When video goes viral

Maltese film-maker Cedric Vella

Since I discovered film-maker Cedric Vella’s Pigsty In The Kitchen series and his awesome Youtube My Facebook award winning movie, I’ve wanted to find out more about him.

The guy made the international headlines when he won the Palo Alto International Film Festival with Youtube My Facebook.  Picture a Facebook page that comes alive to movement and music,  that gives you an interactive glimpse into your friends’ life. Finding it difficult to imagine?  Cedric Vella managed, in fact he managed so well that the resulting film he created won the Palo Alto International Film Awards. Then again few are those who possess Cedric’s technical talent, his eye for the visual arts and his determination to succeed.

But to really understand why this man has already gone places at such an early stage in his career we need to rewind a little bit. Back to when Cedric was applying for a job at Temple Studios and giving new meaning to the phrases “self-taught” and “working your way up”.

“I started working at Temple Studios at the bottom rung, literally cleaning music equipment, making coffee…that sort of thing. I did find the occasional person who took the mickey out of me but I didn’t mind that. I knew what I was doing and I knew where I wanted to go. My academic background is in chemistry and biology – a far cry from audio-visual. But my heart was in this.”

When someone uses the phrase “living his dream”, chances are that they’re talking about someone like Cedric. From making coffee he has now progressed to choosing which commissions to accept from his international clients. But of course, nothing comes without hard work.

“I’m the first one to encourage people to go after their dream. But it would be terribly naive to imagine that simply going after your dream will secure success. Not even talent on its own cuts it. It’s a question of finding the right balance between research, commitment, an amount of sacrifice and…of course… talent,” he tells me.

Which is exactly how Cedric went about turning Youtube My Facebook into reality. He remembers the amount of research and reading that he carried out in the field – this research is a continuous aspect when it comes to building a career in this particular industry, he tells me. Cedric had already gained an amount of local notoriety earlier last year, when he hit upon the “tourist sunbather” gimmick. Many will remember the photos of what everyone thought was a foreign nutter sunbathing in front of the law courts and on the pedestrian crossing at the airport. Cedric laughs as he remembers how that came about.

“I had seen the Remi Gaillard videos online and his pranks are so hilarious. I wanted to recreate something along those lines in Malta, without actually copying of course.”

And thus one fine morning found Cedric stripped down to his boxers, suntan oil in hand, occupying some of Malta’s most prominent public spaces. Some people laughed, others swore at him, the boys in blue weren’t particularly amused, particularly because as luck would have it the prank coincided with a religious procession in Valletta. But by the end of it Cedric’s name was stuck in people’s minds.

“Everyone loved it and friends kept inundating me with requests to play other pranks. But to be honest it was not what I was after, professionally. Sure, the gimmick gave me some great exposure and put me out there. But at the end of the day, I want to be known for my abilities as a film maker, not for a prankster.”

And what better way to ensure that this happens than by winning the Short Film Project award at the prestigious Palo Alto Film Festival. The film, Cedric tells me, was quite a pain to make and wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his friends. The idea was born because Facebook had just changed its interface drastically, as usual becoming the butt of gazillions complaints and comments. Cedric started wondering about the effects a more drastic change to the interface would have. How about having animated profile pictures, photos and links? You know… a bit like Youtube, but on Facebook? Thus, Youtube My Facebook was born.

“It wasn’t an easy concept to explain. Once you actually see the product, sure it all makes sense. But explaining it before it actually became reality… that was quite a challenge. In actual fact most of the people in the film really had no clue what I was going on about and simply trusted me enough to go along with the idea. All the actors in it are my friends; the movie was filmed mostly in my bedroom and you have to bear in mind that I did not exactly have cutting-edge equipment at my disposal. Matching the audio to the visuals was pretty much a technical nightmare, considering what I had to work with.”

Chefs Mauro and MaxThroughout it all, Cedric tells me, his friends were incredibly supportive, despite still being very much mystified about the whole Youtube my Facebook thing. Filming started towards mid-December and the whole thing was a wrap by the beginning of February. Considering the amount of work that went into the movie, this is probably record speed. Filming conditions weren’t what you’d call comfortable either.

“There was this particular incident, where we animate the photo of the girl blowing bubbles in the water…well, we filmed this in February and she had to stick her face in a basinful of freezing water as the geyser wasn’t working!”

Now that’s what I call true support. Even before winning the Palo Alto award, the film went viral extremely quickly. The hits kept pouring in and feedback was very encouraging.

“By then it was impossible for me to be objective about it so I was asking everyone for brutally honest criticism. But the reactions were all very encouraging. I started thinking that it would be cool to put the film out there on an international level, so I submitted it to the Palo Alto festival almost as an after-thought. So much so that I only discovered that I had won long after the formal announcement was made, thanks to a Google Alert I received.”

Although he could see his name amongst the winners on the official website, Cedric was sceptical and was convinced that this was a prank. He contacted the organisers, who quickly assured him that this wasn’t a prank and pointed out that they had already been in touch with him via email. Unfortunately, the email was sent on the account that Cedric never actually bothers to check.

“I really had no aspirations of winning, I didn’t even realise I had given them that particular email account. I have about twenty thousand unread emails there. Apparently I had chosen the perfect time to get in touch with them because when I called they were actually in process of finalising arrangements for me to fly to the States for the awards ceremony.”

The whole experience in Palo Alto, Cedric tells me, was almost surreal. From a networking point of view, it was invaluable. The talks he was invited to paved the way to new opportunities and new ideas. And then there were the three speeches he was expected to give…

“It’s not like they gave me much advance notice that I was expected to give a speech. I got to know like, ten minutes before giving the first one. My opening sentence included the words that until some hours before I was still convinced that this was some elaborate prank. At least it got everyone laughing…”

Back in Malta, you’d have expected Cedric to take it easy and bask a bit in his recent success. No such thing. His Palo Alto experience had opened certain doors to him and he had no intention of letting them close again. Before too long he was being commissioned to carry out AV work for international companies. Working with big and established companies can lead to a couple of unintentional laughs.

“One company in particular felt that it would be a good idea to get better acquainted with me before work kicked off. They sent me a video of their offices and comments from the team members… their coffee and chill-out area was incredibly large. The only problem is that they expected some footage of my studio in exchange and since I was pretty much working from my bedroom… well, you can understand the dilemma this presented. I conducted a cleaning blitz on the room, put up several green screens and hoped for the best. They weren’t too impressed by my ‘studio’ but they were very happy with the work. And that is what counts at the end of the day,” he says with a chuckle.

As we speak Cedric has just wrapped up a new video that will be used on an upcoming documentary called The Start Up Kids. The documentary will be launched in the coming weeks and includes interviews with some of the top people in the cyber industry, from the chairman of Vimeo to the person who created Soundcloud. Cedric has also just finished working on the new video that accompanies funk/electro outfit Mathematikal’s latest single That Kind Of Girl. The video has been a hit locally, both musically and visually.

All this, of course, presents the more serious aspect of Cedric’s work. But the film maker’s sense of humour is still very much alive – as can be seen from the Pigsty in the Kitchen cookery series that has also gone viral pretty fast. The videos have been likened to Epic Meal Time, which is a tad unfair because while both shows are cookery show with a humurous take, that’s where the similarities end. Pigsty in the Kitchen delivers a very particular – and effective – brand of humour, mostly courtesy of its two, erm, celebrity chefs: Mauro and Max.

“We wanted to do something funny but I really don’t know why we picked on cooking. Whatever the reason, we had a real buzz doing the first video. The guys slept over at my place and we got up, raring to start at six in the morning. Only problem was… we still knew almost zilch about cooking. So Maurizio started quizzing my mother, we got together a list of ingredients, went to the supermarket and then drove off to our summerhouse for some real work.”

Cedric explains that most of the jokes are improv work; the two chefs have no script to work on and the only elements that are pre-decided are the props. Against all odds, the three are now taking a genuine interest in cooking; in fact, all the recipes used in Pigsty in the Kitchen are perfectly usable, it’s the chefs’ method that is questionable! All three have their specific roles.

“Max brings the bombastic jokes, Mauro has become the recipe expert (his chocolate ravioli were a hit) while I…well I have to be present at every stage as I film the whole thing and then edit and finalise. The whole thing costs us money, time and effort but we are having a blast.”

The three are in fact trying to find a commercial sponsor in order to avoid shouldering all the brunt of the expenses – however, Cedric is adamant that this will not be done at the expense of the identity of the series. I point out that the expense is probably the toughest bit to deal with, but it turns out I’m wrong.

“The cleaning up after the shooting is definitely the hardest bit. That, and condensing about forty minutes worth of footage into a five minute video.”

Why condense the material that drastically when fans keep clamouring for more, I ask.

“Actually we’re planning on changing this because we’ve had people say that they would prefer if the clips were longer. We’ve also just shot a couple of shortish fillers that aren’t exactly new episodes but…well, suffice it to say that we will soon launch a Dancing with the Chefs corner. Mauro dancing to Celine Dion’s All By Myself is definitely not a sight to be missed. Max’s English language lessons are also a law unto themselves.”

Given Cedric’s track record, I have no doubt that once the videos are online the hits will flow.

This is an edited version of an interview that was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).