When I think about the content that I really like, one common thread that runs through a lot of it is a certain “homemade” or “do-it-yourself” aesthetic. That could be the rough-and-ready style of a lot of indie cinema, the improvisatory chatter of some of my favourite podcasts, or the sizeable proportion of albums I own that sound like they were recorded in someone’s attic.
What got me thinking about this was the recent documentary Shirkers. One of my favourite films of last year, this documentary tells the strange story of a group of Singaporean teenagers who, in the 1990s, were inspired by the likes of Jim Jarmusch and the Coen Brothers to set out and create their own independent road movie. Shirkers reminded me of what it is I really love about this more “unpolished” aesthetic — the idea that a creator’s imagination, ambition, and originality can transcend whatever budgetary constraints they may be faced with.
And it’s an exciting time for anyone with such creativity and ambition — the tools for producing content are more affordable than ever, and online avenues like YouTube, Vimeo, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp have empowered countless people to distribute their work globally.
Pursuing a lower-budget, more indie-inspired approach could also be highly beneficial to any brands looking to create “shareable” content. In their article, ‘The Art & Science Behind Irresistibly Shareable Content’, Jim Wolff and George Gunn of the Leith Agency identify four “psychological drivers” that inform whether audiences decide to share content… and none of them necessarily demand a huge amount of money and resources.
One of the key reasons that people will share a piece of content is because it speaks to them on an emotional level. Wolff and Gunn cite Karen Nelson-Field’s findings in her book Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing that “videos [eliciting] a strong emotional response are twice as likely to be shared”.
In an interview with Communication Arts, Aardman Animations’ Will Studd acknowledged how — in spite of its being a more lo-tech, time-consuming option than more polished forms of CGI-based animation — stop-motion remains relevant because of the strong sense of character it has developed throughout its history as an art form.
"Agencies are [still] drawn to stop-motion animation for a number of reasons: originality, authenticity, charm and wit, to name a few."
Due to being associated, by many, with a sense of childlike sincerity and homely authenticity, stop-motion can be a highly effective medium for communicating messages that resonate emotionally. A really good example of this style can be seen in Anna Mantzaris’ recent short film for Greenpeace, ‘The Handmade Gift’. This short film plays on stop-motion’s quaint charm and connotations of innocence, juxtaposing them with the serious nature of its subject - air pollution. As a result, that message stands out more starkly and memorably.
Even if you’ve never watched an episode of South Park, it’s highly likely that you’d still be able to recognise it at a glance. The satirical cartoon’s crude animation style lends a lot to the show — it has a look that is instantly identifiable, and a bright and colourful aesthetic that deftly contrasts its often pitch-black sense of humour.
As the series has gone on, one of the key advantages to this rough and simple style is that it allows for a fairly rapid production time (the creators famously give themselves just one week to produce an episode) meaning that South Park, unlike many of its other contemporaries in animated TV, can produce episodes that satirise events and personalities while they’re still firmly embedded within the public consciousness.
This gives the show a social currency: it is able to reflect and engage with what people are thinking and talking about. With the wealth of tools now available to content creators, it has never been easier to produce independent content that makes use of this idea of social currency: look, for example, at how the medium of podcasting has shown itself – through podcasts like The Bugle, Chapo Trap House, and Reasons to be Cheerful – to be particularly well-suited to topical satire and up-to-the-minute political commentary.
With social media and analytics tools, as well, it is easier than ever to actually research what your audience is interested in: what they find funny or entertaining, what they’re discussing, and what they find worthy of sharing amongst their friends.
One of my favourite filmmakers is the French director Michel Gondry. His career as a filmmaker started when he would create the music videos for his old band, and this independent spirit is something that runs throughout his entire body of work. From his later music videos for the likes of Björk and Radiohead to feature films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry has frequently been lauded for his use of inventive hand-crafted practical effects in bringing his singularly surreal visions to the screen.
His 2008 film Be Kind Rewind, in particular, fits with Wolff and Gunn’s third psychological driver. They write that audiences respond particularly well to content that gives them something that they can apply practically — citing that key words like “learn”, “tips”, and “how to” can help to generate shares. In the example of Be Kind Rewind, we can see clearly how a deliberately independently-minded approach can not just resonate with audiences, but also inspire their own creativity.
The film is probably best-known for kickstarting the cult trend of “sweded” films: its plot — in which the owners of a video shop create no-budget remakes of famous films to replace their accidentally erased stock of VHS tapes — has inspired cinephiles around the world to create their own charmingly ramshackle versions of iconic film scenes. Even over a decade after the film’s release, the practice is still widespread.
Finally, one thing that people have always responded enthusiastically to is a well-told story; and the wide variety of cheaper and more easily accessible tools for creating content has not only seen a rise in younger creators, but in more established figures looking at how these smaller-scale tools can suit the stories they want to tell.
Sean Baker famously shot 2015’s widely acclaimed Tangerine on an iPhone — a choice that he made so that more of the film’s modest budget could be spent on securing locations and paying actors. The success of this film was part of what inspired Steven Soderbergh (himself a true icon in the field of indie cinema) to shoot last year’s Unsane with smartphone cameras; and, speaking in a blog post for the Mobile Motion Film Festival, Juno Temple, one of the actresses in the film, talked about how this more low-key method of filming proved to be particularly well-suited to crafting a tense and suspenseful psychological thriller:
“…because of fewer crew and equipment around, the iPhone created a greater intimacy as you would sometimes forget it was there. It could be put into places that would make the scenes up close and personal…”
When trying to make something that will be noticed and appreciated in an ocean of other content, it can be easy to think that the best solution is to produce something expensive and extravagant to grab your audience’s attention. It’s always worth remembering however, that capturing the imagination can be as simple as having a good idea and a few basic tools.