Lights, camera, interaction: Welcome to LA, home of the open-door mini studio

For Road Trip 2015, CNET visits a new breed of sound stages: smaller, hipper and totally free. They're designed to serve the next generation of stars -- who aren't coming out of Hollywood.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
8 min read

Check out all the places we've been on CNET's Road Trip 2015.

LOS ANGELES -- Want to be a star? Aspiring entertainers still find themselves, suitcase in hand, heading to Hollywood.

But the quest is no longer for that breakthrough audition in front of a big-name director. These fame-seekers are making bee-lines to studios tucked away in lesser known pockets of the Los Angeles area. Digital microstudios -- spaces that boast advanced cameras and industry-grade lighting so the next generation of talent can shoot clips for their YouTube or Vine channels -- are hidden in a former garment factory downtown or sprawled through aviator Howard Hughes' old helicopter facility.

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Stage 2 at YouTube Space LA encompasses about 2,500 square feet. Kevin Mills/Google

Most importantly, the sites are open to anyone and are often completely free.

The microstudios underscore a shift in the epicenter of media innovation as the Internet has redefined how a star is born. Today's fastest-rising personalities, especially for teen fans, are coming from video sites such as Google-owned YouTube. That has people on both sides of the camera grappling: Creators are scattered and hustling on shoestring budgets, but they need to collaborate with each other and get their hands on pricey tools to improve and grow. Meanwhile, media companies, hungry for clues about how to connect with hard-to-reach young viewers, are willing to subsidize spaces to find new talent and learn what makes their audience tick.

The result? The rise of the open-door digital microstudio -- places like Ipsy Open Studios, YouTube Space LA and Collab Studios -- means Tinseltown still holds allure.

"Historically, this is where media was revolutionized. In a dense space, you have the best media people in the world," said Michelle Phan, a YouTube beauty guru whose company Ipsy opened a free studio space in Santa Monica this year. "I wouldn't see YouTubers in real life because I'm shooting, I'm editing my own content. It's ironic -- as connected as everyone is, they couldn't be any more disconnected in real life."

As for fans, these studios translate into slicker videos from their favorite personalities.

Digital video gives rise to the open-door Hollywood mini studio (pictures)

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The next big (small) thing

Just as the Internet has democratized information, it has leveled the playing field for stardom.

Last month, entertainment trade publication Variety published its second study in two years ranking teens' favorite stars based on the Q score, a gauge of audience influence. The top six were all online video creators, with names like KSI and PewDiePie shutting out Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.

Rather than relying on the blessing of a major media company or conforming to a hierarchy of mass media to find an audience, entertainers online reach their fans directly. That means they can accumulate a rabid following, millions strong, from anywhere.

But it also means creators are isolated from one another in a field where collaboration is critical, and they lack the resources of a deep-pocketed film or TV giant, which can afford expensive equipment and big spaces.

"In this age of social media, it's ever easier to connect with people, but it's ever easier to not get off the couch," said Liam Collins, the head of Google's YouTube Space LA. "The spaces are really built on this idea that meeting in person adds a real element to the creative process."

A peek into the 21st century mini studio

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YouTube beauty guru Michelle Phan and company Ipsy launched a three-stage open studio in Santa Monica. The company received 1,000 applications to join the program in the first two hours, she said. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Ipsy Open Studios launched in May, opening a 3,000-square-foot space with three discrete stages neighboring an art gallery, a casting agency and a music collective. One studio has a cosmetics tutorial setup with a bin of possible backdrops at the ready. A pale pink glittery background, left over from the last how-to shot there, sparkles under professional lighting already in place. Another studio has a mockup of a beauty vlogger's bedroom recreated in one corner, complete with breezy sheer curtains, so she can shoot her clips without worrying that her children may wander into the frame.

Phan said the design of Ipsy Open Studios was based upon her own experience as a beauty-video creator who learned on the job about how to create more sophisticated content. "We built this as a place where, if I were a beauty creator just starting out, this is what I wish I had," Phan said.

Microstudios similar to Ipsy's follow that theme: providing the tools that creators know creators need. One of LA's earliest studios for digital creators is the space at the headquarters of Collab, a company that now helps personalities on Vine and YouTube build their audience and make money. In 2006, the three brothers who help lead Collab moved into their space in downtown LA at a former textile factory to start their first company, GoPotato TV, which produced digital comedy sketches and animation. As the business evolved from creating their own digital content to supporting that of hundreds of others, they opened up the space to people in their network as a free perk and stocked it with items that can be crucial to entertainers who are starting out.

The 3,000-square-foot studio is dominated by a green-screen space, which abuts a set for an upcoming video series where a creator raps Shakespearean verse. The majority of filming is done with a Sony FS700 camera -- typically worth about $5,000 -- that can capture 4K ultra-high-def images and shoot in super slow motion when paired with a specialized recorder and high-quality Zeiss Prime lenses on hand.

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In addition to letting Collab creators build sets like this one for a series about rapping Shakespearean verse, head of talent Will McFadden welcomes talent into his loft apartment to shoot. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

That openness goes beyond the studio in their headquarters: Will McFadden, another of the founders, opens up his loft-apartment home as a place for creators signed to Collab to shoot. "It's important to us that our creators feel like they're part of the family," he said.

The principles that underpin Collab's studio helped form the blueprint for the biggest of these open-door production spaces, YouTube Space LA. The sprawling facility, located at the bygone private airport of Howard Hughes in Playa Vista, is nearly 41,000 square feet -- about the size of eight basketball courts. It has three large sound stages, three small-scale studios with green or white screens, 10 iMac editing stations and eight separate edit suites, and a production control room with 10 touch-screen monitors.

Translation: It's an audio/video geek's wonderland.

"The cost of failure on the Web is so low," said YouTube Space LA's Collins, explaining the Internet is where creators can -- and should -- experiment feverishly to find what works. "If you're starting a new channel from scratch, like any startup, you can't spend $25,000 a week renting a stage for a project that may not work out. It breaks the model of a low cost of failure."

Bernie Su, whose series "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" was the first YouTube show to win an Emmy, said shooting his Web series "Vanity" over nearly two weeks at YouTube Space LA saved the production close to $100,000.

Instead of paying for little things, he could dedicate his budget to more pressing details like an elaborate party scene at the start of the first episode of "Vanity" with two dozen extras. It would have been impossible without the money he saved by using the space.

The payoff

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Bernie Su has shot two Web series at the YouTube Space LA, "Vanity" and "Frankenstein MD," but the element he values most is how he can bump into fellow creators around the studio, in places such as its editing bays. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Companies build these sites for several reasons, but none of them is making money outright.

Ipsy, Collab and YouTube Space LA -- which Google's video site has now replicated in London, Tokyo, New York, Sao Paulo and Berlin -- all open up their resources free of charge.

That's not to say the facilities are public-access. With myriad pieces of high-tech equipment each worth thousands of dollars, and with only so much space and so many hours in the day, these spaces need to manage their availability.

YouTube requires a channel have 10,000 subscribers to gain access, for example. Ipsy has an application system, which received 1,000 candidates in the first two hours, that checks a candidate's channel to see the promise of their talent, the consistency in posting and the engagement with fans. Collab vets creators to determine whether to sign them to the company's main business, which is cultivating a new class of video stars and linking them with money-making opportunities. Once a creator signs with Collab, the studio doors are open.

Each has its own motivation.

Collab, with a focus on six-second video site Vine, needs a way to educate and groom talent to expand onto more advanced platforms. "They need the studio resources because they're so used to creating on their phones," Tyler McFadden, one of Collab's founding brothers, said.

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Epoxy is opening a collaboration space for creators in one of two Frank Gehry-designed buildings that are its headquarters. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Ipsy wants to build a direct connection with influential lifestyle personalities that traditional beauty brands can't match. "What we gain out of this is this relationship," Phan said. Ipsy is adamant that shooting there is never a quid pro quo for rights to the content; the creators retain all their intellectual property.

YouTube, still distancing itself from an early perception as a place for pranks and cat videos, benefits when talent on its site upload sleek content -- and for those clips to inspire and attract others to the platform, Collins said.

"If I were a development exec, I would be begging for a resource like this. It makes my job so much easier, " he added.

That's already happening. Epoxy, a company creating tools for online creators and media networks to be savvier across multiple social and video sites at once, is in the process of opening its own collaboration space. The company is letting any creators hang and shoot in the second of the two side-by-side Frank Gehry-designed buildings where Epoxy is based.

"That's the upside for us: get really great insights into what the cool kids are doing," said Jason Ahmad, one of Epoxy's founders.

Most important asset

But to online video creators, who are flung across the world making content in their own homes and editing on their personal laptops, the most rewarding facet of these microstudio spaces isn't the expensive equipment or flashy facilities.

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Elise Strachan, whose YouTube channel MyCupcakeAddiction is based in Australia, made the YouTube Space LA her office away from home while she and her family spent three months in the US. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

It's simply having a place to run into their virtual colleagues in the real world.

Elise Strachan, whose 1.9 million subscriber MyCupcakeAddiction YouTube channel is based in her home in Australia, turned YouTube Space LA into her office while traveling with her family to the US.

"We [online video creators] are a bit thin on the ground in Australia," she said. "The open-door policy is for more reasons than just to utilize the studio space. You can come and have a coffee, and you bump into people. It instills a sense of community."

In an industry that is "an isolating world," Su said, the real-world interaction fosters networking and collaboration. And in online video, collaboration is more than warm, fuzzy feelings and kumbayas. Online video makers have learned over the years that one of the best ways to quickly increase a channel's following is to make "collab" clips with other like-minded creators.

"We're all alone in our 'caves' writing and editing...[but now] you have a place [where] you can smile because you're doing something you're passionate about, and you can run into somebody else who's passionate about the same thing," Su said.

And that should keep the cameras rolling in Los Angeles for a long time.