Amos Yee

My Short Film 'Jan': The Moment I became a Child Prodigy

I was considered a child prodigy when I was 13 (though whether I'm a genius now that's for you to decide). Here's the story:

Ever since I was 8 years old and got introduced to the internet, I loved watching videos. I watched all the most popular youtubers at the time like Smosh, Shane Dawson, Nigahiga. All of them are pretty bad and I wished I had spent my time more wisely. However, one content creator that was genuinely great, and I think still holds up, was James Rolfe (most commonly known as the 'Angry Video Game Nerd').

James Rolfe really cultivated my passion for creating in a deep way, whether it's through his well-produced AVGN episodes, or his personal films like 'Cinemassacre 200' where he described in potent detail the joy and passion of making films. James made most of his videos by himself in his house, so he really pushed the limits in my mind of how much great art can be produced by just one person. He made me feel like if I wanted to, I could make cool videos by myself too.

So when I was 12, during a long 3-month holiday just after I completed my primary school final year exams, after passively consuming internet content for 4 years, I finally decided I was actually going to make some videos.

I wanted to get my friends to join in, but they weren't interested. I didn't have any equipment, except a low-quality $90 camera that was laying around the house, and a cheap computer with some free editing software I had downloaded.

And so for 3 months, for what felt like every hour of every day, I made videos. They were mostly comedy skits, classics like: 'Trying to Juggle', 'The Teleporting Kid', and 'Puberty'. I practiced filming, using props (stuff around the house), editing, and sometimes I even wrote a script.

Now what seemed like just having fun, was actually 3 months of intense deliberate practice. As expected most of the videos weren't good, and barely anyone saw them (each video got around 30-50 views, so basically only some of my friends and family saw them). But for the time I was doing something I loved and had at least some people watching and giving feedback ('The Teleporting Kid' was so cool!), that was enough to make me feel fulfilled.

My Moment

Once Secondary School started, I was still making videos. And very soon, my legacy as a videomaking prodigy, would be cemented.

My dad knew I made videos but he didn't think much of them. However he had a local newspaper he read often, and one day it just so happened that the newspaper was holding a short film competition.

The requirements are: Every contestant has to submit a film that lasts 3 minutes maximum. Anyone can enter. The winner of best short film would get a $5000 camcorder. There is also a best actor and best actress prize that has a $100 cash reward.

My dad showed me the article of the event, with no expectation that I'd enter. I entered the event.

A total of about 200 people submitted their films, and I was the only one who was underaged, by a lot. There was one 13-year-old boy, and the rest were adults in their 20s, many of them were attending film school.

Now even though it was a competition, I was just making videos as usual. It's only that I had to limit the video to 3 minutes. So in my same messy, crummy room, with the same crummy quality camera, I made my film.

For those who don't know how the story turned out, would you like to guess what place my video got in the competition, in both the best film and best actor categories?

And look, set your expectations realistically of course, as realistic as a 13-year-old kid's homemade video can be compared to experienced filmmakers with access to actors' expensive cameras and sets.

So did I miraculously make it to the top 10 for best film? Did I maybe even almost win best actor?

I got 1st place for both best film and best actor. The only categories in the competition I didn't win were the ones I couldn't enter (like best actress). There was a fancy awards ceremony in a theatre and most of it was just seeing me on stage. I was the breakout star of that event.

I received the $5000 camcorder and $100 cheque. Afterwards I was featured many times on the front page of the local newspaper who ran the festival (read by 100s of thousands of readers). And also because one of the judges was Singaporean film director Jack Neo (a household name in Singapore), I got a supporting role in a mainstream Singapore movie.

Now, did I deserve it? Were they just generous in handing me first place because I was a kid? Well, go watch the video and judge it for yourself. It's right here, it's only 3 min. We'll come back and discuss it once you do.

Finished? Funny video wasn't it?

The Video

Now there is a crowd of people that was noticeably offended that my video won first place (you can take a look at the other competitors' films by the search for 'TNP-FFF' on Youtube).

And that's understandable. Because you have people who literally went to school for filmmaking, studied videography for years, took weeks to make their short film, might have even spent money getting the necessary sets, equipment, hiring actors, etc. Then a 13-year-old made a video in his room in 2 days and got the first place.

It feels unfair that I got it. And I'll also mention that the judges of the competition aren't exactly the most credible in determining the quality of a film. Jack Neo is just a generic, bland mainstream filmmaker who produces shallow entertainment for the masses. Another judge was a movie reviewer with questionable tastes; he thought James Cameron's Avatar was a masterpiece (bad but not that bad), he also gave Twilight Breaking Dawn 4 stars (very very bad).

But, at least for that film festival, I think those judges made a great decision. And I'll go as far as to say that my film was not only the best, it was the best by far.

Why? Well first we have to ask the question: What makes a great film?

Is it the amount of work put into it? Is it technical skill? Is it the ambition to make a deep, socially-relevant point?

Nope, the most important factor that makes a great film is emotional connection. That's a vague term if you don't break it down, but essentially it's: how your film connects with an audience in a meaningful way, and that's typically achieved from a combination of characters, dialogue and story. And if you want to go even deeper, it's using those aforementioned elements to reflect your personality. Which is why art is so great, it provides an avenue for people to clearly reveal a part of themselves they'd like the world to see, that they might not be able to share anywhere else.

If you look at the other films in the competition, all of them are emotionally hollow. Their films all seem more like showcases of technical skill, as opposed to actual content that an audience would watch.

And the reason why they make their films like that, is because in film school, that's most of what you learn. You spend years learning lighting, cinematography, editing (much of these skills you don't even end up using), but you barely ever learn the things that are actually important in the real world, which is how to tell a compelling story. That comes from actually creating a film with lines and characters, posting it in public, receiving feedback, repeat.

Now granted technical skills can help achieve emotional connection. If you want to film a touching scene and you are able to change the lighting from fluorescent to rosy then yea sure it helps.

But it's not as essential, because no amount of technical skills can turn a bad film good. And if your story requires technical expertise that you don't have the knowledge or budget for, just tell another story.

And so ironically, the 2 months I spent making videos in my room, was more valuable than the 4 years these college students spent in film school, because I was actually practising the skills that were the most important.

From a former child prodigy, let me tell all of you, I'm completely convinced that either I'm not a genius or anyone can be a genius, and I'm leaning towards the latter.

Because before I was 13 and had that breakout moment in the film festival, you would not have a clue that I had any talent. I did IQ tests in primary school and always scored average. I wasn't the kind who could just study last-minute and get an A. I had to put in months of hard work to even think of doing well.

But I eventually found out the reason I wasn't as good in studies but showed 'talent' in videomaking, was completely due to correct learning strategies. The way I studied Maths and English was horribly inefficient, but for making videos, I used the right method, and these techniques anyone can learn.

All I did to become a 'child prodigy' was just to spend a few months learning the most important parts of the skill (using lines and characters to trigger an emotional response, gauging audience reaction) and ruthlessly cut out the inessentials (intermediate-advanced editing, cinematography, lighting). Does it sound like you need to have an IQ of 130 to do that?

This technique is known by productivity experts as the 80/20 principle (Or 'Pareto's Principle'), where it's shown that learning 20% of the most important parts of a skill, provides 80% of the value. And so the trick is to identify what is the most essential 20%, focus on just learning that, while cutting out the other 80%.

For example, if you want to learn cooking, don't start by trying out difficult gourmet recipes that you'd rarely have the time and energy to cook. Instead, start with easy common recipes like stir-fry. roasting, soups and salads. If you want to learn a language, only learn the most common words, phrases, grammar rules, and parts of the language that you'd actually use, cut out everything else (so probably 7/8s of a textbook is useless).

Studies on world-class experts (in music, sports etc.) concluded that there's no such thing as 'natural talent', effective learning strategies is the most significant factor that makes someone a prodigy, by far. It's not that a genius is 5 times smarter than you, it's that he's only studying the knowledge that yields 5-10 times the value. It's not about working hard, it's about working smart.

How I stumbled upon the correct learning method for making videos, was from a complete stroke of luck, mostly borne from my limitations, which reminds me of this great article that shows scientifically, that limitations can actually enhance creativity. And 'Jan' really is the perfect encapsulation of that dictum.

I had barely any editing or camera skills in videomaking, and was not interested in learning it. And so I was essentially forced to only focus on what I thought I could do, which was, characters, lines and story (If you can call that Jan was a 'story').

I had no actors, so I acted all 4 characters. I had no props, so I used common household items, like a jam jar, a towel as a wig, a ukulele as a gun. And so by accident, these common items made the video even funnier. I had no deep philosophical point, because I was 13, so I made a video that was complete nonsense, literally the 'story' was just an excuse to make jokes.

'Jan' is so resourceful and creative. And the script for the video is excellent (I wrote down all the lines on microsoft word before filming. I had a computer beside me with the word document. I acted out the dialogue for 1 character at a time, and just edited all the lines for the 4 characters together in the correct order.) The script has a generous variety of jokes: wordplay, repetition, exaggeration, non-sequiturs, playing with sound (pitch and tone of each line, sound effects); there was a funny joke every 5 seconds.

During the competition, there was a screening for all the films that were nominated for the top 10. People were mostly quiet (and probably bored) when they saw the other films. But when they watched 'Jan', everyone was invested in it. The whole theatre of around 80 people was booming with laughter for almost the entire 3 minutes 'Jan' was on, you could hardly hear the video.

And underneath all of that, was just the fact that 'Jan' is so pure and full of heart. Every other film was pretentious. They tried to be profound, or deep or intelligent, but failed because the filmmakers weren't profound, or deep or intelligent. And so their video just comes off as especially tryhard, and an audience can't connect with something that's fake.

For me, I didn't try to be anything, I just was.

Because I was a teenager, free from the expectations of society that comes when you get older, I was free to be myself. Because everyone is valuable and unique, you just need to be yourself, and you will create something that is valuable and unique. If you 'try' to be interesting, it comes off as fake and not you, so the secret to being interesting is not to try.

Now I'm completely self-aware, that all this might come off as incredibly arrogant and pretentious. Some deep, esoteric analysis of a dumb video I made when I was a teenager, and I'm overthinking and ascribing so much meaning to it.

But is that really the case my friends? Is it really?

All the other films, no one would see them outside of the competition (And if your film isn't engaging enough to be seen by the public, then what's the point of making a film?). Jan is the only video where even if it wasn't submitted for competition, you'd still watch and share it (Which people have. After winning the competition, it had about 8 thousand views, but throughout the years, it accumulated close to a hundred thousand).

And to this day, I think Jan, a film I made when I was 13, is one of the best things I ever created. Especially as I get older and more exposed to typical social pressures (like ego, fame, money), 'Jan' is a reminder to never forget my 'why', and that the best content is pure, and doing what you love.


This story has a bad (mixed) ending though. Even though 'Jan' was the ultimate symbol of purity and creativity, I could not make more of such videos afterwards. Maybe the fame got to me, maybe after receiving that recognition I didn't feel motivated to continue improving as much, but afterwards I started making videos not because I enjoyed doing them, but because I felt like I needed to. Jan was a comedic multi-character skit played by 1 person, and so I felt like I had to make more content in that format. So I created videos called 'Truth or Dare', and 'spiritual sequels' to Jan called 'Yvette' and 'Jessica' (sequels that no one asked for).

All those videos were unfunny and bland, because I wasn't doing them for creative fulfillment, I did it because I felt I had to, because that was what I was known for.

And that's a testament to whether I was really a genius isn't it? Because I think you can only be considered a genius if you can produce quality work frequently, not just 1 time.

There was also a 2nd film competition held by the same local newspaper the following year. I actually did submit a video, it was called 'Star Wars Episode 7: Rise of the Banana'. But I'm not sure whether I accidentally submitted my film with the wrong title heading so it wasn't verified, or the judges saw how bad the video was and didn't want their breakout star who won first place to not even make top 50, so they just ignored it. But literally no one even thought I entered that year. I was invited to give out the prize for best actor during the 2nd awards ceremony, and all the judges and interviewers I talked to all thought I was taking a break and didn't submit a film.

And after that competition, the film festival dissolved. I think during the first festival, because there was the fascinating story of me, an overnight child star, that helped generate enough interest to hold another competition. The second contest however didn't have that.

It's unfortunate because if I vaguely recall, the first place winner of that year was actually pretty good. But it didn't have the marketing potential of a 'Jan'. It was a well-shot, well-told story, made by an adult with the lighting and camera techniques you learn in film school (with thankfully more emotional resonance). But it wasn't a captivating story of a teenager who won first place from a video he made in his bedroom.

And so the 2nd competition was barely heard about. And also due to the lack of interest towards the arts scene in Singapore in general, I think the organisers didn't have the budget and interest needed to run the festival a 3rd time, so it ended.

As for me, I continued making videos all throughout high school, but my artistic career was tumultuous. Fortunately after 2 years of creating unwatchable, mediocre content, enough reflection and practice seemed to pay off, and I finally made a video that was pretty good, called 'How to Speak Singlish' (which became viral with a few hundred thousand views).

I know all this time I've been boasting about how I was an amazing child prodigy, but if I were to give an honest assessment of myself, I'd say I'm in the strange position between a true genius and a one-hit wonder.

The pattern seems to be (even after I dropped out of school and started making online content 'full-time'): I can create 1 great piece of work, every 6 months-1 year.

But as most professional artists would agree, for short-form content (videos, blog posts, etc.), 1 great piece of content every 6 months-1 year, is not good enough (it's also not enough to make a living).

So if I want to be considered a prodigy (or just a functioning professional artist really), I have to produce quality content at least every week, and whether I do now, look at my weekly blog posts and you be the judge.

So what will happen next? Will I live up to or even exceed my former glory? Will I turn into a fake, sell-out hack? The story continues. But whatever happens, there will almost be Jan to remind us: the power of creative passion

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