If TikTok is Banned, We Move to the Next Big Thing, Viral Video Creator Zach King Says

Zach King
Viral video creator Zach King. Nate Norell

"There always will be that hot new app, and we'll be a part of it if we can. Because it's great to be where the current conversations are happening."

"King" is not just Zach King's last name—one could argue it's also his status on TikTok. What makes him the king, you ask? Having the most-watched video in TikTok history isn't a bad start. Known for his "digital sleight of hand," King is the viral magician, leaving viewers asking themselves "How did he do that?" after almost every video.

If you ask King, though, he's not reinventing anything. "If Charlie Chaplin were here today, he would definitely know that I've been stealing from him and his work."

Unlike many of his fellow TikTok stars, this isn't the beginning of King's reign. He started back in 2011 on YouTube with his viral video "Jedi Kittens." But it was in 2013 on the short-lived six-second video app Vine where King really found his voice, and which largely laid the groundwork for what he does on TikTok now. "I'll always love Vine because it did break the ground and prove that a short-form video platform could work."

Even though Vine didn't last, King's influence on other content creators is clear on TikTok. "It's fun to see a lot of people take the concepts of the jump-cut or the magic sleight of hand and do it for themselves."

But one thing King isn't worried about is the news of TikTok's demise. "There always will be that hot new app, and we'll be a part of it if we can. Because it's great to be where the current conversations are happening."

There's been a lot of TikTok news lately. What do you think of the potential ban on the app?

I don't worry about it for myself as a creator. The way we view it on my team is there's going to be a million platforms coming out. I think we forget the dozens of platforms that we've all tried out even for a week: Viro, Snapchat had a little more life, even Periscope. We were excited about Meerkat for a long time.

I think there's something sad if TikTok gets shut down because this was a different playing field for people. At the same time, it'll be okay. That's something I always talk to young creators about. If you haven't pivoted and grown to several different platforms and figured out what your brand is and make it more than just dancing or trends, you've got to make an actual sustainable business out of it. For that reason, I hope people are able to shift quickly if they need.

But at the same time, I think what will happen, whether it's shut down or not, the next generation of updates and apps will have that similar algorithm, which I imagine takes some nuance to create, but isn't impossible to replicate. An algorithm that allows anybody the chance to blow up. That's what I hope comes out of this whichever way it falls.


They rejected my application to Hogwarts but I still found a way to be a wizard. 🧹#illusion #magic #harrypotter

♬ Zach Kings Magic Broomstick - zachking

Your videos have evolved as social media has evolved. How did you first recognize the potential of social media?

My journey was interesting because I started on YouTube over 10 years ago. If you were to watch my stuff then, there's no correlation to what it is now. It kind of evolved naturally.

I was originally teaching filmmaking, so I was teaching people how to edit, how to add lightsabers to their videos and make short films called "Jedi Kittens." I was going to film school and sharing on YouTube at the time, where there was a small budding community of filmmakers. I loved YouTube in the early days because you didn't make money from it; it wasn't a job, it was just for the love of it.

Some of those short films got the attention of the news, went kind of viral—which was a couple of million views back then. I just was just curious why is that going viral? Is there a way to just do this every week and grow this audience? It slowly shifted away from tutorials and more to these short films. I was doing that for a couple of years and then Vine came out and it was just one of those little extra lucky breaks. I was like, "You can make six-second videos; I can knock out, 20 a day." It turns out a Vine is way more difficult than people think because you still have to have that beginning, middle and end, the joke's got to pay off. Vine consolidated my storytelling voice to these short little magic tricks, which I'm known for now. That was a jumping-off place.

What do you enjoy more, Vine or TikTok?

I'll always love Vine because it did break the ground and prove that a short-form video platform could work—at least for the short run they had. There was a desire for it. What I think TikTok has going for it is that the actual algorithm they've developed does a great job in real-time picking up what you like. That's a good thing, but it's also a double-edged sword. It's a good thing because you're getting served content that you're gonna enjoy and it'll keep you there longer on the platform. It's a bad thing in that it also could put you down a very narrow funnel of content and it doesn't expose you to everything. The algorithm is a special thing. What's amazing is that anybody can create a TikTok. If it's good content, it will sort it and rise to the top in most cases. It's another leveling of the playing field.

You hold the record for the most viewed video in TikTok history. What, to you, makes a good TikTok video?

I think the perfect TikTok video is the same across the board. I don't change what we're making at the studio just for TikTok. One of the keys is it's got to be really intriguing from the beginning. You've got to deliver on that. I think a lot of people do shock value content, where it's like, "Oh my gosh, these guys are jumping off a roof," and that's not the best content. There's no story to that. I think at the end, it's got to have an "aha moment." Like, "Oh, I wish I could have that in real life." So giving the audience that story they can really resonate with. Then the magic is just a big, big plus. You can't make a video without the magic for me, but if you don't have the story, it also is lacking.

Has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your content in any way? How you make it?

It has its own challenges, right? I was working with my team, 15 people at a studio space. We had to stop creating together. On the last day, before things were shut down in California, I took all the gear, whatever I could put in my car, to go make my videos alone for awhile. Because I was at home, I was thinking—I have two kids that are both under three years old—they'd be the costars in the video with me. My wife would hold the camera. So you'll notice there's a lot of "at home" concepts, which is fine because I got to explore some of the realms of being a dad, which I haven't talked a ton about, at least publicly. It's usually just me and other friends in the videos. But I got to have the kids in the videos and explore some of those concepts, like we really do wish we were camping right now. Well, there's a magical way to do that. What if, in my world, you hang a little tent and then open it up and then you're in the forest. A lot of those kinds of concepts naturally just wrote themselves.

In a way, the pandemic has kind of forced creators like you to go back to your early roots, primarily shooting alone on your phone, right?

It did take me back to those days, and it reminds me that it's not about the really cool camera techniques or all the other production value that you may have. At the end of the day, what I still love about TikTok and Vine is that it opened up for anyone with a cell phone. Literally, you could just start filming if you have that seed of an idea, a good concept, and you can deliver it and perform it well.

Do you see the influence of your videos in other people's content on TikTok?

I think it all evolves. If Charlie Chaplin were here today, he would definitely know what I've been stealing from him and his work. I feel like I'm just riffing off a bunch of 1920s, 1930s filmmakers. That's where a lot of my techniques come from. So I'm not reinventing anything, but it's taking what I think they would have loved to do if they had the technology. Even seeing Fred Astaire decades ago do the rotating room, dancing on the wall. That's something we got to recreate here, but only because he explored that realm. I think it's all a riff. It's fun to see a lot of people take the concepts of the jump-cut or the magic sleight of hand and do it for themselves.

There are all kinds of people on TikTok, but it definitely skews younger. How do you keep your content relevant as your audience ages?

There's always a younger audience watching. I think that's natural with any kind of magic performance. I think with the kids, they're amazed by it, but for the adults, I think it kind of inspires a little bit of that child. It ignites something.