if he had seen those hilarious Russians singing for Sarah Palin? He was like: "well, actually..." Then I knew it was totally out of our hands.
JM: What were your expectations for the video's dissemination? And what constitutes success in getting it seen?
LK: It was incredibly fun to make. Ideally, for me, it's a launching pad for other projects, a chance to leave a sort of minor mark on this crazy, insane election season that we were all very passionate about in general, and a very immediate piece of work to potentially show "important" people of something funny and popular that we did all by ourselves in an apartment one Saturday afternoon. I'd hope that at the very least it will convince us to make more videos together.
JB: In my eyes, success was to make people laugh. I don't think it was going to change people's minds. It was more of Daily Show-type criticism. We were poking fun at a political gaffe. I have the same feelings as Lucas, I think this can really spring into more projects. I feel that now when I say I do comedy and people have seen the video, they are a little bit more enthusiastic. I mean, a lot of people "do comedy" in this city, it feels good to do something, and get positive feedback, only positive feelings can come from that.
AvAA: Since the making of the video basically happened within a matter of hours (Lucas wrote the song in a night, we filmed during a day and Perry edited during a night), I had not really thought about where it would go. I definitely didn't anticipate that it would go as far as it has. When we started seeing comments on the Youtube thread referring to the video being aired on national television in England, New Zealand, Australia and MSNBC in the States, I frankly laughed out loud. For me, Vlad and Boris has been very successful already because it has been seen by so many people and has made so many people laugh. I also love the discussion it has spurred around the origins of the boys. To me, the spectacularly funny comment threads in conjunction with the video all over the web are the true markers of success. And if Joe and Lucas make it onto SNL thanks to this, that would be swell too. Perry, what do you want? I'll settle for more video making with this team.
PB: I'm just very excited. The whole thing went wonderfully, and I'm looking forward to working on more projects with these guys. It feels like a new kind of short form movie making, and the rules haven't been written yet.
JM: How engaged have you been with the comment threads about the video? Have you tried to engage in conversation as Vlad or Boris, or as the creators of the fiction?
JB: The comment threads have been the most enjoyable part of this process. I love all the speculation, female admirers and Cyrillic kudos. Besides posting the lyrics after a few days, we haven't spoken publicly at all about this video. Lucas and I have actually taken down some comments identifying us, but when something grows pretty quickly, it becomes difficult to monitor the wall.
LK: The comments have been amazing to read, and just really, really kind and generous. Surprisingly. That's been so interesting to me, because when you think of YouTube commenters you think of, like, one crazy guy writing "BARACK OBAMA wants 2 KILL EVERYONE WITH HIS MIND!!!" but this time people were just really complimentary and encouraging about how much they liked the video. We tried to stay out, certainly -- although a couple commenters who "discovered" the truth via blogs and google-research was minorly unnerving...
AvAA: We've pretty much stayed out of the comment threads, but we've all read them with pleasure. I agree with Joe: they're by far the most enjoyable part of this process. Since I too have a life-long crush on Boris, the "female admirer" comments have created some jealous controversy...
PB: The comments were fun... almost addicting. I read an article about email addiction, and it talked about how it plays into our hunter-gather nature, forever checking the trap to see if they're new stuff. It still seems totally unreal to me, all the comments coming from out of no where.
JM: Beyond the 400k+ views on YouTube, how else has the video spread? Have you been contacted by others for interviews, job offers, etc.? And whom do they think they're contacting?
JB: We have received some contacts and I know some talent agencies have reached out to Lucas. There hasn't been too much confusion by talent or media types. I think they know professional editing and camera work (hats off to Perry) when they see it.
AvAA: Like I mentioned before, the video has apparently been shown on television in several countries, including the United States. But this is nothing we officially know- only what we have gathered from the comment threads online. The video has also been featured on hundreds of blogs as well as more established media platforms, such as The Washington Post, the Guardian, the Daily Kos, Barely Political...One fantastic moment was when we were contacted (through Youtube) by Russia Today, the English language Russian news channel stationed in Moscow. They actually wrote us in Russian! We had to have it translated to read it. They wanted to know why Vlad and Boris, two pining countrymen, had taken an interest in American politics.
PB: I'm a bit out of the loop, but it does appear have been shown around the globe, which feels cool despite also feeling completely imaginary. It's strange connecting pieces of text and numbers to people. One particularly bizarre moment was when my friend Pam came running up to me on set, and told me she heard two guys singing, "I want to fly into your airspace" while waiting in Star Bucks. Whoa.
LK: A couple people at NYU apparently went to Halloween as Vlad and Boris, according to a friend of mine who was at a party. Although I can't give 100% verification to this rumor... Honestly, I'd love to get more work out of this. It was certainly tough for me -- as a marginal actor/writer type guy who has heard millions of lectures on "self-marketing" and "you are your own brand!" and all that jazz -- to not put my name on the project at all. I do think the few other websites and comedy blog type people that have seen it do know who we are, and I think it'll definitely be useful as a stepping stone for other things.
JM: Perry - as someone studying to move into the more official & legitimate media world of filmmaking, how is this video regarded? At a place like NYU, is having a successfully-spread online video seen as an asset or a liability? Do your peers & professors know?
PB:My sense is that the film industry is pretty set in its ways, and I think most of my professors, who haven't seen it, would regard it a fun trifle, potentially useful in landing subsequent work. They certainly would not regard it as a liability, maybe a mild asset (he's cool with the internet or whatever!). My films school peers thought it was funny and praised some of the lighting and the editing work. I think there is a generally feeling of distaste in the film industry for viral videos, mixed, on occasion, with awe and confusion. I have no idea how helpful making viral videos is or will be for one's career, but its a fun experience, and I think my professors and everyone realizes that in this black hole of an industry, it can't hurt!
JM: What's next for each of you, and/or Vlad & Boris? Do you see this as a useful experience for your futures in the media world?
PB: After working so hard within the film school confines of "Old Media," in this case, film, large crews, and long form movie making, I think it is wonderful to be able to branch out and work on stuff that feels more daring. As for a useful experience, I have no idea!
AvAA: I agree with Perry that there is something thrilling about breaking into a new frontier of film making. What role will the viral video play in the future, and what will its relationship be to more traditional film forums? Is the internet always a starting point, a place to be "discovered," or can it also be a successful end point? Let's see where it takes us. I'm game for this ride.
LK: I would say more videos are definitely in the works. We'd love to build on the community we've found through all of this.
JB: Lucas and I have been talking about making movies for a while, but this is the first one that really got us motivated. It's been very inspirational as many of the youtube posters have asked for more materials, which has been really inspiring. Vlad & Boris now have a myspace page, (thanks to Lucas), with another song, (thanks to Lucas) and a remix. I think this can lead to good things in a future in the media and comedy worlds. When you create something that almost half-a-million people see, I think it gives you some kind of media credentials. I like how this process has really started to get all of us thinking about viral videos and how to create them repeatedly. The process of Vlad & Boris has greatly exceeded my expectations intellectually than when I was stuffing myself into women's clothes in Greenpoint one Saturday.