The simple recipe of Phlearn’s blockbuster success

Since launching in 2010, Chicago-based production company Phlearn has attracted nearly two million YouTube subscribers, released thousands of videos, and scored more than a hundred million views.

Blockbuster popularity, indeed, but the stats are even more stupefying when you consider the simplicity that drives them.

“We make photoshop software tutorials,” explains founder Aaron Nace. “All of our tutorials are video tutorials.”

By “photoshop,” he is referring not to the software but to the art and science of digitally enhancing photos and videos, which can involve a myriad of technology.

While remaining true to this proposition, Phlearn has built a loyal and enthusiastic community of supporters — the “phamily” — who come for the learning and stick around for the personalities, of which Nace is one.

Shot in the company’s west side studio, Phlearn’s video tutorials satisfy popular curiosity with state-of-the-art information, often delivered by an emerging celebrity expert. Sharing professional techniques in a relaxed but informative setting, the combination of industry knowledge and individual flair appeals to professionals as well as amateurs.

The price structure caters to both.

“We have two types of content,” Nace continues. “We release free tutorials on YouTube and on our website, and we offer pro tutorials to subscribers at $99.95 per year.”

The freebies last about ten minutes. The subscriber videos can go on for hours.

“Our primary goal is identifying up and coming artists who don’t yet have an identifying status,” Nace continues. “Our company basically serves as a platform to help creative and help artists — amateur as well as professional — make incredible content.”

In July, the company released a video about “how to do photo composites totally on your phone” featuring Chicago iPhone artist Elise Swopes, who Nace describes as, “one of the forefront digital artists working with technology.”

“She works with Fortune 500 companies and does the majority of her work on the phone,” he adds. “We did a four-hour, full production, step-by-step tutorial explaining the creative process and technique that she uses.”



Setting the stage
With nearly 300,000 Instagram followers, Swopes came with a built-in audience of her own, no doubt; but she also got a boost from Phlearn’s resources and expertise.

“For the past ten years, we’ve been producing educational content and that is our specialty,” says Nace. “When we work with external instructors, we take care of all of the details, and all they have to do is share their expertise and their enthusiasm.”

The videos are shot on custom-built sets in the company’s 7,000 sq. ft. studio in a former oven factory at Sacramento and Chicago that, according to Nace, is “modeled after a comfortable home.”

“It’s one of the oldest and last free-standing wood timber lofts in Chicago,” he adds. “After the Chicago fire, the city made it illegal to build this kind of structure with this kind of material. Our building is cool.”

A number of visual details supplement the lesson.

“We feature the work of the artist’s photos as art on the wall of the set,” says Nace. “When we release the tutorials, we do Instagram giveaways of these 18 x 24 prints.”

Preparing the lesson
Before the cameras roll, Nace and the artist develop an outline and review work “to identify which images would be appropriate for the tutorial.”

“It’s a back-and-forth,” he says. “The artist develops concept and ideas that will help people learn. Then we create an outline of the tutorial itself: is this going to be business or portrait?”

The Phlearn crew captures the action on a pair of Canon C100s, but Nace — who worked as a shooter and re-toucher for a decade before launching the company — is familiar with pretty much everything out there.

“I’m always into the newest, most powerful camera, but I also realize that the camera has little affect on the end result.” he says. “When a new camera puts all of the other cameras in the shadows, I just sell all my current gear and buy the new one. The Sony A7 R4 is coming on the market soon, and I’ll be selling my Sony A7 R3 as soon as I buy that one.”

Over the course of his career, Nace estimates that “between photo and video, I’ve owned maybe twenty to thirty cameras.”

Teaching the class
Back on the set, Nace shoots takes that usually last one to two hours — there are no cuts — and the collaboration continues along the way.

“As director, my job is to sit in with the instructor and guide the throughout the process,” explains Nace. “We work together to deliver the information succinctly.”

For the Mobile Editing video, Swopes described her technique — as well as the applications and workflow that she uses — while recreating her most popular images from start to finish. At one point, Nace even joined her on camera to do a little editing on his own iPhone.

Although Phlearn often adds a third camera for additional visuals, Swopes’ handheld masterpieces took the production crew into new territory.

“For Elise, it was a little tricky,” Nace recalls. “We put the camera on a large light stand and used a 7200 to really get in there. We had a mark on the table so she would know where to hold it. Someone had to stand on a ladder.”

The footage is stored on an in-house server and cut by a small team of editors using Adobe Premiere and After Effects. Enhanced by visuals displaying keyboard shortcuts and music licensed from a number of different audio companies, it is “100% customized to our tutorials,” according to Nace.

Developing the curriculum
Phlearn works year-round to determine which topics are right for its audience. “The first thing we need to know,” says Nace, “is what do people want to learn.”

“We have a tech-savvy individual on staff who does SEO and keyword research and market research to get an idea of what people are interested in knowing,” he continues. “We also ask our own audience point blank what they want to learn, and we pay attention to workshops and conferences and work with artists to gauge where they and the industry are going.”

Nace also brings his own suggestions to the table, which may be the most appropriate of them all. He built Phlearn by working along the same kind of learning curve that now inspires millions of its viewers.

“Our first video, I think, was, like, ‘how to use a five-in-one reflector,’” he recalls. “It was a very ramshackle approach, like, ‘hey I want to do videos and put them online.’ I wasn’t thinking of a company at the time.”

Reel Chicago subscribers can join Phlearn Pro at a 20% discount by entering the code “REEL20” at checkout.

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