Meet the Producer Behind Kamala Harris’s Viral Fancams
It was 2020, so of course fancams played a part in Kamala Harris’s Vice Presidential campaign strategy. Not that the VP-elect totally understood why there was a team always getting footage of her bustling from one event to another, says 28-year-old Yessica Hernandez-Cruz, a Running Mate Digital Producer for the Biden-Harris campaign.
“I think eventually she did find out why we were so obsessed with capturing her getting on a bus or off of the car or off the plane,” Hernandez-Cruz tells me in a phone call.
The fancams—heavily-filtered, trendily-soundtracked tributes to pop culture icons that originated in the K-Pop community—were too popular for Harris to miss. Fancams of her and President-elect Joe Biden would routinely receive millions of views on TikTok.
We’re gonna do this. We love you. #biden2020 (original video by PACRONYM)♬ Dancing in My Room - 347aidan
It was Hernandez-Cruz who got the ‘cam footage. The Maryland creator worked at BuzzFeed before getting involved in political campaigns. She joined Harris during her primary run and learned just how effective the candidate was at creating content for a digital audience.
“The most successful, as well as the most exciting [video], was Kamala Harris cooking with Mindy Kailing—they made dosas,” Hernandez-Cruz says. “Until then, I hadn't seen a politician make internet-tailored content” on that level.
After Harris dropped out of the primaries, Hernandez-Cruz worked with Andrew Yang and briefly Bernie Sanders before returning, with a number of Harris’s other original video team members, to help the candidate in her campaign with Biden.
“It was really incredible to connect with everyone again and make sure that the representation that [Harris] brings to the table was also mirrored in who was telling her story,” says Hernandez-Cruz, who notes that the entire video staff was women of color. “I'm really excited to say we made history that way.”
They made history another way, too. If you thought this Vice President was heavily memed during her campaign (Harris waving and “we did it, Joe” come to mind), Hernandez-Cruz says it’s just the beginning. We spoke about how those two things can mix without being cringey, the behind-the-scenes story of “We did it, Joe,” and how Hernandez-Cruz is taking her experience on the campaign and turning it into a production company.
When you’re filming, are you doing it with meme-able moments and social media in mind?
Those moments are definitely something that we think about and that I think a good internet video takes into consideration. How is it going to be presented? What's going to be the thumbnail? What's going to be the title? That's a very BuzzFeed way of thinking about things, but it's been very successful. [For] Mindy Kaling and Kamala's video, we were prepared with the GIFs that we knew people were going to connect with so that they could go onto GIPHY and use them in their everyday language. How might someone find this on the internet? If they don't follow this politician, what might they see through this? And the people that are already following the account and already interacting, we need to get that audience to love this video. With algorithms, if your following loves and is interacting and sharing and then making fancams with the content that you're making, then that is so much more important than then how many views it gets. It could completely destroy a certain side of Twitter, a side of TikTok. But that's what we want. We want really passionate responses to the stuff we make.
Speaking of fancams, did you take all that footage of Harris walking specifically for that purpose?
Yeah. The first time she walked off of a plane, we posted it, but all of the other media sources in the pool also captured the same footage and it was incredibly viral for them. So we knew from the very beginning that this was something that we wanted to keep capturing. People really, really loved seeing an incredible role model, looking like a boss, [wearing] some normal Chucks, some dope Timbs, or in some really cute heels, completely owning her space and feeling confident. So I'm just over here trying to catch up, ‘cause she's quick. She walks quickly.
Did you have to explain to her why you were shooting all that? Tell her what a fancam was?
I think she eventually knew exactly why we were doing it, but on campaigns, you honestly don't know when something's going to happen and it's so hard to redo it again. Beyond just the fancams on the campaign side, she's really good with people. So if she does a wave or says something to someone, we just have to be constantly filming. So she was also just used to us having the cameras on her and capturing everything.
When you started to see people making these fancams with your footage, how did that feel?
It's fantastic. There's nothing more exciting than to know that something I made was making people feel inspired to make something themselves. Having someone use the stuff that you've made is the evidence of like, “Cool. We are connecting to the audience that we want.”
The fancams are great, but probably my favorite video from the campaign is the “we did it, Joe” footage, when her and Biden’s victory was finally announced, which became a TikTok meme. Were you behind that?
No. That credit goes directly to Doug [Emhoff, Harris’s husband]. Apparently they were out doing a hike and she got the phone call and Doug came running out to make sure to capture it. The day of election night, we were on standby with our cameras making sure to get that moment, but with how election night was, it was so delayed and extended. I'm so happy Doug got that because it completely broke the internet. And Doug was so proud of himself. He's like, “Look how many views this got!” Doug, you killed it.
As uncertain as election night and the following days were for voters, I’m sure it was even more intense for you and the team.
It was definitely exhausting. I put on my election night blazer three times in a row, [got] my makeup ready, and then had to take it all off.
What’s the best way for politicians to participate in social media without it being cringey?
What's inspiring is that a lot of these younger politicians, [their] relationships with the internet is more natural. So when AOC gets online, it's not cringey cause it's authentic. Even with Jon Ossoff doing a silly TikTok, it doesn't seem cringey because he does look like somebody who might be on TikTok right now. So I think that problem will get [better] because our people in positions of power will start looking like us.
But in terms of [other] politicians, I think it's just figuring out what's authentic. What's human about these politicians? Before traditional media you would have a politician go up on a debate [stage] and that was the only time you would see them. If they goofed or if they flipped on a word, it's like, “Ooh, yikes.” But if you see it online, it's a little more raw. It can't be as polished. We expect the way that people are presented online to be a little bit more authentic to who they are, a little bit more personal.
As someone whose job it was to showcase Harris to the world, what do you think of her recent somewhat controversial Vogue cover?
I think she looks elegant and looks like a boss. I think it also depends on how much time the photographer had to take this photo. Just knowing how busy she was during the campaign and only imagining how busy she is during this transition period, it might just be a situation where they had an hour to set it up and then they have to leave. Who knows? I'm not a photographer, she looks good. She looks heavenly. I can't wait to buy that cover and add it to my little K-hive shrine.
Now that Harris will be sworn into office next week and your mission is complete, what’s next?
I'm really excited. One of the senior producers on the campaign and I are starting a production company. The video team, it was an all-women of color video team, and that is so rare in production. It's even rarer in political productions. So I think we have a really great opportunity to help make new opportunities for women in production, for women of color in production. And I think with my digital experience and the senior producer’s incredible directing in traditional formats, I think we have the perfect combination to make something new.