Rising video essay star Sage Hyden sits down with YouTuber to discuss his video making process, to speak to some of his recent successes and to share about his channel’s humble beginnings.

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For academics and film aficionados alike, video essays are a staple resource for critiques and commentaries on film and popular culture. Using the same visual medium, video essays allow for vast creativity, and YouTube has seen an explosion of essayists over the past half-decade. A rising star of this genre, Sage Hyden sat down with us to talk about his process of making video essays and how he interacts with the dynamic YouTube ecosystem.

YouTuber: It’s been interesting to see your page grow and grow recently, and I think we’re all interested in hearing about how you got started. To jump right in, how has this process been for you behind the scenes? Does your chanel resemble your first attempt on YouTube, or did you have to try out a couple of different ideas first?

Sage: I did; it actually took me a while to figure myself out. The first videos I made were actually way back in 2012 and they were about mythology (laughter). Those aren’t live on YouTube any more. A few years ago though, I started a different channel under a different name, “Sage Rants,” which I had been adding to up until last year. I re-looked at my work and figured out that what I had really been doing was talking about what makes a good story and what you can learn from other movies and TV shows when they go wrong or when they do something right. So, I just pivited the channel directly towards that.

YouTuber: Has it changed much since then? I imagine you’ve had quite a lot of interaction with your new subscribers.

Sage: A little, yeah. I feel like I do pretty much exactly what I want to do. There hasn’t been a video I’ve made that has been like, “Ah, I kind of have to make this video.” I’ve been fortunate, at least recently, that the topics I choose happen to be interesting to the people who are watching me. When I was doing the mythology thing, it was kind of like a test into YouTube — trying to figure out the technical side of it, like how to edit graphics and everything else. What I’m doing now is taking subjects that I know people are interested in and I use them as a way to introduce stuff that I am interested in teaching people about.

For me, it’s not just the opportunity to talk about “Stranger Things.” That was also an opportunity to teach people about Harold Bloom’s criticisms and “The Anxiety of Influence” and all of those ideas. I could of very easily just made a video about Harold Bloom, but it probably would have been less interesting to people. What I’m learning to do now is package videos. On the exterior level — like in the thumbnail. I know people will be interested in it, and I know I will as well. Also, it will have these underlying things that I slip into the video that add value.

YouTuber: Can you guide us through that process a little further?

Though Sage could have referenced any number of TV shows or movies to demonstrate how writers create empathy for their characters, he chose to use “Game of Thrones” as his example because of its rich narrative style and its undeniable cultural relevance.

Sage: For me, I’m trying to find topics that I have something to say about that hasn’t been said ad nauseum. It’s kind of hard to figure that out because there is so much content on the internet, which makes it hard to know if what you are saying is original. The idea, though, is to take a popular piece of media and figure out something that it does that is exceptional compared to other pieces of popular fiction, even though other pieces might be doing something similar. For instance, I have a “Game of Thrones” video where I talk about how George R.R. Martin creates empathy for his characters. Considering the things I point out in that video, I could have easily made that video about a ton of other writers. I felt though, for that video, there were things that were very important to his particular writing style and of course it’s “Game of Thrones,” something that people are very interested in learning more about. So, it’s about finding something that has a built-in audience and then finding an angle to it that is interesting, and once I have that, I can start writing.

YouTuber: Sounds like you have a great system worked out. How do you find those things you think people will be interested in hearing about and you know a lot about? Do you have a running roster of ideas that are half in the bag and ready to go, or do you start from scratch every time?

Sage: Thats a good question. It feels like it’s a different process every time. I do have a list filled with a hundred different potential ideas — things I could look into — and I have another list that is my next ten. I often find, though, that I have an idea, but when it comes to the week that I need to write that idea, it will completely fall apart. I’ll find that I didn’t really have something deeper to say about that idea, or that it will be like half of a thought. So I have to go back to the drawing board and figure something else out. I have kind of been leaning on movies and TV shows or books that I am already super familiar with and leverag[ing] that knowledge of it. For example, I made a video recently about “Rocky” because it is my favorite movie of all time, and I know a lot about it already.

YouTuber: Rocky! I wouldn’t have expected that, based on your other videos. Nice. So, when you write, are you a “write everything and then record” type of person or do you go back and forth between the two as you are working?

Sage: I research as I’m writing, looking for secondary pieces of support in all of the books on screenwriting and writing that I’ve read before, just going over them trying to find something to support what I’m saying or some piece of literary criticism just to kind of give a fuller video. That’s like eighty percent of the video for me, because after that, you record it, and it’s just trying to find visuals that will accompany it. Although, I will say one thing I do is I partition it in my mind a bit. I don’t let the voice in the back of my mind that says ‘that’s going to be really hard to come up with a visual for’ dissuade me from writing something. If I did that, that would really slow down the writing process. So, I kinda put my writer’s hat on, and I write the script as succinctly as I can. Then, when it comes to editing, I’ll be very frustrated with myself because it’s like, ‘oh now I have this big block of time that I don’t have a visual for,’ so I have to figure out a new way to say it. At least at that point though, I have the audio recorded, and I have something to work with. I partition my mind like that so that I can get the ball rolling.

YouTuber: That is a great way to go about it. So, now that we know you have your writer’s hat and your editor’s hat, do you happen to have a copyright hat? Given you use a lot of secondary media in your videos, do you have many copyright claims on your work?

Sage: Just for one of my videos. It hasn’t been a huge issue for me. I am using copyrighted content under fair use law, so I am a bit surprised it hasn’t been as big of an issue as it seems when I read headlines of other YouTubers. I think YouTube and other companies see the value of video essays and that they operate under fair use.

YouTuber: Yeah, video essays seem to fall directly under how fair use was written.

Sage: Exactly.

YouTuber: It seems like now, YouTube is a little volatile in terms of demonetization, and a lot of people are supplementing their YouTube income with a Patreon page. How has the monetary side of YouTubing been for you?

Sage: I do have a Patreon, and I think we are kind of in uncharted waters right now as far as YouTube’s new policies go. I haven’t had a big issue with copyright, but I have had an issue with demonetization recently. For example, in my last couple of videos, if you have even one word that dips a toe into an edgy subject, then YouTube’s algorithm will find it and demonetize it. Then, you have to go and submit a request to go back and look it over. My videos have been remonitized, so it hasn’t affected me too much, but there have been a few days of lost revenue.

YouTuber: That has to be annoying.

Sage: Yeah, but that’s what is great about services like Patreon. It’s a check against what’s happening on YouTube.

And I understand, like, why its happening; there are good reasons. I think they just have to figure out a way to get a little bit more precise with how they are doing the demonetization. There’s a lot of growing pains there, but that’s what makes Patreon the great service that it is. It provides that level of stability where things may go up and things may go down, but you’ll always have that base of your supporters.

YouTuber: That is good to hear, given the rough YouTube waters that have made many creators outspokenly uneasy. Finally, do you have any advice for other creators reading this that may want to follow a similar path as you?

Sage: First and foremost, just keep making videos and try to get better as you go on. I had a lot of trouble with that because I had long periods of time I would be making videos, and I would have long periods I wouldn’t because I would feel so critical about how good my videos were. I also would say, it might seem like an obvious point, but the first thing you got to nail down is what your branding is. One hundred times over, branding branding, branding. That is something that my channel struggled with a lot. I called one of my early channels Sage Rants just because I didn’t know going into it what I wanted to do. I had a name that was very vague. You had to watch a video or two of mine to actually understand what the channel was, and I think that was a huge barrier to my channel growing. You couldn’t really put your finger on what it was. As soon as I changed the channel name to Just Write, though, it was very clear to people, ‘oh, this is a writing channel!’ If they were interested in seeing videos about writing, then they knew what it was and would subscribe and hopefully catch the next video and the video after that. Finding a way to brand yourself in a way that you are comfortable with, I think, is hugely important to creating something that you are proud of.

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