Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES - Taryn Southern looks as if her head is going to explode. Sitting in a cavernous studio along with other YouTube channel personalities, she eyeballs the high-tech production equipment and lets out a noisy sigh.
"I'd like to use everything here to make the videos that live in my head, but it seems overwhelming," says Southern, an actress and singer who hopes to add an online talk show to her current crop of humorous videos. "But I guess you have to start somewhere."
YouTube wants its growing cadre of video content creators to start right here, in a newly opened, 41,000-square-foot, state-of-the-digital-art playpen simply called the Space.
Southern is part of the first class of 25 handpicked artists who, beginning Wednesday, will have three months of unlimited access to the facility, which houses everything from soundstages to green-screen rooms. Their mission is simple.
"I just tell them, 'Please make something great,' " says Liam Collins, head of YouTube Space Los Angeles. "We provide the space, equipment and expertise. They provide the talent."
It's hard to tell if this group of twenty- and thirtysomething comedians, musicians and fashion advisers, each with between 10,000 and 300,000 YouTube channel subscribers, contains the next Will Ferrell or James Cameron (who, incidentally, shot most of Avatar in this former Hughes Aircraft helicopter factory). But for the moment, these Web denizens can pretend they're in the big leagues.
"Most of us are one-man bands holding the camera in front of ourselves as we talk, so compared to that, this is a fantasy," says Andre Meadows, who would like to put a full-blown music video parody on his Black Nerd Comedy channel. "Being here will allow me to create a project I could never do at home on my own."
YouTube has been steadfast in its commitment to improving small-screen content ever since Google purchased the video search engine in 2006 for the then-stunning sum of $1.6 billion. Its new Space (the facility is leased; YouTube would not comment on the project's cost) is Phase 3 of an ongoing drive to become the premier destination for original videos as viewers' attention spans shorten and screens shrink.
'We're just an incubator'
The company's big push to get beyond a dependence on viral videos of cats and babies started a few years ago with its Next Up and Next Creator programs, which provided small grants and workshops for a few hundred promising filmmakers.
Last year, YouTube revamped its look with a channel-centric focus and committed $100 million to programming, dishing out significant cash infusions to those creators who had already attracted a promising number of subscribers. With the Space - which has much smaller sister facilities in New York and London, with another slated for Asia this year - YouTube now is moving into the production process.
That said, the notion that YouTube is setting up to take on networks and cable channels at their own game makes Collins laugh.
"That's not what's going on here," he says. "We believe in the short-form original video, and that's what we're trying to develop. We do want our creators to see what their work might look like on screens of all sizes, which is why we have a professional screening room. But we're just an incubator."
Collins understandably downplays the scope of his company's vision; YouTube videos have yet to spawn must-see hits that rival Homeland or Modern Family.
But a recent exception is the quirky animated YouTube series Annoying Orange, which, over the past few years, has collected more than 2 million viewers, largely teens. Last fall, Cartoon Network signed a deal with 31-year-old creator Dane Boedigheimer to expand the show for television.
YouTube's various exploratory investments are meant to eventually strike gold. "YouTube is smart to try and create high value, innovative (videos) that we haven't seen, because popularizing the short-form video only makes YouTube more valuable," says Steven Levy, senior editor at Wired magazine and author of In the Plex, a book about Google. "Besides, so much video is consumed on mobile, and there, shorter is better."
Talk to some analysts about YouTube's strategy, and you quickly get the impression that the company's millions of videos - 72 hours' worth uploaded each minute - are termites quietly eating away at the mansion built by traditional TV outlets.
"There's a growing softness to network and cable ratings due to online video viewing generally, and YouTube is a big part of that," says James McQuivey, media analyst at Forrester Research.
"Is the demise of ABC imminent? No. But consumer viewing habits and hardware are changing, and YouTube is smart to tee itself up in case the culture really changes," he says. "They're spending millions on this now. Maybe in 2014, they'll commit a billion and really disrupt things."
In fact, YouTube's financial investment in its content still pales in comparison to what traditional networks pour into pilots and other projects that often don't see the light of day, says Dave Sanderson, head of the global media and entertainment practice at Bain & Company.
"In the broadcast model, you spend millions to try and get one hit, but YouTube is able to spend almost nothing and reach far beyond a network if something goes viral," he says. "I have a strong feeling (YouTube) will be the model for testing what works, and certainly studios are watching carefully. The objective here isn't to rival broadcast, it's more to see what people want and go from there."
During the recent presidential election, what consumers wanted was political news through online videos, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Half of the respondents said they watched political videos online, and 52% of registered voters say they were e-mailed videos to watch by friends.
"That reflects the simple reality that a growing number of us go on the Internet to learn, browse or have fun, and video is a huge part of that story," says project director Lee Rainie. "While online videos are considered a media snack, there's evidence we're willing to spend more time if the content's right. Just look at the Khan Academy (educational) videos or the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks, which can run 15 minutes or more."
Rainie adds that the demographics of those online increasingly reflect the country at large, as broadband access and hardware availability expands, which makes investment in original programming more likely to pay off. "Video also is becoming more and more social, with people creating it, sharing it and curating it," he says.
All the tools at their fingertips
That's the mantra of a new site called #waywire (waywire.com), essentially a Twitter-for-video that allows users to curate a video channel stocked with their favorite fare. "The visualization of everything is the trend of the future," says site co-founder Nathan Richardson. "Twentysomethings consume information in video form, whether that's a clip from CNBC or something user-generated. But you need to have a way to sort through it all."
The way Richardson sees it, this continuing boom in video consumption will be accompanied by a "democratization of the means of making videos," including a simplification of editing software and more online tools teaching the craft of video.
"But not everyone can make a video and ride the viral wind," he says.
YouTube's point exactly. While huge success can come from left field, it's more likely the result of hard work. Case in point is the year's hottest music video, Psy's billion-views-and-counting Gangnam Style, whose seemingly improbable global dominance was rooted in years of musical and visual experimentation in his native South Korea.
The 25 members of the first creator class here are hoping to manufacture a bit of that sweat-equity magic as they take a tour of the Space.
There are the usual Internet company staples, such as a fire station pole to slide down when you need to let off steam, "bird's nest" sky lounges aimed at promoting intense brainstorming sessions, and bikes for easy sprints around the massive warehouse. The bright and modern architectural style features an open floor plan meant to encourage collaboration.
"You should consider this whole place your set, whether inside or outdoors," Collins says to the group as they snake through the facility.
What's most striking is the professionalism of the place. There are feature-film-grade Steadicams, a sitcom-quality three-camera studio, and a live-show audio control booth modeled on the one used by Saturday Night Live. There's even a Foley room, where YouTubers can learn to create their own sound effects.
It's no surprise that the Space has already hosted big-screen stars such as Amy Poehler and Rainn Wilson, who dropped by to film segments for their respective YouTube channels.
"If you want to aspire to have your videos shown on a living room television or in a theater, you need to learn to think bigger," says Collins to his mostly slack-jawed audience. "If you don't know how to do something, ask someone. If you're curious, watch. We want to permit serendipity to happen."
Toward the end of the day, the filmmakers break into small discussion groups to process what they've seen. Initially, the reaction is one of stunned anticipation with a small pinch of fear, a bit like a group of Little Leaguers who have just been told to practice at Yankee Stadium.
But slowly, the group talks through concerns and charts a course for the weeks ahead. Southern has already corralled a fellow creator to appear on her experimental talk show, while another pair are huddled in talks over the subtleties of green-screen use.
"I feel like I'm asking for everything, so you just tell me what I can't have," says comedian Meadows. But the answer from the group's moderator is only a smile.
For a bunch of self-taught video content creators mainly used to shooting with handycams in a corner of their living rooms, the freedom offered by YouTube's imposing new Space may prove either liberating or paralyzing. But that's a risk the video giant is more than willing to take.
"These are really creative people who just need to remain authentic and true to their vision," says Collins. "If they can do that, we can help get them to the next level, whatever that is."