The old saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but Jonathan Ignatius Green’s “Social Animals” suggests that an update might be necessary in the age of Instagram. As images of teenagers flood the screen in Ignatius Green’s debut doc, both from their accounts and in interviews the filmmaker has carefully crafted on his own, the pictures still indeed tell a story, but given that the brevity that photos once carried deserves reconsideration when smartphone snapshots are as plentiful as words, if not more so, “Social Animals” realizes that the story increasingly exists outside the frame in a world where Instagram feeds are often curated to reflect lives that we want the public to see rather than the ones we actually lead. A refreshing blast of energy as much for who it presents in front of the camera as for what it has to say, the wildly entertaining film trains its lens on three special teens with varying levels of social media savvy – Humza Deas, a street photographer from Queens whose willingness to scale tall buildings and bridges gives him an unparalleled vantage point on the cities he travels to, Kaylyn Slevin, a pageant princess from Calabasas, California whose bubbly personality and conventionally attractive looks make her an online sensation, and Emma Crockett, an introspective, self-described tomboy from Lebanon, Ohio who may lack the hundreds of thousands of followers that the other two have, but nonetheless has an intense relationship with Instagram as a primary means of communication at her private school.
All three see the real world benefits of their Instagram accounts, with Humza’s startling photography discovered by the public without the typical gatekeepers needed to facilitate his rise, Kaylyn and her mother able to exert control over her image while launching her modeling and acting career (hiring a dance photographer and a stylist to tailor her Instragram pics), and Emma able to extend the connections made on the social network into the real world where she’s shyer than she might appear online. However, at an age when they are naturally coming into their own anyway, the trio faces a hurdle new to their generation when the gap between their virtual and real lives leave room for a host of unexpected issues to fester, whether it’s unwanted attention from strangers in Kaylyn’s case, accusations of selling out his community in Humza’s situation or rumors that go unchecked in Emma’s, where photos are used as evidence to fit personal agendas of others. Ignatius Green fills the film with interstitials of other young Instagram users, a reminder of just how vibrant a community exists on the service, but doesn’t shy away from asking whether teens who are far more conscious of their self-image at their age than their parents were can actually comprehend the full ramifications of what they put out there of themselves. “Social Animals” is every bit as thoughtful as it is energetic and following the film’s premiere at SXSW, the director was joined by Crockett and Deas to speak about the inspiration for the project, asking his subjects to reveal more of themselves than they do online, and the fun — and occasionally illegal — exploits that filming required.
How did this come about?
Jonathan Ignatius Green: My business partners and I own a marketing content studio, [where] we do branded content, commercials and some strategy for brands and we got into doing Instagram strategy and content for some big brands like Nike. [This] was Instagram within its first two to three years, so we were really on the ground floor of helping brands engage on that platform and in the process, we traveled the world and met all these influencers. At some point, we were like let’s do a documentary about this world because it’s pretty new and interesting, but when we started making that documentary, which was really more of a documentary about Instagram influencers that were self-made photographers that didn’t have traditional training, it was like, this isn’t really the story that is the most resonant as we got into editorial. Maybe if you’re interested in photography, it was interesting, but it didn’t really speak to the broader human things we wanted to talk about, so we scrapped a lot of our footage and narrowed our focus on teenagers on Instagram because we realized that’s such an intense time of formation and doing it digitally is this new thing that our culture’s never really experienced. So we pivoted pretty dramatically and cast some new characters, one of which was Emma, and we didn’t start over, per se, but we really retooled and pivoted.
So Emma, do you just get an e-mail asking if you want to be involved?
Emma Crockett: It was crazy because my dad’s like, “Hey, these guys are going to call you and interview you over the phone,” and I was actually out in my backyard, just walking my dog, and enjoying the day when they called. I just told them my story about how Instagram affected me for good and bad and what I had to go through. And they were like, “Hey, you’re pretty cool. We’ll be in Ohio soon.” And I didn’t really know anything about it. I was just open to the idea and I don’t even know really how you guys found me.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: Well, Blake, my business partner, met someone who knew your dad somehow. We were looking for a story of somebody who had had a difficult [experience] with Instagram and we wanted a Midwest story because we had [Humza in] New York and Kaylyn in L.A., so we were introduced to [Emma’s father] Frank [through a mutual acquaintance]. We were describing it like, “Hey, we’re looking for a teenage story or someone who’s had a more challenging experience or even bullying, but it doesn’t have to be, with Instagram or social media and as we described it, Frank goes, “Well, this is going to sound kind of weird, but what you’re describing is my daughter Emma. She’s 17 years old, she’s her own woman. You just really need to call her and if she wants to share her story with you, she can.” And of course, we were like, “That’s amazing. First of all, you’re an awesome dad…”
Emma Crockett: Yeah, he’s really cool.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And when we called [Emma], [we] saw a number of things, like how articulate and vulnerable she was with sharing her story, but also, it was very fresh. It was only a couple months before that that a lot of that stuff had happened, so we knew it was going to be very immediate. So we sent Peter Garriott, one of our co-writer/co-producers out to Ohio, to meet the family [because] just to feel it out and then he called me and said, “These people are awesome. Let’s do this.” Two weeks later, we were in Ohio with a crew.
Emma Crockett: It was fun. It really was.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And we only shot for four days.
Emma Crockett: It was only four days? Man, that’s crazy.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: Yeah, you’re like you want to shoot more? More of me on the motorcycle? And I’m like, “Yeah, more of you on the motorcycle!”
Humza Deas: Yeah, that looked like fun. In that open field.
Emma Crockett: It was.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And I’m like, “Can I ride the motorcycle now?” She was like, “Sure.” And I was like “RrrrrrrrRrrrr.”
Humza, how did you get involved in this?
Humza Deas: Was it you that was e-mailing me?
Jonathan Ignatius Green: Me and Courtney [Stephens], a co-producer on the film as well.
Humza Deas: Yeah, she was e-mailing me and still to this day, I’m not very good with my e-mailing…I don’t think I responded to the first e-mail.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: I’m sure you didn’t, dude. [laughs] Jonathan Ignatius Green: 18-year-olds, dude.
Humza Deas: But they were like, “Hey, can we jump on a call to talk about it?” And I was out in the field taking photos, so I was just like “Sure…”
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And eventually, we met at that place in L.A. for breakfast.
Humza Deas: Yeah. That was epic. That was awesome. I think that was my second or third time ever in Los Angeles and so we had the breakfast, and [hearing Jonathan and Courtney] verbally telling it to me sounded way more appealing [than the e-mail]. Their energy [made me think] “Wow, I want to be a part of that.” I was still unsure about what everything was, but it’s like these people are nice, and I was referred to by Trashhand…
Jonathan Ignatius Green: He vouched for us. Because we worked with Trashhand at Nike. He’s a Chicago-based Instagram influencer that Humza knew in the urban exploring community.
Humza Deas: Yeah, for me that was a big boost and the fact that he vouched for both of us was like, “Oh yeah, I’d love to jump onboard to be a part of this for the experience.” And it just turned out being something I didn’t expect. I’ve had a couple of people do documentaries on me, and they’re good docs, but they only tackle the digital me. With this one, Jonathan was poking at childhood wounds. He’s like, “Let me see what this does and can we talk about this?” And I’m just like, “No, come on, no,” but I gave in and I’m actually happy that we went down that route because to this day, it’s like the first documentary that actually describes myself as a person. lt’s the first documentary that actually is true to the character of me.
When you have a platform like this to tell your story, was there anything that was important for you to convey about yourself?
Humza Deas: We did the interview like three or four times and I think we did it multiple times to get it right. [Jonathan would ask], “Who are you?” And you’d say, “I’m this person” and a couple months later, he’s like “who are you?” [again]. You’re not going to repeat the same thing, so I guess he was just waiting for the right expression to finally be like, “Alright, I’m going to let you in a little into finally the little castle you built.” He got that out of me and the cool thing about this is that you have to option of expressing who you are in real life, IRL, and also the digital version of yourself. The majority of people see the digital self of you in other films and with this one it was cool because it was the true self.
Emma Crockett: That’s why I liked it too because was because I felt like I could tell my actual story and not hold anything back. When you tell people what happened, you only tell them a partial story, but I felt like with Jonathan and everyone being there, I was comfortable enough to open up because I did want to make a difference. I wanted to let [people] know that this stuff happens to other people and that you’re not alone and just really provide hope for other girls and guys that have social media. I think it’s a very hopeful movie.
Humza Deas: I agree. There’s a lot of hidden messages involved that I think mostly our peers, like millennials, would take away from [this] rather than an older viewer. Obviously, they’ll take away some interesting things [too], but it’s symbolic to the every day teenage Instagrammer because [looking at Emma] when you’re expressing, “Oh, you have to make sure the lighting’s right, you post at a certain time…” – that’s like this unspoken thing, like nobody’s going to admit that they know that time slot, but you do.
Emma Crockett: It’s so embarrassing that I know that, but I didn’t want to hold back because I wanted this to be a very truthful documentary, so I [thought] I’m going to tell you all the embarrassing things I know about the “rules.”
Jonathan Ignatius Green: [looking at Humza] I feel like you were in that age of 18 or 19 and you were becoming like an entrepreneur, figuring out what your brand is to the world and you’re hypercurating the you you want to put out there. For a filmmaker, if I’m like trying to get to the real you, I feel you have to build trust as a filmmaker and in our first interview, I feel you didn’t trust me yet. And why should you? I’m just this dude and media and headlines have really done a lot of damage to your friendships and to your community. So I feel like you were really guarded at first, and by the time we did the second interview in Los Angeles, we had been talking more, we had shot more together and you also had a little more distance from some of the events that you were talking about and they seemed not as big to you anymore, so you could be more candid.
Humza Deas: Yeah, and have more clarity. Being a teenager, you’re like don’t talk about that person because they’ll be like, “Why are you talking about me on social media?” And you’ll just be like, “Oh here we go again.”
Emma Crockett: Then it just starts all up again. It’s exhausting.
Humza Deas: Like been there, done that.
How did you structure this? It’s chronological, but at the same time, it covers so much ground.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: This is my first feature documentary, but I studied screenwriting, so I have this foundation of story structure that I’m pretty rigid to, but in my commercial and narrative scripted work, you have so much control. If you want to just rewrite a scene, you rewrite a scene. But there’s the Alfred Hitchcock line, “In narrative films, the director is God and in documentary films, God is the director” and you can only take the material that you get and try to shape it. [There’s] the narrative clothesline that’s like the beginning, middle and end of what happened, but then on that clothesline, you can hang these other ideas. With Humza, it was very clear, going from being in the Queens Projects growing up, a very particular context, and I loved when you told me that mostly kids in your neighborhood had never left those four blocks…
Humza Deas: To this day.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And skateboarding is what got you out. Then photography was what kept you out. So that had a very linear narrative and then obviously [Humza] started traveling all over the world, working with brands and [he] became this entrepreneur, so that was a very linear narrative that we could hang these ideas of insecurity and friendship and the prickly parts of community, and how things go down on the internet and not face to face and how that changes things. But we needed that narrative thread and it was the same with Emma. She had a very clear beginning, middle and end that was still being written too because it was so fresh and I think one of the things that works most successfully about your story is that [Emma] was still in [her experience]. One of my favorite lines is that she says, “Everyone has treated me differently since I’ve been home” and that only happened a few weeks before.
Emma Crockett: Yeah, for sure.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And Tamara, her mom, says, “You know, she’s doing better than I am,” speaking about [Emma], and just that immediacy [was powerful]. So we knew we had this linear [narrative] on top of [which] we could hang these bigger ideas of body image, insecurity and all these other things that [Emma’s] story speaks so clearly to.
Jonathan, you mentioned motorcycling with Emma earlier – did you also scale some of those bridges with Humza?
Jonathan Ignatius Green: I did a little bit. I did a little bit. Yeah, actually with [Humza’s former partner] Demid [Lebedev], we did Hell Gate…
Humza Deas: Really? That was fun, right? That walk?
Jonathan Ignatius Green: Yeah, it’s great. [Demid’s] like, “So are you going to jump the fence at one in the morning? It takes an hour-and-a-half to walk in…”
Humza Deas: Yeah, there’s a time slot. If you don’t make it, you’re done.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And that was actually our second shoot for the whole movie. Even in the earlier version of the movie where we went to different countries, that was only the second shoot. That was day five of shooting. I was jumping this fence with Demid and I remember walking in and it was just A7S and an audio recorder. That night we did Hellgate, and we did the towers where you go down the stairs…
Humza Deas: Yeah, like the pigeon’s den.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: Oh yeah, I got attacked in the head by a pigeon.
Humza Deas: Yeah, they’re not scared of you.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: They’re brutal down there. But it’s also like this museum of New York graffiti. Everybody’s gone down in this tower that holds up the Hellgate Bridge. They’re these concrete pillars that are basically like basements, so you go all the way down and at the bottom, you’re basically underwater, but you’re in a concrete tower.
Humza Deas: In Astoria, Queens.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: And it sucks because that footage was so good, but it’s only in the movie for five seconds.
Humza Deas: There has to be a director’s cut.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: No, you just saw the director’s cut. [laughs] Because I don’t have a studio, so I get to make my director’s cut be the movie. But all that’s to say I did do some illegal stuff and Humza and I… we did that rooftop in L.A.
Humza Deas: The one with the helipad on top? Yeah, that was fun.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: But I didn’t go too crazy. Also Demid was like, “I just got my sentence of five days. I’m not going to get in trouble with you again.” I was like, “Okay.”
[looking at Humza] You weren’t super into it either. I was like, “Dude, let’s do that huge tower in downtown L.A.” and you’re like, “No, look at all the security. I’m not doing that. I’m not getting arrested.”
Humza Deas: There was a lot on the line. I’m in a foreign city and there’s like…
Emma Crockett: You don’t want to deal with it.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: I was more gung ho than you guys.
Emma Crockett: Yeah, you were super pumped, it sounds like.
Humza Deas: I had booked two flights and I was like I don’t want to miss those flights and waste that money, so I was like let’s play it safe for now. But that was a fun trip.
Jonathan Ignatius Green: For the sequel, we’re doing it, dude. [laughs]