There's a YouTube video I've been turning to a lot recently. It shows a wooden table with flowers in a vase, a French press, a steaming cup of coffee, and an open book—with a blanket casually tossed over one corner. Credenzas on each side of the table hold books and board games like Jumanji. I hear soft piano music and the steady sound of rain, since outside the wall of raindrop-spattered windows is a grey day. Lit by a collection of dangling Edison bulbs, the scene invites you into a world where everything seems warm and cozy. And I'm not alone in feeling that way: The video, dated July 2020, has over 2.2 million views and counting.
Titled "Rainy Day Coffee Shop Ambience" and uploaded by a channel called Autumn Cozy, the video is part of the ever-growing niche of YouTube content that's meant to be put on in the background—the best known of them being Chilled Cow's "lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to." I'll put this video on as I write, letting it play for its full three hours on a separate screen. When it ends, I might opt for "Seaside Cafe Ambience," which plays ocean sounds and soft bossa nova in a breezy-looking beachside coffee shop, or other scenes from bookstores and cafes. Later in the evening, I might pull up another one on the TV while reading: a scene from a bedroom in a high-rise overlooking the city at night.
What draws me to these ambience videos isn't just the sound, but also the uncanny valley visuals. Unlike Chilled Cow's simple graphics (the often-memed "study girl"), the images in these videos look real, but something's not quite right. The lights are more twinkly than in real life; a small candle's flame a little too dense and large; a coffee cup hovers slightly too big on a faraway table; a cityscape in the background looks oversaturated and almost watercolor. Smooth surfaces like tabletops look too smooth, as though they've been put under a flattering filter. Where do these visuals come from, and why do they look this way?
There's overlap between the 3D art world and the YouTube ambience niche, it turns out. "The artwork I use on my channel is a collaborative effort between myself and other 3D artists," said Autumn McLean, who has been posting ambience videos to Autumn Cozy since 2018. Self-taught from video tutorials, McLean makes some of these environments herself, using the free and open-source 3D computer graphics software Blender. Then she uses Final Cut Pro to add motion, and records and mixes audio layers for the soundscape. But because a single scene can take her weeks to design, she often commissions and seeks out art from other creators in order to keep up a regular posting schedule; the "Rainy Day Coffee Shop" video that I like, for example, features art by 3D visualizer Giuseppe Milana.
Ambience creator The Relaxing Town has posted a video showing the rendering process they use to create environments like standing inside a jazz bar on a rainy evening or being outside at a campsite at sunset. Sped up, the scenes evolve from an unclear collection of black outlines, to cartoonish renderings of the objects they depict, as the creator fills the shapes in with color. Gradually, as the creator adds light, shadow, and texture, the scenes begin to look increasingly realistic—or sort of.
McLean considers the color palette to be the most important visual component of a good ambience video, with "warm, buttery hues" tending to be the most popular. Then, lighting: McLean says her viewers like low light, a preference that might explain the popularity of rainy, nighttime visuals in the ambience world. Those aren't strict rules, though, and McLean wants to offer something for every mood or season—the moodiness being key. "Images that evoke a sense of nostalgia, safety, and tranquility tend to perform best," she said.
YouTube relaxation videos tend to have the commonality of toying with the idea of being in a different place. Long videos shot at beaches give you a sense of a tropical vacation, and city walk videos allow you to feel as though you're walking through New York at night, when the streets were still bustling. Picking up around 2017, the trend of "music from another room," in which songs are slightly muffled as though they are playing in the distance, gave rise over time to even more imaginative iterations: "Put Your Head on My Shoulder," but it's in another room and it's raining; "This Is How I Disappear" by My Chemical Romance, but it's just Gerard Way's vocals in a large cathedral; "Work Song" by Hozier, but you're lying face down in a forest while it rains (there's clearly a sense of fun here). Simpler, non-YouTube options like Rainy Mood have long let us add texture to our personal soundscapes.
In non-pandemic times, ambience videos provided windows into other worlds or calming background noise for studying and working. In 2021, they also fill a very of-the-moment desire: escape. "Ambience videos basically create an immersive sensory experience, and people do generally use them as a tool to change their emotional or physical energy levels," said Earnest Pettie, the trends insights lead on the culture and trends team at YouTube. Since the start of the pandemic last year, Pettie's team has found that more people have turned to videos as a form of self-care.
Pettie sees the roots of the ambience room videos like the ones I've been watching in the decade-old genre of ASMR, which uses sounds and even roleplaying to give viewers an immersive audio experience. "I think that in both of these things, people are creating videos—a stimulus—to evoke a certain response. With ASMR, it was brain tingles. With ambience videos, its relaxation," Pettie said.
Though McLean finds herself drawn to Victorian and Edwardian scenes, or anything witchy or elvish, she said that her fans' tend to prefer more straightforward settings. "Right now I’m seeing a ton of requests for coffee shop ambiences, specifically with jazz or piano music. Because of the pandemic, people are wanting to see places they miss: pubs, cafes, parks, etc., which is completely understandable," she said. More people are specifically requesting videos with background chatter, she says, which she attributes to their increased desire for connection in the absence of social gatherings.
As McLean sees it, the visual surreality of these ambience videos can actually be part of the appeal. "I have viewers who greatly prefer immersing themselves in fantastical or surreal scenes, and then I have viewers who want things to look as close to reality as possible, often pointing out when something looks off," said McLean. "For me personally, I prefer even my most realistic scenes to have a slightly surreal look to them, because I want my videos to feel like an escape. If they’re too lifelike then it might feel like… well, real life."
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