When Instagram opened its platform for video upload, it was unclear how the feature would be used, but for three students at NYU, the answer was obvious — for a short form, scripted comedy series. Titled “Artistically Challenged,” the series was the first scripted project to make use of the feature and while it faced challenges that today’s series innovators might not face, for Aleks Arcabascio, Michael Samuel Deigh, and Jeremy Boros, the task at hand — making a scripted project for a micro-length platform — was an exhilirating one. The creators spoke with VideoInk about their project, the potential, and what they future of video on Instagram looked like to them, at that time.
VideoInk: You’re arguably the first series to hit Instagram. What drove that and how did the project come together?
Aleks Arcabascio: We chose to make our series for Instagram because we realized no one had taken full advantage of the fairly new platform (at the time.) We came up with “Artistically Challenged” a few weeks after Instagram gave people the ability to upload video. Since it was already a hugely popular platform amongst our friends and people of all ages, we saw the new feature as an opportunity to reach a pretty massive and receptive audience. People love to be entertained, and their eyeballs were right there on their instagram feeds already, so its up to artists and storytellers to put something in front of them that would be worth their time. It was obviously a huge challenge, not just because the episodes had to be 15 seconds long, but because we knew 99% of the people watching would be watching on their phones. That’s why we framed every single shot for the small square format and we even designed and mixed our sound by test listening to each episode on our phones and then re-doing it until each episode sounded right.
VI: When pioneering a new platform, you have to work within or try to transcend the boundaries and limitations of that platform. How did you view this on Instagram?
AA: We viewed instagram’s rules and boundaries as a creative challenge, not a restriction. We ignored the voices inside ourselves and out in the world that said “you can’t tell a story in 15 seconds” or that “the screen is too small for anything but selfies, brunch photos and puppy pics” and instead asked ourselves, “well how DO you tell a story in 15 seconds”, “how CAN you maximize the blocking and cinematography to make the most out of the phone screen” and so on and so forth. Clarity and engagement is everything when you only have so much time and space to give it all you got, and isn’t that the truth everywhere? If you don’t have an answer it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, it just means you haven’t thought of it yet.
VI: Any fun anecdotes about taping or planning the episodes?
AA: Everything from the length of sentences, even the length of specific words was important, as was the way actors and props were placed, to the lights and lenses our great DP Alexander Crowe used was dictated by the format and show we were trying to make. It’s a lot to do and surprise surprise, no one had really done it 100% before, at least to our satisfaction. It’s form meets function to the extreme and though we made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot along the way, it came out very close to our original vision and we’re all appreciative of it.
VI: And how did you make sure to take full advantage of the perks of Instagram?
AA: The fun part of having a show on Instagram is that people already use the platform for connecting with each other. Plenty of people post videos to their facebook walls, but with our series, you could skip a lot of steps. People were able follow the account and have the episodes delivered right to their feed every single day (we released an episode a day for over a month), and then if they wanted to engage by leaving a comment or liking a video, the option was right there in front of them. We used some other forms of social media to promote the series, but the idea was to drive all of the traffic to theInstagram account.
One thing we often see, which is surprising, is a resistance by many folks to design their shows completely around the format. Many of the series still shoot in wide-screen, which means you lose a ton of real estate in your shot when you know it’s going to be viewed on an upright phone. That’s just the way Instagram works right now. It makes the whole distribution platform seem like an afterthought. We’re not arbitrarily fans of square frames, but when the screen is as small as a phone, and the largest your frame can be on instagram is 640×640 pixels, why not make the most out of what you have? Same with the episode length, if the episodes don’t feel self contained then it seems more like a short film cut up into bite sized pieces rather than a deliberate way of writing and telling a story.
VI: What were the biggest hurdles for you at that time?
AA: Our series was created for the version of instagram that existed in July 2014 when we released it. Back then the videos played in your feed only when a triangle play button was pressed in the center of the video, meaning a single title frame could be read, before the viewer clicked play. Once the video was played, the audio played automatically. In later versions of instagram the audio sometimes does not play until the video is pressed again, meaning your audience could miss the first few seconds of a 15 second video and not hear important dialogue or audio. When your video is only 15 seconds that could be the first act of your story playing on mute. Currently, once the video is finished playing, it replays automatically from the beginning without any pause. Our episodes were written for the version of instagram that played videos once and then stopped playing, meaning you got a natural breather, and the last punchline or moment of the episode held longer in the viewers mind, instead of the way it works now where the ending beat of the episode gets swallowed up and whizzed by when the video restarts from the beginning. Needless to say, the current viewing experience is different than it originally was, as the videos have stayed the same on an app that’s playback features have changed around it. Anyone who produces content hyperspecificlaly for an app has to accept the risk of the app changing, such is life.
VI: The show is fully realized on Instagram now, did you plan on putting the show anywhere else to keep audience discovery moving?
AA: We did not release this show elsewhere, because exclusivity was important to us with this particular project, so that there was a reason, a purpose for going to instagram to watch it, and a reason the show worked the way it does, not as an arbitrary choice or an afterthought. We wanted the show to be as easy to watch as possible. When creating content, you don’t want to suffer behind some massive threshold that makes it hard for viewers to reach it, the point is to make it easy to share and enjoy, so the fewer hurdles to jump, the fewer clicks, signups, log-ins, the better.
VI: Once the show was finished, what was the most important metric for you as you looked at the series performance?
AA: Because our series rolled out before Instagram enabled view counts, the best way we can look at the popularity of our show is through our evolving follower count, our likes per video and the number of comments under episodes. We had 1,000 followers by day 2, broke 1500 followers on day 9, broke 2,000 followers on day 16 and kept engaging well over 3,000 followers after our first slate of 32 episodes aired, around 3700 at our peak with a small dropoff after new episodes finished.
VI: Did you notice any viewing trends or early signs of viewership that you think can be a learning vessel for future Instgram-native series?
AA: We might attribute our early burst to our eager word-of-mouth campaign (letting all our friends and family and cast and crew know first!), then some slower growth as word spread beyond our neighborhood, with spikes after every great review or mention in the papers, and notably a few social media mentions in Turkey and Ukraine (anyone’s guess). There were some odd lulls we might pin on the sleepy vacation month that is July in NYC, and the future we can keep better track of our viewer engagement with several apps that are now available. We found that our first videos had the most likes (365, 304 and 316 likes for our 1st, 2nd and 3rd episodes respectively), because viewers tend to show their appreciation for a new kind of show they’ve discovered by liking the first videos they see and the last one (157 likes). Even if every episode is enjoyed 100% by everyone (wishful thinking), no one has the time or thumb-strength/endurance to like all of the episodes in a long series, and so you see a gradual decline in the number of views as the series goes on, but viewers do make it clear which episodes are their favorite because there are definite spikes in likes such as where episode 24 was much more popular than episode 23 with 171 likes vs 123. Likewise, most people left their first comments on the first episode (66 comments), with most other episodes commented on only a handful of times or a few dozen at most.
VI: Any final thoughts?
AA: The field is wide open in our opinion and so we’re eager and hopeful to see more folks who have written, shot, mixed, and formatted completely for Instagram. We pulled a lot of favors and had a lot of help from friends and people in the city that loved the project. That enabled us to self fund the whole series. Our goal was to stretch an extremely small budget and make it look like it was shot for a lot more than it was. This shoot did not cost much at all, but there’s the result of lots of blood sweat and tears on the screen, but mostly hi-fives and smiles. We’ve continued to work together since the series and plan on putting out a lot of new stuff!