internet studies

In the Messy Land of Internet Video, the Editor Is King

Online-video editing announces itself — the seams are the whole point.

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; CBS
Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; CBS

For the past few years, the filmmaker Vern Hass has been splicing clips from The Wendy Williams Show so they resemble a daytime television show broadcast from a parallel dimension — a world he calls the Wendy Cinematic Universe. He strips out the background noise, amplifies the sounds of an audience member coughing or licking their lips, the clack of heels on the talk-show-studio floor. His frames swoop, zoom, whoosh, and vibrate, lingering a second too long on Williams’s wide-eyed stare, stretching it into an expression of abject horror. Awkward silences are interjected with mayhem; he puts photorealistic guns into Williams’s hands, makes people’s heads explode, or gives studio guests laser vision.

Hass, 23, says he used to watch Wendy Williams after school to de-stress, but he started to notice weirdness around the edges, like long pauses and dead air. “I knew someone who went on her show, and they said every time they cut to commercial, she shut down. Lights on, no one’s home,” says Hass. “As an experiment, I downloaded a bunch of episodes, strung together the clips, and cut out the talking. I had a 20-minute reel of her just staring at the camera.” Then he added a little “flavor”: “Cell phone rings, burps, farts.” He “pooped out” the first video with no intention of its going anywhere besides the “sewer systems” of Reddit. Instead, a Vine celebrity shared it on his Twitter account, and it went viral.

Hass’s WendyCU work — which he posts on YouTube and TikTok under the username Vernonator6497 — is a maximalist example of how the humor, aesthetics, and ingenuity of online-video storytelling are defined: not necessarily by its content but by its conspicuous editing. Traditionally, a film or video editor’s job is to make the audience invest in the movie’s world by making its illusion seamless. The editing in the videos pioneered on platforms like YouTube, Vine, and TikTok announces itself. The seams are the whole point, making you aware of the creator behind the phone camera. These videos draw drama and comedy from the distortions, filters, and overlaid text loudly disrupting a clip. It’s the shaky-cam close-up that punctuates a moment of stupidity. It’s the in-camera pans or cutaways or sudden focus on something goofy at just the right moment. It’s Nicki Minaj’s “Roman Holiday” at 5x speed. And when the edit is flawless, the delight is not unlike trying to locate the deception in a magic trick. You think, How the hell did they do that? 

If we define movies as primarily a directors’ medium, and television belongs to writers, then online videos are the editors’ form. The genre has existed since the early days of the internet, but the proliferation of phone-based filmmaking tools and apps over the past decade have made editing easier than ever to do and lowered the barrier to entry for anyone who wants to learn. A growing body of tropes is now built into the ways many amateurs edit their home footage. Often, the creators are teens and young adults who pull ideas from music videos, celebrity-interview clips, movie scenes, themselves. It’s bricolage: a Frankensteining of all the pop culture that inundates us, edited to create something transgressive and new. They have all of the internet to stitch together, the messier and more iterative the better.

Before smartphones, the desktop computer offered the primary filming and editing tools for creating online videos and thus shaped their look and feel. They were mostly limited to lo-fi web-cam cringe (if you remember the “Numa Numa” kid, you may be entitled to a veteran’s discount), crude Flash animations like “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” and the MS Paint-core “End of Zee World.” Fan videos circulated on YouTube with creators using iMovie and Windows Movie Maker to create music-video montages of their favorite couples: Bella and Edward, Buffy and Spike, Dr. Who and literally anyone.

Then, in 2007, came an innovation known as the lip dub. In these highly coordinated, mass-participatory videos, a Steadicam followed lip-syncers around a school or a frat house, a retirement community or an entire town, as they directly addressed the camera, singing along to a danceable pop song. Usually posted to YouTube, lip dubs were among the first live-action memes, featuring clever in-camera stunts and edits to make the whole thing appear like a single, impressive take. They had a newly kinetic visual energy, with 180-degree pans, magic-trick transitions, and perfectly synced sound. Billboard pins the start of the lip-dub boom to Vimeo co-founder Jake Lodwick, who, in 2007, coordinated his staff to do a single-take group lip sync to Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” Soon, other companies, youth groups, student councils, and groups of friends started making them too.

Lip dubs were complex Rube Goldberg machines, with humans as their gizmos, satisfyingly clicking into place. They became so ubiquitous as a cultural phenomenon they did one on The Office. And they coincided with another landmark 2007 event: the release of the iPhone. Later models of smartphones came with advanced and easy-to-use cameras and editing suites that made videos a more spontaneous and accessible option than ever before. Previously bedroom-bound YouTubers could suddenly explore more ambitious filming styles with nimble cinematography and cuts between locations. Soon, developers launched social-media apps with built-in editing tools that let users manipulate video speed, apply filters, and share music, all without leaving the app. As Alex Zhu tells it, the idea for Musical.ly — a Chinese social-media app that launched in 2014 and eventually merged with TikTok — came to him watching a group of teenagers on a train in California in 2010. He told the New York Times in 2016, “Half were listening to music and the other half were using their phone to take photos and add emojis, and they were passing them around.” He was struck by the idea of combining selfies, social media, and music sharing.

Musical.ly grew popular primarily due to how easily it facilitated lip-syncing. Only now, using a phone’s front-facing camera, it no longer took elaborate coordination among multiple people. And its in-app editing tools made it easy, even expected, to apply flourishes in postproduction. Users could slow down a song during filming so it was easier to lip-sync, then speed it up for the final product — resulting in a frenetic editing style that felt impenetrable to anyone over the age of 15. The speed manipulation gave people’s movements an uncanny, hyperreal effect. (In 2016, a YouTuber named Jonas Bridges went viral after he posted a Musical.ly of himself lip-syncing to DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You” in front of his grandfather, who was dying in a hospital bed behind him. The jarring edit is out-jarred by the subject matter.)

A year before Musical.ly launched, an American-made video sharing app known as Vine was also gaining traction with teens. It had a simple concept: Users could post six-second looping videos, and one of the only tools was the record button. So people got creative, manipulating its limited functionality to record stop-motion or back-and-forth “sketches” where one person plays two characters just by flipping the angle of the camera. That codified a fast-paced, often contextless sense of humor — in one-man sketches by users such as Jay Versace, a teen whose two-character sketches always ended on perfect punchlines, or in Vines like “back at it again at Krispy Kreme,” which popularized the cut-to-black at the height of action. Most conversation about internet videos at the time was dominated by influencers like YouTube’s Jenna Marbles and Vine’s Cameron Dallas, whose personality-driven channels were redefining celebrity, as they crafted content tailored to their fans’ requests. But a lot of Vine’s other creators were inventing an entire new genre of video comedy, irreverent and weird and edited on their phones or with free tools on home computers.

The peak of Vine’s popularity came in 2014. That year, Vine star King Bach posed for the cover of New York Magazine and singer Shawn Mendes got a record deal based on his videos on the app, much in the way Justin Bieber was once discovered on YouTube. Once its stars found opportunities beyond Vine, though, they stopped using it. And by 2016, teens were migrating to apps like Snapchat and Musical.ly, which featured a more elaborate array of filters and effects — exciting alternatives to Vine’s simplicity. Vine shuttered in 2017 — the same year the Chinese firm ByteDance acquired Musical.ly and, in 2018, rebranded it as TikTok.

In some ways, TikTok was similar to the apps that came before it. Edit styles that had begun to take shape on Musical.ly and Vine would go on to influence the videos people made using its tools. But it took things a step further. Many of TikTok’s built-in production tools made effects that once required external technology and savvy much faster and simpler — and gave it an edge over other, older platforms. Green-screen-based video trends, for example, had been popular on YouTube for years. When TikTok made it possible to apply green-screen backgrounds to front-facing camera videos within the app, way more creators started using them, way more often, setting off even more trends (see Draco Malfoy self-insert video fanfiction). The way that the app breaks down a video into hyperlinked hashtags, music effects, and stitch-able video invited remixing more than any other app before it. It’s digital symbiosis: If TikTok gives creators shiny new shovels, users will spend more time in the sandbox.

The shape of new art forms has always been dictated by the confines of technology. Early photography could only capture subjects that stood perfectly still. Silent movies favored a physical, expressive acting and tightly choreographed set pieces. As tech writer Eugene Wei wrote about TikTok earlier this year, “One measure of a platform’s power is the number of things people make with it that you had never been made before.” Wei singles out TikTok’s Duets feature as one of the app’s greatest value propositions. It allows creators to build on another creator’s video by editing alongside it. A popular example of this was the viral sea-chantey trend from early 2021, which began when TikTokers added layers of harmony, percussion, and accompaniment to a video of a user singing “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” turning a Duet into a virtual choir.

Innovation is possible within any of the tools TikTok offers. Creator @drive45music uses the primary, non-optional feature of all TikTok videos — looping — to create elaborate, neverending videos where the end pretzels back to the beginning and reframes the joke’s next loop in a whole new way. @PeteyUSA’s dissonant videos — in which he plays multiple characters and talks over himself — has spawned many imitators, inventing a new comedy aesthetic the same way Bob Newhart did with his one-sided phone calls over 50 years ago. And many of the videos that define the funny, experimental aesthetic of TikTok are still edited on programs outside the app: There’s @iheot’s strange, animated fan edits, like “Scooby Doo but Every Character Is James Charles.” The series “Cooking With Lynja” features a charming grandmother who appears as a cutout on the screen and talks to herself in visually surreal cooking tutorials that look more like Tim & Eric than Food Network (and are edited by her son Tim). The on-screen text, the media remixed from other sources, the absurdist humor, the green screen — even if these videos were built outside the app, they’re right at home on TikTok.

So much of online video’s editing-as-humor sensibility would have never existed without the work of individual creators. YouTuber Emma Chamberlain famously took the elements of shitposts on gaming forums and places like 4chan and targeted them at herself: enlarging a pimple on her forehead, putting reverb on a burp, slowing down her voice and replaying when she said something particularly dumb. Chamberlain’s videos were not only a conversation with her viewers; they were a conversation between Chamberlain onscreen and Chamberlain in postproduction, and they popularized a self-referential style of video editing.

But more than any one influence, online video is a communal art form. Fan edits in particular — a space defined by the collective work of millions of people — have always pushed forward the sensibility of online videos, even as their images are driven by sincere and passionate fandom rather than a desire to show off technical cleverness or humor. Modern fancams — which stitch together footage of a celebrity crush object from concerts and press events — can border on camp. There’s an unabashed defiance baked into the editing and how creators take pleasure in the imperfections: disjunctive in-camera zooms to emphasize moments of cringe, flashy transitions, or a blown-out bass underscoring a scream. The aesthetics of these videos became popular through sheer ubiquity with stan armies posting them in the replies to any and all unrelated viral tweets, leading to absurdist offshoots — such as the ship edits celebrating a fictional coupling of Tom Holland and Nicki Minaj that proliferated in 2019. When TikTok noticed that creators were using independent apps like Prequel to compile and enhance their footage, it added its own #aesthetic filters to compete.

As much as online video is a feedback loop between creators and app developers, it’s also one between the creators themselves. Works exist in direct conversation with each other. A meme can’t meme alone, and an online video cannot be considered without the network of references, in-jokes, and trends that led to it. An app can offer the tools, but it can’t provide the pleasure of watching a user burst past its limitations.

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