Direct your attention: Van Neistat pioneers the Industrial Essay Film

By Owen Mason-Hill

Pia Contreras

There is an old adage — as old as one about the internet can be — that a YouTube creator is judged not based on any individual video they produce, but by their entire body of work. This is not how the Neistat Brothers approach YouTube. 

When Casey Neistat, the younger half of the Neistat Brothers, started his daily vlog on his 34th birthday in March of 2015, he set out to create one film for every day of the year. This genre of film has now become commonplace, but no one since has been able to replicate the magic of his daily vlogs. And the reason is simple: Casey intends for each daily video to be a full and complete film. Casey is not a YouTuber; well, he didn’t start as one. And because of that, his videos are not dependent upon any of his other videos — they are each films in their own right. His brother Van is no different.

Both Van and Casey were brought up in the Tom Sachs art school of functionalism; it is striking to see the brothers’ stylistic similarities to their mentor. Their production studios are unique — yet entirely homogenous to one another — and have sparked great intrigue by visitors. The walls are littered with boxes, labels, hooks and hangers, yet nothing is out of place. Everything is labeled — by hand — and there is a preference for built over bought. Why buy something that is close to what you want when you can build exactly what you want? 

Casey’s office is adorned with a homemade Go-Pro security camera affixed to his door, running a 24-hour feed to an attached vertical monitor. Van’s office is much the same, yet in a distinctly more analog fashion. He clacks away at a typewriter with commonly misspelled words typed out on strips of paper and taped to the front of the machine for easy access. A wooden tape dispenser with an attached saw-blade is hooked to a shelf. And a mobile repair station with reversible tool access rests just under his desk. 

In so many of Van’s videos, there is a distinct lack of reverence for the manufactured good. Tools are valued over made goods because tools can be used to make an infinite number of made goods. It is — to say the least — a playground for the Spirited Man.

“What is a ‘Spirited Man?’” you might find yourself asking. Well, it is the subject of Van’s “unlimited series.” It is hard to pin down precisely what it means to be spirited, but it is, in a word, play. The world is open for interaction, for change, for manipulation, and the Spirited Man takes advantage of that. “All children are spirited. All dogs are spirited,” Van Neistat says in the first installment of the Spirited Man series. 

Van Neistat’s filmmaking style, however, strays drastically from Casey’s. While Casey uses tools as a part of the filmmaking craft — using them to create films on a lower budget — Van’s videos are about tools. He is, at heart, a repairman. His first video chronicles his life as a repairman, switching between stories of fixing a new, expensive German dishwasher with those of times he spent as a live-in repairman with Tom Sachs’ “Nutsy’s” exhibition, consequently also in Germany. 

He self-prescribes his videos as “industrial essay films,” a combination of industrial films which explain a concept and essays that offer a point of view. “[It’s] sort of like a newspaper column, but with image and sound,” Van Neistat writes in the description of his Kickstarter for the series. 

Pia Contreras

In keeping with this style, Van Neistat’s videos unfold like an instructional video. Van Neistat the filmmaker assumes the role of the omniscient narrator, providing a voice-over to the videos. He references Van Neistat the repairman only in the third person, mentioning him as “he,” “the repairman” and “the Spirited Man.” While his younger brother Casey’s films are intensely personal, and follow his life in an almost point-of-view manner, Van strays far into the abstract and the dissociative. There is little inflection to his narration; he uses only his iPhone to record and the videos are stripped almost entirely of significance, leaving the viewer to add it on their own. Do not be fooled, however, because Van Neistat is a seasoned filmmaker who crafts his videos with meticulous dexterity. There is a rhythm and a musicality to his editing that echoes his younger brother’s and has yet to be matched elsewhere on the internet. 

The Neistat Brothers have once again set out to pioneer filmmaking, first with their HBO series “The Neistat Brothers,” then with Casey’s daily vlogs and now with Van’s unlimited series. The brothers are intensely creative, innate storytellers who are unrelenting with their ideas. There is a timelessness to Van’s videos that can also be found in Casey’s; it doesn’t matter when you sit down to watch their videos, the storytelling is just as relevant and captivating as it was when they were released. So, if you do not want to watch Van’s videos as they are being released, subscribe to his channel and watch them sometime in the future — they are more than worth your time. Casey Neistat rests atop my list of idols, and has consistently astounded me with the simple beauty of his storytelling. Now, I feel that his older brother Van is about to do the same.