How is social media reshaping the filmmaking landscape?

Four industry insiders discuss the impact of social media on the film world, from the quality of content to the technical skills you can learn on TikTok.

The rise of social media is undoubtedly changing the video landscape, from generating a demand for tighter hooks and faster edits through to a shift in the speed of content delivery. So are TikTok, Instagram and other platforms developing younger people into professional filmmakers? Are today's Gen-Z influencers the next generation of videographers?

Four panellists working across a range of genres straddling traditional film and content creation came together to discuss trends impacting the wider industry.

Berlin-based filmmaker and creative director Danny Feng runs Feng Production, shoots for brands including Nike and Samsung, and makes his own documentaries. Emma Edwards, a UK DoP with two decades' experience on drama and features, runs Inkydink Pictures, has filmed with influencers and is increasingly working in short-form branded content and immersive media. Aged 16, Harry Seaton was one of the UK's fastest-growing creators on Facebook. A TikTok regular, at 24 he now runs influencer marketing firm Fluential.

Completing the line-up was digital content producer Jita Mitra, who currently leads the in-house Digital Production Unit at BBC Three, where she's grown its YouTube channel from 250,000 to more than 1.6 million followers.

Content creator and marketing director Harry Seaton, wearing a grey jumper, poses for the camera on an outdoor staircase.

"With a film, you've got to keep someone entertained over a couple of hours," says Harry Seaton, managing director of influencer marketing firm Fluential. "With a TV ad, maybe only 30 or 60 seconds. It's similar with social too. The most effective filmmakers get the most context behind their story, the most hooks – no matter whether that timeline is two hours or 15 seconds." © Harry Seaton

Producer/director Jita Mitra sits in an office chair smiling up at the camera.

"Your tech should always match the story you're trying to tell," says BBC Three's Digital Production Unit lead Jita Mitra, who began her career in advertising before moving to creative digital content. "If the content I make is at home and about what I spend my life doing, then as soon as you put a big broadcast camera in there, you're going to need lighting and operators and that stops you from telling the story you want to. If it's supposed to be intimate and personal, shoot it on a DSLR." © Jita Mitra

How do social film and traditional film differ?

Danny Feng: To me, it's one thing. Previously, filmmaking was high-end. You had to go to film school and then you had to work in a team because the cameras were so large. Nowadays you can shoot anything, even on a tiny DSLR. When the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV came out, you could shoot 4K films with one lens. In social video you're just telling stories in a shorter, effective way.

Harry Seaton: Danny's point is really important, because, with the rise of TikTok and Instagram Stories, a lot of people don't realise they are filmmakers. They don't realise they're capturing a story, because they're capturing such a small part of it, but they are. It's a case of, 'How many storytelling elements can I get into whichever medium?'

Jita Mitra: If you look at lots of YouTube formats, you'll see the same formats on TV, they're just executed differently. As my career goes on in both TV and digital content, I see that the same tropes and beats in storytelling exist in all content. I think there are more similarities than differences.

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Do you think the nature of social video is changing the broader video landscape?

Emma Edwards: Definitely, in terms of our concentration spans. When I work on other people's productions, it's always quick, snappy stuff. We also tend to shoot a longer form, and then shoot within that for several platforms, because budgets are so tight.

Harry Seaton: A lot of people in my phase of life will pretend that they're into longer documentaries. But if you had a close look at their screens, how much of the time were they on TikTok or Instagram, and just looking up for the key bits?

Danny Feng: There's that shift of human attention nowadays, because it's just so accessible – with just one click of a button, you can go into this crazy digital world. When I'm watching a documentary, I'm locked in. But some people are not like that, as Harry said.

Jita Mitra: With TV, there's an expectation that audiences are more likely to watch. It's a sit-back experience, whereas on digital platforms, you don't have a captive audience. You have to work a lot harder because it's too easy for viewers to pick something else.

DoP Emma Edwards looks to her left, while holding a Canon camera outside a building with large windows.

DoP Emma Edwards has been experiencing some crossover between the content creation and traditional film spaces when shooting with influencers. "We'll essentially set for 16:9, but then a producer or an influencer will come in and say, 'Actually, this is for all these platforms,'" she explains. "They always want to see what it looks like in square for Instagram and they'll ask to mask the monitor off, but then I can't see the bigger picture, which is the most important part for me." © Emma Edwards / Inkydink Pictures

Filmmaker Danny Feng, wearing casual clothes and white trainers, films with a Canon camera against a light purple background.

"The bar of entry is so low that anyone who has creativity in their DNA can literally pick up a camera and just start," says filmmaker Danny Feng. "There's this YouTuber that I follow, and his studio is essentially a live broadcast setup. He's not a videographer but he has a shotgun mic, and a desk where you can switch between different cameras and do cool transitions. And he learned that all by himself." © Danny Feng/Feng Production

How important is picture quality when it comes to social, and how does that impact what you shoot on?

Danny Feng: The gear that we use depends on which platforms we're going to be distributing to – high-end or mid-range cameras aren't going to be obsolete in the future. It's context-based. If it's an Instagram 15-second ad, it's more effective from a marketing and sales perspective that it's a little bit raw – that actually converts much better.

Harry Seaton: I completely agree. I love to see high-end, well-produced brand advertisements on TV and sometimes on social platforms. I wouldn't want to see it from brands on TikTok. However, if I see a creator uploading something incredibly well filmed, then I'm all over that. There's been a huge trend recently on TikTok of creators using DSLRs to create stunning ads that are TV-level, and it blows up. It stands out because people aren't used to seeing it on TikTok.

Emma Edwards: Very often when you're shooting on phones, you are limited in post-production. You have trouble trying to grade reasonably well on phone footage. As a viewer, I don't think people really care, but as a DoP, it's really important to me.

Jita Mitra: Audiences have different expectations in terms of different platforms. The idea that stuff on digital platforms doesn't need to look good is very true, but just because it doesn't need to, doesn't mean it doesn't have to.

DoP Emma Edwards films two men in conversation next to a floor-to-ceiling glass window. One of the men is holding a railing and looking out at the mist-shrouded city beyond.

"I'm not a massive social media user," says Emma, pictured here on the set of her film Altruistic in 2018. "I prefer watching traditional feature-length films or drama series. In the pandemic I've appreciated shorter content, but while there's a lot of fun and nonsense to take your mind off stuff, it's hard to find a really good, engaging story." © Inkydink Pictures/Soilse Lundberg

What skills are people learning from creating social video? How does that translate to the wider industry?

Jita Mitra: It's storytelling. How do I set up a premise that has purpose and that people want to watch, how do I tell that story and how do I make sure that people keep watching to the end? Whether it's an hour-long documentary or a five-minute video, you have to have a really clear purpose to your content and a reason that an audience would watch it.

Danny Feng: In a world where everything is becoming more digital and you're trying to put out as much high-quality content as possible, it's inevitable that people will stumble upon things. Like, "Oh, do we shoot 24 frames per second or 30? Do we shoot 4K or 1080? How do we get good sound?" Someone who wants to do content creation inevitably learns the basics of filmmaking.

Are social platforms creating the next generation of filmmakers? Will content creators move into broadcast or film?

Danny Feng: It requires a lot of time and experience in the industry to get a DoP position. What's interesting is that the barrier to entry is so low for young people to start online. They don't need to climb all the way to the top to be able to tell the stories they want.

Jita Mitra: There can be huge snobbery in the traditional world about digital content makers. In digital, you do everything from start to finish. In TV, there's more of a hierarchy. If you want to switch, then you need to earn your place and start somewhere near the bottom or middle.

Harry Seaton: I know a lot of people who still push back against TikTok. It's got a reputation problem – every conversation I have about TikTok starts, "I thought it was just teenagers dancing." But it definitely inspires my team in the way we shoot things. We've sent TikToks as references on briefs, and you'd normally take your inspiration from TV ads or films.

Danny Feng: I think TikTok is a super underrated app. People see it as saturated, but it's just the beginning. For us creatives that's such a great opportunity to get more people to see our work.

A person looks into a camera, holding it aloft to the right of the shot.

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A user's hands on the controls and LCD screen of a Canon EOS R5 mounted on a tripod.

"Recent camera releases have been more and more tailored to my personal way of shooting," says Danny, referring to the release of smaller, high-resolution models such as the Canon EOS R5 (pictured) and Canon EOS C70. "I could do the lighting and then just start shooting, telling stories, capturing spontaneous moments. It's a super exciting time to be a creative."

Do you think that professional cameras adapt well to the needs of social media?

Danny Feng: When the Canon EOS C70 came out, I thought it was literally optimised for social media. The way it's designed, you could shoot vertical, so I feel traditional filmmaking cameras are shifting in the direction of being utilised to shoot for social media.

Emma Edwards: I always try to pick the best equipment for the job within the budget. I find the compromise is the sound. It gets left out, especially if you're self-shooting documentary. I always want something reliable and I try to step up as much as I can equipment-wise and push for a Canon EOS C300 [now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III] or EOS C500 Mark II with XLR inputs.

Harry Seaton: The Canon G7 X [now succeeded by the Canon G7 X Mark III] has been a godsend for YouTubers for years.

Jita Mitra: We always try to get the best kit possible. If you have a really brilliant idea and then if you can add technology onto that, that's when it can get bigger and fulfil different tastes. I think if you're a creator or a vlogger, you should use the tech that tells your story the best.

Content creator and marketing director Harry Seaton sits on a small brown couch on a film set made up to look like a living room.

"The people I'm communicating with on social media want things to move non-stop and you have to give that to them," says Harry. "I find it really funny now when you watch TV dramas described as a slow burn. How can it be a slow burn? It's only three parts. But that's where we are now." © Harry Seaton

What makes social content stand out? And what's exciting you in the filmmaking world today?

Harry Seaton: The best social content comes down to pace. With social, you have such a small window to win someone's attention. I won't post a TikTok that has an intro longer than three seconds. There's people out there who probably can't think of anything worse than watching a long film, because that's hours of their life gone. That's hundreds of TikToks they could watch.

Danny Feng: That's so true. Editing is super, super important. I'm a camera nerd, so when Canon released the EOS R5 and the EOS C70, that was super exciting for me, because it means that I'll be able to produce higher quality productions with such a small package.

Emma Edwards: Personally, I'm drawn to content that I can learn from. I'm also looking more towards immersive experiences in storytelling, and am developing and producing a library of VR films.

Harry Seaton: I'm a sucker for a really nicely produced ad or a well-filmed original piece of content for Netflix or ITV, and I'm really excited for influencers to start to find their place in that. There may be opportunities for some filmmaking TikTokers, but then you could argue that there are filmmakers who just happen to use TikTok, or are they TikTokers who happen to make films? Either way, I would love to see a lot more collaboration in the future between these two worlds. And I think we will.

Tessa Watkins

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