School of Motion

Vox Earworm Storytelling: A Chat with Estelle Caswell

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In this podcast episode we sit down with Vox's Earworm storytelling genius, Estelle Caswell.

In today's episode we chat with none other than Estelle Caswell. This New Yorker is creating engaging content on a whole new level. Creativity seems to flow endlessly from her videos, and the Earworm series on Vox is a prime example.
Viewed by millions, Earworm captivates your attention with unique storytelling, well composited motion design, subtle humor, and historical facts that give you a deeper appreciation for music and its impact on our world.
In the episode, Joey and Estelle chat about her journey through the industry, how she ended up in New York, the origins of Earworm, and what it takes to pull off an episode. Some of you may be bored with your commercial work, so we definitely made sure to ask how this editorial work even became possible. So sit back, relax, and let's get to listenin'...

Vox Interview Show Notes

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Vox Interview Transcript

Joey Korenman: About a year and a half ago, one of our alumni posted a video he'd worked on in our alumni group, and everyone just gushed over it. It was a long piece, over seven minutes, that explained why humans loved repetition when it comes to music. The video was part of Vox's Earworm series, a pretty incredible set of visual essays that dive into the minutiae of music theory and history. Videos like How the Triplet Flow Took Over Rap have been viewed millions of times since they launched. Earworm videos are a mix of great writing, clever editing, good design and animation, and a brilliant knack for visual metaphor that helps even a musical novice understand complex topics. The mastermind behind this series is Estelle Caswell, video maker extraordinaire at Vox.com.
Joey Korenman: In this interview, we learn all about Estelle's journey through the industry to get to where she is now in New York City kicking out videos that are being viewed by millions. We dig into the creation of an Earworm video and into what it takes to work on editorial projects as opposed to the commercial work that most of us are familiar with. If you want to hear what it's like to have a MoGraph dream job, and what skills you'll need to hone if you want to do this kind of work, then listen up.
Joey Korenman: Estelle, I've kind of turned into a fanboy of yours over the last 24 hours, so I'm really, really excited to have you on the podcast, and I've got to say thank you for taking time out of your day to do this.
Estelle Caswell: Oh, not a problem. I'm excited to be here.
Joey Korenman: Awesome. I have to say also, for everyone listening, the reason Estelle sounds so amazing right now is because she's actually in a voiceover booth, which is a School of Motion podcast first. I'm very impressed. I wanted to start what you are doing now is so interesting that I want to found out how the hell you got there. I did my homework, and I found out that you're from Alabama, but then you went to school in Los Angeles. Then you went back to these East Coast. Now, you're in Manhattan. It's a pretty diverse set of cities to live in. I'm curious if you could talk a little about the origin story and how you ended up going from the south to the west coast and getting into video.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah, I mean I think when I was 17 years old and applying to colleges, I think I subconsciously only applied to places that I've never been and were big cities, and felt like I could sort of start fresh, especially because, growing up in Alabama for 18 years, I really, really wanted a change of pace. I applied to schools in Chicago and LA, and after visiting Chicago during the winter, I decided LA was the place for me.
Joey Korenman: Good call.
Estelle Caswell: I went to Loyola Marymount University. I was accepted into their film program, and pretty much hit the ground running as a freshman just sort of immersing myself in the world of film production and student films and the sort of DIY mentality of all of that. Over the course of four years, really narrowed in. Kind of almost towards the end of my senior year I finally realized what I was interested in. Yeah, that's sort of the gist of everything.
Joey Korenman: Got you. You said you wanted a fresh start, and I'm curious, because I'm assuming that a lot of our listeners are going to hear you grew up in Alabama, and they've got this vision of what that's like. Small town, and probably not a lot of artists and stuff like that. Can you talk a little bit about what specifically did you mean that you wanted a fresh start? Were you kind of the artistic type that never felt anyone understood you? What was your childhood like there?
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. The funny thing is is like I grew up in this town called Fairhope, Alabama, and it's actually known in the south as one of the most artistic communities in the southeast.
Joey Korenman: That's awesome.
Estelle Caswell: You have a lot of artists like painters and authors. For instance, Winston Groom,, who wrote Forrest Gump, is from that area. Fannie Flagg, who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes, has a house in Fairhope. It's actually a very quaint, artistic community, and I think being surrounded by that was really, really cool growing up. Not only that, my parents were art majors in college. My mom's an interior designer, and my dad's an architect. They always sort of approached everything that they put in front of us to entertain us as sort of more artistic things than like, "You need to learn how to do math." They were like, "You need to learn how to figure draw." I think that was kind of subconsciously embedded in me for like my entire childhood.
Estelle Caswell: I think what I realized is that there is a world outside of... Film production specifically was kind of way more interesting to me, and what doesn't exist in Alabama is any sort of media company or any sort of production company that animation, anything like that. There's just no industry for it. Leaving was sort of the next right step.
Joey Korenman: Got you. It's interesting. There's like a few similarities with my childhood that I'm kind of connecting with, because I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and then I applied only to schools in Chicago and Boston. I ended up in Boston, so I went the opposite way. I always I was like making videos my whole childhood. When I got into high school, I met a buddy who was also into videos, and so every class project we made a video. Was there anything like that for you? What drew you to film and television, which is what you ended up studying at Loyola?
Estelle Caswell: Totally. I mean, I had like... I don't even know what the program was on PCs that was like editing that came with the computer. I can't remember what it is.
Joey Korenman: Probably Windows Movie Maker or something like that.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. It was Windows Movie Maker. I was like a total geek for that, and I would literally just... I think my high school year... Full disclosure. Nobody but me knew I was doing this. I did it sort of in secret, because I was an introvert and didn't want to share what I was doing ever. I would like download clips from YouTube and then make my own cuts of them like trailers and things like that. I really loved editing a lot, because I felt like it was tedious and meticulous, and it was a lot of problem solving, but also I could do it by myself. I didn't have to I guess go out and shoot with a bunch of people and make it a more collaborative thing. I loved doing things by myself, and editing was one of those.
Joey Korenman: Got you. Okay, I can totally relate to that by the way. Then you decide, "Okay, I'm going to college, and I want to study this," and so you picked Loyola because it's in a warm place, which is a good choice. That's why I live in Florida. That's one of the reasons, because I want to Boston University, and I did the film and television program. It was really, really focused, at least the film component, was focused on theory. Then the video sort of TV side was focused on production. Post-production was, at least when I went... I graduated in 2003, so I think I'm a little older than you, and but it was really there was no motion design. There was very little editing theory, stuff like that. What was your program like? What did you get out of it?
Estelle Caswell: The film school I went to was split into film production, which is what I did, which is sort of like the nitty gritty of learning directing and cinematography and some audio engineering and things like that, but then there was also screenwriting, there was animation, and then there was I think maybe sound design was... That doesn't make sense. That feels too narrow, but-
Joey Korenman: That'd be cool though.
Estelle Caswell: Maybe it was sound design or like audio production. I went the film product route, which is pretty generic, because you take a handful of classes in each area of expertise, and you're even allowed to take classes outside of your major. I did take a screenwriting class, and I think about halfway through I sort of realized everybody around me's goal was to be in the entertainment industry, and their goal was to either a producer, a director, or a DP. I didn't interact with anybody who was like, "My passion is editing." I think when you go into film school, and you're in Los Angeles, you're like, "The sky's the limit, and I want to be a director, and I have a lot of ideas, and this is the goal." I was surrounded by a lot of people who had very, very specific vision of what they wanted to do. For me, it was like I changed my mind every single semester. What always stayed the same was that I just enjoyed post-production the most. I enjoyed the sort of problem solving aspect of it. I wasn't until...
Estelle Caswell: I didn't take a single after effects class. It wasn't until after I graduated that I really sort of appreciated title sequences and things that were a bit more graphic design oriented. I think I saw a documentary, like IOUSA, which was like the first doc that I saw that had like a core motion graphics element in it. I was just so fascinated by that idea. Actually, it wasn't until after I graduated, the full year after graduation, that I downloaded After Effects and just taught myself through YouTube tutorials.
Joey Korenman: That's crazy. That was the next thing I was going to ask you was how did you learn to do any sort of... Learn After Effects is one thing. Kind of understanding how the program works and how to use it, but the work you're doing now is also very well designed. It was very cool animation in it, and a lot of different techniques. I'm just curious where did that come from like your... Forgive me, because I don't know how much you're actually designing and how much you're actually animating at this point, or if you have other artists doing that kind of stuff.
Estelle Caswell: I'm doing pretty much all of it still.
Joey Korenman: That's the crazy thing to me, because I also am more or less self taught in everything, in the software side and on the creative and design and animation side, and it took me a long time to have any sense of design and animation. I got good at After Effects pretty quickly, but how did you? Did you just sort of have a knack for the stuff, or did you consciously say, "Okay, I need to work on design now. I need to work on typography and composition"?
Estelle Caswell: I think I just sort of forced it to happen through setting up my own personal projects and looking at things that I really liked. I think what happens with a lot of designers, and I've interacted with a lot of hire a freelancer for one thing or look through reels for people to sort of hire to help me just get Earworm across the board, for instance. It's a huge undertaking to do it all on your own, and kind of the biggest challenge for me is finding like-minded motion designers who get it almost immediately. The reason is because it is such a fast process. To sort of track back, the reason I'm saying this is because I think a huge part of it is just taste. I can see work that is incredibly technical, but composition-wise, it kind of floors me that there's just nothing there to sort of go off of. It's really hard to teach that on the ground. I think the only way I can explain my sort of learning those things is just by looking at really good work and trying to emulate it and then creating personal projects that just sort of use the really great stuff a standard. Just trying to get there over time.
Joey Korenman: That's how I looked at it too is almost like you're reverse engineering why you like things. Then through that you learn.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. I kind of feel bad that I've never opened a graphic design theory book or learned how to place typography in places. Sometimes that does hit me in the head when I'm working, and I'm like, "I could probably have solved this a lot easier if I knew the theory behind what I was doing," but a lot of it is just eyeballing things and just intuition.
Joey Korenman: It's interesting to me, because this is kind of a theme I've been exploring a little bit lately on this podcast with people is it's a big question in design and really any kind of creative education is how much of someone's talent is innate, a gift, and how much is done through hard work? It's hard to argue that the best artists out there also tend to work their asses. Clearly, looking at the work you're doing, I can tell, I can see, the late nights in the final projects. At the same time, it does kind of sound like both of your parents were artists, and you were probably exposed to a lot of things, and you just kind of absorbed a lot. You have an eye.
Joey Korenman: I know lots of animators, for example, who are insecure about their design abilities, who have taken classes and read those books and made a big effort to get better at design. They do, but there's almost like this plateau that some people can just skip right over. I'm always curious, do you have any sense of... You know, you've worked with other artists, and you sort of know how you work, do you think that you just sort of have a brain that works perfectly to do what you're doing, and so you have success, or is this been like a really difficult, excruciating, deliberate process to get where you are?
Estelle Caswell: I think it's always excruciating. I guess I could talk about sort of the job I had right after college, which illustrates how excruciating it could be.
Joey Korenman: I love it.
Estelle Caswell: A year after graduation, almost to the day, I was hired to work as a motion designer, the first motion designer at the company. They were trying to start like a little explainer program for a PR company in DC. The clients were not thinking about design. They were thinking about messaging, and they were thinking about sort of very conservative... Not conservative politically, but like conservative design-wise messaging. These are clients like oil companies and train companies and health insurance companies that wanted a two minute long explainer or PSA on whatever they're doing. I'm 22, 23 years old. I taught myself After Effects over the course of a year, and I get thrown into this job working with clients and sort of getting thrown scripts that aren't visual at all. A lot of people at the company put a lot of faith in me only because they didn't have anything to compare me to. I had a lot of autonomy in terms of the challenges I would give myself to make this fun.
Estelle Caswell: I think over the course of those two years, that first job that I had, I learned a lot. I learned about managing client expectations, about managing my time, about all of those things, but I think more importantly to me it was about every project trying to put a challenge, just my own artistic challenge, to myself. If I am not able to either achieve it, just sort of do a kind of retro report and figure out, "What do I need to learn to actually do it?" Luckily, these projects, I would be given two months to make a minute explainer, which is like right now completely unheard of in my job. It gave me time to really experiment and teach myself things that I wouldn't have bene able to if I were surrounded by people that were way better than me and I was just trying to keep up.
Joey Korenman: That's really interesting, and you said something that I wanted to call out. You said one of the challenges there was that clients would give you scripts that weren't visual?
Estelle Caswell: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: This is something I really wanted to dig in with you, because, especially the Earworm pieces, the Explained episode that you directed, I know what it's like to be given a script that literally every sentence you have to think, "All right, what the hell am I going to show here? What the hell am I going to show here?" There's nothing obvious based on what they've written. When you were 22 and 23, did you actually understand the problem here is that the words don't bring any images to mind, or was it just like this general sense of, "I don't know what to do"? At that point, were you already aware that writing is actually a bit part of motion design?
Estelle Caswell: I did, but the I guess the things that I was looking at, I could tell that those motion designers were also facing the same challenges. Like on Vimeo I would have like my 20 favorite artists that I'd follow, and they'd pop up with an explainer about, I don't know, the water crisis or something. I would see it, and I'd be like, "They came up with magic every 10 seconds, because the script was horrible." My point of reference was just like, "How can I make this as decorative and as fun to watch as possible without people really paying attention to what they're listening to?"
Estelle Caswell: I guess I wasn't super... It wasn't so clear to me that that was a problem. I think when it became a problem is two years in I was getting really bored of that as a challenge, because I was also... The world of more editorial motion graphics was coming around, and I was like, "Wow, that seems so much more exciting to figure out is how to tell actual stories through animation and through motion graphics." It was probably about a year or two in where I was started like... I'd be given a script, and I'd say, "Can I change this entire paragraph, so that we can write to something that we'll actually see on screen?" It just so happened that about two years in, when I was getting kind of frustrated with this process, that Vox launched and was looking for a designer to do more editorial work.
Joey Korenman: Good timing. Before we get to Vox, I'm just curious, who were some of the studios and artists that you were looking to when you were looking for inspiration?
Estelle Caswell: I mean like all of the ones that everybody looks to?
Joey Korenman: All the same ones? Jorge?
Estelle Caswell: Like Giant Ant. Buck. Basically all of the ones that are just incredibly beautiful, and you don't know how they're made, and you will never know how they're made.
Joey Korenman: You don't want to know. Trust me.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. It seems-
Joey Korenman: That's awesome.
Estelle Caswell: It was also like I was one person making a thing, and whenever I'd see something that I really loved, I would look at the credits, and it was like 20 people. I was like, "That is why it looks so beautiful is because there's a job for everybody, and it's very collaborative. There's a lot of hands on it." If you're one person trying to do that, it would take a lot longer cost a lot more money.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. Vox launches, and how did you end up... I mean, did you just sort of see a job posting and you applied? How did you end up there?
Estelle Caswell: I have to shout out my friend who was a coworker at my PR company who was like, "Do you know who Ezra Klein is?" I was like, "No I don't." She's like, "Well, he's launching... He's from the Washington Post. He's launching this company called Vox, and they... It looks like they have a video team, that's starting with the company," which was kind of unheard of. Most media companies tack on a video team like five years in just to say they did it. They were like, "There's a job opening. I think you should look into it or at least call them up and see what's up." I would never have known about it if it weren't for her.
Joey Korenman: It's so funny these little connections that you never know, and then here you are. On the surface, Vox, if you go to Vox.com... We'll link to it in the show notes, but it's pretty easy to remember. V-O-X.com. It's a news site, but then they have up at the top they've got this menu. One of the things you can click is Explainers, and it's really funny, because that word means something in motion design. I think it means something slightly different to Vox. I'm wondering if you can kind of talk about what is an explainer in the world of Vox? How does that fit in to Vox's ecosystem?
Estelle Caswell: Sure. An explainer can live in any form. For Vox, it was the bread and butter is in written form. An explainer is basically taking something big happening in the news that might be happening over a long period of time. When I started, it was I think it was Obama trying to get the Affordable Care Act across the finish line. This is a long story that has a lot of moving pieces day to day. The idea behind the explainer is that if something happened that was big, and you weren't necessarily paying attention to the whole story and the background, that this explainer would sort of give you a rundown of everything that's happening, help you contextualize the news of the day, and do it in a really conversational not wonky way. Our voice is really oriented towards talking to your friend who's incredibly smart and could probably teach you a lot about things that they know, but they don't necessarily know about the thing that you know. You're just basically talking to a smart person who just isn't necessarily informed about a specific topic. That's kind of an explainer in a nutshell.
Joey Korenman: That's really cool. I mean, I've often kind of wished for something like that, because I don't really follow the news very closely. Then something big happens, and I want the context. Getting that context is very painful. It's really difficult to... I mean, that's a whole separate podcast, but... Vox has this cool sort of format with these explainers. I read through a couple of them. They're really cool to read, and really helpful. Then at what point did someone decide, "Hey, we should make a video version of this"? Was that from the beginning, or was that later on?
Estelle Caswell: It was actually from the very beginning. I think we posted a video before we posted an article. It was like Joe, who at the time was the head of the YouTube team, is now head of all of video at Vox.com, was the first hire along with a handful of reporters and I guess more organizational people. He was basically tasked from day one with building a team. Before really the month that Vox launched, I started freelancing with them. I know David Stanfield did as well. He did a project with them around the same time that I did. It was really the traditional animated explainer that was really big in 2014. We've since evolved what that looks like for us, but at the time it was like, "In three minutes can you explain the Affordable Care Act, or in three minutes can you explain what nuclear war with North Korea would look like basically?"
Joey Korenman: You're going from more traditional explainer video stuff at your previous gig, and now you're at Vox, and I imagine that just the weightiness of the topics must have gone up a little bit because you're talking about presidential politics and nuclear war and things like that. Was there any sort of learning curve as far as being able to tell those stories in a way, I guess, that kind of gave them the respect or the gravitas that they needed?
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. I mean, the thing is is like our initial style was the video team at the story, which was Joe, then Joss Fong, who has really shaped our video team's editorial voice, and then myself, all had three very different skills. Joe came from the documentary world and did a lot of animation sequences there. Joss came from this sort of science journalism world, so she's a very critical, critical eye and ear for fact-checking and things like that. What she's skeptical about in a story, I would never think about. Then, for me, it was purely design. I had a lot to learn from both of them.
Estelle Caswell: The way we operated was that I would go to the news room, kind of peruse through articles that had sort of chart or a visual component, interview the writer who wrote the article, chop up those sound bites, and animate over it. I was definitely in more control of the story. I got to ask the question that I wanted to that felt like they would fit in a visual form rather than a written form. It also lent itself to me not having so much pressure on the story because I was using the expertise of a reporter who really knew about it. That was kind of how I learned...
Estelle Caswell: That's really how I learned journalism. I learned the way you talked about things. I learned the way you report on things, and then I learned how to find visual evidence for stuff where I would typically in the past just cover it with a vague image, a more abstract interpretation of the information. Here it was like if somebody gave a statistic, I wouldn't just put the statistic as a percentage. I would find the material, like the source for it and the data, to illustrate that statistic in the context of a lot of other information. It was just like learning how to find visual evidence for stuff that I wouldn't have done before.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. That's interesting, because it's not... I don't think that would be my first instinct. I would think, "Okay, well, I'm going to design a frame that says, 'Oil prices have gone up 75%,' or something like that." A bar graph. You're saying that... I mean, because that sounds like a more documentary style approach, which is interesting because you said that one of your team members comes from that background where, "No, let's go find some microfiche and find the newspaper article that talks about it or something like that." That's a very I guess the word that I would use is that is a kind of editorial technique, because I started as an editor before I was an animator, and that was the name of the game was like, "I have to find something to put here." Unless you're a designer and an animator, you can't just make whatever you want. You have to find something.
Estelle Caswell: Exactly.
Joey Korenman: Was that a tendency that was kind... Was it hard for you to sort of break the habit of like, "Oh, I'll just make something"? Were there ever times where you made something, and then someone looked at it and said like, "Why don't you just show this picture instead of trying to animate something?"
Estelle Caswell: I think it was definitely like a push and pull. What I learned over time is that I love research. It is the thing that I most look forward to, and so I think it was almost natural for me to go down that path. It certainly I think it was more punch to my psyche that I had spent four years at that point or three years at that point building this learnings of like After Effects and being a better designer and all of the people that I looked up to were just beautiful designers, and I wanted to just make everything that I was animating. I had to really come to terms with the fact that my job wasn't to decorate a video. My job was to tell a story. The second I really embraced that and sort of let animation help that process rather than hinder that process, was the just a huge breath of fresh air for me.
Joey Korenman: I don't think I've ever heard it put that way. I love that. It's not your job to decorate a video. That's amazing. It's great that you love research, because I was wondering about this. Your Earworm videos, and we're going to get them... I know everyone is listening thinking like, "Talk about Earworm."
Estelle Caswell: That's fine.
Joey Korenman: We will, but one of the things that kind of struck me about it is that watching those, I feel like you have to become an expert in whatever it is you're making a video about. Every single time there's a new topic, now you have to become an expert in that. Is that kind of the case? Do you really just have to like, "Okay, now I'm going to become an expert in jazz standards for like a month"?
Estelle Caswell: I think there's a different word to use here, and I think it's you have to find the experts and be a good messenger for them. For me, it's part of being a journalist is reporting and talking to people who are experts. Journalists are just... They're storytellers. In some cases, can become experts over time because they've reported on a story for so long, but for me the way I approach things is I am never going to understand jazz music theory. I'm never going to understand the economics of the wage gap or things like that, but there are hundreds of people across the world who are those people. It's my job to find them, to really ask great questions to them as my audience might be interested in learning.
Estelle Caswell: For me, it's just the process of finding experts who I think can communicate really well and just letting them tell the story and having me kind of build something really engaging around that.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, so this is a very different way from working than... I mean, frankly, I'm trying to think I worked on a TV show once. Right? Once in my career. It was called Dogs 101. It was about dogs. I was exposed to this idea of like, "Okay, now we need a graphic to show where the shih tzu came from in China," or something like that. I would have to do research and have it fact checked and all that kind of stuff. For most of my career, that was not the case. It was like, "Here's some storyboards. Animate this. Make it look pretty."
Joey Korenman: I think that's kind of one obvious difference between editorial work and more sort of client-driven work. Since you've done both, I mean you've done explainer videos that were for clients, and now you're sort of doing explainer videos that are... I mean, I'm assuming they're almost it's like it's almost marketing for Vox. It's like a newspaper kind of model, so this is the content. This is what we're putting out. Are there other differences besides just the amount of research involved?
Estelle Caswell: I think the biggest differences come down to what is a priority. In the commercial world, or in making animated explainers for a brand, the priority is really just making it flashy. The client for me never, rarely, questioned what was on screen. They more questioned what was in the script. I don't know. Obviously that won't be the case for every person who's done this, but for me it was like the priority was never visuals. The priority was, "How can we make this legally fine, and also within the budget?"
Estelle Caswell: In the editorial world, it is, for video and for Vox.com in particular, our videos, the baked in priority is always the visual evidence. What can you show that proves your story, and what can you do to fact-check that? What can you do to find all of the counter-arguments to your story? How can you incorporate that a comprehensive view of a story to the audience so that they really kind of take away from the video that a full understanding of something and appreciation for how much work went into it and how much research went into it. The way we pitch stories is similar to is like the way our newsroom pitches stories. We have to come up with a headline for everything. We have to come up with all of the visual hooks and evidence that reiterate the point.
Estelle Caswell: We're not saying, "I'm really interesting this topic, and I'm going to make a video about it." We have to say, "This is the topic I'm interested in. This is the angle of the story I'm interested in. These are all the visual pieces of evidence that I'm going to show during this process, and these are all the people I'm going to interview to fact check everything." The animation part, the part that makes it look cool and fun for the audience, is like number nine on that list. I think that's the biggest difference.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I think the last thing that you said really kind of hit home for me. It's that when... I remember animating stuff for a commercial, and always in the back of my mind was, "I hope some other motion designer sees this and thinks it's cool." When you're making, and essentially you're making documentaries, they're very design and animation heavy, but they're basically documentaries, I'm guess that's probably very low on your list. That, "I hope I can impress so and so on Twitter." Although I will say that the design and animation is really, really good too, so you're probably getting both.
Estelle Caswell: The funny thing is is like I thought about that a lot whenever I first started because I only wanted to upload something to Vimeo and have my favorite artist like it or share it.
Joey Korenman: I get it.
Estelle Caswell: Which I realized at my skill level was never going to happen. Not just that, even now, and we can talk about this later, but my... I guess what I prioritize in the process is the research and the storytelling and writing as clearly and interestingly as possible. Because I now have a pretty standard skillset in After Effects and animation and design, I'm able to just muscle memory through the visuals of that. I know what works. I know in my head when I'm writing exactly what I'm going to show people, and so it's just the actual animation of that is... It's just way faster. The time that I take in a project is much more before. Everything before the script is locked is really where all of my energy is poured into.
Joey Korenman: I want to dig into that, because that seems very challenging to me, because I think most motion designers and probably most of the people listening to this episode right now, they're used to getting a script. They're not used to writing a script. Never mind writing a script and having to not only make it sound good but imply visuals. Right? I mean you really are writing and directing a whole piece in your head. Where did that skillset come from? How did you develop that ability?
Estelle Caswell: I mean, I think it was like... Oh man. Working at Vox was a huge challenge, because I didn't know how to do it at all, and I'd never been asked to do it ever. It was really just like finding things that I really loved just the same way an animator would, and the same way I did with design, is like finding scripts and videos and documentaries that I really loved and figuring out why I loved them. Sort of kind of coming up with a structure and a formula, and ways to talk to people, that weren't passive but were very active. Through that process, and also having Joss next to me, and seeing what she was making... She wasn't an animator. She learned pretty much animation on the job at Vox where I learned writing on the job at Vox. We really, I think, we really learned from each other.
Estelle Caswell: She was very good at showing visual evidence for things, and bringing people along for the ride, saying, "Look at this." It's such a simple thing to say, but when you say it in a video, it immediately captures people's attention. You're like, "Look at this thing," and then you show it to people. It's like, "Oh my God." That is a magic trick that not enough people use in the world of explainers, because it's very just... You'll write an entire script without once thinking about what is going to covering those words.
Estelle Caswell: For me it's writing a sentence, and then immediately figuring out, "How can I write that sentence so that it makes people really think about what they're looking at?" That's kind of just a learned thing on the job. The influence came from a lot of different places.
Joey Korenman: While you're writing, do images sort of pop into your head? As an example, one of the favorite videos of yours that I've seen was about the most feared song in jazz. There's this concept in that video that you have to explain. I think you called it the circle of fifths. There's this pretty elaborate visual metaphor that you came up with, but also very clear the way... It'd be comical for me to try to explain it on a podcast. Everyone should just go watch that one. We'll link to it in the show notes, but while you were writing a script explaining what fifths are in musical theory, and how different keys relate to each other in this circular sort of shape, did you have an idea in your head of how you were going to visualize that? Were you just thinking, "All right. I know I need to explain this, but it's future Estelle's problem to figure out what to show"?
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. Well, I think this is a very unique story in that probably like two years before I actually published the video my brother texted me and was like, "You should do a video on the Coltrane changes. You should do a video on Giant Steps." I was like, "Yeah, I never... I don't even understand that song." I think it wasn't until three months before I actually made it where I was like, "You know what? I think I'm good enough now to tackle this, and I think I understand how to communicate to people enough to tackle it."
Estelle Caswell: Luckily enough, I reached out to the experts who could teach me the way they learned it, the way they understand it, and sort of figure out all of the visual metaphors and all of the sort of visuals that would help people start from square one in music theory all the way up to a 10. Over the course of 10 minutes start from the very basic concepts that you might learn in freshman year of music school, and then what is the PhD that you can get to at the end of that process? How can you sort of just build on that knowledge throughout and use one visual hook to kind of communicate that and build on?
Estelle Caswell: Luckily, in music theory, this circle of fifths is like a color wheel for designers. It's something that you can learn very basic concepts, but you can also really manipulate it and build upon it and illustrate very complex concepts. It was a process for me to just interview the experts sand have them constantly reference this circle of fifths, and me go, "You know what? I'm just going to use the circle of fifths. Everybody keeps talking about it. This is the thing that I'm going to use."
Joey Korenman: It sounds like you try not to reinvent the wheel? You look at how do other people talk about this thing I want to talk about, and then how can I simplify that, and maybe make it a little sexier because I'm a designer, I want it to look good?
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. I think one aspect of the process is, and a lot of storytellers and a lot of journalists grapple with this every day, is like nobody has a monopoly on ideas or stories. Really, the value in telling stories over and over again is that people can bring to them different areas of expertise. For me, there are a million videos on YouTube about breaking down the Giant Steps music theory, and I wasn't afraid to do that again because I felt like I could do it in a way that appealed to not just a music theory audience but to an audience who knows nothing about jazz and who might not have ever even heard of John Coltrane or Giant Steps before. For me, it's like straddling that world. Appealing to the experts who might want to find a part of the video there that's an error, and appealing to the people who know nothing about it, and having them kind of come to an appreciation for something that they wouldn't have thought about.
Joey Korenman: While you're working on these ideas and these scripts, I'm assuming that... It sounds like as you're writing you kind of in your head are building the video. Is there a step where you have to deep dive into photography archives and footage archives so that you sort of have it in your head, and you know like, "Okay, I can talk about this, because I know I have a cool clip to show"?
Estelle Caswell: Oh, absolutely. I mean the thing that I prioritize most in the process is doing as much archival research during my research. One thing I do is I just find a Billboard Magazine article or some sort of just kind of piece of evidence that's more historical that I can write specifically to. Absolutely. I mean, part of the process of researching isn't just fact checking and learning the facts. It's researching the visuals that will help reiterate those facts.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. That's working like an editor, which I think that's a skill that every motion designer should try to develop, because it's really handy to have just one good image instead of having to design a whole thing.
Estelle Caswell: 100%. The thing is like here's a very basic reference that I think even motion designers would complete relate to is the Brief History of John Baldessari. Right?
Joey Korenman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Estelle Caswell: Do you know that one?
Joey Korenman: Yep.
Estelle Caswell: That's kind of a very archive-driven piece that just tells the story of this artist John Baldessari. It's narrated by Tom Waits, and it's mostly images. There's very little video. There's very little animation besides typography, but for me it was so fun to watch not because of the pacing or maybe how delightful it was. It was because everything that Tom Waits said in the script you saw, and I think it would've been really hard to tell a story about John Baldessari without talking about his work very actively.
Estelle Caswell: I think that's a great reference for people who are questioning the way to write to visuals. Even a motion designer, this would be a great reference point because, yeah, it's very concise and tight and brief and the script is fully in line with what you're looking at.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. We're going to link to that in the show notes. I think that's a really good example. It takes a certain amount of restraint as a motion designer, especially when you're kind of early in your career. I know that I was really infatuated with Andrew Kramer tutorials and making stuff really cool, and lens flares and things like that. It would almost feel like I was cheating if I just put an image on screen and zoomed in a little bit over three seconds. Sometimes that is the most powerful thing you can do. It's just cool that the environment that you found yourself in really rewarded that. If you watch your Earworm stuff, and the Netflix episode that you directed, you can see that restraint in there. There's moments where things are really kind of crazy, and there's a lot of design and animation going on. Then you'll just sit on an image for five, six seconds. I think that's something that, I don't know, for me it probably took a decade to develop the restraint to be able to do that.
Estelle Caswell: I think the biggest thing is that whenever I was looking at animations that I really loved on Vimeo, the thing that I was the most... That just blew my mind every single time I wanted to try to get so good at was crazy transitions. In storytelling, transitions mean nothing. They give you no information. They just get you from one scene to the next, so for me it's like, "Okay, just jump cut to the next thing because you're spending time on something that has no purpose for the story."
Estelle Caswell: Some transitions, if I put in a transition or I take some time on it in a video, it's really for pacing purposes. I try to just do it very rarely.
Joey Korenman: I think jump cuts or just edits in general are kind of making a comeback, which is good to see.
Estelle Caswell: I'm hoping so, because, man, I think it kind of prioritizes for me the wrong aspect of motion design.
Joey Korenman: Right. Right. This brings up another interesting point. You talked about this a little bit earlier that one of the trickiest things for you is finding like-minded designers or designers that get it I think is what you said. I'm wondering if you could talk about that a little bit, because I was curious about that too. Especially once I started to dig in, and I learned about how quickly you put these videos together... I mean, the timelines are absolutely bonkers to me. Are there, have you, tried out designers that do amazing work, they just can't do this? How do you think about who's right to do this kind of stuff?
Estelle Caswell: I don't know who's right, and that's the thing is like this in terms of the Vox video team, we kind of built a team of unicorns, and it's really hard to pull people into that process and have them without spending a lot of time teaching them how we operate. I think in looking for a designer, it's really about how they communicate information. We often do animation tests, and this is if we're bringing people along like not just to freelance on projects but like full time jobs, right, is it's less about how much they can decorate a scene than how much, if we give them a 30 second script, how much can they help us understand that script.
Estelle Caswell: For designers, like if your world and if all of your previous projects are commercial, that is just much less priority for them. It's not their goal. If you looked at my portfolio right now, it would not sell in the commercial world. It is not good enough to complete against anybody who's doing commercial work, but it does communicate information. The people, I guess it's just like, "Who is your audience?" If your audience is other designers, then you're not going to think about clarity. If your audience is regular everyday people, then the most important thing is just getting them to understand your story, and I think that's just a hard thing to communicate to animators who have not dipped into this world before. It's something that I wish so badly I could kind of convince people of that there's a rewarding aspect to this that won't necessarily get you a design award. There's a rewarding aspect to this that is actually incredibly satisfying and challenging and intellectually challenging as opposed to like, "I've got to develop this very specific skill."
Estelle Caswell: Yeah, that's a very long winded rambly answer, but it's just I think in the end one of my biggest goals is to figure out how to bring in animators that I really love and kind of show them how rewarding editorial work can be despite the fact that you might only have a week to do something that you would typically have three months. There's just a different muscle that you get to flex, and it's actually a really fun muscle to flex occasionally.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I want to ask you about a word you used. It's funny. I was talking to some of our School of Motion team yesterday getting some ideas to talk to you about, and I actually used the word unicorn also, because just once I found out how quickly you and your team put together these videos, I figured, "Well, then they have to be unicorns," because there is no time, I'm assuming, correct me if I'm wrong, I'm assuming there isn't time to do the traditional production pipeline of a mood board, a style frame, get those approved, production boards where you literally board out every shot, hand that to an editor, editor roughs them in for timing, get the sound locked, boom then it goes to animation.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. Never heard of that process.
Joey Korenman: Is that even possible? What I was going say, what did you mean when you said unicorn? Did you mean just like someone that has four or five different skillsets as opposed to most motion designers which might have a couple? Or is it more that they're unicorns because they're designers and animators who are okay letting the amount of polish on a shot be B+ because you've got to get it done in a week?
Estelle Caswell: I think it's both. Let's say you were applying for a job at Vox as a video producer. The unicorn we're looking for is somebody that knows how to tell a visual story. That is all. That's really all it takes. The knowing how to animate is certainly a plus, but a lot of people on our team have learned that skill on the job. I would half of the people on our team didn't know how to animate when they joined our video team. They were really good at doing what made them sort of shine in the process was they weren't going to write a script that would be challenging to cover. They were thinking about stories that were inherently visual, and they were really good at communicating those stories.
Estelle Caswell: That's kind of the unicorn. Even in the world of video journalism, we still have B-roll. People go out and shoot B-roll, which for me is like I would never do that because B-roll implies that it's not important, and you're spending very important, precious time using it. Everything that we try to do is I guess top priority visuals.
Estelle Caswell: For a freelancer, it's like convincing them that even if they have two weeks to do something that they think is almost impossible, it's like, "We reached out to you because we really loved your work, and we think it would work so well in our format. There are things that we can help you sort of shape what to prioritize, but it's definitely not going to be spending five hours key framing something. It's going to be coming up with the most interesting way to show a thing despite it not being as polished as you might want." Our audience is not, unfortunately, is not going to know the difference most of the time, but they will be really impressed by how unique it is. Right?
Estelle Caswell: Uniqueness doesn't have to be polished. I think that that is something that I've learne
Estelle Caswell: d over time is that something can be really special and surprising and exciting and shareable, and it doesn't have to look like 500 people worked on it over the course of three months.
Joey Korenman: That's great advice. Then what is it... I'm assuming that this is a challenge. How do you scale that, because with the success of your Earworm series, which we're about to get to, I'm assuming that Vox is probably really happy about that. They'd like more of this, but there's only one of you. I'm sure there's more than one unicorn at Vox, but what if they said, "Listen, our goal is in two years we're doing 10 times the amount of videos"? Is this scalable? How do you do it?
Estelle Caswell: You're getting into the questions that only my therapist knows about.
Joey Korenman: Awesome. Well, I won't charge you to ask my questions.
Estelle Caswell: It absolutely is scalable, and I think my biggest goal in the next year is to figure out ways to bring on people to collaborate, bring on people that I admire and that I can learn from. I think right now the biggest challenge is that I'm a senior producer, and I've been on the team longer than most of the people on the team, and so for a lot of instances act as a mentor and give people feedback on their stuff. I would love to build a team of designers that I think have really great eye for storytelling for producers who I can help green light a story and shape it and edit it, but they can sort of run with it. Building series and formats outside of Earworm that are much more repeatable but that still feel incredibly satisfying to watch.
Estelle Caswell: I think the thing that I don't ever want to get into in terms of scaling a music program is the sort of plug and play interview in front of a seamless that you animate over. That's just not what I ever want to do, and so the question is, "What are formats that feel as satisfying as Earworm, but that aren't going to kill me, and that I can help other people shape?"
Estelle Caswell: That includes hiring an animator who gets it, who understands the importance of communicating musical ideas, and hiring a producer who kind of is a unicorn in terms of storytelling, who prioritizes visuals over fluff. That's just going to be a long process, but I absolutely want to invest in it.
Joey Korenman: I'm really curious to see how that turns out, because of course TV networks have figured out how to scale stuff like this. I don't have a ton of experience in that world, but my limited experience was it's essentially you have story producers, and you assign them a segment, and they go shoot an hour long interview, and then you cut B-roll on top of it, and you do it really quickly. That's kind of how you-
Estelle Caswell: Absolutely not. Never want to do that.
Joey Korenman: It's a factory approach. I couldn't in my mind imagine how you would do that with something like Earworm. Let's get into Earworm.
Estelle Caswell: Sure.
Joey Korenman: We've been talking about it. We're going to link to Earworm, and there's... I'm on YouTube right now checking. Right now, it looks like there's 13 of them that you have produced, and all of them are good. I watched probably five or six of them yesterday, and they were all awesome. Before we talk about Earworm, I want to call out to everybody that Estelle is actually kind of a big deal. She's been nominated for an Emmy two years in a row, which is pretty awesome. I've never been nominated for an Emmy, but I'd like to hear from you what was that like to make this... This is your baby, this Earworm series. What was it like to get nominated for an Emmy?
Estelle Caswell: I think the first time it was definitely really exciting. Earworm was nominated I guess two years ago for Art Direction and Culture Reporting. Then again the same nominations happened I guess last year? I think the first time it was like I was like, "Oh my God. This is incredible. It's only up from here." Then you go to the ceremony, which is like for journalism it's the News and Documentary Emmys, and so you're up against like 60 minute and CBS Sunday Morning and 20/20 and-
Joey Korenman: Frontline.
Estelle Caswell: ... Nightline, and all of this stuff. You're like, "These people went out and did like on the ground war reporting, and for some reason I'm in the same room as them, and this is really weird. I make videos on the internet. This is like legacy journalism in huge media corporations, and most of the people in the room are like over 50 years old."
Estelle Caswell: I think after that I realized, "There's got to be a different way." We're not the same, and I think also I am a very I really don't care about awards. I would much rather publish a video and it do really well, and people share it and are excited about it, than like nobody watch it but it somehow got an Emmy. I guess the second time around I kind of was a bit more skeptical of the whole process.
Joey Korenman: You were already jaded by the industry. I get it. It didn't take long.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. It's a weird thing to witness, especially when you're in the room and people get called up for their reporting and stuff. I don't know. It's just not for me I guess.
Joey Korenman: Interesting. Okay. Just in case some of the listeners haven't seen any of the Earworm videos, can you just kind of talk about what Earworm is and where did this come from?
Estelle Caswell: Sure. The premise behind Earworm is that there are all these really fascinating stories about music history and the origins of sounds and sort of being able to deconstruct them visually is what Earworm is all about. You might see a video about the drum sound in "In the Air Tonight", which was called gated reverb, the eighties gated reverb, and how that became a sound of the eighties, or like, for instance, the jazz music theory. Deconstructing a song and illustrating all the theory concepts behind it, and everything in between. It's really just all about deconstructing sounds and make them feel very visual and immersive and kind of give people a better appreciation and a better understanding of the music that they're listening to.
Estelle Caswell: The story behind it is that I guess in 2016 I pitched three video concepts, and one of them ended up getting green lit, and that was called Rapping Deconstructed: The Best Rhymers of All Time. It was essentially a 10 minute video deconstructing hip-hop flows from the eighties to today. I think I published it... I spent a long time on it because what I had to do was learn how to count beats and syllabus and then animate to them manually, which was... I would never wish that on my worst enemy. After Effects is not meant to edit to audio. I don't know if I've learned... If I did this the wrong way, but I was just like killing myself. It was a four week long process that was supposed to be two weeks, but I published it at 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. By 10:00 a.m., it had gone viral.
Estelle Caswell: People were like, "I can't believe a video like this exists that I can share and show my friends who don't like hip-hop or think it's stupid that there's an art form to it, and that these are all the songs that I really love, and that I can't believe somebody went in and deconstructed them at this level. This is so much fun to watch."
Estelle Caswell: That was a huge learning process for me, because it was like, "You can make a 10 minute video and labor over it, and people appreciate that, and people will share it because it relates to them." At the time, a lot of media companies were prioritizing short videos on Facebook, and it was just such a freedom to know that something else or another format could be successful on the internet, and that a media company like Vox would actually invest in me to be able to cultivate that theory.
Joey Korenman: You clearly tapped into something, and I watched that one yesterday, and I have to admit that I have never been into hip-hop, and I've tried. I'm actually a drummer, so I am a musician. Watching your video, made me appreciate hip-hop. It really did an amazing job of breaking down the rhythms and all this kind of stuff. How did you come up with that topic, and how did you decide, "Okay, this is how I'm going to visualize it." Everyone listening, you have to watch it because it's just so clever visually how you broke things up into a grid, and you put little dots over the accents. Then you would highlight words that rhyme with each other. There's this very elaborate visual design system that you came up with for this. How did you kind of create this?
Estelle Caswell: I think what happens for me a lot is I read a lot about music, and I get really frustrated through that process, because they'll be referencing things that are very visual but never have the opportunity to show them. I had actually been reading this really long post on a blog that this guy Martin Conner did basically essentially deconstructing hip-hop from a music theory perspective. I was like, "I can't believe there's not a video version of this. This is such a ripe story for just immersive visual storytelling."
Estelle Caswell: I e-mailed him, and I was like, "Can I interview you for this post that you did? I'll come up with a couple of songs that I think are really interesting, and we can sort of talk about them together." Essentially what I did is I built a story around everything I learned in that interview and, from a design perspective, came up with the most clear visual motifs that helped me understand it, because I didn't understand music theory so much. Just coming up with a visual language that I could teach myself and then communicate to other people.
Joey Korenman: You put that video out, and then you wake up, and it's gone viral. It's been watched as of today 8.3 million times, which is awesome. Then what? Then is Vox like, "Whoa, that went pretty well. You should do another one"?
Estelle Caswell: I think I was a little bit shocked by it, and I was definitely burnt out after the process. I was like, "I need to take a week off. This was so hard." Immediately I realized how much, as much as I was burnt out and as much as many nights as I stayed up through the night working on it, I loved every second of it. I thought it was so much fun, and so the next video I did was a couple of months later. I think I published a million videos in between this one, and then I did one on why Grey Poupon is referenced so much in hip-hop.
Joey Korenman: I love that one.
Estelle Caswell: That was really because I had been working on a spreadsheet for like three months scrubbing Genius for Grey Poupon references in lyrics. After I finished that spreadsheet, I turned it into a chart and was like, "Oh my God. There's a trend here. I need to tell the story around this trend," and pitched that as a concept.
Estelle Caswell: Then from there it was like, "Estelle. You're really good at telling stories about music. We should just like... You should just focus on that for a little bit." Then I ended up pitching Earworm as a series.
Joey Korenman: I'm kind of curious about this. You can say as much as you're allowed to say, but obviously you're doing these amazing documentaries, and they're super entertaining, and people love them, but is that what drove Vox to basically say, "You should just do this all the time, and make these"? Was it literally like, "These are getting lots of views. That's a metric we care a lot about. You happen to be good at getting us views"? How much of the business side drove that?
Estelle Caswell: I would say in terms of what I know zero percent. Not once was I told that if this doesn't do well, you can't do it. I think because Vox really trusts our video team to have really great intuition in terms of stories, and so we could pitch things like Coleman on our team is working on a series called Dark Room, which is sort of deconstructing very niche photographs in history. Phil on our team has this series called Almanac, which will cover everything from World War II PSAs to a story about pigeons. It's just I think they trust us to be smart about our storytelling and make it really fun. We've proven that not being driven by views is actually just a tremendously effective way to build an audience because people come to you for the magic mystery box of stories. They're never going to expect what's coming next, because we're not pandering to a formula.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. Watching your videos, it almost reminded me of This American Life or Radio Lab like a podcast like that where these topics that you're picking seem, to me, almost completely random, and yet somehow they're all in really, really interesting. I think my favorite one I watched yesterday... The Most Feared Song in Jazz was probably my favorite. The second one was Why Is This Awful-Sounding Album a Masterpiece? It's about this obscure album I'd never heard of. It truly is awful sounding, and yet you went out and interviewed this Berkeley music professor and other musicians, and you have all these graphics breaking down why it's like a genius level composition. How do you come up with the idea to focus on that album, and how do you then say, "All right. Well, here's how I should deconstruct it. I'm going to go call a Berkeley professor, and see if I can get her on camera"? What's the process like?
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. That particular story, that album is called Trout Mask Replica, and I was looking for stories just everywhere and anywhere. The Library of Congress has the National Recording Registry, and every year they induct a handful or albums or artists or songs into this registry and kind of say they're historically significant. Right? You've got Duke Ellington, and you've got Louis Armstrong, and you've got a Stevie Wonder song, and then all of the sudden looking down the list, and it's like an album called Trout Mask Replica, which makes zero sense, and it just kind of stuck out on the list.
Estelle Caswell: I started learning about it, and I listened to it, and I was like, "Why is this significant? Why is this so important to music history that the Library of Congress would deem it a cultural landmark?" Through my research, I kind of figured out what the angle would be, which is like music can be organized, and it can be chaotic, and you can learn from both things. I think that's what I wanted to sort of come across in the video.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah, it was just sort of like a fun process for me because I either come up with stories of things that I really loved and I want other people to love, or things that I really hate, and I want to figure out what I can learn about them even if I might not like them. I think that's kind of like the two things that I think about when coming up with ideas.
Joey Korenman: That's really cool. I want to ask you about the sort of style and the voice of these videos. There's a lot of ways to make a documentary, and the way that you do it is in some of these videos you are almost a character in this story. I'm curious if that was an intentional choice? Like you thought, "Maybe this will be more interesting so people can relate to me not understanding something and learning about it"? Where did that decision come from to insert yourself into these videos?
Estelle Caswell: I think it kind of drives back to the feeling of you're talking to a friend. If you're talking to somebody at a bar, and you're telling them about this thing that you really loved, or this movie that you really liked, you're not going to just robotically tell this very objective story. I think the way for me to feel conversational, and to sort of get in the head space of some sort of casual experience for people, is that I need to somehow relate to it myself and communicate why I love it so much. Typically that's why I do that is because the only way I can sort of convince somebody to watch a 10 minute video about a really bad sounding album and they share it is that I can start by saying, "I think this sounds really bad, but there's a reason that it's important." I think that's kind of why I approach it that way.
Joey Korenman: That's kind of fascinating to me, because Vox is I guess part of this new journalism movement, right? In journalism historically it's always at least pretended to be very, very objective and to not have an opinion. Then, to me, watching these documentaries, it makes it so much more interesting. I'm wondering if is that anything, just because you work for sort of a journalism company, is there any sort of back and forth there where it's like, "Well, I mean this is super interesting Estelle, but it's also you're putting your opinion in it pretty clearly. Maybe we should be a little more balanced"? Does that ever come up just because of the history of journalism and the way it's typically worked?
Estelle Caswell: I mean I think a lot of times I have a story editor, Mona Lalwani, who kind of any time I write something, she will see a draft of it. She'll see the pitch. She'll green light the story. She'll approve everything that I say, and I think what happens is there's just sort of a give and take with her acting as the audience and saying, "You know, you really don't have to go on this tangent that you really want to go on. It kind of distracts from what you're trying to get across to people."
Estelle Caswell: Sometimes I do a tremendous amount of research, and I want to incorporate as much as possible into a script, and her job is really is to say, "I get why you want to put this in here, but it's not serving the purpose of this story. Think about what your headline is, and just keep at that angle."
Estelle Caswell: I think that I've never really had a problem with inserting... I think my opinions about music I try to keep out of stories as much as possible unless I think something is underrated or under-appreciated. I did this story about the fade out in music, and really the angle of the story was like I thought fade out was kind of a cop out, and it was an artistic choice that just illustrated how much they didn't know how to properly end a song. By the end of the process, and by the end of researching it, I was like, "You know what? I really appreciate, and I think fade outs are a really important aspect in musical production that's now lost because we don't really think about them that much." For me that was like kind of an opinion that I felt drove home the point of the story.
Estelle Caswell: I never really have that many opinions about music that I'm talking about. I think I just want to make the story delightful regardless of whether or not I have a hot take about it.
Joey Korenman: I don't know. There's something about this I really like, and I didn't mean to imply at all that your opinion is in these videos. It's not really it. It's more of like your personality's in it, as opposed to say watching a one minute story on CNN or something or like the local news. It's literally just a voice, any human voice can go here and say these words. It's just literally facts.
Joey Korenman: This kind of stuff, and even a lot of the work that Vice does, it's got a similar thing where there's kind of a tone to it. It's funny because I haven't really spent a lot of time reading Vox or watching videos except for yours now. It really does feel like you're just my buddy telling me something. I think that's really cool that that's the editorial tone that they've decided to take. Just as someone who focuses on opportunities for motion designers, I think that that sort of format, and especially the success that companies like Vox are having, I think that's going to open up a ton of opportunities for people who can think visually, and of course write, which is the tricky thing.
Joey Korenman: How often is Vox looking for new talent to come in and make videos? Is it a constant process?
Estelle Caswell: It is a constant process. I think a lot of our video team is kind of in flux. We have our standard 25 to 30 people that are full time employees, but we also get approached to do new projects or partnerships or sponsored things where we'll get extra budget to make more stuff. Sometimes like we launched The Goods I guess at this point maybe a year ago, and The Goods was formerly Racked, our sister site, and they got incorporated into Vox.com. With that came a really great opportunity to... I think it was like American Express or something gave us money to launch that vertical. With that came a video series that our team was just not equipped to pull off given our resources, and so we used that money to pull on producers and an animator, Louis Wes. I don't know if you know him.
Joey Korenman: I don't.
Estelle Caswell: He did an incredible amount of work developing with Dion Lee, who's our art director, kind of developing a cool visual language for that series. I think he probably learned a lot through that process given a lot of the work that he previously did was probably more commercial. There's always opportunities for people to come on board. More than anything, I still go on Vimeo. I still look at all the beautiful work that people are doing right now in the commercial world and the branding world. I just am like... I see so much potential in all of those style and all of those ideas in the editorial world.
Estelle Caswell: For me, if I'm writing a script, I kind of I envision the moonshot ideas, but sometimes I'm just not able to pull them off. I would love to collaborate with people on those moonshot ideas that I know can pull it off and work with them to make them feel very enriching for our audience.
Joey Korenman: In the end of this, I'm going to ask you how our students can get a job at Vox, because it really just sounds almost like a dream job, and I know a lot people listening are thinking, "This is a dream job." I wanted to ask you about this, because as I was going through a lot of these videos yesterday, I was reading the YouTube comments. You've got some pretty diehard fans. There's people that literally say, "I love you Estelle." It's pretty awesome. Your videos, they've been watched millions and millions and millions of times. I'm curious, how does that make you feel? I know you've already said, and I believe you, I don't think you're the kind of person that really cares about awards and YouTube views, but just knowing that there's a lot of people out there that really like what you're doing and want more, do you ever feel imposter syndrome? Is there any pressure you feel?
Estelle Caswell: 100%. I would say the three main things I feel constantly... I think I never look at comments after I publish a video. A lot of that is just self-preservation. I know our brains will focus on the negative when there's a lot of positive out there. I do have a Twitter account, and most of the times I really interact with people is through that. It's just the only way I can narrow things down and not get too overwhelmed. I think the imposter syndrome comes in because I know I can... With every pitch that I do, and with every video I do, I have this idea of what it is in my head, and then it's not quite there every single time no matter what. I think that is just if you were a self-critical, and you're a designer, and you're a storyteller, it's always going to be the case. It's kind of that very famous Ira Glass thing about you have taste and you just try to... You're always going to be right below what you think is awesome.
Joey Korenman: The gap. Yes.
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. The gap. I definitely have that. At the same time, knowing that there's a lot of people out there, and having people like you say, "You have a lot of fans. People love your work. People are so thrilled whenever you publish. They're into it," I like want to plug my ears and completely dig myself into a hole because that makes me feel so much pressure to make content, and to make it better than the previous thing.
Estelle Caswell: I don't know if you know who Hank Green is. He's like a very prominent YouTuber personality. He had this Twitter thread a couple of months ago that was like, "If you're a YouTube creator, just know your next video doesn't have to be the best thing you've ever made. You will kill yourself if you think that every single time you make something. Just relieve yourself of that pressure." I think I'm trying to get to the point where I feel a little bit of that weight off my shoulders, mainly because I don't want to get the process of making things for some sort of competitive reason.
Estelle Caswell: I think in the YouTube world, and certainly in the content creation world, like video essays and things like that, you always want to be a step ahead of the people that you're competing against on YouTube. You want their fans to love you, and you want your fans to love them. It gets overwhelming, so I try to shut it down as much as possible.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. It's definitely a vicious cycle. I can totally relate to that. That is what therapists are for, by the way. It's really funny. I mean, I think in motion design especially, there seems to be like a culture of showing off, and I totally get it. I've done it, and I get it. It's super not healthy, especially in the age of social media. What's ironic, and I think you kind of pointed out, is that ironically that feeling of like, "I'm not good enough," it can almost get worse if you're successfully.
Estelle Caswell: Totally.
Joey Korenman: It doesn't necessarily get better.
Estelle Caswell: It totally gets worse. Before I was like surprised that anybody would watch something, and now it's like if something doesn't get to a certain level, I'm like, "This is failure." What I need to sort of constantly remind myself is like, "I learned something new through this process, and I think a lot of people who it might not be represented in the views, but I know a lot of people saw that hard work, and a lot of people saw me getting better." I think more than anything I want that to be what I focus on more than somehow one upping another person or feeling like I have to one up some invisible entity. Yeah, it's all about for me growing and making sure I'm just doing justice to the stories that I'm trying to tell.
Joey Korenman: Well, speaking of growing and learning new things, you also directed an episode, I think it was like a 22, 23 minute episode, of a Vox series that is on Netflix called Explained. Most of the Earworm videos are like seven to 10 minutes, around there. Was there a difference other than the length of the show in producing that for Netflix, or is it a totally different thing making something for a Netflix audience versus a YouTube audience?
Estelle Caswell: It's definitely night and day. I mean, there are things that were actually very similar like, myself and Joss, who I mentioned earlier, were tasked with doing the pilot episodes. One of the biggest challenges, and one of the biggest helpful things, was that the team actually really wasn't built while we were making those episodes. We were given a lot more responsibility through the whole process. For instance, I pretty much animated my whole episode while I was reporting it and traveling and doing all the other things. Down the line, there was a full art department that would get an episode handed off, and they would animate, but I had to do all of that.
Estelle Caswell: I think, and I did the VO for my episode, but further down along the line they were able to book celebrities to do VOs. A lot of things were we were sort of testing the process and learning from it, and then other episodes afterwards would sort of be a bit more well oiled.
Estelle Caswell: The challenging part was, and the ways that things were different is, there is just a very different definition of fair use. There's a very different definition of licensing. There's a very different definition of who the audience is that you're talking to, what is important to convey to them. The voice of the show is much more one word explained is a very hard thing to cover in 15 to 20 minutes, where I could pitch a very narrow story and over deliver on it over the course of 15 minutes.
Estelle Caswell: If I was like Water Crisis Explained in 15 minutes, you're kind of set up to really leave a lot of things out. The challenge was kind of condensing a lot of information into a very short amount of time. I think for me it was a fun challenge but at the same time incredibly exhausting because there were so many other things that I had to think about, and so many other I guess clients and people to appease through that process.
Joey Korenman: You mentioned fair use and licensing, and that was something that I was curious about too because obviously fair use and licensing are huge issues on YouTube. People, there's... It's an issue on both sides on people's content being appropriated, and they're not paid for it, and also people doing things that are fair use and getting their videos pulled down. Could you talk a little bit about that? What is that? What is the difference between doing it on YouTube and doing it for a giant publicly traded company that has like Netflix? YouTube is also a giant company, but Netflix feels more, I don't know, somehow it feels bigger because somehow it's like... I don't know. It's just like maybe their brand or something.
Estelle Caswell: The thing is maybe you can do a lot of things on YouTube under the guise of education and journalism and editorial work. Because you're a news organization, you're less in the entertainment bubble. Right? Netflix is fully in the entertainment bubble, and sometime they publish documentaries. The qualifications for things, the risk, it's less what constitutes fair use than how much you're willing to risk with the certain platforms that you're on. With Netflix, they were like way less risk than what our legal team and our YouTube platform is willing to take. Things that I would be very comfortable publishing on YouTube, even though it might be a little risky, or there certainly might be the possibility of it getting taken down, I felt like we would have a much better argument on YouTube to keep it up. On Netflix, it's like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Estelle Caswell: I did everything I could to write to visuals, to talk about the things that people were actually looking at or hearing, and working with a lawyer, which I had never really done before, to just very carefully craft language around certain parts of the story. It was just a lot of push and pull. I want to let people listen to something a little bit longer than they're willing to let people listen to something. Specifically like a K-pop song that is owned by a media conglomerate in South Korea. There is a lot of risk there.
Joey Korenman: Even on YouTube, you're using lots and lots of music clips from really successful artists. I mean, is that a hassle to deal with, or do you just sort of know the rules now, like, "Okay, I'm allowed to play it for five seconds, and as long as I'm commenting on it and not just playing it..."? Did you have to take a class in this? How did you learn this?
Estelle Caswell: I think one thing I want to convey here is that if you are fair using something you're probably a really great writer. You are writing better if you're fair using something than if you're not. What I mean by that if you are teaching people something about what they're looking at or hearing. That's our goal as writers regardless of not or whether we're licensing something or not.
Estelle Caswell: My goal is to always fair use as much as possible, because I think it's a great creative challenge. I definitely fail at that occasionally. Whenever I feel a little bit nervous about how much I might be using something for artistic purposes, I typically get a temperature check from somebody on the team or our legal department just to say, "Hey, there's a second at one minute into the video. I use this song for 40 seconds. Can you listen and just kind of... If you're okay, then I'm okay. I want to keep it in, but just I don't want this to get taken down after spending so much time on it."
Joey Korenman: Yeah. My lawyers always told me that fair use is a defense. It's not-
Estelle Caswell: Exactly.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. It's not like, "Okay. I've used it, so I'm safe." It's like, "No, that's what you'll tell a judge if you get sued."
Estelle Caswell: Yeah. As far as I know, for us what happens on YouTube is things don't typically get taken down, though the monetization thing might get turned off or something like that. There's always a way to negotiate in the background.
Joey Korenman: Estelle, you've been super generous with your time. This has been super fascinating for me. Like I promised, when I watched Earworm for the first time, I was blown away. Then when I sort of did research on you, I'm like, "You seriously have a dream job." I'm assuming it must feel that way at times, even though you're probably putting a lot of late nights in on these videos. I know a lot of our students love this kind of stuff too. We have students who are editors getting into motion design, and they seem kind of uniquely suited to be doing this kind of thing. You've talked about how difficult it is to find the right combination of traits in a person to be able to do this. If you were going to give advice to someone listening to this who's thinking, "I want that job. Maybe I even wan that job at Vox," what are the skills you would tell them to develop, and how would you, if you had to go back and start over and try to get this job, how would you do it?
Estelle Caswell: I think the biggest skill is writing. If you're a designer right now, and you're interesting in editorial work or more storytelling oriented motion design, I would suggest making your own explainer. Don't worry about a client that's coming your way or... I think we're somewhat impressed by people's reels, but we also can easily see right through them. If we're not seeing a lot of... If we're seeing a lot of decoration and not a lot of information, it's really hard for us to sort of envision in our head that person working in our news room. I think what would be way more impressive to us is if we saw a lot of a passion for storytelling versus a passion for being the best animator. That, a lot of that, comes through personal projects, so if you have time for those. They can be short. They don't have to be long. Good writing is just such a valuable tool even in the video world. I think more than anything that's the advice I would give.
Joey Korenman: I have to admit, I love the kind of work that Estelle and her team are producing. It's so satisfying to work on a piece that actually teaches the viewer something and that uses motion design to full effect, crafting clever visual metaphors and moments that make the lights turn on in someone's brain. I think Estelle is kind of a genius, and I can't wait to follow her work for many more years.
Joey Korenman: Check out Earworm and all of the other great videos that Vox produces on their YouTube channel, and of course we'll link to everything we talked about in the show notes available at SchoolofMotion.com. Estelle, thank you so much for coming on. It was a blast talking with you, and thank you dear listener for tuning in. I hope you learned something. I hope you got inspired, and I hope to see you back here real soon. That's it for this one. Stay classy.