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IN SYNC

Episode 8: Cleo Abram

A monthly dive into nonfiction video's new frontier.

Nikita Mandhani

British Broadcasting Corporation
October 15th, 2022
Episode 8: Cleo Abram

This month, I spoke to Cleo Abram, who started her video-making journey at Vox. Earlier this year, Cleo left Vox to make her own YouTube show, “Huge, If True.” She creates optimistic explainers about the technology that is changing our world. In this conversation, Cleo told me all about going independent, starting her own show, and making videos for YouTube and TikTok.


Nikita Mandhani: How did you get into filmmaking?

Cleo Abram: I became a video producer at Vox. I started at Vox working on the development side, which mostly meant pitching new shows like the original Explained series and building out new products like the Today, Explained podcast or Future Perfect as a vertical within Vox. I thought that job was so much fun. I had an incredible boss, and I remember feeling so happy when we sold the first season of Explained. But I also realised that it meant that I would no longer work on the show because my job was done. I had served my purpose, and a group of incredible video producers would take on the show and make something great and they did. In that moment, I really knew that that's what I wanted to learn how to do.

I was neither a journalist nor a filmmaker. So, I went to night school to learn how to edit in Premiere and animate in After Effects. I spent every night and weekend trying to take what I was learning in those classes and I made stuff - terrible stuff. Eventually I got better and I started making videos for Vox.

Then at some point, the executive producers/showrunners at Vox said, “If you pitch an episode of Explained, we will make a shortlist and send it to Netflix, and if it gets greenlit, you'll probably get to produce it.” That weekend, I worked nonstop on four pitches - one of which became Diamonds, Explained on Netflix. After it got greenlit by Netflix, Vox looked back at who had pitched what and they realised one of these was pitched by someone who was not technically a video producer. The thing that allowed the rest of my career to happen is that Vox let me produce that episode. And then one show led to another and I kept making videos for them.

Nikita: When did you first get the idea of making your own show?


Cleo:
Many of the films and shows, and the products and start-ups that I admire often came from people trying to meet a need for themselves. My media diet was full of incredible journalism that was helping me see important risks and abuses of certain technology. And I was watching a lot of firmly dystopian shows, very Black Mirror type of stuff.

So, I was looking for something different that I could add to this media diet, something that would help me participate in a conversation about technology that might make the world better. Or, I wanted to understand what was going on behind all the headlines that I was seeing about a new technology but approach it in a positive way. I wanted to make a show that was rigorous and contextual but also genuinely optimistic. So, I started researching a lot of those topics mostly to learn about them myself. Eventually, I just became so excited about the idea that I wanted to do it in a way that felt experimental. I wanted it to be mine. And that’s how Huge if True happened.

I was looking for something different that I could add to this media diet, something that would help me participate in a conversation about technology that might make the world better.
—Cleo Abram

Nikita: There’s so much that changes from when you're working in an organisation to when you go independent. What are some of the things you considered and what do you think people should keep in mind before they go independent in the nonfiction video space?

Cleo: In my head, it’s like a Venn diagram of several different things. One part of it is thinking about the skills that you have that you want to continue to use. I knew that I loved making explainer videos. And I knew that there was an element of being on camera that I really liked and that element was not like plugging myself in a hole in my script just because I didn't have a good visual. I try really hard not to do that. If you are a person who is taking someone else on a journey and expressing your own curiosity and expressing how you feel about a certain aspect of it, it helps people understand things better because they can follow you or they can get interested in the topic because they see that you are excited about it.

The second consideration is - how am I setting myself up to have a long-term career in this industry by taking this step? There are so many different options and they all can be really exciting but you have to figure out which ones you want. Do you want to be a freelance filmmaker? Do you want to have a job at a media company?

Then the third bucket is – this one was actually the one that I did not consider as much when I was leaving but has since become really important to me – how do you actually want to spend your day? Because then you will spend more and more of your energy on building this thing that you really enjoy and that can be really fruitful if you plan it out right. All these things matter together.

I was worried when I left Vox. I felt like I was leaving like the best team I had ever had the privilege of working with and that I would be lonely and not have people that I admired as much to learn from. But I was wrong. Just because you leave a job does not mean that you stop having your friendships at that job. Also, being independent has been a lot more collaborative than I first gave it credit for. There are just so many people now that I chat with and work on videos with and learn from. It feels like the whole Internet is my colleague now and that's amazing – a little bit intimidating but amazing.

Nikita: There’s so much that changes from when you're working in an organisation to when you go independent. What are some of the things you considered and what do you think people should keep in mind before they go independent in the nonfiction video space?

Cleo: In my head, it’s like a Venn diagram of several different things. One part of it is thinking about the skills that you have that you want to continue to use. I knew that I loved making explainer videos. And I knew that there was an element of being on camera that I really liked and that element was not like plugging myself in a hole in my script just because I didn't have a good visual. I try really hard not to do that. If you are a person who is taking someone else on a journey and expressing your own curiosity and expressing how you feel about a certain aspect of it, it helps people understand things better because they can follow you or they can get interested in the topic because they see that you are excited about it.

The second consideration is - how am I setting myself up to have a long-term career in this industry by taking this step? There are so many different options and they all can be really exciting but you have to figure out which ones you want. Do you want to be a freelance filmmaker? Do you want to have a job at a media company?

Then the third bucket is – this one was actually the one that I did not consider as much when I was leaving but has since become really important to me – how do you actually want to spend your day? Because then you will spend more and more of your energy on building this thing that you really enjoy and that can be really fruitful if you plan it out right. All these things matter together.

I was worried when I left Vox. I felt like I was leaving like the best team I had ever had the privilege of working with and that I would be lonely and not have people that I admired as much to learn from. But I was wrong. Just because you leave a job does not mean that you stop having your friendships at that job. Also, being independent has been a lot more collaborative than I first gave it credit for. There are just so many people now that I chat with and work on videos with and learn from. It feels like the whole Internet is my colleague now and that's amazing – a little bit intimidating but amazing.

Nikita: What is your process for making a video for Huge, if True?

Cleo: The thing I’m always looking for in a story, and I learned this from Vox, is the visual that helps viewers understand it. Maybe it's a chart, maybe it's a diagram, maybe it's a piece of archival footage or some sort of a demonstration but I always think through the reason that this is a video as opposed to a text piece. For example, if I’m really interested in nuclear fusion, I’m going to read a couple of books on the topic and at some point, I’ll find the key visual and then that will guide the actual story. It's like finding an area that I think is really ripe.

With Huge, If True that will be an area that I think is either particularly salient right now, in that people are talking about it from multiple sides, or there's some kind of debate around the topic. An additional criterion for this show is that it has to be a topic that’s important to understand for the future.

I’m trying to look forward. I’m trying to ask questions that are specifically designed to help people understand what might happen in five, 10, 30, 50 years. Then I do some background interviews and find the person that I’m going to interview on camera. Most of my videos have one to two interviews in them. Some of them don't have any if they're straightforward enough stories that I don't think the expert voice is going to add to it. That's all the pre-production process.

Next, I record my interviews. Sometimes that's remote and involves field shoots. Then I’ll collect all of that footage, do all of my transcripts, and write a three-column script – ears, eyes, sources. After that, I’ll record anything else that needs to be recorded on camera.

Once I have the script and all of the assets, it will go into post production. I’ve been working with an incredible designer and animator named Whitney Theis.

She helped me come up with the design of the show, and she does all of the animations for the episodes of Huge, if True. I work with several different incredible editors such as Joan Educate.

Nikita: Tell me more about the overall look for Huge, If True? How did you decide what the show should look like – especially considering you had the freedom to make it your own.

Cleo: Early on, Whitney and I talked a lot about what we wanted the show to feel like. Many shows about technology all look the same – it's all greys and blacks and there's one neon colour and it looks like you are in the movie Tron or on a spaceship, or both. While that can be a beautiful aesthetic, it fits into a slightly dystopian view of where technology is taking us. It looks like the world has ended and you're living inside of a spaceship.

Whitney understood my views about this and really brought the right hues and colours to life. Not many people will notice this but all of the background colours in the show are dark browns and greens and blues as opposed to greys and blacks or colours that feel more sterile. A lot of the images that we talked about when we were launching the show were very solar punk.

Nikita: What is your process for making a video for Huge, if True?

Cleo: The thing I’m always looking for in a story, and I learned this from Vox, is the visual that helps viewers understand it. Maybe it's a chart, maybe it's a diagram, maybe it's a piece of archival footage or some sort of a demonstration but I always think through the reason that this is a video as opposed to a text piece. For example, if I’m really interested in nuclear fusion, I’m going to read a couple of books on the topic and at some point, I’ll find the key visual and then that will guide the actual story. It's like finding an area that I think is really ripe.

With Huge, If True that will be an area that I think is either particularly salient right now, in that people are talking about it from multiple sides, or there's some kind of debate around the topic. An additional criterion for this show is that it has to be a topic that’s important to understand for the future.

I’m trying to look forward. I’m trying to ask questions that are specifically designed to help people understand what might happen in five, 10, 30, 50 years. Then I do some background interviews and find the person that I’m going to interview on camera. Most of my videos have one to two interviews in them. Some of them don't have any if they're straightforward enough stories that I don't think the expert voice is going to add to it. That's all the pre-production process.

Next, I record my interviews. Sometimes that's remote and involves field shoots. Then I’ll collect all of that footage, do all of my transcripts, and write a three-column script – ears, eyes, sources. After that, I’ll record anything else that needs to be recorded on camera.

Once I have the script and all of the assets, it will go into post production. I’ve been working with an incredible designer and animator named Whitney Theis.

She helped me come up with the design of the show, and she does all of the animations for the episodes of Huge, if True. I work with several different incredible editors such as Joan Educate.

Nikita: Tell me more about the overall look for Huge, If True? How did you decide what the show should look like – especially considering you had the freedom to make it your own.

Cleo: Early on, Whitney and I talked a lot about what we wanted the show to feel like. Many shows about technology all look the same – it's all greys and blacks and there's one neon colour and it looks like you are in the movie Tron or on a spaceship, or both. While that can be a beautiful aesthetic, it fits into a slightly dystopian view of where technology is taking us. It looks like the world has ended and you're living inside of a spaceship.

Whitney understood my views about this and really brought the right hues and colours to life. Not many people will notice this but all of the background colours in the show are dark browns and greens and blues as opposed to greys and blacks or colours that feel more sterile. A lot of the images that we talked about when we were launching the show were very solar punk.

Nikita: What’s your financial model like? How do you make money?

Cleo: Partnerships and sponsorships. I waited a little bit to put out sponsorships on YouTube because I wanted to get the show off the ground first. I also do sponsorships on TikTok, which for a while was subsidising YouTube, and now both should be supporting each other.

I don't have a subscription model but I will say I love the idea of forming some kind of community. I don't want to take people's money until I know exactly how I’m bringing value to their lives so I haven't done that yet. My goal was to just be able to support the show in the first year and it's doing better than that. Sponsorships are more than the cost of the show already and I was not expecting that.

Nikita: You made a video about artificial wombs. After watching that, I just felt overwhelmed with emotion because there’s so much about your own journey in it. How long did it take to make that video?

Cleo: That one is a great example of something that I could not have possibly planned but when you are incredibly flexible, you can make what is happening in your life fit into a production process and not the other way around.

I knew that I wanted to make an episode on this topic because I found it very scientifically interesting and it's also under-discussed. As a woman covering futuristic technology, I felt that I could bring something to the table by covering it. I read a couple books and I had the idea for the key visual which at the time was going to be this timeline which actually does end up in the video. I did an interview with one of the leading researchers and had it all. I was kind of ready to build a much more traditional explainer video. I actually thought that the personal element of that video was that I was going to talk to my sister, who has had kids. She and I were going to have a conversation about pregnancy and I was going to tell her that I was a little bit afraid of pregnancy. I did record that conversation, which didn’t make it to the video, but I’m sure I’ll use that for something else.

I had all of the footage organised by day, which is how I was going to structure the video – as a journey. I just couldn't have planned this worse or better but I found out that I needed to have surgery, which was related to my ovaries, and was essentially necessary to preserve my ability to have kids. So, I just replaced the end part with the surgery, explaining what was going on. The conclusion changed because my perspective actually did change over the course of making this video, and then I went back and I changed the introduction.

Nikita: What’s your financial model like? How do you make money?

Cleo: Partnerships and sponsorships. I waited a little bit to put out sponsorships on YouTube because I wanted to get the show off the ground first. I also do sponsorships on TikTok, which for a while was subsidising YouTube, and now both should be supporting each other.

I don't have a subscription model but I will say I love the idea of forming some kind of community. I don't want to take people's money until I know exactly how I’m bringing value to their lives so I haven't done that yet. My goal was to just be able to support the show in the first year and it's doing better than that. Sponsorships are more than the cost of the show already and I was not expecting that.

Nikita: You made a video about artificial wombs. After watching that, I just felt overwhelmed with emotion because there’s so much about your own journey in it. How long did it take to make that video?

Cleo: That one is a great example of something that I could not have possibly planned but when you are incredibly flexible, you can make what is happening in your life fit into a production process and not the other way around.

I knew that I wanted to make an episode on this topic because I found it very scientifically interesting and it's also under-discussed. As a woman covering futuristic technology, I felt that I could bring something to the table by covering it. I read a couple books and I had the idea for the key visual which at the time was going to be this timeline which actually does end up in the video. I did an interview with one of the leading researchers and had it all. I was kind of ready to build a much more traditional explainer video. I actually thought that the personal element of that video was that I was going to talk to my sister, who has had kids. She and I were going to have a conversation about pregnancy and I was going to tell her that I was a little bit afraid of pregnancy. I did record that conversation, which didn’t make it to the video, but I’m sure I’ll use that for something else.

I had all of the footage organised by day, which is how I was going to structure the video – as a journey. I just couldn't have planned this worse or better but I found out that I needed to have surgery, which was related to my ovaries, and was essentially necessary to preserve my ability to have kids. So, I just replaced the end part with the surgery, explaining what was going on. The conclusion changed because my perspective actually did change over the course of making this video, and then I went back and I changed the introduction.

Here’s the In Sync Spotify playlist that now includes some of Cleo’s picks as well!

Nikita: That little scene of you talking to your mom, it was just so raw. What was it like - being in that emotional moment and recording that conversation?

Cleo: That is an extremely specific coping mechanism. I had just gotten home from the doctor and I was talking to my mom. The really emotional part had already happened but I turned on the camera towards the end of that conversation. Looking back on that, I can't really believe that that is my coping mechanism. I’m grateful for it in some ways because it resulted in this video, but I promise that in other parts of my life, I do not turn the camera on (laughs).

There are moments when it feels good and moments when it doesn’t. In that case, I think I was dealing with a lot of new information about how my body worked and what was happening to it, and what needed to happen next, I was probably dealing with complexity by trying to do my explainer thing.

Nikita: Now, let’s talk about TikTok. I know you have a huge following there and you were one of the first journalists who started using it as a platform for news and information. Full disclosure, I haven't seen a lot of your videos on TikTok because it’s banned in India. But, why did you want to use TikTok as a platform?

Cleo: I got on TikTok in mid-2020. There was a lot of confusing information everywhere and there was also a huge upswing in the number of people using TikTok in the United States. That was during the time that I was making Answered, which was Vox’s daily show on Quibi, RIP. The show had two formats - horizontal and vertical - and one of the things that many hosts do with their shows is they promote shows on other platforms by taking little cuts of longer episodes. I started making content for TikTok as an effort to promote the show and to actually hear from people about the show. If an episode was seven minutes, I’d grab 30 seconds of it and talk about it.

Those TikToks did very well and people clearly were interested in the topics that we were covering. It was great as a promotional channel but eventually, I started to realise that TikTok is best when you're not trying to promote something else. TikTok is best when you are making things for TikTok. And so, when we shut down, I was just really excited to be on the platform in general because I had developed this relationship with an audience that was interested in learning things. So, I just kept making stuff. TikTok has an incredibly high comment-to-view ratio. People are very chatty there and I love it. By the time I went independent, I was approaching a million subscribers and it gave me the confidence that I needed to take the plunge.

I started to realise that TikTok is best when you're not trying to promote something else. TikTok is best when you are making things for TikTok.
—Cleo Abram

Nikita: A lot of news organisations were initially quite resistant to trying TikTok. Things are changing now. And so many journalists and video makers are trying to learn how to make content for TikTok. What advice do you have for news organisations?

Cleo: I think that people respond more enthusiastically to individuals than they do to companies. TikTok is on one end of the spectrum where that's extremely true, but I think that’s becoming more true in all parts of the media ecosystem. Even for newsletters that come from media companies, I tend to associate them with the journalist who’s writing them.

On TikTok, the advice that I would give to media companies is: Feel free to lean into this trend of building and enhancing relationships between specific journalists and audiences. It doesn’t have to be just one person. Look at the Washington Post and Planet Money – they both started with one person on TikTok but now involve multiple people. Basically, it should feel like it's coming from a human being.

I think that's a little bit tricky for media companies. Firstly, because it's a slightly different tone and some journalists like it while some don't, and secondly because it gives more power to the journalist than the company. That power shift has some interesting implications. If someone builds up a newsletter audience, they also have power to demand more within the company, which I think is great.

So, it's both a real advantage for companies to do that because that is the most effective strategy, and it's also a little bit of a risk. I’m honestly excited to see the kind of renegotiation of pay and benefits and ownership that this change in the media ecosystem can lead to.

Nikita: You’ve made videos for many different platforms such as Netflix, YouTube, TikTok. We often see publications putting the same video on different platforms. They’ll make a vertical version or just cut a short part out, but essentially the same videos end up going everywhere. What do you think about that trend and how do you approach your work in a multiplatform context?

Cleo: I think a lot of people are missing the forest for the trees here, and the reason I say that is that the vast majority of the work that we do is the actual building of the story, the interviewing, the research. It’s this huge amount of work that has to be done, no matter which platform the story is for. So, the interesting thing to me is that people try to repurpose the actual asset instead of just repurposing the content. The content of the story should be the same, no matter where you put it. But in order to get the most mileage out of the same work, you should be able to tweak it slightly on top, so that it works on different platforms.

Let’s stick with the artificial wombs example. I made a 20-minute-long video on artificial wombs for YouTube. Then, I repurposed it in a bunch of different ways. It became a long Twitter thread but I didn't repost the whole video on Twitter with the expectation that it would do equally well. I took screenshots and broke it down and tried to make it into a thread. On TikTok, I re-recorded the direct-to-camera portions on my phone and then used the same animations and archives and even the pacing of the video to make it into five or ten TikTok videos.

Nikita: When you say that the 20-minute video became five to 10 TikTok videos, was each TikTok video a stand alone episode?

Cleo: They should be. I’ve tested a bunch of different versions of that. Sometimes, I just take the introduction to the YouTube video and reformat it in vertical and then post it. Sometimes, I just use a screenshot and promote the video like “go watch it here!” Those tend to do much worse than just - here's 60 seconds that is one point out of the 20 points that I included in a YouTube video on this topic.

Having different audiences on TikTok versus YouTube is not a problem. I have no idea what the overlap is between those two audiences. But I know that my audience on YouTube is mostly male and my audience on TikTok is mostly female and my audience on TikTok is much larger. I’m learning slightly different things from each audience group especially because I’m monetizing on both platforms with the same show. I don't really feel the need to drive audiences from one platform to the other.

Nikita: How do you measure success for your videos and for your show?

Cleo: In the short time that I have been independent, I have changed my metrics for success. I thought Huge, If True would be successful if I hit 100,000 subscribers on YouTube at the end of the year. And I hit that number in the first three months. That was incredibly validating.

If you create the right underlying infrastructure, if you set up the show right, if you're correct that people want to see more of this kind of content in this way, once you figure out your lane, there's so much opportunity here for journalists. There's so much to cover and there's so many ways to cover it. For me, the metric has moved into what is the highest quality work that I can make that feels like something that people might not get somewhere else. So, the mixing of the vulnerable, personal element with a very highly produced animated explainer - that feels really interesting and rich creatively for me, and I want to do more work like that. Or collaborating with really interesting people and just pushing myself creatively in different ways. If anyone's reading this and wants to collaborate at some point, that's my plug!

Nikita: What’s your one piece of advice to people making nonfiction videos?

Cleo: For new video journalists, I think the hardest thing to learn is the emphasis on visuals before anything else. It's about what you are seeing at every moment, and how that tells you a story. That shift for people can be really intuitive and beautiful. So, I would urge people to learn what makes a good video as opposed to a good essay or text piece.

And for people who get that, I’d say this is a very interesting time for video journalism. There’s an incredible amount of opportunity to experiment and to take bets on yourselves – whether that means going independent or simply taking on a new initiative within a company that feels creatively fulfilling to you. The mediums are changing and therefore the opportunities for the stories themselves can also change, and it's a fun time to experiment with what that means, no matter where you work.

Nikita: And before you go, who are some of your favourite video-makers who you think people reading this interview should check out?

Cleo: There are so many people I admire in the nonfiction video space. I love what my colleagues at Vox are doing, and I love the videos Simone Giertz makes. She’s an inventor, and she makes these incredible, physical productions. Another great channel is Answer in Progress. They are these amazingly talented video producers. In each video, they ask a question and they investigate how to find the answer, and sometimes it ends up in totally unexpected places. It’s always an explainer with a journey. I also love Johnny Harris and Iz Harris and the Physics Girl. I have a YouTube playlist called “Vids I admire” on my channel, which includes most of my favourite videos and there’s a huge variety there.

The mediums are changing and therefore the opportunities for the stories themselves can also change, and it's a fun time to experiment with what that means, no matter where you work.
—Cleo Abram

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