15 years of Vimeo Staff Picks: Tracing its innovative history and future
Following its launch over a decade ago, Vimeo Staff Picks has become the go-to place for video-based inspiration. Below, we speak to the curators behind it, and a handful of the filmmakers who have been given a Staff Pick, about three significant innovations within the film industry.
Since 2008, renowned video experience platform Vimeo has been driving filmmaking forward with its curatorial program known as Staff Picks. Carefully selected by the Vimeo curation team, the work that makes it into this coveted collection is some of the best to be found anywhere online. As such, Staff Picks serves to spotlight creators and filmmakers around the world by offering them a platform, and also bringing them closer to Vimeo’s passionate audience.
To celebrate 15 years since it first began, Vimeo launched Generation Vimeo, a campaign that looks at the past, present and future of Staff Picks. Alongside in-person screenings and interactive mixtapes, Vimeo has partnered with It’s Nice That to explore the way filmmaking has changed over the last decade or so. Below, the platform’s lead curators Ina Pira and Meghan Oretsky offer insights into the innovations they’ve noticed since joining the curatorial team, as well as other important moments for the medium.
By its very nature, film should be a medium used for sharing an array of narratives and perspectives from around the world – except that, for much of the medium’s history, this hasn’t been the case. Since the arrival of the very first camera and the dawning of Hollywood, the stories that have been deemed worthwhile have largely been white and middle-class. But, in the period of time that Ina and Meghan have been at Vimeo, they say they’ve seen countless new points of view – ones previously excluded from the film industry – proliferate on the platform. As advancements in technology steadily democratise the art of filmmaking, creating a lower barrier for entry, filmmakers outside of the mainstream have been able to find an audience and develop their creative voice online.
One such result of this has been the growth of hundreds of different kinds of stories being shared on Vimeo and beyond. “Industry wide we’re seeing an increased focus on inclusivity and initiatives that support diverse perspectives,” says Ina. “It’s an ongoing effort but it is making an impact on the types of stories we’re seeing come online. In both personal and brand work, filmmakers are highlighting important social issues and underrepresented voices.”
“Industry wide we’re seeing an increased focus on inclusivity and initiatives that support diverse perspectives”Ina Pira
Many emerging practitioners, such as director Sindha Agha, who just this year won a BAFTA for her short film How to Get an Abortion, are gaining viewership on the world stage. As the title would suggest, the film follows a teenage girl’s journey to safely terminating her pregnancy, during which time she finds unexpected support in her devout father. Humorous, melancholy and touching all at the same time, Ina says Agha’s own personal brand of storytelling – which has won her several Staff Picks – serves as a brilliant example of how up-and-coming filmmakers are using the medium to “elevate stories and perspectives that are rarely discussed”.
She goes on: "A big part of our curation ethos is discovery and support for emerging talent. It’s such a privilege to be in this position and encouraging for us when these original stories connect with people in big ways. Just this year, Savannah Leaf and A.V. Rockwell made big waves with their debut features and Carlos Lopez Estrada and Hiro Murai, whose early careers developed on Vimeo, continue to create culture shaping work. I’m excited to see their voices celebrated in the years ahead."
“It’s exciting to think about the breadth of work we’re exposed to because of this job. It’s pretty cool.”Ina Pira
For other filmmakers, the Staff Picks program has served as an incubator for talent and a supportive space to hone their creative approach. Their Staff Picked work has helped them develop their distinct voices, validate it with audiences online, and later launch real mainstream success. Examples being creators such as John Wilson, whose docuseries How To with John Wilson began life on the platform, as well as Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, whose Max web-series High Maintenance was also born on their Vimeo channel.
But most notably of late is the work of now-iconic director duo Daniels, whose film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once became the most awarded film ever after its release last year. This launched them into stardom, but unbeknownst to many fans, the pair have been telling stories like this one for years, just in a shorter format. There’s also filmmaker Ben Proudfoot, whose short documentary about pioneering (yet overlooked) female basketball player Lucy Harris, titled The Queen of Basketball, won him an Academy Award. One can track his distinct approach to telling stories about underrepresented and marginalised narratives as it developed over this many Staff Picks.
A new era of brand storytelling
Where once there were only TV adverts, there exists now an entire world of creative brand storytelling. From short docs to feature-length films, the ways in which brands are engaging with the medium has completely changed. As Meghan attests, “the best films in the branded content category are those in which companies take a less authoritative backseat to the talent of the filmmakers they commission and the cause they want to support,” she says. “It seems more brands are adopting this approach when outsourcing video production.”
By doing so, not only are they subverting expectations, but they’re also supporting artists and helping to expand the medium. Take, for example, For Every Dream, a series of short films made by San Francisco-based creative studio Even/Odd for fintech giant Square. The series, which explores the personal triumphs of small business owners, went on to win several high-profile awards, including five Vimeo Staff Picks and Best of the Year, as well as a qualification for the Academy Awards – becoming the first branded film ever to do so. Crucially, while these docs were made for Square, they contain very little of the brand’s own narrative, serving instead to spotlight other businesses that have succeeded against all odds.
“The best films in the branded content category are those in which companies take a less authoritative backseat to the talent of the filmmakers they commission and the cause they want to support.”Meghan Oretsky
But brands are doing more than just championing real stories in their films – they’re also embracing more experimental approaches to branded filmmaking, by allowing the artists they commission to take control. This was exactly what Danish furniture brand Takt did when it handed over the reins to local director Bine Bach to craft a thank you message for its eco-conscious customers.
Takt even let Bine rework the entire brief, which contained scripts for the film that she “found too obvious”. Using in-camera trickery, she built a one-minute film that, in just a few simple, playful sequences, communicated everything Takt wanted to say, while also entertaining viewers. “Takt gave us all the creative freedom and were very trustful,” recalls Bine. “This made the whole process super fun and it definitely provided a better end result. Their attitude was ‘We make furniture, you make films’ and they just let us do our thing.”
Collaborations such as this one represent the future of branded storytelling – a future where creativity and authenticity are prioritised over financial gain, and where filmmakers are allowed to leave their mark on the work that they make, even if that work isn’t for them. As Meghan notes, “these examples are really exciting suggestions that artists are being given more freedom to stretch their brains and receive a green light to ship ideas that are true to their voice.”
“Their attitude was ‘We make furniture, you make films’ and they just let us do our thing.”Bine Bach
Just as technology has played a key part in the revival of the short as a format, so too has it been a driver of change within the medium itself. From AI and 3D game engines to AR, VR and 360 video, Ina and Meghan note that Staff Picked filmmakers are constantly experimenting with new and emerging technology. Alongside changing the way in which films are being produced, edited, and distributed, this technological progress has also opened up an entirely new world of creative possibility. For instance, AI programs have been used for purposes as wide-ranging as writing scripts and storylines, creating props and backgrounds from scratch, and even generating imagery to be used as the primary visuals in a film.
The latter – letting AI lead on a film’s visuals – has proven to be a particularly interesting area for experimental practitioners. In his 2022 short, Hairy Pouter, which was awarded a Staff Pick, creative director and filmmaker Chris Carboni worked closely with AI image generator Midjourney, using it to provide visual accompaniments to a narrated review of the first Harry Potter book by his grandmother, Lillian. Taking her unedited quotes, the program created striking artworks to coincide with Lillian’s words, resulting in “increasingly whimsical” imagery as the film progresses. “The decision to use Midjourney was foundational to the storytelling,” Chris tells us, “and we may be at the precipice of a new wave of artistic output, where people that have previously been held back due to lack of access to funding, equipment, or expensive training are now empowered to share their unique vision with the world.”
Elsewhere, directors such as Miguel Ortega have been taking advantage of other advancements to help in the pre-production stages of a project. For his award-winning animated horror film The Voice in the Hollow, which also earned a Staff Pick, he used Unreal Engine to figure out the game plan before he even hit record. “Unreal isn’t just for final renders, it’s also a powerful tool for planning your shoots. By using the engine to figure out camera angles and create rough edits, you can arrive on a live-action set with a clear vision, maximising efficiency and reducing room for costly errors,” he explains. “The completion of our film within the given timeframe (ten months) would not have been possible without the immense power of Unreal Engine – it would have taken us years otherwise.”
Powerful though these tools may be, Ina and Meghan insist that use of such technology needs to be balanced out by human touch and vision for the end result to feel noteworthy. “The films we’ve been recognising with a Staff Pick that were made in part with AI don’t use the technology as a crutch but more like a springboard,” says Meghan. “With that said, I think from the moment the first AI film crossed our computer screens, the team has been looking for films that use new technology in less than obvious ways. What will secure a Staff Pick is a film whose creator’s fingerprints and original ideas are still very much apparent alongside the machine-made parts of the work.”
“The films we’ve been recognising with a Staff Pick that were made in part with AI don’t use the technology as a crutch but more like a springboard”Meghan Oretsky
Stand out as we move forward
With so many innovations taking place in the film industry, many aspiring filmmakers may be left wondering how to stay ahead of the curve. Drawing on their years of experience as curators at Vimeo, Ina and Meghan have a few tips. “Creativity and community are key,” Ina tells us. “Whether it is the story that’s being told, the tools used to tell that story, or the means by which that story is shared with others, filmmakers should think creatively about how their work stands out and connects with audiences. It’s also important to note that the best work we see on Vimeo isn’t created in a vacuum. It comes from filmmakers working within a community, either online or IRL, that learns from each other, builds sustainable practices, and pushes ideas forward.”
And in terms of getting your work seen by the right people, Meghan adds that “rallying an audience around your film is and will continue to be the best way to get it on the radar of human programmers and curators. I use the word ‘human’ because the internet is full of an overwhelming amount of content, and algorithms will never be able to understand and accurately assess the human experience that film holds a mirror up to.”
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.