My guest today is Greg Lam (@lifewhereimfrom). Greg is the creator of the immensely popular Life Where I’m From YouTube channel. LWIF gives interesting and educational insight into the everyday, special events and uniquely Japanese aspects of life in Japan.
In this conversation, we cover the process required for his videos, the YouTube landscape, and his new documentary, Being Japanese.
It’s also my first ever video interview!
I hope you enjoy my conversation with Greg Lam of Life Where I’m From!
[00:00:33] – [First question] – Greg’s process for a video
[00:03:06] – How Greg approaches video intros and thumbnails
[00:05:29] – When did Greg find his voice and niche?
[00:07:36] – Thoughts on recording video in public
[00:09:04] – When did Greg think he could take YouTube full-time?
[00:11:02] – Lessons and takeaways from monetizing?
[00:16:51] – Things Greg wished more viewers knew
[00:20:41] – Videos that performed wildly different to Greg’s expectations?
[00:24:10] – How to think about story when making videos
[00:26:23] – What have been the hardest videos to make
[00:33:31] – Favourite videos?
[00:35:28] – Outsourcing parts of his video process?
[00:44:35] – Advice for YouTube creators on what not to do?
[00:47:14] – Plans for the future?
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- Life Where I’m From’s Website
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Mentioned Life Where I’m From Videos:
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Kalani Scarrott (00:33): So my guest today is Greg Lam of Life Where I’m From. Greg is the creator of the immensely popular Life Where I’m From YouTube account, which currently has over 1.5 million YouTube subscribers and aims to give educational and interesting insights into the everyday, the special events and the uniquely Japanese aspects of life in Japan. So in today’s conversation, we cover his process for making videos, the YouTube landscape itself, and also his new documentary ‘Being Japanese’. So I hope you enjoy my conversation with Greg Lam.
Greg, thank you so much for being on today, but I think a cool place to start would maybe just to be your overall process for a video. So like from start to finish from idea to uploading, I’d love to hear what your whole process looks like. And as well as the time and effort just involved for one, say 20 minute video.
Greg Lam (01:19): Right. Okay. That’s kind of a complicated question. Although it might seem simple, because every single video I do is different, but let’s just do a basic, takes me two weeks to make video. So everything always happens to have like an idea. And usually it’s a title I write down and it’s like, okay, what Japanese – Like, what I just did is what Japanese really eat for dinner? So I had this idea for a series where we check a whole bunch of people out and see what they’re eating for dinner. So we got like seven or eight people. So once you have that idea down and you write the title down, then you’re like, okay. So like, what are the different pieces I need to gather for the video? And it’s just kind of like rough bullet points, you know, rough things. Then you actually try to get some people to film.
Right. So you go out and film people, usually filming doesn’t take too long in comparison to everything else. So if I’m maybe two days at the most, I would say, and then the editing is probably gonna take one week, right. So at least one week. And that’s if everything’s in a perfect world, it doesn’t always happen. Like in a short timeframe, it could happen over many, many months but yeah, I’d say a week of editing two days of shooting maybe one or two days of like, kind of, pre-production like just kind of think about the idea of brainstorm research. Yeah. That’s about roughly it.
Kalani Scarrott (02:36): Yeah. So how many videos do you have on the go at any one stage at different stages of production?
Greg Lam (02:40): Oh yeah. I kind of feel like ten is about the number honestly. Yeah, because some things take maybe like a year to film because we need to have several people or we need to film things at different times of the year, or some people are hard to get a hold of, or I’m just busy working on a different project. I’m just not feeling like editing this certain one at the time. But I, I think it’s safe to say, I usually have about 10 projects that are on the go. Yeah.
Kalani Scarrott (03:06): Interesting. I’d love to ask about specifically about video intros, cause obviously with YouTube video intros, I’ve heard a lot with Mr. Beast. He’s very hyper focused on his intros and I loved your one from the video, ‘The Rules that Rule Japan’, that had some beautiful shots, but maybe it wasn’t optimized perfectly for YouTube algorithm. How do you think about your intros? And yeah, just guide me through that.
Greg Lam (03:23): Intros honestly is probably one of the things I think about the least. Coz it’s always the idea and the story for me. So I’m always thinking about what does yeah. Like what do I want to tell people in this video? I’m not really that focused on optimizing for the audience, like looking at, you know, the initial view times and seeing how many people stick around after, you know, 30 seconds and all that. I do check it out every once in a while, but it’s really tough because I mean, so you said ‘The Rules that Rule Japan’, that you saw, but I just did a video about the day in the life of a Sento owner and that was a pretty slow open, I would say, you know, cold open. So I mean, I wasn’t optimizing for, I don’t know the algorithm on that one, but that just felt like that was the pace that was needed. And I think people responded to that video. So I think it just depends on what the video is. But as an example for the, what Japanese really eat for dinner video, I was thinking, okay, like how do I make this intro kind of a little more exciting? So people want to watch every single person’s meal. So I kind of highlighted some of the meals we’ll be talking about and showing, and then we jumped into the first meal.
Kalani Scarrott (04:38): Does that sort of thinking apply with thumbnails? Cause I know you’ve gone back and redone a lot of your thumbnails. How do you view thumbnails?
Greg Lam (04:44): I don’t, wouldn’t say I’ve redone a lot of the thumbnails, but I’ve definitely been changing them as I go along and I still don’t know what’s a great thumbnail. I’m trying to think about it. Maybe when you said redone, you’re thinking about like maybe if I post it and then like a week or two later I might go and change it or sometimes the next day. There’s a few that I’ve experimented with and I’ve gone back like a year later and changed the thumbnail, changed the title. And some, for some reason, you know, that’s a little more catchy and then a video that was doing a hundred thousand now has a million views after a year. And so it’s the same exact video, just different thumbnail and title. So they are quite important. But as to what’s a good one. I still honestly couldn’t tell you.
Kalani Scarrott (05:29): That’s fair enough. And to go back to the start of your YouTube journey, at what point do you think you really found your voice and maybe your niche, like hearing your story in going viral and becoming famous, it seemed you started, it was just about having fun and being educational. Was there any video or moment in time where you thought this could really be something big?
Greg Lam (05:46): So I’ll say two things. One is that the first video I ever had viral was maybe I think like 4, 5, 6 months, maybe four months after I first started uploading. And that was something about, ‘The 12 reasons why Japanese bathrooms are the best’. Right. I had seen other videos go viral before. So I thought, okay, this is like a one off thing. And that video was kind of like a parody in a sense, like it was a joke title. It wasn’t a – like, I mean, the information was true, but way I presented it was kind of like, I was pretending to be like other people, but that actually did work, which was ironic. So, but I thought, no, this is a flash in the pan. It’s, I’ll just, you know, keep on making the videos I make. I’m not gonna change what I do based on this video.
But it just kept on slowly growing after that. So I was quite surprised, probably a big turning point for me was, I released my first, what I’d call like a mini documentary. And that was ‘What owning a Japanese Ramen restaurant is like’. And that one was way different than the style I was used to doing because I had focused on family videos and simpler videos. And I don’t think I really narrated. Sometimes I would ask questions, you know, kinda like behind the camera, but I wasn’t narrating something. And so this one, I actually ended up narrating quite a bit and different style. And I thought like, I just hope people don’t hate me for this really was what I was thinking. And they ended up actually really liking that went viral and that was a huge success. And then I thought, oh, okay. So I can actually make topics without my family, that are more mini documentary style, like go a little more in depth and people will still watch. So I can, I’m free to try out different things. So that was, that was a big turning point, I think.
Kalani Scarrott (07:36): And this is just curious on my part, because I love that video with the Ramen shop owner, but you’ve been in video for a long time, but how do you get over? Maybe for me I’d feel awkward, maybe recording in public and I don’t know, how do you approach that maybe? Is it something you even think about ? Or is it just natural at this point?
Greg Lam (07:53): Okay. Well, there’s two parts about filming in public. One is just having your camera and filming other people. That one I’m totally fine with because I used to be a freelance videographer back in Vancouver. So I was used to filming people and I can kind of just lose myself and just, I’m so focused on trying to get, you know, make sure the lighting’s right. The audio’s right. The composition is correct. Like, am I catching the moment? I’m gonna miss something. I’m just so busy you thinking about that, that I’m not really thinking about people looking at me filming so that I’m totally fine with on the other side, presenting to a camera that is tough for me in public. And I don’t really do it that often. If you look at my videos, I’ve tried to challenge myself and push myself and do that on certain videos. And I liked the way it worked. I think the first one, I really, where I did that in public with lots of people around too, having to walk and talk was ‘Let’s talk about weird Japan, I think that was the title. And I liked the result of it. And so I’ll do it when I feel it’s necessary, but I always prefer just kind of being behind the camera, doing voiceovers afterwards and not filming in public.
Kalani Scarrott (09:04): Yeah, no, I totally agree with that. This is why I do the podcast. I’d rather ask questions than answer it myself, but we spoke about how when you found your voice. At the same, on the other side, monetary wise, was there ever a point in the YouTube journey where you thought, yeah, I could go full time with this. And what were your steps afterwards or how have you ever viewed monetizing your YouTube channel?
Greg Lam (09:21): Right. Well, honestly at the start, I didn’t even monetize, I didn’t think it was worth it. And I think also at the time, I mean everybody’s perceptions of what works and what doesn’t on YouTube changes. It seems like monthly. And so one of the things was like, well, maybe putting ads on your videos, detracts people from watching it. So what’s the point you have like, no viewers, it’s not gonna be worth anything anyways. So just, yeah, let’s just put it out there. Don’t worry about monetization. I think when the first video, the viral one, the bathroom one, it had like half a million viewers. I’m like maybe I should try this monetization thing, turned it on. It didn’t affect any performance whatsoever. And, you know, oh, you can actually make some money, but I didn’t think about actually making any significant amount of money.
And so I did it for I wanna say two and a half years. I’d have to actually look back and see, but I know it was about half a million subscribers or so that I had. And then I started thinking maybe I can just focus on this, you know, full-time so I stopped doing my main job. I completely quit that and just went YouTube full-time. And the first month after I did that it was like really bad month in July. It just not enough to live off of honestly, but you know, it went back up eventually and it’s been good ever since. So I think I was a lot more cautious than other people, I guess depends which area you’re from too. Right. But I’ve seen people like hit 50,000 or a hundred thousand and they want to quit their jobs and do that. Like I would’ve never have done that like 500,000, I was still nervous about doing that.
Kalani Scarrott (11:02): Fair enough. And have you, what have been maybe the biggest lessons or takeaways monetizing and maybe that aspect of it?
Greg Lam (11:08): Well, you know, what’s changed a lot. And I’ve only been in it for, I think almost six years now, I wanna say, or is it six and a half or close to seven? Yeah I forget how long I’ve been doing it, but before I started doing it, I was watching other people and, you know, I’d read up about it and what not. And honestly at the start ad revenue was not a lot of money, even though it was the majority, it was not a lot of money. It, I think it’s like tripled or quadrupled since when I started. And it could be, and depends on your niche too. I know that. So some niches do really well. Like I think tech people, and even like people that talk about business and stuff like that, they tend to have a lot higher monetization rate than other videos, are genres.
And if I look at my own videos, some videos do double the rate of other ones. So really the ad rate depends on video. Another component is I have Patreon, which is crowdfunding. So people support that way and that’s been really good. And I think more like from the mental side than anything else, because I know I have a fairly constant stream of revenue that I can count on to pay the bills with this money, like a budget I have, and it doesn’t fluctuate that much, maybe 5%, maybe 10% at the most in a month, but it’s fairly steady. Whereas YouTube ad revenue, it can fluctuate, it can be doubled the next month or tripled the next month and then half of that. And then you just don’t know what’s going to happen. And then if you don’t publish some videos or you’re just having a bad run, as January hits because December’s the biggest month for ad revenue, January’s like the worst.
So it just goes up and down. And then the last component for me is sponsored videos. And that’s actually a tricky one because I think people in the states from what I hear, they actually make pretty good money from sponsored videos in Japan. I think for me, there’s two types that you can get. One is just this I’ll call them like software as a service or internet ads. Like, you know, those audible, express VPN, skills share, this stuff that people can go online anywhere in the world and use this service. So those I can do from any content I have. You can kind of put those ads within your video. So those ones they’re great because they don’t really affect your content at all. Like I can just, I can do whatever video I want and I only choose products that I would actually use myself or that I actually do.
Mostly, actually, I do use all the products myself, right. So there’s something I can actually recommend to my viewers and those ones are good because again, they don’t really affect the content. And usually you can put it at the very end of the video. The second type of sponsorship is the one where I guess they’re, tourism is what I would say, tourism money. So like an area with a pre fixture or city in Japan, they wanna promote an area. So they want you to go and try out some of the, you know, tourist things. Um, so I’ve done a few of those over the years, and those are interesting because you get to see new places and they’re usually, you know, you get to see some nice places as well. So those are interesting to do, but I’ve really tried to limit the amount that I do because even still like with a sponsored video, even though you don’t think it’s affecting your video or either like the videos you make are how you present in a video. You still have restrictions, right? You’re not completely free. So like for example, this fall, like I just wanted to make whatever I wanted to make. I didn’t wanna worry about deadlines of other people or that I had to film with certain subjects. So I’m just, I’m making what I wanna make. And that’s what I did for, since August actually. And that’s been great too, so..
Kalani Scarrott (15:00): No yeah, love to hear it. And they have to sort of sign off on that and they’re reaching out to you as well for those?
Greg Lam (15:04): I’ve, I don’t think I’ve ever reached out to anyone on any sponsor video that I actually have. I think the only time maybe I’ve reached out was like a rafting one in Canada where I’ve already been to the place a few times and we just kind of like a swap of services kind of thing. But besides that, no people generally reach out to me for every single one. And I mean you just get emails. Yeah.
Kalani Scarrott (15:29): And do you ever strategize or chat with other YouTubers about, I dont know, just yeah. Content and like, do you chat with other people and try and learn off them? Or how does that work?
Greg Lam (15:38): I have, but I wouldn’t say often, maybe there’s one or two people that I’ll talk to, you know, on a monthly basis or what not. And some people that I can just if I you know, wanna double check something or having a problem with something that, you know, I can just, you know, message and they can help out. So that’s cool. There’s some other people where I’ve talked to, like, you know, once in a year or once every two or three years. So I wouldn’t say I talk to them normally, but it’s nice that if I do have a question or something that I think people are generally pretty cool. Like okay helping each other out and, you know, it’s, I think most like successful creators have gone past the point of like, thinking that, oh, like this person’s my competition. I can’t help them out. Like they’re gonna take over and take my views away. I don’t really think that’s how it works. So when people come to me, other creators that I know, and they ask for something, I try to help them out as best as I can. And I think they’ve done the same for me. So that’s, that’s been nice. But, I would honestly, it’d be nicer to talk on a regular basis with people because I mean, you’re just doing it all on your own, so it’s yeah.
Kalani Scarrott (16:51): Have there been any aspects if you YouTube and making videos that you think people don’t appreciate? Like what do you wish more people knew about your work?
Greg Lam (17:00): That’s a good question, because I guess reading the comments, you can get two things, right? One that people just really don’t understand at all the work that it takes to go into things are all the editing that you have to do or the filming or permissions or so they, you know, they will just watch a few minutes and just make a quick comment. And you’re like, yeah, they just totally don’t know. And then there’s the other people who are like super complimentary to you, like I love your, you know, your film cinematic, like shots and oh the stories so fantastic, I cried. And you’re like, but are they just being really nice is what I think as well. So I kind of try to average it out. But perhaps like, I mean, before you started recording, I was worrying about my audio.
Right, because I wanted to make sure the audio was good and I set up a light over here to make sure, like I closed all my blinds actually and set up a light to try to make it better. And this light’s not even the, like my proper light, my proper light’s with my sister-in-law right now. So I kind of have this little like emergency light, I would say that I’m using. And I’m like, I don’t know if it’s good enough. And even the camera quality I’m like, should I get another camera and use a better camera film, then send you the footage, or, but I guess it’s a podcast it’s audio. So, you know, you don’t really need the visual. So I guess how much I sweat all the little details and I still, I guess I usually end up hating the videos by time I release them because I’ve been working on them so long, looking at all these details and thinking that people are gonna see them all, all the faults.
And I mean, I think there are people that definitely do see the, the problems, but the vast majority don’t. And so I gotta keep on trying to remember that it’s like, it’s the content that’s important to not like, if the thing’s slightly out of focus or a little bit shaky or the audios not perfect on this one, but if it’s, you know, if the story is better because of it, then I gotta choose the story over any of the technical things that I’m getting wrong. I mean just like on my last video, I shot myself and I was looking green and then I was looking orange and I was looking yellow and I couldn’t colour correct myself properly. And I hate the way my skin looks every single time. I see the first shot of the opening of me. I’m like it’s wrong. And I was working on it for a couple hours and I just couldn’t like quite crack it. So I just released it, but I still don’t like it. And, I still want to get it better and improve, you know?
Kalani Scarrott (19:30): Yeah, it’s so cool to hear that. Cause it’s the exact same with the podcast. I don’t think I’m ever happy with a question. I always talk too fast. But yeah, it’s that internally generated pressure isn’t it? For you as well?
Greg Lam (19:39): Definitely. I’m always, I mean, I guess to kind of expand on a more overall scale, not like a video by video, is that, I mean, I’ve been doing this like a, I think April 2015 is when I launched. Right? So it’s 2021. So it’s six and a half years then if my math is correct and I think I’ve gotten a little more like accepting that you’re gonna have waves of people watching your video and some videos will just do well and you have no reason why and some videos that you think will do well, won’t do well. And sometimes who knows the algorithm gods are just in your favour, but I’ve seen so many people, like they’re still making good videos. The quality’s great, but it just starts, you know, slowly going down. You’re like, wow, they got like a million subs and they’re getting like 5,000 views of video. Is that going to be my fate? Like when is that going to happen? And I just keep on waiting for the ball to drop. And I don’t think that, I don’t know if that ever goes away, honestly.
Kalani Scarrott (20:41): Yeah, fair call. And it’s interesting often, sometimes I’ll hate an episode or I’m sick of it, but it’ll perform really well. So has there been any videos for you that have performed totally different to your expectations of them either unexpectedly well or worse?
Greg Lam (20:55): Oh yeah. I mean, there’s, I’d actually have to go through my list of videos to, you know, pull them out specifically. I think one video that I thought, like I put a lot of effort into was I was explaining why Japanese love bathing and I thought, okay, yeah, this is gonna do great. And it didn’t do well at all. It had, I don’t know, it was probably less than a hundred thousand views, any video that has less than a hundred thousand views in my catalog is way below average. So that’s consider it or like not doing well in my books. So yeah I think after a year, maybe it was less than a hundred thousand and that’s one of the ones where I actually did change the thumbnail and title and then, you know, said to the community chat.
I said like, ‘hey look like this video didn’t do well. Like, was there anything about it or anything?’ And then it got picked up and it’s over a million views and people appreciate it. So you just don’t know. Even like the, I told you about the Sento video one, I just did that had a really slow start. And it was like, because YouTube now tells you right out of your past 10 videos, this is like how well it’s done. And maybe that was like eight out of the past 10 videos. So I had pretty slow start, but I think now it has over 200,000 views and it’s only been a few weeks. And the comments on there are just fantastic though. People seem to be really touched by the mini documents I made. And that made me feel like, okay, I touched some people with this. I told a story and yeah I was already happy with it when I didn’t that many views, but it had some great comments on it. But now it’s also getting some good viewership too. So I think it’s one of those videos that will just kind of continue to be a solid video over time.
Kalani Scarrott (22:40): Do you find your mini documentaries are more so those slower burn type veiw situations?
Greg Lam (22:44): Not necessarily like, it’d be interesting. Like I always look at the patterns, try to see the patterns. But then it’s like a lot of the time I’ll say like one thing, but then I’ll do the other thing. Or like, I’ll try to forget that advice because sometimes it doesn’t work. Like I think for a time, like I say, like the family videos were doing just as well as the documentary videos and sometimes they go up and down. Um, but like for example a slow burn, I mean, or a high burn was like the very first video I published was ‘What Japanese breakfast is like’. I don’t even know what that has way over 10 million views now, maybe it’s getting close to 20 and it just keeps on performing no matter what. And you’re just like, it’s crazy. And that one, I always use as an example to other people because I shot that on a point and shoot camera and I was handholding like a zoom microphone to capture some audio cause I didn’t even have any different audio things I could use. And so I was about the most basic for me that I can get, I guess people would nowadays film a smartphone, although those are pretty good quality. But yeah, like it’s the people like the story and capturing, you know, the moment that I captured in that. And so it’s done well. So no, I wouldn’t say mini documentaries necessarily slow burn any better than, I don’t know, like regular life videos. It really just depends on the video.
Kalani Scarrott (24:10): This is kind of going off the cuff. How do you think about story then when doing your videos? Like is there any specific things you wanna tell on a story? Um, just how do you approach that then?
Greg Lam (24:18): Yeah, that’s probably the trickiest part for me, honestly. That’s where I get caught up the most is what’s the story? What am I trying to tell people? Because a lot of the times I could research like so much, like I can sometimes spend like a week researching, you know good, 40, 50, 60 hours researching. And then I have all these great things that I found so fascinating. But then, you know, you spend two hours researching this one little like a sentence, like really a sentence. And then sometimes I end up cutting that thing out of the story. So I think I always got like, I, when I’m like really in the zone, I would say on like, especially more like on the mini documentary stuff, I just think like what am I trying to tell people? And you just kind of keep, you have to keep on editing and cutting back, cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting.
I rarely add something back that I’ve cut, you know, I keep it like I have like many versions of the same project and so I can go back in case and sometimes I go back I’m like, okay, I want this little clip. And, but generally I cut more than I add back, but I will add things after the fact, like research something and, you know, add it via voiceover or like go and film something else and like, you know, but I guess telling a story is just, can I make this story interesting or captivating for people? And for example, I would totally edit what I said just now, because I probably could have said it in about 45 seconds and it took me, I don’t know how many minutes so..
Kalani Scarrott (25:56): I’m the same with my questions, so I’m always like yep cut this rerecord and it’s almost a bit painful sometimes, but just curious, how much storage of archive footage do you have? Like how many terabytes you got like?
Greg Lam (26:06): Yeah, let’s see here. I think I keep on switching the drives in the systems, but I think my drives are 14 terabyte ones now. And then I back up those ones as well, but I have three full 14 terabyte drives.
Kalani Scarrott (26:23): Is there a video that sticks out that was much harder to make than the rest?
Greg Lam (26:27): Yeah, there is maybe there’s three videos I think the first one that was the hardest one to make for me was the homeless one, because it started off with a simple question of, I saw tarp with solar panels on it. I’m like why does this homeless person have solar panels on their tarp? Like, and they had the bike outside. Like it seemed like a pretty decent setup. So I’m like, why are they living homeless? I wanted to know the answer. And so, you know, I interview academic, I film I go out with groups that like nonprofits that do homeless counts and go to an organization that feeds homeless people and just do a whole bunch of filming over the course of a year. And it’s like, you have all this footage. And I had never tried something of that scale before.
So you’re like, well again, what is this story? And I just couldn’t figure it out because there was so much great information. I didn’t want to cut anything. And but in the end I ended up making like a six or seven minute video and it was like ‘Why Japanese homeless in Japan are different from homeless North America?’ Because that seemed like again, if you’re going like breaking things down to you know, the smallest idea that was like kind of what I thought interested me, or like peaked my interest at the start. And so that’s what other people would be interested in knowing as well. And then I made four other videos in the series and those four other videos was like, cause I didn’t wanna waste all the effort and the story of the, you know, the people that I captured and all the people that helped me produce and there’s such great information in there.
So I just wanted to get it out there. So I released four other videos talking about like trying to explain why it’s different, right to go more in depth into it. So that, that was hard because I just had no idea of how to think about it. And maybe the second one, if you’ll indulge me is the I call it the documentary it’s um, I made a documentary called 日本人とは, which is being Japanese and it’s all Japanese identity. And I made it because I think a lot of people think of Japan as homogenous people, like they’re all the same. But it’s not true. Not for like, even if you do videos in Tokyo, they’re like, okay, but that’s true in Tokyo, but it’s not true in Akita or it’s not true in Okinawa or Kyushu or Hokkaido, like, and depending on you know, but not even at that part, but then there’s just, there’s people like my kids who are called Hafu.
So they’re you know, one Japanese parent, one non-Japanese parent and there’s so many different types of Japanese people. So I want to explore that question. And, how long did I, oh my goodness. How long did I, I think it was three years, I think since I officially said I was gonna start making it, and even before I started making it, I was probably thinking about it for like a year or two and starting like, you know, pre-production stuff. So it was a long, long, long, long process in comparison to a YouTube video, which you could like the quickest possible. You can, you know, come up with an idea, film it and edit it and release it all in one day. That’s really true for me, but you could, um, mine’s probably more, I mean, my biggest projects were like maybe, you know, a month, two months, three months, that’s kind of more like the average for things, but yeah, three years, that’s a really difficult time and you have all these incredible interviews and stories and like, how do you fit it all?
It’s like how do you fit it all into two hours? Was my big struggle. And I managed to edit something into two hours. Did I do a good job of it? I don’t know, but I’m happy with what I’ve done, but it’s also one of those weird things because it’s right now, it’s behind a paywall and Vimeo, so you can rent it or buy it. And I know only, you know a couple thousand people have seen the documentary. Whereas usually when I post on YouTube, you know, if a couple thousand people watch your YouTube video for me, that’d be absolute failure. So I do plan on releasing it on YouTube in 2022 for free for everyone to see because my intention was always to make this for people to see it. Wasn’t like a money making project.
So that’ll happen, but it was tough because not only trying to edit and put everything together and work with different artists, like a sound composer, music composer a manga artist who did, you know, the visuals and then somebody to do motion graphics, motion design, and then translating everything. My goodness, that was difficult. Trying to get that all together. That was just tough. And at the time I’m doing that, I can’t focus a hundred percent on my YouTube channel so that you can just see it slowly going down you know, the view count and kind of like the interest because I’m not able to post very often on YouTube. So, okay, I’m losing like a huge chunk of my income on YouTube and I’m spending a lot of money making this documentary, trying to make it as good as I can.
And yeah, it was tough, man. It was tough. I’m glad I did it. I think hopefully I made something for people who don’t quite feel that they’re, you know, 100% Japanese or struggled with their identity. And even for people who are, you know, who consider themselves completely Japanese, but they can learn like how other Japanese people feel. And even for people around the world, just to know, like, okay, so there is diversity in Japan. And I think it’s still kind of a universal story though, right. Even though it’s called Being Japanese.
Kalani Scarrott (32:27): For the documentary, so what was your thought process? Was the documentary first, then the idea of being Japanese or was it being Japanese then turn this into a documentary?
Greg Lam (32:33): You know, I was thinking maybe it was from my kids. Maybe it’s partly from my own background because I’m Canadian, but I’m also like considered Chinese and a mix of like some British. But I could be all these things simultaneously and I found it relatively easy to do in Canada. Like people you know, don’t necessarily question it that much, but in Japan, like my kids just saying, hey, we’re Japanese. It just doesn’t work out so easily. Cause there’s always like that but at the end of it and I just I started thinking, you know, like, well, like what does it take to be fully Japanese then? Right. And that’s the question, like what is it to be Japanese? How do you be Japanese? And that’s the question we explore in the documentary. Yeah.
Kalani Scarrott (33:31): Yeah that’s a big, tough question, but I think you’ve done it well. Has there been an overall favourite video? Are the hardest ones, often your favorite ones to do like the satisfaction or?
Greg Lam (33:40): Not necessarily, they can be rewarding after, especially if people seem to get what you’ve done. One of my favorites I’ll say is actually a lot simpler one and it was just for fun. It was with my two kids and I was making kind of a parody of like a lot of the chef channels on Netflix, you know, well obviously other people do cooking channels and what not, but you know, like they’re really into like showcasing the food and stuff. And so I thought, oh, okay, like I’ll have my kids go shop at seven- eleven and then they’re gonna pretend they’re like little chefs and, you know, make meals out of Seven-Eleven. Like, but kind of the true part of the story is that you can get a lot of interesting ingredients from seven- eleven and make meals out of them. So that’s kind of interesting to see.
So I wanna show that to the world, but I’m doing it from the angle of like parodying chef shows. And so yeah, I went out with my daughter and we filmed some scenes like biking through the fields, going shopping at Seven-Eleven. And then she started coming up with ideas for like how to do it. And I talked to her recently about this and she said, well, like she knew it wasn’t real, but like she kind of felt like she started taking it seriously. Like she was really trying hard to make these meals. And then my son Shin, he’s testing all these meals and he’s just hilarious his reactions to like eating these things. And he was just like kept on with every single meal, he’d be drinking milk and it was just fun to film and it was like super fun to edit. And I think most people got the joke, but some people don’t, which was also funny as well to see. And it performed well too. So I don’t know, it was just a fun, light video. So I mean they’re nice to have just like, like I said, usually hate the videos by the time of release. I don’t think I ever hated that video. So that was nice.
Kalani Scarrott (35:28): That’s great. It’s cool to break out of your mold every once in a while. In terms of your overall YouTube process, how much can be outsourced, cause if I’ve got this right, your wife and sister-in-law are now working with you. So what does their work look like for you? And does it disrupt your flow and your style or how do you approach that?
Greg Lam (35:41): Right, I think that’s evolves over time. If you asked me two years ago, I would say that I can’t outsource anything. I do everything pretty much myself. My wife did help out with, uh, translating interviews and what not and sometimes she’d be there with me and help interview people. But basically I was still doing a hundred, like besides that a hundred percent of everything. I think the documentary forced me to work with other people because I wanted to get other people involved because I thought it would make the documentary better. And so I had to learn how to work with you know, somebody again, like in sound graphic artist, translation and with motion graphics. And that was a very interesting learning process because I kind of thought, oh, I’m hiring, you know, a fellow professional, I’ll just say like here go do this and come back to me.
I’m like, okay, it’s done. Then I’m focusing on this other thing, but no, they needed like me. I felt like almost, I was just as involved as if I was trying to do it myself. It wouldn’t be as good, like no doubt. Like they raised the level of what could be done, but I still had to be there every step of the way involved in the process, at least for the initial thing, because you have to learn each other’s like working style and they’re not in your head. Right. So you have to kind of, I guess, translate that to them, you know, and guide them along. And so I don’t, for that reason, I think I was never able to outsource because I don’t think I ever either had the budget to give it enough time or I just didn’t have the patience or I don’t know what it is, but with now with my wife and my sister-in-law, so my wife, I guess I just trust when, like for example, the Sento owner, that’s a public bath owner.
We recorded like with a lapel mic for like 10 hours. Right. So I’m like, okay, I’m not gonna sit there with her. And like, I have an understanding of Japanese, but I don’t have a deep understanding. So she’s gonna catch little nuances that I won’t. So it’s much better for her to like listen to the thing and catch watch she thinks are the good snippets. So she’s doing like, let’s say the rough cut and then she bring those edits to me and say, okay, here’s like the 30 minutes that I think are good. And then, you know, we’ll listen to it. She’ll do some translation and then, okay, yeah, this is okay. Maybe this is 20 minutes now, can you translate all this stuff? Right. And then she takes that 20 minutes puts all the captions on that. And then I have it.
And then for whatever reason, the way my mind can work is once I have the subtitles and I can see it as I’m editing, it helps me know the story even better for some reason. And then I cut that 20 minutes down to like 10 minutes or something or eight minutes or seven or six minutes and cut it down a lot more because when you edit, you’re like, okay, this is redundant. Or I can voice over this or I can say this, what I took a minute and a half to say, I can say it in 20 seconds. And so you just cut it down. So I think she’s doing like the rough story editing for people speaking Japanese, I would say. And she’s also doing the production, like the, what is it called? Like the set up of the shoots, right?
So the communication back and fourth with people saying, Hey, we want to interview you. Here’s what we’re about. Here’s some examples of other videos we’ve done. And when you’re actually doing the interview, like sometimes she would, before we try to translate live, like after like even quick summaries of what they’re saying, cause I won’t necessarily understand a hundred percent of everything they’re saying all the time, you know? Um, but I have to just trust that, it interrupts the flow too much to do that. So she just goes with the questions and comes up with, I mean she’s interviewing them basically, right. She’s using my list as the base for what to, you know, the topic, but then she has to go off on tangents and see, oh this is interesting. Talk more about this. So that’s what she does.
So I think the longer we go, the more she’s doing more stuff as a process .Now for my sister-in-law, it’s a bit different because my sister-in-law will tolerate being on camera. I won’t say she’ll love being on camera, but just like, I guess I’ll tolerate being on camera. I don’t love being on camera either. But my sister-in-law like, I think she’s pretty brave. She likes going out and filming and I think she has an eye for stuff. So, she’ll go out and film things and she’ll also talk with people, chat with people and that’ll be interesting conversations. And she’ll do the rough cut of what she thinks is good as well. So she’s doing a lot more of the process. And so I think for that, with the Japanese really series, that’s also like an effort to kind of have a defined type of video that we can work on together that, you know, both my sister-in-law and my wife can kind of take over more and more of that process.
I mean I still have like the final edit of everything. I still spend a lot of time editing after they’ve done, you know, their work, but you know, they’re definitely helping produce now. So it’s cutting down on my time. And so I think in the future, there’ll be more things where, you know, they’re the lead on the project and I’m just kind of, you know, looking all the edits, supervising and what not. And I think the reason it works is because they’re obviously long term, right. I don’t have to worry about them not being interested or like, I know they’re getting enough money where they can, because my wife, obviously we’re enough money that we’re gonna survive. So, you know, I don’t have to worry about making sure she’s fed. And my sister-in-law too, like I said, we have a patreon based income, so then she can, I know like, okay, she has a wage and she can, you know work on this.
So, it’s and she’s willing to learn, I guess, I don’t know how much can be outsource to tell you the truth. I’m doing more of it, but still the story, I feel like they’ll come to me with an idea sometime. Hey is this interesting? But I think for a Western audience, it feels like, and it kind of still has to have my kind of, I don’t know touch or approval because I kind of like, I know, I feel like I know if I’m interested in it, probably other people are interested in it. And there’s a lot of ideas. Like even like the, what Japanese relate for breakfast, people are like, why like this? Why would you show this? You know, like this is not fantastic. The meal we’re making, like is not great. Like no one wants to see this stuff, but I’m like, no, I think people really want to know what like a regular Japanese breakfast is not this like super made up fancy breakfast, just like the everyday stuff. I think people are interested, this kind of thing. And I mean, yeah, people did watch that videos, so yeah.
Kalani Scarrott (42:56): Yeah you definitely feel your personality come through. Do you ever think you could outsource asset collection maybe? Or do you think cinematography is still a big, like your thing as well?
Greg Lam (43:03): I think you can. It just I think it’ll change the video. You know, like for example, I did video about what a typical Tokyo neighborhood is like, I also made one about zoning in there and without, when I walk around and go, I just see and notice things. I’m like, oh I should film this. I should film that. And I think if I’m coming up, like, I, don’t always some things I just roughly know, like I want to show what a typical Tokyo neighborhood is. Neighborhood is like, and I have some ideas of things I want to show, but when you’re actually, you just find things that are interesting. And unless you have my eye, because like the stories are told through, like, they’re my stories. I don’t know how you successfully do that, but maybe they would pick up other things that I wouldn’t, you know, maybe two different people doing it is actually gonna be better than just me doing it.
I think that would be the case. But could I have said like, Hey, film, this film that film this and made a video out of it. I think technically I could have, I just don’t think it would’ve been as good. Right. They would’ve missed little things that I would’ve picked up on and maybe potential future videos that I make based off of this one, you know, video. They wouldn’t have, you know, gotten all those things too. So there’s definitely something to be said for being there, like in person, like on the ground, I guess. And, and to be able to tell a deeper story or to tell the story better, less superficially.
Kalani Scarrott (44:35): Yeah fair. And if I can just say, I love the Japanese zoning video, I’ve recommended that so many times. I love it. It’s like, yeah. Amazing. Um, is there any advice you have for YouTube creators on what not to do? Like what should someone avoid if they were just starting out, do you reckon?
Greg Lam (44:49): I think don’t worry too much about the trends or what other people are doing. And it’s hard to say that, especially if you don’t know how to make a video to start off with, like, I think I always knew how to make a video. Right. So that was kind of like I don’t know, actually, I was gonna say advantage, but I don’t know, because sometimes I see people do things and they have no video experience. I’m like, I would never have done that, but that works because I guess they don’t know like how not to break the rules, you know, because you learn certain things, working certain jobs or certain fields, and you’re thinking like, no, I would never do it this way, but oh, wait, I just saw this person do that. And that worked like, okay, you can take inspiration from lots of different people, like a lot of different, you know, YouTubes and see what kind of things you like.
But the biggest thing that because I was not doing it for money, I just wanted to do something that interested me. And I definitely had in my mind that if it’s just to make money, I don’t wanna do this because this is like my creative outlet. You know, that’s why I started making videos. I want to educate people and have a creative outlet. And, I just did whatever I thought it was good. And that’s why I thought it wasn’t going to do well, because I had never seen anybody do the videos that I did and do well. So I thought it can’t be done. So I was really surprised when it did do well. So I don’t think you should look at what other people are doing and say like, okay, I gotta do it like them because that’ll do well.
Just do what you like. And I think the chances honestly, of succeeding on YouTube are very small. Like they’re really incredibly small. If you think about it, like how many people make YouTube videos and how many actually end up being able to make a living, like make it into their full-time job. It’s gotta be less than a percent of people, you know? So I think you gotta just really like doing it because if you do succeed, then you gotta keep on doing it, you know. And so I believe I’ve been able to do it for so long and I still have an audience after six years because I still like doing it. I’m still interested in telling the stories and I changed what I do. Like I haven’t stuck to the exact same style. Like I think there’s a certain, like, you know, something produced by me has kind of my touch on it. But I wouldn’t say it’s the same format or same style all the time. And that’s what keeps it fresh for me, but also probably for the audience.
Kalani Scarrott (47:14): Exactly right. Is there anything we haven’t talked about before we wrap about the YouTube channel? Is there anything we haven’t talked about, that’s consequential about the future of YouTube channel, in your opinion? What’s your big plans maybe going forward then? Or like, where do you see this going? Where would you like to see it going?
Greg Lam (47:26): Before I would’ve said, yeah, I wanna make a documentary, but I did that. And I realized, I’m not gonna make another documentary for a while. I think that’ll be something like the longer form documentary. I think that’s something I’ll make when I’m older, you know? Like I think people talk about the retirement. They’re like, oh I wanna retire and do all this stuff. Like, I still wanna make videos of when I retire, honestly, like maybe I don’t wanna retire, but maybe that’s like, you know, in my sixties or something like, okay, I’ll spend five years working on this thing because I’m in no rush. You know like, I can spend my time and go deeper into stories cause some stories like really great stories. I think take more time. Like one of my favorite documentaries I’ve seen is I think it’s called ‘American Factory’ and it’s something the Obamas did not make the documentary.
I think they purchased it after or maybe they got into like, post-production like they weren’t at the ground level, but the creators that make it and I can’t remember their names, you know, they’re I don’t know how old they are, but they’re not like in their fourties or something like that. But they did the story over, I don’t know, like five years and maybe the first like inkling of the story happened like 10 years before that. And so they were able just to collect so much footage over so many years and just be like embed themselves so deeply into this American factory that they could tell a story that you could not tell otherwise. And there was no narration that I can think of. It was all just, you know, from people talking, I was like, my goodness, I can never do this. Like I, this is amazing.
And I don’t think I could ever, like, I mean, I would hope I could do something even half as good, you know, like if I gave myself five or 10 years to do it, but I don’t know, like that impressed me deeply. So that’s the far, far future to do stuff like that. But in the short term, like year two years, three years, I just, I think I’ll do topics that I can break down into. Like make a like 15 minute video at a time about this certain topic. And then when you put all these videos together, they’ll equal the length of a full length documentary. Like they’ll be an hour and half or two hours worth of video about this one topic, but I’ll just try to break it down into smaller chunks. So I’ll be doing that with, gender equality kind of topic in Japan. And there’s probably a couple other topics I’ll be covering too, that it’ll just span a few years and I’ll just do, you know, one video at a time and break it into small chunks.
Kalani Scarrott (50:09): Yeah, cool, awesome. And I got to slip this final question in. I know we are strapped for time, but people love it. Has there been any books, classes, ideas, or experiences that have been influential in shaping your worldview?
Greg Lam (50:20): Actually, you just said, people love it. I’m laughing because I’m like, I tend to avoid any, what is it? Um, nonfiction books or anything, because, I mean, I used to. Okay. So maybe this is something interesting. So I used to like . read a lot of, I don’t know, financial books, like ‘The Millionaire Mind’, ‘A Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ and I know these business books. And I thought like, okay, this is the way to do it. And I started up, you know, several businesses and it just never, ever worked as planned, you know, and I failed hardcore in some of these businesses, and did okay on some other ones. And, but like, it just, it just never worked as planned. And I think one of the reasons is because, I mean, this person could tell you what worked for them in that certain period of time in that certain business and all these certain factors.
But I mean, just like YouTube, it’s like, you know, you just, there is no formula for success beyond like the really like lame and what sounds lame is make good stuff, make good content, you know? So if you’re a business, making cakes make a good cake, you know, if you’re YouTube creator make a good video, but what is a good video? And that really depends on the audience, you know? So you have to think it’s a good video. So with these self-help books and these like, I don’t know, millionaire minds, I did the thought like, oh, it’d be cool to be a millionaire. And like I can have a successful business idea. I mean, I completely abandon that, honestly. Like I’m like, I don’t care about being a millionaire anymore. I just care about, do I have enough to feed my family, you know, and make sure that I’m not gonna retire, like poor that I have some savings, you know, because if I’m doing a business on my own, I have to save on my own as well.
I don’t have anything else, any like fallback. So I have to make sure I save money for myself for the future. So do I have enough money to cover that? If I have enough money, then that’s all I care about. And that’s why I pursue certain ideas on YouTube. Cause I don’t think they’ll do well. And sometimes they don’t do well, but more often than not they actually do well because I just wanted to make something good. And with the documentary that, that actually went more the way of like, yeah, the documentary didn’t make any money. I lost money making that documentary in more, ways than one. But I was really glad I did it. I learned a lot. And I think it’s a piece that, you know, 10 years down the road, people will look at it hopefully. And they’re like, okay, this, I can still connect with this.
It’s still relatable. And it’s still like maybe even an artifact in this point in time, this is like, you know how people thought about being Japanese. So I’m very proud of that work. So if I had done that just for the money, I’d be pretty devastated right now. And maybe I’d be out of business because I would’ve put all my, like, you know, like eggs in that one basket of like, I have to make this video successful. This documentary successful. But because I came, I went into it thinking like, as long as I, or I thought as long as I break even, I’ll be fine. I did not break even. But like at that point like, you know what, I don’t mind putting the extra money cause I just want this to be, you know, up to what I think is good.
Like does justice to all the effort that’s being put into it and all the trust that people that I interview put into me. So I guess my advice is it’s you can it’s I definitely read non-fiction books and you know, I still consume a lot of like, you know, educational videos on YouTube and podcasts and things like that. But I don’t know, sometimes you just gotta do what feels right for yourself and try to just make something that you think is good. And every single time I’ve done that in my life. Just focus on like what I think is good. It’s not necessarily the straight path that works. Sometimes it’s gone off this way or that way, but it’s done okay. So just put your effort, whatever you’re doing, just put your effort into it. And if it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t then do something else, but people recognize, I think when you try hard, I think people recognize it and respect that and you know, opportunities will happen.
Kalani Scarrott (54:36): Mate, that’s a perfect answer and probably a lovely way to wrap up. So Greg thank you so much for today. Yeah, it’s been great.
Greg Lam (54:42): Thank you very much for the invite. Yeah, it’s a pleasure.