Chances are that if you’ve spent more than a couple of hours on YouTube, you’ve stumbled across a video from the intelligent team behind Every Frame a Painting.
In the three years that Every Frame a Painting, run by director/editor Tony Zhou and animator/editor Taylor Ramos, ran on YouTube, the pair published a total of 28 videos. Each video deconstructed a movie, scene, genre or element of film. The premise of Every Frame a Painting wasn’t very unique; explainer videos about television and film are a dime a dozen on YouTube. What made Every Frame a Painting so incredible was the simplicity Zhou and Ramos brought to complex theories, breaking down the subject of their video with a level of insight that other channels lacked.
Zhou and Ramos announced their decision to walk away from the channel, which has been devoid of new essays since 2016, in a witty Medium post, outlined to resemble one of their many scripts. Ramos spoke about trying to become an educational channel for viewers — a goal they more than achieved — in the post, writing they ensured each essay was straightforward to act as a learning tool.
“Instead of showing a clip and talking about the plot, we were showing the clip and talking about the clip,” Ramos wrote. “A person could watch almost anything we made without having seen the films.”
The system Ramos and Zhou concocted worked for a while, but they realized it would become an ongoing problem. Deciding on a style for the channel meant that certain topics, such as filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Agnès Varda, couldn’t be explored quite the same way.
Not being able to approach certain topics, however, didn’t result in Every Frame a Painting limiting itself to one category of film. Zhou and Ramos’ channel is most famous for a video they produced that deconstructed the music around the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (a video which has more than 5.7 million views), but they also explored ideas like the evolution of animator Chuck Jones and why Akira Kurosawa is hailed as a master director.
Zhou, a filmmaker who was based in San Francisco and now resides in Vancouver, approached each subject with a rare enthusiasm. During an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit in 2015, Zhou spent more than four hours answering questions and talking about a variety of topics. Zhou said at that time he didn’t plan out what each essay would be. Instead, he would “go back to my little list of ideas” after an essay had been completed “and I start watching stuff to see what sparks fly in my brain. Since the essays take a couple weeks of my free time (sometimes over a month), I kinda just trust my intuition.”
With the amount of effort Zhou and Ramos were putting into their videos, they wanted to ensure that people would actually watch them — and the pair would be paid for their work. Zhou illuminates how he and Ramos learned to reverse engineer YouTube’s internal system, “which analyzes and detects copyrighted material.” One of the biggest tasks Zhou took on, according to the piece, was learning how to work around that system.
Nearly every stylistic decision you see about the channel — the length of the clips, the number of examples, which studios’ films we chose, the way narration and clip audio weave together, the reordering and flipping of shots, the remixing of 5.1 audio, the rhythm and pacing of the overall video — all of that was reverse-engineered from YouTube’s Copyright ID.
I spent about a week doing brute force trial-and-error. I would privately upload several different essay clips, then see which got flagged and which didn’t. This gave me a rough idea what the system could detect, and I edited the videos to avoid those potholes.
So something that was designed to restrict us ended up becoming our style.
Every Frame a Painting is regarded as one of the most professional channels on YouTube; each essay is immaculate and not one video feels out of place. Zhou said when he first started the channel, he didn’t think it would become as popular as it did.
“I didn't know Every Frame would get big (I only started the Patreon on October 1st ), so I booked myself for a while thinking winter would be a dry spell for editing work (I was wrong),” Zhou wrote in the AMA. “Hopefully, I can focus more on the channel starting in a couple weeks.”
Zhou and Ramos tried to focus more on the channel, but as they were both working on essays after work and were devoted to ensuring each piece was good, not just fast, it became more difficult. By the time their Marvel Cinematic Universe video was published, on Sept. 12, 2016, the channel had all but come to an end.
Ramos wrote that now seemed like a good time to say goodbye to fans, explain where they had gone for a year and address why they were leaving. Zhou said they “tinkered behind-the-scenes to see if there was anything else we wanted to do with this YouTube channel,” but there wasn’t. They did what any other person, who was also working a full-time job, would probably do in that moment: They quit.
“In the past year, we’ve both started new jobs and taken on other freelance work,” Ramos wrote. “Things started piling up and it took all our energy to get through the work we’d agreed to do. When we started this YouTube project, we gave ourselves one simple rule: if we ever stopped enjoying the videos, we’d also stop making them. And one day, we woke up and felt it was time.”
Even though Zhou and Ramos are stepping away, all the videos published on the Every Frame a Painting channel will remain on YouTube, the pair confirmed.