Thomas Flight’s YouTube channel description says it all: “Exploring the artistry behind the visual media landscape that surrounds us.” His channel serves as a celebration, as well as an exploration, of cinematography. In his own words, Thomas describes what he does as an act of deconstructing media to find how it all fits together. “I like to take pieces of media apart and put them back together again,” he tells us. Thomas is a lover of film, and so is his massive community of 862K subscribers. But like so many other successful content creators, Thomas never expected his channel to become as popular as it is today.
Video views: 102,170,979
Content type: Film
User created: Aug 31st, 2011
We recently had the pleasure to sit with Thomas Flight and chat about his YouTube journey. We learned how he turned his love for film into a sustainable career.
Thomas takes flight
You could say that Thomas’ channel grew up as he did. As a teenager from rural Virginia, Thomas took an interest in photography and videography, specifically the technical side of the crafts. He tells us it was “more than falling in love with any particular film.”
“I fell in love with the behind-the-scenes featurettes,” Thomas says. “I loved to listen to directors’ commentaries, and I was just enamored with the idea of what was going on behind the film.”
He didn’t just watch; Thomas would take his video camera and try to recreate what he saw. At the same time, he learned how to upload the videos he made to YouTube and share them. This led to him working with his friends to make video shorts. Eventually. this landed him a job working as a video editor.
It was during this time that Thomas dreamed up the idea to start his own YouTube channel. He discovered creators — like Michael Tucker — were making video essays about filmmaking.
“I thought: ‘I could make one of these’ and that’s how it started. I just kind of put one together, some people watched it and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ll make another one’ and I never stopped.”
Within just a few years, the Thomas Flight YouTube channel was making enough money that Thomas was able to quit his job. For the past four years, he’s been a full-time content creator.
So, what’s it all about?
When it comes to Thomas’ process, he goes beyond simply critiquing the films he analyzes. He looks to answer specific questions about a film’s filmmaking process and decision-making to figure out why it makes him have a certain response to it.
“I do kind of see what I do as criticism, or as an extension of criticism, but I also see it as more than just watching a movie and doing a review,” Thomas says. “I’m trying to pull on the threads of why I had this certain reaction to a movie. Why did that take place? Why did I love it so much, or what is happening? Technically, what led to the reaction that I had? I guess that’s what I would say. I’m really trying to get to the bottom of why I have a certain response to a film.”
His videos average about 15 to 30 minutes and feature tons of film clips. He cuts these together with his in-office, voice-over narrations. His subjects run the gamut from “Why Do Movies Feel So Different Now?” to “Why Do Wes Anderson Movies Look Like That?” All of them pull back the curtain on the filmmaking process, serving as master classes in the language of media.
Thomas tells us that, after years of doing these videos, his process begins with figuring out how the video’s going to look on YouTube. He pays special attention to the video’s titles, thumbnails and openings.
“The title, the thumbnail, the opening of the video itself — those are things that I used to treat as an afterthought. These days, I start thinking about that from the beginning. I’m not just thinking about what concept or idea, but whether or not I can frame that story in a way that will grab people’s attention,” Thomas says.
Once he’s figured out an angle and opening for the video, he starts drafting his script. However, instead of writing draft after draft, Thomas instead records audio for his voiceovers as he works out the draft. He then begins the editing process almost immediately. As he’s working, he develops the final script and later records his on-camera portions.
The industry is watching
Because of the popularity of the channel, Thomas often gets feedback from industry insiders. Some express their excitement that their work’s being noticed. In other cases, some are hoping he’ll take notice of their films.
“One of my favorite things is when a filmmaker just reaches out to me to share something that they’re doing that they think is cool. Something that they want me to know about. That’s happened a few times.” Occasionally he’ll include a recording from an interview with a filmmaker.
Of course, Thomas admits that knowing professionals are watching adds a little pressure on him to produce quality videos.
“There are times after I’ve shot stuff, and I’m looking at it and I think, ‘You know, by YouTube’s standards, this would probably be fine.’ But by the standards of a filmmaking audience, I should probably, tweak this a little bit,” Thomas says. “That’s one of the beautiful things about YouTube; it’s very accessible. You can just kind of turn on a camera and your lighting doesn’t have to be perfect and people will watch anyway.”
Advice for the newcomer
Over time, Thomas has learned that, ultimately, finding success on YouTube isn’t about trying to figure out the YouTube algorithm.
“The thing that has been the most helpful for me as a creator has just been honestly embracing that the goal here is to just make the best video possible,” he elaborates. He adds that his most viewed video, “Chernobyl Show vs. Reality – Footage Comparison,” was one he thought wouldn’t do so well with the algorithm. To his surprise, it now has close to 14 million views, nearly doubling his next highest-viewed video.
Beyond the algorithm, Thomas believes that the most critical step to content creation is to just start.
“Just getting started is the first, most critical thing,” Thomas says. He admits that even the most successful creators, including himself, didn’t have everything perfect in the beginning. “The biggest skills you gain are going to be through the repetition of content creation. And the only way you can gain those skills is by actually going through the process of creating something and putting it out there. Consistency is one of the biggest skills that you need to make it long term as a content creator.”
For creators interested in making content using copyrighted film clips, Thomas encourages them to learn about fair use.
“I would recommend to read up and have a personal understanding of fair use law, at least in the United States. It’s a little complicated,” Thomas says. While you can legally use copyrighted material if it’s for educational purposes, which falls under fair use, things can still get a bit tricky on YouTube. Though, Thomas says that YouTube has some great resources for learning about fair use. Even so, creators on the platform still have to tread carefully, even when perfectly following fair use laws.
“Even though video essayists are abiding by fair use laws and using footage legally, anti-piracy measures can make acquiring footage difficult,” Thomas admits. Thomas recommends doing your best to follow all laws regarding copyright. That’s the safest bet when making video essays on YouTube.
Looking to the future
Thomas’ unexpected, but welcomed success has taken him places that he never anticipated.
“I think I was always surprised, in a sense by how successful it’s been. I think I still am to this day.”
Having been invited to the Cannes Film Festival and at one point having a contract with Netflix, the Thomas Flight YouTube channel has opened many doors for Thomas and his future. He says that heading into the future, we would like to venture into other platforms, even perhaps make his own feature-length documentary.