The prolific filmmaker Ton doesn’t consider himself a journalist, but he sure has a way of documenting South L.A. via YouTube.
The most recent HoodVlogs video was only six days old, yet it had amassed over a half million views.
In it, residents of the Nickerson Gardens Projects in Watts remind each other to “stay dangerous” instead of to “stay safe.” While two others introduce themselves and brag about how much turf their projects take up, a third casually rolls a blunt while waiting his turn in front of the camera. Next, someone points out where his friend was murdered. Then, he gestures in another direction to where his relative was shot.
“We used to play football right here, but it went straight to gun-play,” he says, matter-of-factly, poetically.
It’s a sunny and bright day in Watts. Kids are everywhere, many in colorful clothes, smiles on nearly every face. There’s even a smile on the guy rolling along with the group in his wheelchair.
This is just the first two and a half minutes into the 27-minute video — an unusually long runtime for this episode of HoodVlogs. It’s as real as it gets. The slang, the stories, the style. But what can’t be missed are the sad stories that seep through the grins.
Behind the camera is a 20-something white Russian named Ton who moved to L.A. a decade ago. He welcomes you briefly at the start of each episode but then you hardly ever hear from him again. He lets the pictures and the residents tell the story.
If he asks questions, they’re edited out. What you get is the testimony from those who live there through the lens of his Panasonic G-85.
Ton lives there too. Along with his mild-mannered pit bull, Daisy, Ton brings his camera with him to house parties, street races and trips around the economically struggling neighborhoods and notorious streets and alleyways of Compton, South L.A. and other parts of Los Angeles that rarely get media attention unless something tragic takes place.
At the start of the newer episodes, the opening few seconds from the IsitBeezy single “Crip Go Crazy,” is played. It’s a dark, plodding and ominous tune. A fitting theme song for Hood Vlogs. Both are raw, unblinking, and fresh.
What follows are excerpts of a conversation we had with Ton (who declined to give his last name because of the subjects he films) earlier this month about his HoodVlogs video channel.
Where have you lived in L.A.?
From downtown L.A. to West L.A., Encino, Van Nuys, Hollywood, South Central East Side, South Central West Side. I’ve kinda been everywhere. It helps to have a perspective. It’s good to live in a high-end neighborhood and then live in South Central where people have a different type of income.
Indeed. Andit shows in your videos. There’s an episode where you take Daisy to Santa Monica beach, you shot that great video in Pacoima, and you also have a lot of videos in Long Beach and Compton and Inglewood. Where did you learn video editing?
I messed with Windows Movie Maker, then later I started using Final Cut.
How do you not get mistaken for a rival gang member when you’re driving around on your shoots? Is there a certain way to dress that you can share with us? For example would a guy in a blue Cubs hat with a red “C” cause concern?
Yeah, you should leave that at home. Even letters or numbers on your clothes — even some cartoon characters, they can be associated with something that represents something and you don’t even know.
What inspired you to start doing this?
I was always taking pictures when I was a kid. Once I got a little digital camera, I started filming a lot, just for fun. Like, I don’t know much about lenses, settings, and cameras and stuff. I just like capturing moments.
Because you’ve been everywhere, what’re your favorite parts of L.A.?
I love the whole city. I’m comfortable where I’m at. I’m comfortable in South Central, Watts, Compton, Inglewood, Hawthorne. But I like every part of the city. Every place has its own good things about it. But I feel most comfortable living here.
What is it about South L.A. that makes you feel that way?
The people. People are struggling in other neighborhoods too, but here there’s more sympathy toward each other. People assume that if you’re in the hood, you’re gonna get robbed or something. But people show a lot of respect to one another. People will help you. There’s a lot of good people over here. So I like that.
How do you get that great look in your videos?
I use an ultra-wide-angle lens. It’s very small. It’s not one of those big lenses. It’s a lens that doesn’t go in and out of focus. The lens that came with it is nice, but that lens loses its focus.
When did you put your first video up?
Five years ago.
And how many years did it take you to get popular?
I guess, five years.
It would seem that in some of the situations that you are in, somebody might not want your camera on. Where someone would say, “stop filming this”? Does that happen often?
Well, in one video in Inglewood, there was a woman way in the back who was complaining.
Yes. She was just trying to get attention. She was like, “stop filming this.” And I said, “Lady, you’re a half a block away from us.” It was kind of funny.
So, why do you think the vast majority of people embrace you filming them?
I don’t know. I do kinda show the positive things. People don’t diss each other in my videos. There’s no negative talk about other neighborhoods. People see that I’m not trying to cause any tension by filming. It’s just fun. It’s fun to be in a video.
You’ve had over a million views on about five of your videos. In one of those, the one in the San Fernando Projects, you had a guy take you through the apartment he grew up in. Was that something that you always wanted to do on this channel?
I’m interested in everything. Everything about your childhood, everything about your school. It helps build a picture. I’m curious about all types of things: the food, did you walk to school, did you take a bus? I’m interested in all that stuff.
One of the heartbreaking parts of that video is when a little kid explains that when he tries to play soccer at the park, he’s teased and threatened for living in the projects.
They do that because if you play on this playground, you’re probably from this neighborhood. Where they play soccer, people would assume he’s from the projects. The projects have a gang. The chances that you are probably affiliated to a gang might be a little higher, so people will threaten them and pull guns out and stuff like that. That’s why he can’t play where he wants to play.
There are a lot of techniques out there on how to optimize your videos so you can make more money on your ads. Does any of that go into how you produce your videos?
The way to make real money off YouTube is when people have deals with different brands. That’s how they get really paid. I have one that has over 2 million views. But I don’t think they’re running any ads on it. If they are, I’m not getting paid.
Because of the content?
If you say, “my mom got killed over there,” they don’t want to place ads on something like that. But I have to leave it because it’s part of your story, you know? It gives you a better picture if you’re paying attention to him. “If you go outside you might get shot.” If I leave that in there, it’s a high chance it may get demonetized.
So many people on YouTube talk about being demonetized. Which is when YouTube decides that they won’t let you profit on that video.
I’ve asked them to review videos that they’ve demonetized, but my luck hasn’t been good. They don’t have good feedback. They don’t say, “if you just cut this and that out … ” They will just — sometimes they’ll play ads, but they will keep the money. They won’t share it with who made the video.
That seems so unfair.
They don’t want documentaries. And my stuff is kind of a documentary. It’s not about the past. It’s showing you what’s going on now. It would be nice to get paid. I could buy some better equipment.
How long does it take you to edit a video that ends up being 10 minutes long?
With my old computer, it would take me like 10 hours just to save it. I could only edit like two minutes, then I had to save it, then create a new file, do two minutes, save it and then combine it all in the end.
Do you ever watch YouTube tutorials where they teach you video editing and camera techniques?
Yeah, I subscribe to a few of them, but I can’t adapt to that. I’ve kinda figured out my camera settings, but I don’t go into real settings. I just take whatever light I’m getting and do my settings to that. It’s not really cinematic, but I think it’s visually pleasing.
You have close to 200,000 subscribers now. When did it take off?
About three years ago, YouTube demonetized most of my videos. Like, if I had the LAPD in a video, they’d say it wasn’t appropriate. So when they do that you also don’t get a lot of views [through YouTube’s Recommended algorithm].
I shot some good videos but I didn’t upload them because it was kind of pointless at that time. This happened to a lot of YouTubers, even famous ones. But they changed their policy. You can even use cuss words in your videos now.
But sometimes I’ll work on a video and I’m not sure if I even want to post it. This last one, I wasn’t sure if it would get any views because of what YouTube might do. So it’s always kind of a gamble. All of these subscribers that I have — it doesn’t mean that they’ll actually see the video.
It sounds like even though you fear you might get dinged, you still shoot and edit in a realistic way, and then upload it?
Well, the Nickerson Gardens one, I filmed it in January. I have some others that I filmed last year, I still haven’t put them up. If there’s something that I know will take a long time, I kinda wait. I wait till I get more subscribers. Because if I have more subscribers, then maybe people will see this work because I put a lot of time into it.
I really like the videos that I put out and I want more people to see it. So if I have a little gut feeling that YouTube’s gonna mess with me this time, then I just wait longer. It’s not based on any science. It’s just a feeling.
You have a video that has over 2 million views. It doesn’t seem that different than any of your others, except it features your dog, Daisy. Here, you are talking with some of the most interesting people in L.A., but a video of a dog gets two million views?
Yeah. Even when I got her, it got a lot of views too. I guess I could have a dog channel too, but I’m just interested in doing this. I live in the hood, so 99% of the time it’s about the hood.
You could have a Dogs of the Hood channel. Other people’s dogs.
I could just chase Daisy around and people would watch it.
Lots of popular channels sell merchandise. T-shirts and stuff. Have you started doing that?
I’m thinking about it, but I don’t have a business mind like that.
What would you like to come of all of this?
I hope that I could bring a platform for some of the talent that’s here. I’d also like to show more neighborhoods, like Oakland. I’d like to travel.