Q&A with Jake Zeeman
Jake Zeeman's films cover the artistic tapestry of the United States and beyond.
Jake Zeeman's YouTube documentaries span topics from across fashion and sports to music and cinema. His most popular video (below) Virgil Abloh: How Kanye's Apprentice Stole His Dream Job has amassed over 1.4 million views. Other videos include in depth biopics in to the ascension of artists like Mac Miller, Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator. As well as a recent video exploring how the NBA imposing a dress code for players actually helped shaped modern fashion consumerism. YouTube in inundated with enthusiastic fans documenting the lives of their favourite media personalities but what sets Zeeman's work apart is the sheer depth of research. His biopics delve in to the subject's past with an incision that could rival a BBC Who Do You Think You Are episode. But it's not just facts for trivia's sake. The information given in Zeeman's videos is always relevant to help contextualise the wider trajectory of the artist or subject he's talking about. Even in his videos pushing the 30 minute mark (a modern Everest given our social media marred attention spans) not a second is wasted, nor a factoid irrelevant. We were fortunate enough to pry him away from his never ending research to answer our questions. So sit back and take in the insights of one of YouTube's great documentarians.
First and foremost, we hope you're keeping well during isolation! Your videos are keeping a lot of us entertained. How are you spending your time?
I think I’m lucky in that my day-to-day life hasn’t changed a significant amount since the shelter-in-place mandate was enforced. I don’t know what that says about me, but most of my favorite activities are solo endeavors anyways. My last month has been dedicated almost exclusively to working on a Kobe Bryant documentary which should be out by the time you’re all reading this. I also recently became addicted to a video game called Rocket League which is basically FIFA with bumper cars and is exactly as fun as it sounds.
How long have you been making videos and what made you get started?
I’ve always been fascinated by movies and storytelling, but I first started making videos when I was in 4th grade. I convinced my dad to buy me this really cheap, janky camera and I’d edit home videos using Windows Movie Maker. When I got older, my focus shifted to sports and I didn’t get back into video editing until my senior year of college when I got a media internship on campus. My boss was the best, she basically hired me with zero experience and told me I could spend as much time as I needed to learn the Adobe Creative Suite. I spent a whole month getting inspired and learning the software before I ever made anything for her. By the time I graduated, I was obsessed with making videos and started my YouTube channel as a creative outlet.
Your videos cover a lot of quintessentially American topics such as rap culture, basketball and fashion. Whereabouts in the states are you from, and how has it influenced your interests?
I grew up outside of Chicago in the Midwest, and went to college in the South, and now I live out West in San Francisco. These are completely different environments with completely different people, so throughout my life I’ve had to adjust and navigate where I am. Every person I’ve met has shaped and influenced me in some capacity and I’m lucky to have made friendships with people who have introduced me to culture that has been fundamental to my life.
The range of subject matter in your videos showcase how wide ranging American culture is. What does being an American mean to you, if anything?
To be completely honest, I don’t feel any conscious patriotism. I’m much more of the mindset that I’m a citizen of the world, but that speaks to my privilege in being from the US. With that being said, I do feel extremely fortunate to live in a country that is at the epicenter of culture in a lot of ways. I’m fascinated by music, fashion, sports, and cinema, and those are the things I’ve been exposed to my whole life because America celebrates and idolises those art forms.
The level of research you put in to your videos really sets them above a lot of YouTube content. Is this self taught or do you have an educational background in film making?
It’s all self-taught. I mean I grew up watching YouTube videos every day so in part, I feel like I’ve watched enough videos in my life to have a good gauge on pacing and what a quality story should look and feel like. Learning the Adobe software in college gave me the tools necessary to actually execute on my ideas. As far as the research process goes, my videos and scripts require me to read and watch hours and hours of content. Truth be told, that’s how I’d spend my free time with or without the channel. I’ve always been obsessed with interviews and learning more about people that inspire me, so these videos give me permission to fully nerd-out.
Do you have to take a lot of measures to ensure you aren't infringing any copyright laws?
I think at the core, what I’m doing with these videos is sampling the Internet. There are literally an endless number of videos that exist on YouTube, so I take my favorite clips and work them into a compelling narrative. In a way, it’s similar to how music producers sample old songs and put their spin on it. I do believe I’m walking a fine line with these videos, especially with YouTube’s current copyright technology. Almost all of my music focused Artist Bios have been copyrighted, so I’m not making any money on those, but I do have a day job, so my livelihood isn’t dependent on a YouTube paycheck each month. Because of that, I do feel a lot of freedom, but I’ll have to rethink that if I ever want to do YouTube full time.
Do you consume all media with a view of learning more about the origins of it, or is it something specific that makes you want to delve deeper into an artist or topic?
My curiosity always guides the topic of the videos I work on. I think that’s the only way these videos or really any creative endeavor is sustainable. You have to be genuinely excited to work on it each day. I also don’t discount things I come across that are out of the norm of my existing interests. I think the key is to keep an open mind. I believe there’s probably a gripping story within each person, it’s just about how you frame it.
Fashion is something explored in your videos notably How the Worst Brawl in NBA History Changed the League Forever & Virgil Abloh: How Kanye's Apprentice Stole His Dream Job. Why is fashion important to your personally?
There are two dimensions to my take on fashion. The clothes I wear vs. the clothes that I admire. What I wear is usually a reflection of what makes me feel the best about myself and that’s typically colorful, casual clothes. However, I do have a fascination with the high fashion world. Before the lockdowns, I’d take trips to Union Square in SF and walk through the Louis Vuitton and Gucci shops for the same reason I’d go to the MOMA – to admire the art. Realistically, I don’t think I’ll ever buy a $500 t-shirt but it’s still fun to look at.
Do you have any favourite brands at the moment?
Nike has always been my favorite brand to wear day-to-day. I have a special appreciation for brands that are extremely popular and still innovate and consistently create quality products. I feel the same way about musicians. Tame Impala and Travis Scott are extremely popular, but their art remains top notch and they’re increasing the taste level of the masses. Stüssy is my go-to streetwear brand because they’ve been around forever and still put out incredible collections. I’ve also gotten really into jewellery over the past year and Miansai is a Miami-based jewellery company that I love that has quality products at a reasonable price.
Do you have aspirations to work in the fashion or music industry?
Yeah possibly, but I’m pretty open to where life takes me because my interests are so wide-ranging. For that reason, I think it’s difficult to define what my dream job looks like, but in the future, I hope I get the opportunity to interview inspiring people and one day create videos that are shared on bigger platforms to bigger audiences.
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