The Soothing, Digital Rooms of YouTube

Imagine this: You are in the Hogwarts library. Outside, rain is falling, a fire crackles through the room and somewhere in the off, quills are scribbling on parchment. You can look up from time to time to see a book floating in the air or stepladders that move on their own. Or maybe you feel so relaxed that you fall asleep.

Welcome to the world of so-called ambience videos, a genre of YouTube videos that combines relaxing soundscapes with animated landscapes to make viewers feel like they are immersed in certain spaces, like a jazz bar in Paris or a swamp with trilling wildlife.

They are part of a long tradition of audiovisual products and programs that make a room a little more relaxed and beautiful.

See black and white recordings of a crackling Christmas diary that New York TV station WPIX debuted on Christmas Eve 1966 – grandfather of the many digital Christmas diaries available today – or the advent of white noise machines that fill a room with sound of roaring waves, chirping crickets or falling rain.

But lately this genre of video has drawn new fans who want to be transported across the same four walls that they have been staring at for almost a year.

“I have received comments that emphasize how helpful these videos have been to her during the pandemic,” said Melinda Csikós, a 33-year-old ambient creator from Budapest who runs the Miracle Forest YouTube channel. “I have a subway atmosphere where one person said – from New York, I think – that they couldn’t get on the subway in a year and it was nice for them to hear that atmosphere because they like to take the subway and they miss it. “

Lindsay Elizabeth, a freelance copywriter from central Florida, fell headlong in love with the ambient genre last year because she wanted to recapture the experience of working in coffee shops. Ms. Elizabeth, 31, misses the casual conversations she used to have with strangers and the little moments she experienced, like an engagement that happened across the window while she was working at a Starbucks.

About the ambience genre, she said: “It gives you at least a little bit of what we miss.”

The genre is a close relative of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) videos, which are said to induce the pleasant tingling sensation in the brain that some people experience when they hear noises like brushing hair, tapping nails, and soft whispers.

“Harry Potter” videos have become a big topic across the ambience genre. Hogwarts settings strike a compelling balance between cozy and study-friendly, and they certainly have transportation potential.

“You can’t have that in real life. It’s a fantasy, so I wanted this fantasy where people could actually spend time in their favorite novels, ”said Claire, an ambient video creator who runs a popular YouTube channel called ASMR Rooms, and many of them are on the topic Harry Potter has. (The New York Times only allowed Claire to be identified by her first name because of previous online harassment.)

“If you go back to my very first video, I literally put a fireplace in a Hogwarts common room and that was it,” said Claire.

Since she uploaded this video in 2015, her fantasy ambience work has gotten a lot more elaborate. She records as much audio as possible at home and in the great outdoors – capturing the sound of scrolling or birdsong and rain as they migrate – and has built a library of original sounds so she doesn’t have to license them from a warehouse catalog.

She hired artists to draw interior scenes for her videos, which she then animated, and once hired a voice actress with an uncanny talent to impersonate Emma Watson to read a script as Hermione Granger. (She recently noticed that in the comment section of her Hogwarts Express video, people were talking about “displacement.” The term that has gained prominence on TikTok refers to trying to move into another reality – often the world of “Harry Potter”. According to iD magazine.)

Despite all the diversity of the genre, ambient videos are designed for maximum comfort, with plenty of atmospheric light, crackling chimneys and rain hitting the imaginary window panes.

For Sam Ali, a 27-year-old who lives in Ottawa, ambience videos are an important tool for managing anxiety, which has been “going through the roof” since last March. As a book blogger, Ms. Ali likes to throw up an ambient video when she sits down to read – maybe a café with quiet jazz or the Hufflepuff common room.

“I leave all my thoughts in front of my bedroom door, turn on my ASMR room, lie down in bed and read and completely lose myself in another world,” she said.

Helle Breth Klausen, a PhD student at Aarhus University in Denmark who studies digital media, including ASMR, classifies ambience videos as a kind of “self-medication medium”. (It also has Spotify playlists in this category with soothing sounds and meditation apps like Headspace and Calm.)

“Once you’ve entered this universe, you don’t have to think about it anymore. There are no sudden noises. There is no narrative you have to keep up with to be a part of it, ”said Ms. Klausen. “You know what’s going to happen and it’s predictable in a very safe and reassuring way.”

Ambient video offers a respite from the “hypermediality” of the Internet, she said – a break from the constant bombardment of ads and emails and the self-inflicted strain of dozens of browser tabs open. (Hypermediation can be defined as the act of viewing, consuming, or interacting with multiple forms of media at the same time.) Paradoxically, a person must wade through the YouTube buffet of suggested videos just to find a surrounding video that shuts out the world.

“I find it very interesting that the same medium that causes fear and stress also brings back and protects against precisely this feeling,” says Klausen.

Ms. Csikós, the ambient creator from Budapest, said she started watching ambient videos in 2013 when she was having “a really bad time” and struggling with anxiety.

“I had it on very often in the background and also used it to meditate, to just switch off everything around me and bring myself to a quiet room,” she said.

At the end of 2013, she founded her own ambience channel, hoping to be able to give others the same security that she had found. Her earliest videos, many of which she removed from her channel, had more “generic” themes like ocean and forest landscapes, but over the years she pushed herself to make videos that suit her tastes.

As a fan of Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton, Ms. Csikós wants to create spaces that are “a little better than reality”, where magic and monsters exist in everyday life. Her aesthetic tends towards the creepy: In December she released a “Halloween Christmas” video. In her subway video, tentacles emerge from a trash can.

“Even though they’re less popular – because I find them a little weird, so I have a feeling that fewer people see or even find them – I want fewer people who find them to realize, yes, that’s mine Video, ”she said.

Ms. Csikós was working as a medical translator when she first started making ambient videos, and as her YouTube work grew, she was hired to do visual effects and audio mixing gigs – enough that it eventually became her full-time job. Today about half of her income comes from her ambient videos, on which she works six hours a day on weekdays. A video can take a week of work.

Over time, Ms. Csikós’ videos have become more professional and she has developed tricks to make them maximally calming. Sometimes she captures movement on a real green screen – by shooting her pets or water droplets at a pane of glass – but those elements can move too quickly, which can contradict the calming scenes she’s trying to create.

Today she works more digitally to give her videos a slow motion effect that doesn’t exist in the real world. “Real life is so fast,” she said.

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