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How video illusionist Zach King enchants millions on TikTok and Instagram

King's seemingly magical editing tricks have captivated audiences for nearly a decade. CNET gets a behind-the-scenes look at how he creates his mind-bending content.

Zach King

Social media creator Zach King has mastered the art of video illusions. 

Nate Norell

I'm sitting across from Zach King in his LA studio on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in August, surrounded by go-karts, a giant watch and a sign that reads "No Speed Limit." In between interview questions, King quickly takes a sip of Smart Water, pauses and looks closely at the bottle. Homing in on an image of a goldfish on the label, he says "we've been wanting to do a concept with this fish for a long time." He trails off for a moment, clearly lost in an idea, then mumbles "...turn it into a real fish," before jumping back into answering questions. 

I've just caught a glimpse of the brainstorming process behind the fun, captivating and truly mind-bending videos that have helped King reign over social media for the last 10 years. The filmmaker and illusionist posts what he calls "short magical videos" that leave viewers scratching their heads. In one clip, he falls onto a pool table that turns into a swimming pool. In another, he clears traffic by reaching out the driver's window and grabbing cars off the street. In my personal favorite, he turns his iPad into a book when the teacher walks by, but has a hard time turning it back once the teacher walks away.

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It's all possible through a combination of skilled editing, careful camera placement and weeks of planning with his team of around a dozen people. I got an opportunity to watch a recent video in production. King hops into a car, seemingly crashing into his own house while backing out of the driveway. What viewers can't tell is he actually smashed into a custom-built dollhouse. Camera angles and visual trickery obscure the size of this tiny replica.

"There's no room for error," King says during our interview just before the shoot. "We only have one of these dollhouse miniatures that's rigged to fall over. So once I crash into it, we have to use that take. There's something really exciting about knowing when we're done, but also terrifying that we only have one take."

Zach King and his crew members prepare a dollhouse for their video shoot

The finishing touches are made on the dollhouse.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

Uncertainty is nothing new to King. He's built a successful career upon a constantly changing social media landscape. His journey began on YouTube around 12 years ago, when he started posting video editing tutorials to his channel FinalCutKing. His popularity skyrocketed after he uploaded a clip in 2011 called Jedi Kittens, which features two adorable kittens battling it out with lightsabers. (That video currently has over 24 million views.) He then found a home on Vine, the now defunct short-form video app, before seamlessly transitioning to Instagram, where he has more than 24 million followers, and TikTok, where he has over 63 million followers. He's gone from shooting videos alone at home to making them with a large team at the spacious, 15,000-square-foot studio we're sitting in now. 

"You have to pinch yourself every once in a while," he tells me.

Outside, it takes about two hours, standing under the sweltering California sun, to get prop placement, camera setup and King's movements just right for today's shoot before the crew does its one and only take. Everyone holds their breath as the camera starts rolling. 

King steps off orange crates that stand in for front porch steps and walks up to his car. He gets into the passenger seat (the video will need to be flipped for the illusion to work, so everything is backward, including the "Z King" license plate on the car) and appears to hit the gas pedal (it's really one of his teammates in the driver's seat, but viewers won't see that). The car backs up until it smashes into the dollhouse and the driver slams on the brakes. King rushes out of the car to survey the damage, desperately grasping at the broken walls and ceiling that lie in a pile on the ground. 

Finally, after months of planning, this 15-second shoot is done. The video appears to be a success, but there's no way of knowing for sure until the editing's completed in a few weeks. Still, there's a palpable sense of optimism and excitement among the crew as they rewatch the footage on the camera, smiling and hoping for the best.

"Well, everybody, that is a wrap," King says, thanking his team with a round of applause. "Good work."

A childhood dream

King's love of filmmaking began when he was a child watching movies like Indiana Jones, E.T. and Jurassic Park. He was captivated by movie magic and explosions -- and would watch behind-the-scenes footage of Jurassic Park to try to understand how the dinosaurs were created.

"That fascinated me, that there could be a craft where you would build these -- to me at the time -- giant versions of toys and then put them into movies," he says. 

At age 7, he grabbed his parents' camera and decided to make his own videos, enlisting his three younger sisters as actors. "That was pretty much my childhood," King says.

In high school, he began teaching his friends how to use Apple's Final Cut Pro software for video editing. When YouTube came out, King began posting tutorials on the site via his FinalCutKing channel. He continued to add to the channel while attending film school at Biola University.

"I've always nerded out with editing," King says. "I love watching a movie and being like, 'Wait, how did they clone somebody? Like in Parent Trap, how did they do that?' and then figuring out the split screen. That was a powerful tool for me as a kid, to be able to play and duplicate yourself or add an explosion. You felt like you could add that little cinematic production value to it."

Soon he discovered Vine, where users could upload six-second clips for the world to see. It became the perfect outlet to share his video illusions, and King gained a large following, with People reporting in 2015 that he had over 3.4 million followers.

The process of making a video was much simpler back then, he says.

"When I was making Vines, I'd pop out my camera -- it was me in a garage by myself -- and I could knock those out in a day or two," he tells me. "The complexity of the tricks have grown. And it's also fun to try to one-up yourself a little bit." 

Shifting across platforms

When King's popularity on Vine skyrocketed, he hired a team of producers and writers to help him with ideas and production. For a few years, they worked out of a small house in LA. 

It was a tight squeeze. Editors worked from the hallways and into the kitchen. King and his crew members took over all the street parking. They'd cut holes into the walls for videos, to the dismay of the landlord. Eventually, King and his team came to the realization that it was time to upgrade to a studio, granting them the creative freedom to build (and break) whatever they needed. 

The studio, which they moved to in 2016, is split between offices and a large warehouse area strewn with props inside various sets. One set features a slanted floor and ceiling to mess with viewers' perspective (as seen in this video). There's a full kitchen set decked out with the latest stainless steel appliances and clean, white cabinets. Massive playing cards are stacked in one corner of the studio, and in another, there's a bathroom sink complete with toothbrushes and towels. Color-changing disco lights flash on a wall covered in stickers reading "Do Not Enter" and "One Way." Below, a go-kart track snakes across the floor. There's a sense the studio is constantly adapting as more memories and videos are created here.

"It's bringing back that idea of what I got excited about as a kid," King says, referring to filmmakers building cool sets and props. "We have a team of artists here that work on a lot of these giant things and miniatures and all the sets, and that's really fun to be able to collaborate on that level and really create exactly what we need for these videos."

Zach King

Zach King's lively videos have helped him amass millions of followers on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.

Nate Norell

King's growth has also seen him move seamlessly across social media platforms over the years. He's gone from YouTube to Vine to Instagram to TikTok, where he's now the fifth-most-followed creator. (Guinness World Records named him the most-followed male on TikTok in April, but creator Khaby Lame has since topped his follower count, at 103 million.) 

Long gone are the days of King finishing a video in a day or two. Now one of his clips for Instagram and TikTok takes anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months to create, with most of the time going into planning and developing a concept with his team.

King reflects on how each platform has brought its own challenges and opportunities. Vine's six-second time limit made for a simpler creative process, he says. But Instagram allowing 15- and then 60-second clips meant the team had more time to play with, which was exciting.   

"When it comes to building community across the different platforms, it is important to change up the form," King says. "An audience member on TikTok is going to scroll through quicker, so we do have to grab their attention a little faster. Whereas YouTube, we know that it's a consistent audience coming back, so they'll give us the first 20 seconds. ... You do have to play the story strengths to different platforms."

King says the main objective is to create relatable content. "It's more just about making the concepts human," he says.

Zach King and his crew work on perfecting camera angles for their video shoot.

Getting the camera angle just right is critical to making King's video illusions work.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

In one clip, for instance, he's building a fort with his kids that transports them to a campsite. In another, posted at the start of the pandemic, he magically multiplies his toilet paper supply. And in one that's sure to be relatable to anyone with kids, King appears to be taking a romantic vacation photo for Instagram, with his arm around his wife. But she turns out to be a doll. His actual wife is in the background juggling their son, whom she then hands to him saying, "Here, you take Liam -- he needs a diaper change -- and I'll post it."

King's journey over the past decade has been unpredictable, and where the next decade will take him is anyone's guess, he says. But however the technology and the platforms continue to change, he knows he'll still be telling stories in some capacity -- maybe even offline.

"Wouldn't it be cool if we could put the wonder that we do in our videos into a coffee experience or into a real-life activation that's a place you just go on the street?" King says. "I have no idea, but I know the storytelling of it and adding that sense of magic and wonder is always going to be in my style."