previous article
next article

about the author

Daniel Robin has been making personal documentary films, for online exhibition, film festivals and television, since the mid 90's. He teaches film and video production in Atlanta, at Georgia State University. Robin's web video work has been written about extensively and his current short film, My Olympic Summer, has won several awards including the Jury Prize at Sundance in 2008. He was recently chosen by Filmmaker Magazine as one of twenty-five new faces of independent film.


A Brief History of an Accidental Web Video Pioneer

Daniel Robin

Back in the day, circa 2000, whenever I got into a conversation with other filmmakers about what I was doing, I felt as if I was up on my soapbox, evangelizing spirit in tow, urging them to embrace the burgeoning new medium of web video. It just seemed so obvious to me that this was our time; we had the opportunity to make a lot of work, for relatively nothing, with the means of self-distribution. We had the chance to create a new kind of cinema that had its own aesthetic qualities apart from traditional cinema and TV. My particular vision was a website,, that would bring a network of like-minded filmmakers together, which made sense considering that independent filmmakers always pine for a sense of community. When I related this idea to my peers, who lived in various cities around the world, they seemed genuinely interested, even suggesting they’d contribute a neighborhood-based web video series to the site. In that moment everything seemed possible: together, we’d start a film movement.

When I began my first series, the Valet Chronicles, I was convinced others would follow. To my dismay, nobody jumped on board, which in many ways led me into a sort of self-imposed exile. I was truly alone in this new frontier, so I had to prove, with a great deal of chutzpah, to my peers, as well as to myself, that it could work, as reflected in these excerpts from a journal I kept during those formative years:

9/20/2000 Journal Entry:
…These last few months have been a flurry of emotions: self-doubt, exhilaration, joy, sorrow. How much longer can I continue my chronicles? ...This is a revolutionary time in the world of (independent) filmmaking. I believe I’m on the cusp and the rest must catch up.

12/14/2000 Journal Entry:
Week 23 of the valet chronicles…right now I feel as if I have no allies. I know this is a continuous thread in these entries, but it’s how I feel, isolated.

In this regard, my deep immersion into this new medium was in some ways accidental. For a movement to begin, like it was supposed to, my peers would have to see how web video was an end destination, as opposed to just a stepping-stone to “real” filmmaking.

Once a week, I kept posting 3-4 minute episodes of Valet Chronicles, and ended up with 37 episodes in eight months. While I also make short films for festivals, I had never experienced this type of filmmaking, where, within a week’s time, you make a film, distribute it, and get heartfelt feedback via email from all over the world. Now, eight years later, perhaps the soapbox isn’t necessary, due to the YouTube-ization of the world-or is it? All of those filmmakers I was sermonizing to, whose work I know and love, have yet to sink their cinematic teeth into web video.

When I began churning out episodes of Valet Chronicles, I didn’t know what the critical response would be. The emails from viewers was invigorating and nurturing, but like most filmmakers I yearned for critical validation. It came sooner than later:

Short films -- especially those featuring animation, effects, and comedy - are the hot ticket du Web. But if authenticity inspires you more than gimmickry, drop by the cinéma vérité haven of Every Thursday morning since mid-July, local documentary-maker Daniel Robin (Matzoh Balls and Black-Eyed Peas) has posted a new chapter of Valet Chronicles, an ongoing portrait of the quadrant of North Beach where he's employed as a car parker. "My intent is to convey a sense of place, an atmosphere I'm familiar with and the rhythms of a neighborhood," says Robin. Armed with a Sony digital camera, a G4, and Final Cut Pro, Robin shoots, edits, compresses, and uploads a personal view of the corner of Grant and Vallejo to anyone in the world who's interested. Robin envisions "a global thing, with stations all over the world." The rules: "It's one geographical location and it's always from the same person." The result: "A subjective perspective on a microsociety, with one individual determining the content and style."1

The two episodes below are illustrative of how I incorporated the people of the neighborhood who, like me, spent a good portion of their lives within 100 feet of each other. I came back to both Barbara and Jeremiah, respectively, as I did with several others throughout the series, in an attempt to not only tell individual stories, but to also give a sense of the fabric of a neighborhood.

Valet Chronicles: episode 7

the Valet Chronicles: episode 13

My web video work is, for the most part, a continuation of my super-8 and 16mm shorts, personal documentary films I make about myself and the people in my life. I gave a lot of thought as to why I was getting, at times, 2000 hits a day, years before viral web video was commonplace. Short bursts of web video content are consumable because such content flows with our daily multi-tasking lifestyle; it’s convenient. Our minds have adapted to technology, able to move from one thing to the next with acute awareness. A person at work, in between meetings, writing a flurry of emails, and thinking about lunch, finds a (Quicktime) window that transports her into an unknown, or even familiar, neighborhood/place rife with atmosphere and engaging characters. This hypothetical viewer has the ability to focus, and desire to be absorbed, for three minutes. The episodes within my neighborhood series are a celebration of the mundane packaged with a love for people and cinema.

But then there are the naysayers. According to web video critic, Virginia Heffernan, my personal documentary approach isn’t suitable for the web:

But. And I want to be dogmatic about this. Online video is not right for vérité, just as it’s not right, really, for stories. There’s no time. Not because those stories don’t look good when you play them on your Avid for your friends, but because in this context they’re too hard to process. At this screen size — and when the video plays amid Word docs and annoying email and open Technorati links—we don’t want quiet rolling stories, we want our minds to be SEIZED. To this end, we need iconic images.2

Really, Virginia?

12/7/2000 Journal Entry:
Posted episode 21 then went to the matinee of Kieslowski’s Decalogue 5 and 6… I am weak without inspiration from the web so I turn to a master of cinema… Lots of emails praising the episodes lately. Chris Brown3 said it succinctly today about me not fully knowing what I’m making in the moment, but years from now this will be a summation of a world I both created and participated in.

Looking back at this journal entry I vividly remember how, at the time, I was struggling to find a new language, or rather, a modified cinematic language appropriate for web video. I had no references to draw from; I was making it up on a week-by-week basis. I wondered if viewers necessarily needed a story to grab on to in each episode, or if they would respond more to the ongoing impression of a neighborhood.

Valet Chronicles: episode 30

As I was shooting and editing this first series, I realized that I was gravitating towards a certain disciplined approach that has an indirect affinity with the ideas behind the Dogma 95 Manifesto - by putting aesthetic limitations on the process of filmmaking, I hoped the result would be more pure, direct, and honest. I wrote some guidelines on my site as much for myself as for future submissions from filmmakers who wanted to participate with their own neighborhood series:

Filmmakers are encouraged to uphold the integrity of their neighborhood. All content, whether a series, or one film, must come from one geographic location/neighborhood, which is open to interpretation. All sound, including music, must come from that location. The basis of all of the content submitted is to tell stories both about yourself, and others who occupy the neighborhood, the more personal the better. Stories should be inclusive of the location/neighborhood in some capacity and should always be about real people.

The idea of writing a manifesto of sorts was to maintain not only the integrity of the neighborhood at hand, by using only diegetic sound, available light, and no intrusive gear or crew except the filmmaker and his/her camera, but also to maintain a continuous mode of filmmaking within the site. I didn’t want to hinder individual creative potential, but instead wanted to build on an aesthetic doctrine as well as a content-oriented theme. This is what I found to be lacking in web video-based websites then and now.

As I was waiting patiently for submissions, I began my second series at my good friend Windy Chien’s San Francisco-based independent record store, Aquarius Records. I wanted to see if I could stay within the framework of production the site espoused, while I pushed myself creatively and perhaps could attract a different audience. Web video was still in its infancy and I was really on my own in terms of finding out what worked and what didn’t. To this day, this is the bane of many eager corporate entities looking for the right formula in the potentially lucrative web video market. Fortunately, I don’t base success on monetary gain; the rewards come from knowing people are watching the series and reading reviews that offer insight on what I’m doing.

If you've ever tried to get Aquarius Records to stock your band's CD or you just have a crush on one of the employees, check out Neighborhood Films and get the skinny on the inner workings of the city's most discriminating (some say snootiest) music shop. Local filmmaker Daniel Robin, knowing a worthy doc subject when he sees it, has shot 18 mini episodes inside the Valencia Street store, showing the AQ crew dishing about sex, fashion, the regulars and, of course, music.

Owner Windy Chien, perpetually looking fabulous during smoke breaks and plant-watering sessions, gets in enough snappy quips to warrant her own underground cult, including a doozy when asked what music is best to listen to while knockin' boots. "I don't have sex to music," she reveals. "It's stupid, because then you start f-ing time with the beat. And then you get embarrassed and start laughing." And what happened when she once found herself in the sack with local band Tarentel on the stereo? Check out episode seven!

Filmmaker Robin wants his site to be a video Web portal for neighborhood films the world over, so all of you with a favorite deli, bookstore, lemonade stand, or crossing guard, get cracking.4

Aquarius Records: episode 1

Aquarius Records: episode 7

I was fortunate to have a built in hype-mechanism. Aquarius Records sends out a respected bi-weekly review of new records to thousands of people around the world. With each episode came an announcement to their subscribers. In turn I began to see how viewer response correlated to my ideas about what works in this medium.

dear aquarius,

the short films were fabulous! the filming and editing, and content made perfect emotional sense. it really felt like i was there, it was like there was no transition whatsoever from sitting at my job to entering the stimuli of the films.5

At first glance, this email addresses what is common knowledge to those Web 2.0 folks vying for real-estate dominance: that most viewing is done while people are at work looking for distraction. More significantly, this email suggests an emotional resonance, something that spoke to the viewer beyond camp and lampoon, which is still, to this day, as Michael Fox put it, “the hot ticket du web.” Perhaps, like traditional cinema and TV, web video must purge itself of the ubiquitous YouTube variety before a watershed moment occurs, a golden age of web video if you will, not only for the filmmakers but also more importantly within the collective consciousness of the viewers. There will always be an appetite for user-generated YouTube style content, but there has to be more to web video options then one-off guitar prodigy virtuoso videos and the more recent piggyback TV series.

Though the computer is, in itself, a cold, impersonal apparatus, online video does have the potential to transport a person to unknown regions that may become catalysts for introspection, or provide a sense of community and inspiration. I use the documentary form, which others have tapped into, but many of the online documentaries I’ve seen fall short because they are one-off films. Show these at film festivals, but make a series for the web. Documentaries circulate around community, people, and places. We all know that the Internet is fertile ground for building community, so why not utilize this commonality, which can only attract more returning viewers? Isn’t the point to get as many people as possible to watch your films? There’s also a scent of voyeurism that is inherent in online documentaries and lends itself to engaging viewers by allowing them to peer into a private world they would have otherwise not been privileged to enter.

An example of this can be seen in my fourth series, kinoland, a window into the last year of my MFA film program. It’s representative of how I approach using a personal documentary form specifically for an online audience. It’s a no-frills brand of filmmaking - just me, my camera, and the people who find their way in front of my lens. If you compare this series with my others, you’ll see similar aesthetic choices, but for each, a new relationship is formed with the given neighborhood. My definition of a neighborhood, in the context of my website, is somewhat open. When I begin each series, I set the geographical parameters and only shoot only there so as to give the viewer a sense of place and the ability to become familiar with the people who congregate within that space.

Katrina Longworth, a respected blogger of cinema culture, reviewed this series recently. Her critique is probably the most astute to date, which tells me that the critical bar is being raised, so perhaps there’s hope.

…Robin has been producing Quicktime-based web series since 2000…he posted on his web site a series of shorts called Kinoland, documenting the frustrations he and his classmates experienced during a semester in the graduate filmmaking program at San Francisco State.

In the first episode, Robin pitches the web series to his professor as an investigation of “the dynamic between teacher and student, how this relationship both benefits and hinders an education within this film program.” His professor’s response? “I’m asking you to do something different…we are not here to feed your website.” Robin embarks on the project anyway, and the remaining eight episodes chronicle the personal and creative battles of Robin and his classmates as they navigate an educational system that seems at best indifferent to, and often actually an aggressive barrier to, their success.

kinoland: episode 1

The effect of the episodes is cumulative. On their own, they seem to be just fragments, but taken together, they accurately reflect the tangle of emotions produced by any close-knit, intense creative environment. The heightened state is made a bit more explosive by Robin’s professor, whose extreme detachment and apparent aversion to active instruction enrages the students. …The frustration of producing art in this environment bleeds into other aspects of his subjects’ lives; as the woman at the center of episode four (Robin never tells us his subjects’ names) tells Robin, “Everything is about cinema.” Later in the episode, she starts crying in front of the camera, and immediately drops a cinematic reference to being filmed with tears on her face. She’s apparently crying because her professor/adviser has failed to flirt with her, and kinoland hits its emotional and narrative peak with this scene.6

kinoland: episode 4

Karina’s observations echo the response of the Aquarius Records viewer’s email in relation to how the episodes’ cumulative effect creates an emotional connection that resonates between the viewer and the series. I know I’ve succeeded in finding a form that works for this medium because it’s a tried and true approach. I’ve given a great deal of thought to this as I’ve navigated through the “pioneering” days of 2000 up until now. It really comes down to human connections and how web video opens a space for people, sitting alone at their computer, to engage with real people with whom they would otherwise never have had any contact. Despite its content being, for the most part, uninspiring and massively cluttered, YouTube works on this level of engagement in many instances. People are fascinated with real life. With my neighborhood series project, I’ve found a way to consistently package content for this specific medium.

I believe that filmmakers are responsible for how the ever-blossoming web video audience will form their perceptions and expectations of original content. Perhaps that’s a bit idealistic on my part. Now that pop culture has finally embraced web video, corporations and advertising money are going to have a huge impact on what we will consume. So perhaps this is a plea for filmmakers to embrace the web as a viable creative venue. A longtime friend recently proclaimed that the success of my current film, my olympic summer, which I made specifically for festival screenings, had revived me after concentrating on web video series for the past seven years. I understood what he meant.  For an unestablished filmmaker, top tier festival screenings and winning awards is the barometer for success. But he’s wrong – for me, it’s about discovering new ways to tell stories, with evolving technologies, and having these stories seen by as many people possible, which web video has offered me. Still sermonizing. I guess I never got off my soapbox.


1. Michael Fox, “Don’t Look Back; Halloween,” SF Weekly, Reel World, September 20, 2000, Arts Section.

2. Virginia Heffernan, comment on “The Pink Coffee Table in Bagdad,” The Medium Blog, The New York Times, posted March 19, 2007.

3. Chris Brown happens to be one of those San Francisco filmmakers I only wish would make a series for the web.

4. Beth Lisick, “Look out SF, here comes Anna Nicole! Plus, Aquarius Records on Film, Marilyn Manson joins the burlesque invasion and more,” SFGate, October 2, 2002, Entertainment Section.

5. Jane Doe, email message to Aquarius Records, April 22, 2003

6. Karina Longworth, comment on “kinoland”, Karina’s Capsule, NewTeeVee, posted on May 14, 2008