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Prepare for Some Smoke and Mirrors!  Zach King TikTok

Written By: Dash Finley
Photographed By: Jared Schlachet and Joe Magnani Zach King TikTok
Styled By: Neil Cohen Zach King TikTok

For Zach King, it all started with kittens wielding lightsabers. Before he rocketed to fame as an acclaimed Internet creator, a pioneer in the art of “digital sleight of hand” and the third-most-followed account on TikTok, King was creating tutorials for the editing software Final Cut Pro.

The year was 2011; King had managed to build a loyal following on YouTube, dispensing tips of the trade in the area of visual effects. “People started asking me to make little short films before my tutorials as a demo to see…the effect in context,” says King. This particular week, the lesson at hand was a lightsaber effect, and King saw an opportunity present itself in the form of a pair of kittens his roommate had recently adopted. He whipped up a 15-second video in which the two felines engaged in an acrobatic, Star Wars-inspired battle, titled it “Jedi Kitties,” and uploaded it to YouTube. The next morning, King was awoken by a call from his parents; the video had amassed over three million views and was being featured on “Good Morning America.” Zach King had officially gone viral—and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time.

Rewind to the mid-1990s, when King was growing up in Portland, Oregon. Born to a father of Chinese descent and a half-Austrian, half-Nicaraguan mother, King and his three sisters were homeschooled and encouraged to follow their “extracurricular” passions from a young age. King developed an interest in filmmaking at the age of seven, inspired by making-of specials featured on his favorite VHS tapes. “I would watch how they made the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or how they created E.T. via animatronics,” recalls King. “The fun of making movies was the tactile element. We had a farm to play on, and I’d do pyrotechnics and explosions for my little movies.” Enlisting his sisters to operate the cameras and boom, King continued his cinematic experiments until graduating high school. He applied to Biola University’s film school, only to be rejected. He sat in on classes but felt unchallenged and started posting on various filmmaking forums. Soon, he developed a business model to create his tutorials, setting him on the path that led to the kittens, the lightsabers and, ultimately, success.

Fast forward back to 2011, where an emboldened King was pondering his next move. “The question posed was: ‘Can I do this again?'” states King. “I got into a rhythm of making a video every Friday and…that launched me into my first YouTube career path.” By 2013, King’s videos were regularly racking up tens of millions of views on YouTube, and that’s when a new platform emerged, quickly developing an intensely passionate following—Vine. King was immediately taken with the nascent video app’s “categories” feature, which allowed him insight into which niche his content fit into. Says King, “I couldn’t do comedy or animals or crafts, but…I saw this tab that said visual effects and magic and thought, ‘I can do that.'”

And that is precisely what King specializes in: a synthesis between filmmaking and magic with a focus on optical illusions, drawing inspiration from early silent filmmakers like George Méliès, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. King waxes: “They were doing mattes, clones, jump cuts… those early, short nickelodeons are reminiscent of the work I did on Vine.” Indeed, utilizing Vine’s six-second time limitation to his advantage, King honed his craft and pared down his content. “It forced me to sharpen the idea,” states King. “I challenged myself to create one video per day for 30 days, and by the end of that time…I had almost as many followers on Vine as I did on YouTube.” But just as King was hitting his stride on Vine, the platform flatlined, ultimately being discontinued by Twitter in late 2016. For King, however, this came as no surprise: “There was no way to monetize on Vine…and at the time, I was building my team and hiring a staff. Snapchat and Instagram were getting big at the time, so eventually the audience just wasn’t there anymore.”

It was around this time that King signed up for a little-known app known as musical.ly, which was mostly home to lip-synching videos. Though King’s clever VFX illusions weren’t exactly a perfect fit for the new platform, he was charmed by how much fun its users appeared to be having. As the years went on, musical.ly rebranded as TikTok, and it eventually became a bonafide force to reckon with in the digital arena with King leading the charge as one of its most inventive personalities. “There’s a bit of ‘early adopter’ benefit there,” admits King. “But… TikTok’s algorithm is great for letting us know which content is interesting enough to go out to more people, then expanding it to a bigger audience.”

As with Vine, King came to relish the limitations imposed by TikTok’s 15-second time limit, and its reliance on timely trends. “Sometimes it’s good to be given boundaries,” muses King. “The theme you’re creating for can be a springboard for really fun ideas.” One of King’s personal favorites of his recent TikToks employed a “Narnia effect” to transport King, as well as his wife Rachel and their two children, seamlessly from one location to another. Per King, “We start off in the living room in a blanket fort, then I pull off the back sheet, and when we go through, we’re on this mountaintop in Lake Arrowhead.” Despite resembling an impressive digital effect, the teleportation was created practically, as King built an identical blanket fort set on top of the mountain to accomplish the uninterrupted match cut. King considers this brand of project to be an extension of filmmaking, but as someone who practiced magic in high school, he can also see tendrils of that discipline in his work. “The audience will sometimes call this magic,” says King, “but I don’t know if a kid today would be able to see the difference between what I do and what David Copperfield does. It’s about the sense of wonder they get out of it.”

If it seems King is interested in the perspective of his youngest fans, it’s no coincidence, as he admits that his entire creative process was altered by the arrival of his kids. “At their ages now— three and a half and two and a half—they’re starting to become conscious, and they believe all these amazing, crazy things,” he recalls. “I really want them to believe in themselves. That sense of imagination has translated into my videos… Early in the writing process, it’s easy to say ‘no, we can’t do this.’ But having kids has allowed me to say ‘yes’…and it’s led to some of my best ideas.”

Clearly, King has found an incredible outlet for his creativity on TikTok, along with nearly 100 million other users in the United States. In recent months, however, the platform has become a lightning rod for controversy over the way its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, handled secure data. Citing privacy concerns, President Donald Trump ordered ByteDance to find a US-based buyer for TikTok or face being forcibly shut down. TikTok was then spared in the nick of time after entering a partnership with tech giant Oracle and Walmart. But amidst this chaos, King remains unhindered. “I see it with tunnel vision,” he reports. “I’ve seen apps go through these seasons of controversy…but as a creator, you find ways to connect with your audience in ways that aren’t dependent on any one app.”

In recent years, King has also attempted to elevate other Asian voices in the online creator community. Early in his own journey, King was taken out for burritos by famed, “first-wave” YouTuber Freddie Wong, who offered some much-needed direction along the path to a sustainable career. “Since then, [I like] finding ways to mentor people with a similar cultural background and guiding the next generation of storytellers,” states King.

But what’s next for King himself? When asked whether he’d consider moving into traditional models of media like feature films, he remains circumspect: “When I got out of film school, my dream was to make something for the big screen. Now I make things for the smallest screens…the goal then was to reach the largest possible audience, and that was how it was done. The model is evolving, but what I want to do as a filmmaker is still to connect with the viewer in an emotional way.” With TikTok’s future no longer in jeopardy, and King reaching the heights of his creative powers, it appears likely that the gatekeepers of the film industry may end up needing him more than he’ll ever need them.

Zach King

Photo Shoot Location: Zach King TikTok

Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage
32-250 Bob Hope Dr
Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
760.321.2000 Zach King TikTok