If you need proof of the career-building power of social media, look no further than Jesse Rosten. The 31-year-old TV-commercial director lives in the small, Northern–California town of Redding and has spent the last eight years producing spots for local clients like casinos and colonoscopy clinics. Then last month Rosten uploaded a fake advertisement for a non-existent beauty product called Fotoshop by Adobé. The two-minute clip is a commentary on the beauty and magazine industries’ reliance on retouching. Launched with a tweet and a Facebook post, Rosten’s video quickly racked up more than 5 million views between Vimeo and YouTube and made the rounds on the media industry websites. Grayson Schaffer spoke Rosten about what went into this production and what Rosten thinks he got out of it.
Grayson: What sparked the idea for this clip?
Jesse: I was watching an infomercial for some beauty products with some “before” and “after” photos and it just looked like the “after” shots had been retouched. I thought I should do a commercial for Photoshop because it seems like that’s all the beauty industry uses anymore. It’s that whole photographers’ refrain, “Fix it in post.”
Grayson: There was some serious production that went into your project. How did you pull it together and fund it?
Jesse: I’m a commercial director, but I’d never worked in this particular genre before—fashion and beauty. Everyone involved volunteered. We had two make-up artists, a hair person, and four production people. The camera lenses were all donated, and I’ve got some of my own lighting gear. The biggest out-of-pocket cost was buying food for everyone on the day of the shoot. It wasn’t super expensive; it just took a lot of labor.
Grayson: How did you convince everyone to get on board with this?
Jesse: The first thing I did was write a script and put together a storyboard. I’ve worked with lots of these people on other paying gigs so they’re always up for a good time. The crew had been in other viral videos I’ve done, so at this point they’re sort of familiar with my crazy ideas.
Grayson: What were you hoping to get out of this?
Jesse: I just hoped people would find it funny—a snarky message directed at the beauty industry and Photoshop users at large. But I also realized that the more this looks like a real commercial, the funnier it’s going to be. So while it is a satire, and there are elements of parody, the funniest thing about it is that it’s all true.
Grayson: Now that it’s blown up and has been seen by several million people, what has it done for your business?
Jesse: Yeah, my inbox has been a mess—a lot of inquiries and interest. I haven’t turned it into any paying gigs yet, but now I feel like I can justify putting time and resources into this. On the one hand, this project was something I wanted to do to stretch myself as a filmmaker, but it has also been good marketing for my work.
Grayson: You said that you had done some other viral videos?
Jesse: Two years ago, I did a video called iPad Plus Velcro which had a little bit of success. Apple actually picked it up, which is unique because they usually have a very specific brand aesthetic. And then this same crew helped me produce another video called iPad Photoshoot, where we took nine iPads and did a shoot using the iPads as a light source.
Grayson: Were you able to get Apple to fund the second video?
Jesse: No, I tried to milk it, but I never heard back.
Grayson: Do you feel like you’ve cracked the code for what it takes to make a viral video?
JR: Yes and no. I don’t think I’ve cracked the code, because at the end of the day you really don’t know when something is going to go viral: You don’t create a viral video; you create a video and then it goes viral. But at the same time with this Photoshop thing, I knew that it was a current topic and that its novelty gave it serious viral potential. But I never expected it to get as big as it did as fast as it did. In less than 24 hours, it had half-a-million views and that was before it had been written up on any major blogs.
Grayson: Was that like a mainlined shot of adrenaline?
Jesse: I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sitting in front of the computer hitting the refresh button and watching the view count go up every ten minutes. It’s nice to know that something you created is resonating with people.
Grayson: What is your specific line of work?
Jesse: The paying gigs are commercial direction. I work with agencies and sometimes directly with clients to direct, shoot, and edit commercials. I’m also trying to break into narrative filmmaking?
Grayson: Anyone cool you’ve worked for in the past?
Jesse: Honestly, I’m not a big-name-brand director. I’m self-taught and self-employed. It started with local car commercials eight years ago, and I’ve slowly worked my way up to hospitals and casinos and government-type jobs. In the last two years I’ve focused more on working with agencies that have their own client lists.
Grayson: Surely clients understand what a rare thing it is for a director to generate five million views without a budget? The YouTube versions of most SuperBowl ads don’t rack up those kinds of numbers.
Jesse: Well that’s always been my thing because I haven’t had a lot of resources. One of the things I like most about filmmaking is creative problem solving—whether that’s coming up with a creative story or coming up with a creative way to make due with few resources. Right now I feel like I can do anything with a camera and a few worklights.
Grayson: So what’s your advice to people who are where you were eight or nine years ago. Can social media kick open the door?
Jesse: I think so. Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist when I started. But my advice would be just to continue to create. There’s really no magic formula for this sort of thing, it’s just a lot of hard work. Your first project is probably going to suck, but every time you take on something new and push yourself a little further you learn something. Eventually you’ll start creating work that you’re proud of.