This is a transcript of Casey Neistat’s talk ”Storytelling – the business of emotions” at Ping Helsinki Business Festival on 28th of April 2017.
I have based this transcript on a video that I recorded of the talk. You can watch the recording on Youtube.
Hey guys! You guys know those Dudesons guys? They had this terrible idea yesterday and they duct-taped me to the roof a go-kart. Don’t laugh at that! Don’t encourage them! And then they raced me around all of Helsinki and now my back’s all messed up today because of it. Good to be here.
First a little bit about my background and thank you for the intro. That was flattering.
I’ve sort of worn a lot of hats in my career and when I try to think of what title best describes me I struggle. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a filmmaker. And when I was a kid, when I grew up in the 90s, being a filmmaker sort of meant making big movies that played in movie theaters and film festivals. And I did that. So I used to call myself a film maker. But then I realized that kind of sucks. Then I started making like Internet videos and other things. And my YouTube and my Twitter bios currently just say YouTuber and I think that’s probably the most accurate title for what I do right now.
But let me give you guys first an abbreviated brief overview of my biography. I had very like big aspirations when I was a kid and they all started with a desire to sort of share my voice. I didn’t really understand that when I was younger. I didn’t understand why that mattered or how that might manifest but that was it.
Then when I got my first computer and my first camera as a teenager and I first started playing with video I realized that this was the catalyst. This was the method with which I could share my ideas and share my perspectives. And it took me a whole bunch of different directions.
I first moved to New York City when I was 20 years old. And I was like a bike messenger. You guys know a bike messenger? When you like wear one of those backpacks with all the packages and you ride it to people’s offices and stuff? And when you picture that in New York City it seems really romantic and awesome. It’s not! It’s a fucking terrible job!
I remember this was like 2001. 2001 was when I had an hour job as a bike messenger. And back then – I’m sure you had it like this in Finland too with your Nokias – but you would pay for your cell phone, like usage, by the minute. Remember, like, you only had a certain amount of minutes?
And when you’re a bike messenger you would get all of your delivery orders and stuff via your cell phone! And at the end of my first week as a bike messenger – as a totally broke 20 year old living in New York City – my cell phone bill was $400. And my paycheck was $300. So it cost me a hundred bucks to be a bike messenger. A fucking terrible job!
But my dream was to be a filmmaker. And when I wasn’t a bike messenger and then an assistant and a series of really uninteresting jobs, I was always making movies in my free time. And because I didn’t have any formal training – I never went to college, I never went to film school or anything like that – I was just kind of figuring it out.
There were things that I’d love to see. This was six years before YouTube so a lot of DVDs and VHS tapes. But there were things that I loved and styles that I loved, that I tried to emulate.
And where I didn’t know what to do, I just sort of filled it in with my own ideas by figuring it out.
And that idea, that idea of not knowing the right way, of not knowing the correct way, the prescribed way, to create to leverage creativity… I realize now as an old man of 36 who gets invited to Helsinki to speak to all of you. I realize now that was my most valuable and my most treasured asset as a person who wanted to work in a creative space.
Not knowing the right way forces you to define your own path. Not knowing the correct way or the prescribed way forces you to discover your own.
Because if you want to be a car mechanic, or you want to be a doctor, or you want to be an architect, there are paths, there are trajectories that can be taught. You go to university and they will teach you exactly how to be a lawyer. And when you graduate maybe you’ll get a job as a lawyer and you can follow that path. That’s written. It’s prescribed.
But if you want to work in the creative space it has to be rewritten. It has to be created by you. It has to be defined by you. No filmmaker ever found success by doing exactly what another filmmaker did. It doesn’t work like that!
No painter found success by painting exactly like Monet painted. It doesn’t work like that!
You have to find your own path. And again, this is something I was only able to realize in retrospect. What a virtue it was. Not knowing the right way.
So I bounced around in this space and sort of latched on to any opportunity that would fall on my lap. Anything that involved a paycheck – and they were pretty small back then – but a paycheck and a camera would be a job I would take.
Probably, like, the most humiliating part of that was editing actors’ reels. You know what an actor’s reel is? It’s like a two or three minute video of like an actor’s highlight reels. But I’d only charge $50. So I had really, like really, low-budget actors to, like, give me all their highlight tapes. And then I put them together and try to make them look cool.
That really felt like I was kind of prostituting my skill set. I remember that being like: ”This doesn’t feel like filmmaking”. But I needed those fifty bucks. So I did it!
And that hustling led me down a number of different paths and there were some breaks. There were some successes. And I remember what sort of one of the first more formal big breaks that I had was.
I had a camera. Somebody bought my brother and I camera as a gift. So I had a camera. Then we had our own computers because I bought those on credit cards. But we couldn’t afford anything else and we wanted to make movies.
So we bought a little book that explains science experiments for children. So, if your child’s in school, here are some fun things you can do in your class that your teacher wouldn’t let you get away with. Kind of like the volcano that you put the baking soda and vinegar in and the thing spouts out. Do you guys do that here in Finland? Or is that a…
Yes, somebody’s nodding their head.
So we shot all these little experiments on a table in my shitty apartment in New York City because we couldn’t afford actors. We couldn’t afford sets. We didn’t have a lot of tapes. You had to buy DV tapes. They were like fifteen bucks back then. So we were very controlled.
And we shot this series and we called it Science Experiments. Because that was the very most creative title we could come up with for our science experiments.
And we showed it to people. We showed it to different people. I remember we showed it to one guy. I think his name was Tom Healy. And he was an art collector. And he saw it and he was like: ”This video is going to stop traffic”. And I had no idea what that meant. I’m still not entirely sure what he meant by that. No idea what he meant.
But he loved it! So he invited us – my brother and I – to show that work of art – our science experiments videos that we shot in my bedroom –in his house and he would invite his – he’s a rich guy – He would invite over all of his fine art friends to see our work of art. That we shot in my bedroom out of a science experiments book for children. And we showed it there. And people loved it! They loved it!
And one person was an art collector and he’s like: ”I’d like to show this in my gallery”. And we were like: “Fuck yeah; show it in your gallery. Yeah, show it in your gallery.”
And we showed it in his art gallery. And then we were invited to the São Paulo biennia, the national art show of Brazil. I was 24 years old at the time. I was the youngest invited artist in the 52 year history of that institution. I got to go to Brazil and see my videos up there.
And I remember on my way to that show in Brazil we got stuck in traffic. You know before I was saying he said it would stop traffic? I was trying to tie those two things together for you guys.
That was the first time I really got to have a deep understanding, like a real taste, for just putting your head down and making what motivated me, what inspired us.
We wanted to make something. So we made something.
We didn’t set out to become fine artists who are set out to get into this national art show of Brazil. We just wanted to make something.
In any event that took us in different trajectories. That took me to television and I made a TV show that I wrote, directed, edited, produced and starred in.
Well, it was just my brother and me. So we kind of took every title that there was. The entire scrolling credits, it was just the two of us. And we had no idea what this thing was.
We had the guy who was a big fan of ours, a guy who owned a small TV network. We did some work for him.
He’s like: “Let’s do something else”.
We’re like: “Great, just give us enough money to make short videos”.
And he was like: “Cool, let’s do this!”
And we ended up calling it a TV show.
After we made that for a year we had all this content that we didn’t know what to do with. We started to show it to people. And HBO bought that!
They were like: “This is a show we want on HBO!”
And they bought that for several million dollars. And that was the first gigantic break in my career. That was when I thought that I had made it. That was it. That was it for me.
And even that – I learned – was not ever making it. That was just another small step towards finding my place, of carving out a place for me in this world, in this creative world.
And the HBO show was fine, sort of. The thing about TV is that, like, they have schedules. You only watch TV certain times of the day. You can’t just, like, type it into the internet and watch it. Like, it’s totally fucked up! It makes no sense! Who watches TV?!
So nobody watched our show. It was really well rated but nobody watched our show. The reviewers loved it. But nobody tuned in. And I remember feeling really stifled and frustrated by that.
So that’s when I was like… I remember saying to a big-time Hollywood agent… I was, like: “I don’t want to do TV. I don’t want to do movie. I’ve made two big movies. I don’t want to do movies. I just want to make internet movies.” And he thought I was crazy for that.
But this was 2010 when Internet movies were mostly really cute cat videos and then some really funny videos of people getting hit in the ball by wiffle ball bats or something like that. But that is what YouTube was in 2010.
But to me that was just another way that I could share my work with the world. The world could access it for free whenever they wanted. It made so much sense.
And that began my trajectory on YouTube and online. And that was when I first really, really found my voice.
I’d really made a living. The vast majority of the income that I made was not from making little videos but it was from working in marketing. It was from working in advertising.
Up until that point my work in advertising was as traditional as it could have possibly been.
Um… it was a very… it was a very strict, traditional relationship the way that I think most agencies still to this day work with creatives. They hire you to direct a spot that they have written. There’s a storyboard in place. There’s a script in place. There’s a location in place. There are actors and there are creatives on set.
(Casey asking the audience) Does this sound familiar to you guys?
(Casey responding to audience) Yeah, you’ve done this before.
And for me that always felt really frustrating. It didn’t feel like a good way for me to express what I did and what I love doing creatively. But it was a means to an end.
And as I started to find my voice online I realized it was the short videos I was making that people were responding to. Not me directing these like bullshit commercials. Nobody even knew I did those.
Funny story, there was this diet fad in the States that I hope you don’t have here called the Atkins diet. You know about the Atkins diet? Where you don’t eat any carbs or some bullshit like that?
So, my very first TV commercial I ever got was to direct a TV commercial for Atkins low carb candy bars. And this was a huge deal for me. It was a small regional commercial. But I was young then. It was a huge deal! I made a $10,000 budget which I now know is like less than most craft services budgets on a commercial shoot. But it was a huge deal!
And the first thing they did was, they sent over like five cases of their low carb candy bars. And I was really excited about it. So I was just eating these things like it was going out of style. I ate probably like 20 of these candy bars and then I was reading the box and it said on the box: “Do not consume more than two low-carb candy bars in any 24 hours or it could cause severe…”
Anyways it was a rough couple days for me. The commercial turned out fine. It was a rough couple days for my digestive tract.
And it was around, you know, 2010, 2012, that I really started making Internet videos. Started building out a really, truly meaningful audience.
I saw a way to work with brands that felt different from directing 30-second spots, which felt again like sort of prostituting my skill set and my reach for something that I didn’t necessarily believe in.
And I thought that formula was what we today call branded content. But then there wasn’t a word for it.
What I said was like: “Why don’t we just get brands to give me money and I’ll make the videos I want to make for those brands?”
And it worked in a number of different ways. And I had some small successes and some hits here and some hits there.
Then in, I think it was 2012, I made a video for Nike. And the video is called “Make it count”. And this video was like a… it was supposed to be for Nike’s fitness tracking band. But I hijacked the whole campaign. And we, my friend and I, we literally stole the entire budget. And instead we went on this around-the-world trip instead of making a TV commercial, instead of making their video.
And in the end, we edited something together that was the video we wanted to make. But we just had this huge budget to do it. It was this video that had very little to do with the product but everything to do with the idea behind the product. It had everything to do with what Nike represented versus the physical object.
And Nike, after much trepidation and anxiety about the fact that… Well, we had sort of hijacked the shoot and stolen their budget… When they saw the finished video they gave us the green light and we posted it. And that video went on to be Nike’s most-watched internet video that they had ever released. It was wildly successful.
And it was after making that video this idea that I had working with brands really, really took off. Brands would look at that video and they’d be like: “Wow, Nike was really smart to have you do that”.
Are you fucking nuts? Nike didn’t have us do that. We literally stole the budget. That’s how we made that video. But I think brands and I think agencies are more reactive than proactive. And they see something like that and they’re like: “That worked. That was a huge success. We want to do that!”
And that’s when my career in branded content, my career in marketing, really, really took off. It’s because all of a sudden I had this bright flag that I could wave, this Nike spot that was wildly successful. And I could go in a number of different directions.
And it became a little bit frustrating for me because the call I would get over and over and over again would be: “Can you do for us what you just did for Nike?”
Guys, it doesn’t work like that… But they just kept asking. And where I’m going with this is, this worked for a couple of years. And it was a great relationship. And in the end, after doing one of these videos for 20th Century Fox, for one the biggest movie studios in the world… They literally called me and they’re like: “Hey, we love your Nike video. Will you make us a video about pursuing your dreams and inspiration and passion?”
And I was like: “No, that’s a fucking stupid idea! Stop asking me to do that over and over and over and over and over and over and over again!”
And then I had an idea. And that idea had nothing to do with 20th Century Fox. It had nothing to do with the movie they wanted me to promote. It had nothing to do with realizing your dreams. But I did need a whole shitload of cash to realize this idea so I called them. And I was like: “Hey, can you just give me the whole budget and I’ll make you something?”
And I remember…
(Casey): You laugh…
I remember the woman from 20th Century Fox being: “Uh, Casey, I think we should just do this. And if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to make this whole budget disappear like this never happened.”
And I was like: “I fucking love your attitude right now!”
And we made this video. And I’m going to show you guys this video now but I show you this video because this was the last time that I took an assignment like that. It was the last time that… That because of that Nike video which set off this sort of avalanche of opportunities that all looked [?] exactly the same, I felt like this was as far as I could have taken it. And this video really represents that pivot point in my career.
[Casey setting up the video]
Keep in mind this is a TV… This was supposed to be a commercial of branded content for 20th Century Fox to advertise [a Ben Stiller movie that was coming out].
The video Casey showed after the talk was What would you do with 25 000 dollars? The video was, as stated, the sort of ad for the movie The secret life of Walter Mitty. After the video, there was a Q&A session. See also the transcript of the Q&A session after the talk.
I really hope there are no critical errors in the transcript. English is not my first language so I might have misheard or misunderstood something. I have edited away some um’s and like’s.
If you spot any errors, please comment and I will fix them.