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TikTok's first auteur: Zach King on his madcap micro movies

Somewhere in socially distanced southern California, the sun is rising on another bright day for Zach King. “My mornings are family time,” says the 30-year-old film-maker and father of two. “Then I brainstorm and write. When we’re not in quarantine, I work with my team. But I’m figuring out productions solo at the moment.”

You might assume from this that King creates big-screen productions, advertisements or maybe broadcast TV. Not so. Much of his best works last for a minute or less, and are most widely viewed on digital platforms, where they compete with lip-synching teenagers and eruptions of Mentos dropped in Diet Coke. With 43.2 million followers, King is the third most popular content creator on TikTok, the video-sharing app; he expects to rise higher. “By the time this comes out, we should be at No 2,” he says.

He’s the only man in TikTok’s top three, the only non-teen among TikTok’s top five, and the only one in the top 10 to have hit the age of 30. Also, unlike some of his contemporaries, King’s appeal isn’t limited to one platform. He is also a pretty big deal over on Instagram (23.3 million followers) and YouTube (7.01 million subscribers).

Yet, numbers aside, the thing that really sets King apart are the films he makes. There are no dance routines or goofy pranks; his posts don’t titillate or make viewers wish that they had a nicer house, body or car; he never swears, and he’s never ever nasty to anyone. Instead, King uses smart special-effects techniques to create short, humorous visual tricks and jokes.

You can watch him tape fizzy-drinks bottles to his legs, in an apparently successful attempt to create a pair of back-yard jet boots; in another, he jumps through the driver’s side door of his Prius to retrieve the keys he’s locked in his car; there’s a clip in which he launches a model biplane into the sky, only for the aircraft to return full-sized, and knock him to the ground; in another he appears to ride a Harry Potter-style broomstick around a car park, before being revealed as a fraud by his friends. (It’s just an e-scooter, a reflective board, and some other digital sleight-of-hand.)

They’re all fun, super-watchable and remarkably consistent. Unlike a lot of shared content, there’s something wonderfully wholesome about King’s videos, too. It wouldn’t be a complete exaggeration to say that he has a distinct, cinematic style. While you won’t mistake his stuff for the latest Malick or Almodóvar production, he’s probably the closest thing TikTok has got to an auteur.

King says his inspiration comes from common, humdrum problems. “Having an everyday perspective on the world, that’s what I love to do,” he says. Recent posts during lockdown show the film-maker – who stars in all his productions – conjuring up a seemingly endless supply of toilet paper, and reaching up between the tiles in a Zoom chat to steal his friends’ snacks.

King’s videos have been likened to magic tricks. He doesn’t deny the connection. “I was really into magic in junior high,” he says. “My grandfather would take me around magic conventions, and I would perform classic, white-glove magic.” Yet he never wanted to simply put those tricks online. “I saw a lot of [people doing] stop-motion and magic, but there was never a great story,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to add back in, the story element.”

King sees a stronger link between his very new form of video production and some of the world’s earliest animators and movie pioneers. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers, are among his influences, he says: “They had nothing like the same technology that we have today but they were still doing these jump cuts and funny visual puns and illusions.”

There are also conscious echoes of the Looney Tunes cartoons from the mid-20th century, and debts owed to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, beloved directors from King’s youth. “I was fascinated how they were using very realistic props,” he recalls, “and how they were engineering it all to a different level. I remember trying to recreate Star Wars, Jurassic Park, ET and Indiana Jones back when I was a kid.”

King was born in 1990 to an ethnically diverse couple in the Pacific north-west. “I’m half Chinese, my dad is full Chinese, and I’m a quarter Nicaraguan and a quarter Austrian from my mother’s side,” he says. “I’m a global mix.”

His parents home-schooled Zach and his three younger sisters on their farm in Oregon, in part to nurture their offsprings’ talents. “My parents were really into hard work, but especially piano,” King recalls. “They had us practise piano a ton until we found something we really wanted to do. I got placed third in Oregon state in high school one year, my sister was placed second.”

Around the time he turned eight, King’s folks gave him a home video camera and asked him to film a wedding they were at. “I fell in love with it,” he says. With the help of his sisters, he copied the films he watched on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. “We’d recreate them, and show them to the family on Friday nights or over the weekend,” he says. “What I loved was how you could get a group of people to feel an emotion together.”

Remaking big-budget productions came easily to King. “Since I lived on a farm it was perfect; I had a forest in my back yard,” he says. “I had all my mini natural sets, I had access to things I probably shouldn’t have had. I remember setting some gasoline on fire for pyrotechnic explosions. Real special effects!”

As he grew older, King began to master more refined techniques, working with the video editing software Final Cut Pro. By the time he was preparing for college, he had a sufficient grasp of the program to teach others. Around the beginning of 2008 he started to record video tutorials for Final Cut, at first just capturing his computer screen, and walking viewers through the applications’ features. “YouTube was just a couple of years old back then,” he says. “It wasn’t like you could Google anything and find a tutorial for it.”

These demonstration videos didn’t make King much money but they did promote a mail-order DVD course he had put together to help pay his way through film school. Over time, viewers suggested it might be cool if King were to post a few clips showing the effects he was describing.

“So I got my buddy’s kittens and added lightsabers in post-production,” he says. “It was just 30 seconds of cute cats playing with lightsabers.” This was in the summer of 2011, when few of King’s videos had more than a couple of thousand views. Jedi Kittens, however, pulled in a couple of million overnight, changing the way he worked.

“When you get a viral video early on – I’ve seen this with so many other creators – you’re just itching to see if you can do it again,” he recalls. “So, I did Jedi Kittens Strike Back. Every great film-maker does their sequel, right? It had more production value, and it got a couple of million views. Then I set myself a weekly deadline of every Friday, to make a new video; I was wondering whether I could do it.”

King has more or less succeeded, thriving first on YouTube and becoming a star on Vine – the short-lived video sharing service from Twitter – before finding a following on Instagram, and subsequently TikTok, which King first began posting on a few years ago.

He no longer goofs off with his housemates; he married his wife, Rachel Holm, in 2014 and now has two sons. “People have already said that my videos are quite childlike, but when we’re going out for a walk and the kids see the bugs and centipedes in the grass that you would walk past every day – that’s incredible.”

A recent stroll with his children has set him thinking about a new clip, working with the visual pun of “snail mail”; during lockdown, he and his team are working on plans to add his likeness into clips with classic cartoon characters.

He’s branched out beyond this, too, with a series of children’s books, the first of which was optioned by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company, and an appearance in the Disney film Zootopia. However, King no longer prizes cinema over smartphone entertainment. While cinemas remain empty across the world, viewings for his videos have risen by 50%. And, even as the world gets back to something like normal, King still knows where his calling lies.

“When I graduated film school I thought I would be going off to direct and produce big blockbuster films,” he says. “That was the dream. But now I’m making movies for the little screen instead, and I love it.”

Bleach, beatbox and bellyflops: Five top TikTokers

TikTok’s No 1 … Charli D’Amelio.
TikTok’s No 1 … Charli D’Amelio. Photograph: TikTok

Charli D’Amelio (@charlidamelio)
TikTok’s origins lie in an earlier lip-syncing app, Musical.ly, and this Connecticut teenager is the Orson Welles of the form. D’Amelio’s music choices, moves and jolly, disarming confidence have helped make her TikTok’s No 1, with 57.5 million followers.

Tooty McNooty (@tootymcnooty)
There isn’t a great deal of animation on TikTok, but this young British illustrator is filling the gap, with her wacky, winsome, hand-drawn clips, many of which are set to music. Beware, though: her fun frog and monkeys might look child-friendly, but her content often edges towards PG-13 territory.

Sarah Cooper (@whatchugotforme)
This NYC comedian and author hit on a rich seam of satire by simply mouthing along to some of Donald Trump’s crazier utterances. Cooper’s restaging of the president’s suggestion that Covid-19 sufferers might benefit from injecting disinfectant went viral. She also does a pretty good Elon Musk.

Corey Funk (@coreyfunk)
This 23-year-old Californian started out as a stunt scooter rider, but now offers all the thrills of Jackass. There’s a lot of goofy go-karts, ball pits and jumping into pools. To watch Corey belly-flop through a variety of apertures cut into insulation boards is to relive a misspent youth, in under 60 seconds.

Spencer Polanco Knight (@spencerx)
The beatboxing New Yorker has kept his 30.2 million followers coming back over lockdown via a series of engaging tricks and challenges, many of which involve his hapless housemate, Joey. AR

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