As the art of filmmaking becomes more interactive as well as more intertwined with the new platforms and technologies available, projects like “A Trip to Unicorn Island” are going to become more commonplace.
On the surface, “Unicorn Island” is a documentary, but it’s also much more than that, because the convergence of the filmmaker and subject may be the beginning of a new paradigm. “Unicorn Island” is about Lilly Singh, (also known to her followers everywhere as IISuperwomanII), a multi-dimensional performer with a positive message that she passes on to her fans through the Internet and live performances. The film follows Singh on a 27 city tour, giving insight into her life as a YouTube sensation and the connections that she makes along the way.
The director in question behind “Unicorn Island” is Scott Winn, who—as you may have guessed—is also a multi-dimensional filmmaker and performer who rose to prominence through YouTube. His followers know him also as ScottDW. Try to remember these aliases, because there’s going to be a quiz at the end.
The Internet was once a place (using that term esoterically, of course) that we merely went to get things. First, it was clumsily presented information; but then—as with everything—the presentation was refined and it became the hub of our daily lives. Now, we can’t imagine a time when we didn’t get our news, entertainment, video, employment opportunities, and even interaction with other human beings this way.
And this is where we see the convergence of Winn and Singh, brought together because of the Internet, and making a film about how she reaches her audience first through that medium. And what may have started through YouTube ends up having a very real world component.
Winn, who has directed several commercials as well as curating his own YouTube channel (among other ventures), was introduced to Singh’s work through conventional methods: an agency in New York, because, as he says, laughing, “I actually didn’t know who Lilly was. It’s funny that I make YouTube videos because I don’t spend a lot of time on YouTube.”
Winn and his crew shot “Unicorn Island” mostly with the Canon 1D-C, also using the Red Dragon for some of the bigger performance pieces. He was quick to acknowledge Canon’s help in securing equipment for some of the larger crowd scenes during the concert footage.
After the initial pitch, Winn followed up by doing research and finding out what Singh was all about. He found a lot that he could relate to in her overall message and her work.
“For one, we’re both comedy-driven; she’s musical, she performs,” he said. “All the things that I do so I was interested.”
The question then became: What sort of project would this end up being? Winn didn’t exactly see himself as a traditional documentarian, and Singh certainly wasn’t a traditional subject.
“From the very get-go, even when they pitched the story to me—it really wasn’t much of a story,” Winn said. “Lilly was about to go on tour…The thing about me is I’m very story driven, character driven…I wanted to create something that would appeal to a broader audience—not just Lilly’s fans. I wanted to make something that could be both inspiring and enjoyable to watch for people who might not even know what YouTube is.”
It’s clear in watching the film that the viewer is in for an immersive experience. “Unicorn Island” goes beyond a “regular” performance-driven film (think One Direction or Beyoncé), but also tries to avoid the shtick of concert movies that try to shoehorn in personal vignettes as well as a means of getting to know the performer better.
“So from the beginning my approach was kind of, ‘How do we find the balance of making this something that Lilly’s fans are going to love and get to see a side of her that they don’t know,’ but also how do we weave in some kind of messages and some themes that might be more relatable to just the average person. So that was kind of the goal from the beginning,” Winn said.
And with finding the scope of the film, and trying to get past the conventional concert film that occasionally comes off as bland propaganda, Winn had to challenge himself in finding a way of doing something fresh for Singh’s existing fans but also a way to reach out to people who are just discovering her.
“A lot of the prep work was, ‘What already exists in this space?’ We’ve already got the documentaries about Justin Bieber and Katy Perry and these musicians who do these kinds of predictable performances,” he said. “But what Lilly does is she really just brings her channel to life. So that means she does a little bit of acting, a little bit of singing, there’s some rapping, there’s some dancing…it’s kind of an immersive, interactive experience which was new for me.”
Something that Winn wasn’t prepared for that went beyond the structure or the execution of the film was how Singh existed in the real world to her fans and her popularity.
“The first time I met Lilly was in Toronto at the YouTube Fanfest,” he said. “I was met by 15,000 screaming fans. I was completely blown away. I knew that she was big and I knew that she had a wide reach, but I didn’t know it was going to be a Justin Bieber sort of scenario (laughs). Day one of getting thrown into it I was like, ‘Wow, this is different than what I expected.’ But it was also really cool to…It was actually really inspiring and it fired me up to think that, ‘Okay, we’re doing something big here and we’re doing something important.’ This is going to be far-reaching, so it really amped me up.”
In the end, any initial misgivings that Winn had about the project were set aside as he was able to come up with the format that he and Singh would be happy with; whether it’s fiction or narrative, he wants to be able to connect with the viewer, but also something that he has to find appealing to his own sensibilities. And seeing how Singh brings her YouTube channel to life and reaches her audience made a real impression on Winn and his own work.
“The first thing I said was, ‘I don’t do documentaries,’” he said. “I’m a storyteller and I love fiction…but once I got to know more about Lilly I realized it didn’t matter what kind of format I was selling. It comes down to, is it a project that excites me? Is it something I can get behind? And that’s really how I approach everything whether it’s a commercial or a YouTube video or a feature film. First of all it has to be something that excites me and something I can’t stop thinking about. I’ll lay awake at night and come up with shots or I’ll dream about stories or characters. And once that’s happened then I know it’s something that I’m driven about.”
See Scott Winn’s page on IMDB and check out his YouTube page: