Inside the six-second video app that is reinventing film
SIX months is a long time in internet years. With the surname Vine, I was probably more pleased than most when #Vine started trending across social media platforms in January this year - and also tried not to take it personally when #RIPVine appeared in June. In short - and this is a world where brevity counts - Vine is a smartphone app for "sharing short, looping videos". It's an app that makes Warhol's 15 minutes of fame seem positively luxurious: six seconds is now all you need.
As Vine co-founder Dom Hofmann said when it launched in January, the idea behind the app was a belief that "constraint inspires creativity, whether it's through a 140-character Tweet or a six-second video." There's no editing in Vine, just a start and stop button until you hit the six second mark.
Like Twitter's 140-character limit, which at first seemed frustratingly short and now feel like an inherent part of the modern syntax, that six-second loop is key to what makes Vine work. But also like Twitter, it's one of those things that sound fun until you watch a clip of your friends panning a phone around their living rooms or pouring a cup of coffee - and you think, well what is this actually for?
Watch a video of a cat crashing into a mirror on YouTube once, and it's funny. That same cat, looped over and over on Vine? It's closer to America's Artiest Home Videos, the looping adding a mesmerising layer to the general Jackassery on display. In a digital world of infinite possibility and endless space, limitation is the mother of invention.
Vine, launched in June last year, was promptly snapped up by Twitter four months later and heralded as the next big thing: "the Instagram of video", hitting that sweet spot between making something that looks good enough to share, but not creating a file that's so unwieldy it kills your battery and data allowance. This was fine until Instagram decided that, actually, it would quite like to be the Instagram of video itself thanks all the same.
Its Vine killer? An update in June bringing video capabilities to the 130 million-odd users of the photo-sharing app. Cue a string of articles getting ready to file Vine alongside all the other video f sharing apps cluttering up your iPhone's back pages: anyone still using SocialCam, Viddy, Magisto, Lightt, Cinemagram or Vyclone? Instagram's version gives you 15 seconds to play with, the ability to delete a take while you're filming, and also the chance to enhance your mini film with one of 13 new filters - adding that distinctive washed-out faux-Polaroid look.
But it's Vine where people are really finding their inner Scorseses. Some of the best Vines are incredibly elaborate, using multiple locations, cats changing into dogs, kids "teleporting" through an endless string of iPhone screens, featuring casts of hundreds, perfectly timed stunts pulled off in one take - and others are super-simple. A sight gag, a one-two delivered with panache, like a three-panel comic strip or a homemade gif with sound. Most are so short that it almost takes longer to describe what happens than it does to watch them.
There's a Magic Marker that's really magic; Or how about Morgan Freeman Narrates Himself: Breakfast ("and that's when he realised he was out of milk for his cereal …" booms an uncanny Freeman impression as someone opens a fridge)?; not to mention Super Mario Dog (yes, it's a tiny dog dressed in a Mario cap who turns into a bigger dog when a cardboard mushroom floats down and boinks it on the head as the Super Mario power-up sound effect plays) from Marlo Meekins, an artist who specialises in surreal Vines.
Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams (the sword-wielding Arya Stark) got a lot of press for her succinct Vine reaction to the infamous Red Wedding episode (spoiler alert: "they dead"), but she's still only on the 131,800-follower mark. Adam Goldberg (162,000) adds a surreal, arty touch with his videos, but rapper Tyler the Creator is one of the few "non-native" Vine stars to break the one million mark. (He's on about 1.6 million.)
Nicholas Megalis has racked up two million followers with daft but perfectly looped songs such as Gummy Money ("Yo my name is Nicholas and this is ridiculous, got mad gummy money and it is deliciousness") and Pretentious Guy on a Roof ("Pretentious guy on a roof, playing guitar while the sun is going down"). Josh Peck has pulled in 2.2 million with songs such as Snap Chat Fail "You just took a screenshot of my Snapchat? Oh Jesus! Please God - delete that!" A recent Vine from Brittany Furlan (1.8 million), My Dog Gives No Shits Pt 2, features a dog who sleeps through the ignominy of being covered in slices of white bread and a banana. Her ongoing series exploring "How to hit on guys the way guys hit on girls" is a sharp, light and funny comment on sexism, as she cruises around hitting on men from behind her steering wheel.
Furlan says: "There is something about six seconds that is perfect for comedy. You are only seeing the best part of a joke, not the work-up. And the fact that it loops just amplifies the funny. I just goofed around and people seemed to like it."
Nicholas Megalis agrees. "The appeal is the time limit," he says. "You sit there for an hour writing things down that rhyme and you realise that those two extra words aren't going to fit the loop. So you cut them out. You make decisions fast! You shed off the extra fat of the joke or the rhyme and you get something beautifully simple."
"If I come up with a Vine idea, I commit to it and make it work," adds Furlan. "I suppose the strangest thing that's happened to me because of Vine would be the people wanting to get autographs and pictures. It's bizarre."
For Megalis, it's Vine's "simplicity and the limitations" that drew him in. "I liked that it was all within the iPhone, all in the app," he says. "You have your phone and your hands and that's it. It forces you to think creatively and make decisions. It's instant magic. It's an addictive magic. I love seeing everyone's different personalities coming together on this big insane social network. It's ridiculously cool."
Then there are the Viners who've taken it to another level with celeb guest stars and real world appearances: Marcus Johns (1.8 million followers) had Jerry Seinfeld in one Vine ("My new assistant 'Jerry' just isn't cutting it...") and pulled together a large crowd of followers who all showed up to be part of his Santa Monica #SuperVine (a six-second moment of Biebermania style fandom). Or there's Jessi Smiles (876,400 followers). "Guys, stop asking me if my life has changed since Vine. It hasn't - Pharrell, one sec, I'm Vining," she deadpans as music star Pharrell Williams peeks into her camera. Last weekend she met up with several other Vine stars in New York, including Curtis Lepore, who's been serenading her for a while. Their #SuperVine moment? A first kiss, immortalised in front of a huge crowd (all filming their own #curtisandjessimeet Vine).
It's the perfect medium for some mini-meta fun. When the White House signed up, late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon's spoof featured an actor playing Barack Obama, cut off because he didn't get the six-second time limit. (Vine waits for no man, not even the President.) But then, in the next clip, a lemon pops into f his mouth, and splurges out in a gush out of water. Bizarre enough - but it's a gag that you'd really appreciate only if you've been following MADtv comedian Will Sasso's running (looping?) gag on Vine in which a series of lemons keep vomiting out of his mouth. He's got 1.3 million followers; The White House has a little over 29,000.
Perhaps it's this rough-and-ready aspect that has kept it from being overrun by marketing. It's still very much a "playground for artistic endeavours", says Robyn Pierce of the Crocodile marketing agency. What's interesting about Vine from a brand perspective is that it's "more about content creation than social marketing", she argues. "The quality is a challenge," she adds. "It's hard to make it good enough to stand out so brands are resistant because of the amount of work involved for what should be a light-touch, mobile app." There's often an expectation that a Vine coming from a company will be of a certain standard - one involving the high production values normally associated with a traditional ad shoot - and a long-winded approval process that's antithetical to Vine's instant "shooting-stick" process. As Pierce says: "Vine is more effort than a tweet for brands."
Companies are wising up to its potential. The naturally repetitive nature of a catwalk show, with models strutting down the same runway, proved to be ideal Vine fodder for Burberry's SS14 Menswear collection from London Fashion Week. General Electric's #6secondscience clips are fun and informative, full of optical illusions, speedy experiments and visual answers to questions such as "What happens when you combine milk, food colouring and dish soap?" (You get a psychedelic mess on a plate, apparently.)
Then there was the "sweater" for The Wolverine - another daft neologism for a Vine clip that's essentially a teaser for a movie trailer. But it works: watching six seconds of Hugh Jackman, claws out, slashing, hacking, jumping around and shouting "RAAARRR!" while fending off a barrage of samurai swords and various assailants is pretty much all you need to know about the movie, and proved that there could be a commercial application for the super-blip format.
Fraser Bensted, a film editor at Toyko-UK, specialises in cutting film trailers including Slumdog Millionaire, Billy Elliot and 500 Days of Summer. Inspired by The Wolverine cut he's been "boiling down a feature to its essence", taking footage from the original trailers for classics such as Taxi Driver, Star Wars and GoodFellas and cutting them into six-second Vines for his @retweaser feed (although he admits he's had to "pre-prepare" them using editing software Final Cut first to incorporate a continuous soundbed). He points out that the square format of Vine is closer to an old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes some more modern films impossible to adapt - people are just standing too far away from each other in widescreen.
It's an "extremely addictive" process that "sharpens you up as an editor" because you have to "sell the story a lot harder". The "essence of the story can be just as interesting as a two-minute trailer" he continues. The app's appeal is that it's "not like a tweet or an email" because you have to "create a moment". Bensted adds: "There's some great stuff out there. When you dig around, some of the comedy stuff is amazing. People are finding ways to express themselves in a short space of time."
In a world where smartphones are everyday items for a lot of people, it's easy to forget what incredibly versatile and powerful machines we're carrying. As well as all the other functions at your disposal, there's a decent video camera and a way to share your footage with the world. For anyone old enough to remember what it was like to lug a camcorder around, it's worth pausing to note just what a revolution in home video we've experienced in the past decade. It's all there in one tiny, shiny black box.
And yet, how many of us ever bother to play with all these features? Maybe that's what is most encouraging about apps such as Vine and Instagram. When you're just a few clicks away (record, stop, share) from doing something with it, you're more likely to. As Nicholas Megalis puts it: "If you want a castle made out of Swiss cheese, you have to sculpt it. There's no green screen. It's like the early days of cinema. Nobody is making The Wizard of Oz any more. I think the closest we have to that right now is Vine."