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Interview with Vlad & Boris
On October 14, a YouTube video appeared on a new account entitled "vlad and friend boris presents 'Song for Sarah' for mrs. Palin" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XR9V_aOCga0). 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.
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." 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…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... 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?
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.
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?
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.
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 …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!" …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.
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.
Jason Mittell is a consulting researcher with the Convergence Culture Consortium and an Assistant Professor of American Civilization 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 is currently writing a new book on contemporary developments in American television narratives and how they intersect with shifts in the television industry, media technology, and audience practices.
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