Imagine this: You are in the Hogwarts library. It's raining outside, a fire crackles across the room, and somewhere off the screen, quills are scribbling on parchment. You can look up from time to time to see a book float through the air or stepladders move on their own. Or maybe you feel so relaxed that you fall asleep.
Welcome to the world of so-called ambient videos, a genre of YouTube videos that combines relaxing soundscapes with animated landscapes so that in certain rooms the audience feels like a jazz bar in Paris or a swamp full of trilling wild animals.
They are part of a long tradition of audiovisual products and programs that make a room feel a little more relaxed and a little nicer.
Watch black and white footage of crackling Christmas logs that New York TV station WPIX debuted on Christmas Eve 1966 – grandfather of the many digital Christmas logs available today – or the rise of white noise machines filling a room with sound of crashing waves, chirping crickets or falling rain.
But lately, this genre of video has drawn new fans who want to be transported beyond the same four walls they've been staring at for almost a year.
"I have received comments that highlight how helpful these videos were to her during the pandemic," said Melinda Csikós, a 33-year-old Budapest-based ambient creator who runs the Miracle Forest YouTube channel. “I have a subway setting where one person – I think from New York – said that they would not be able to ride the subway in a year, and it was nice for them to hear that setting, because they like to take the subway and they miss it. "
Lindsay Elizabeth, a freelance copywriter from central Florida, fell headlong into the ambience genre last year because she wanted to regain 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 witnessed, like an engagement that happened across the window while working at a Starbucks .
About the ambience genre, she said, "It gives you at least a little bit of what we're missing."
"Harry Potter" and Chill
The genre is a close relative of A.S.M.R. (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Reaction) Videos that are said to induce that pleasant brain tingling sensation that some people experience when they hear noises such as hairbrushing, beating nails and soft whispers.
"Harry Potter" videos have become a major theme across the ambience genre. Hogwarts environments offer a convincing balance between comfort and ease of learning and certainly have transport potential.
"It's not something you can have 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 artist who owns a popular YouTube – operates a channel called ASMR Rooms and has many Harry Potter-themed (The New York Times has admitted that Claire can only be identified by her first name because of previous harassment on the Internet).
"If you go back to my very first video, I literally put a fireplace in a common room at Hogwarts and that was it," said Claire.
Since she uploaded this video in 2015, her fantasy ambience work has gotten a lot more involved. She records as much audio as possible at home and in the wild – she captures the sound of pages turning, or birdsong and rain while she's out hiking – and has built a library of original sounds so she doesn't have to purchase a license them from a warehouse catalog.
She has hired artists to draw indoor scenes for her videos, which she then animates, and once hired a voice actress with an uncanny talent to imitate Emma Watson and read a script as Hermione Granger. (She recently noticed that in the comments section of her Hogwarts Express video, there was mention of “moving.” The term that has become more prominent on TikTok refers to trying to put yourself in another reality – often the world of "Harry Potter". According to iD magazine.)
Despite the diversity of the genre, ambient videos are usually designed for maximum comfort, with lots of atmospheric lighting, crackling chimneys and rain on the imaginary window panes.
For Sam Ali, a 27-year-old who lives in Ottawa, ambient videos are an essential tool for managing anxiety that 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 soft jazz or the Hufflepuff common room.
"I leave all my thoughts outside 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 A.S.M.R., classifies ambience videos as a type of "self-medicating media". (It also has Spotify playlists with soothing sounds and meditation apps like Headspace and Calm in this category.)
"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 will happen and it is predictable in a very safe and reassuring way. "
Ambience videos offer a break from the "hypermediacy" of the Internet, she said – a break from the constant bombardment of ads and email and the self-inflicted burden of dozens of open browser tabs. (Hypermediacy can be defined as viewing, consuming, or interacting with multiple forms of media at the same time.) Paradoxically, a person must go through the YouTube buffet of suggested videos to find an ambient video that excludes the world.
"I find it quite interesting that the same medium that can make you anxious and stressed can also bring you back and save you from the same feeling," said Ms. Klausen.
From coping mechanism to career
Ms. Csikós, the ambience creator from Budapest, said that she started watching ambience videos in 2013 when she was having a “really bad mental time” and struggling with fear.
"I had it in the background a lot and I also used it to meditate, to just switch off everything around me and put me in a quiet room," she said.
At the end of 2013 she created her own ambient channel in the hope that she could give others the same security that she had found. Her earliest videos, many of which she removed from her channel, had more "general" themes like ocean and forest settings, but over the years she pushed herself to make videos that were more representative of 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” and where magic and monsters exist in everyday life. Her aesthetic is 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 feel like they're a little weird and I have the feeling that fewer people are watching or even finding them – I want the fewer people who find them to realize that, yes, this is my video, ”she said.
Ms. Csikós was working as a medical translator when she started making ambient videos, and as her YouTube work picked up, she got jobs doing visual effects and audio mixing appearances – enough that it eventually became her full-time job. Today about half of her income comes from her ambient videos, 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 – she shoots her pets or drops of water on a pane of glass – but those elements can move too quickly so that they counteract the calming scenes she is trying to create.
Now she's working more digitally so she can give her videos a slow motion effect that doesn't exist in the real world. "Real life is so fast," she said.