There's a viral outbreak erupting in Utah County. And thanks to clever filmmakers in Provo and Orem employing YouTube as a delivery system, the infection is spreading worldwide.
Making videos that turn viral isn't just fun, it's also a way to make money for the folks behind the YouTube channels Warialasky, Teddie Films and LAHWF.
"It's easy money," says Andrew Hales, the 22-year-old Utah Valley University student behind the YouTube channel LAHWF.
Parodies R Us • The guys behind the Provo-based Warialasky brothers Casen Sperry, 25, and Landon Sperry, 28, and their childhood friend Mike Brown, 25 had been making movies since they were kids growing up in Mesa, Ariz.
The three, all college students (the Sperrys attend Brigham Young University, while Brown attends UVU) and returned LDS missionaries, shot wedding videos for a while. The job allowed them to justify the expense of buying good video equipment, Casen Sperry said.
"Every time we would finish an event, we'd get together and talk about how we'd get onto YouTube," said Landon Sperry.
Warialasky's niche is comedy shorts that parody pop culture particularly science-fiction movies and video games. Its most popular short, "Real Life GoldenEye 64," features actors re-creating the moves of a glitchy first-person-shooter video game.
Three more of the trio's videos have scored more than a million views each: "Lazy Jedi," in which a Jedi knight can barely summon the Force to make his breakfast; "Tetris: The Movie," a trailer for a nonexistent movie adaptation of the block-based video game; and "Skyrim: Modern Dovahkiin," a head-banging video-game spoof.
Teddie Films covers much of the same territory as Warialasky which doesn't appear to be a problem with viewers, as there seems to be an inexhaustible interest in "Star Wars" parodies.
Teddie's filmmakers Eddie King, 34, and Tyler Marshall, 31 met while working for Rubberball Productions, a stock-photography company whose Orem studios King and Marshall use for their videos. (The name "Teddie" is a mash-up of their names, suggested by a "Brangelina"-fixated former co-worker.) They now work for Anderson Studios, Rubberball's sister company.
Their specialty has been adapting current pop songs into "Star Wars"-themed videos. Their biggest hit so far was a spoof posted in June of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" that lampooned George Lucas' revisions to the "Star Wars" movies. More recently, they posted "Droid-Friend," which features a gold-plated android C-3PO sporting a Justin Bieber haircut.
King and Marshall have shot several commercials, including a Doritos spot that won a contest that got it aired during Super Bowl XLV in 2011. "YouTube is definitely a lot more fun than standard commercial jobs," Marshall said.
Teddie Films' videos are quite elaborate, and usually only one a month is posted online. They often feature detailed props (for example, a full-sized "Star Wars" landspeeder in "Droid-Friend") and music scores by local composer Israel Curtis that mimic the popular songs being spoofed. For "The Star Wars That I Used to Know," the team even recruited a Utah celebrity "Survivor" contestant Tyson Apostol to lip-sync Curtis' singing voice as Anakin Skywalker.
Hales takes a different approach on LAHWF, producing quick-to-make video pranks that recall the TV classic "Candid Camera."
On LAHWF (which stands for "losing all hope was freedom," a line from the movie "Fight Club"), Hales has walked up to random strangers to hug them, smell them and in his most popular video hold their hands.
Hales started shooting at UVU, but now goes elsewhere in Utah "because people were starting to notice me at UVU." He also has filmed pranks while on trips to New York, Hawaii and Rome. "Awkward's kind of a universal language," Hales said.
Learning the system • For all three videomakers, there has been a sharp learning curve.
"It was little things, like where to tape the mic and how to explain it to people afterwards," said Hales, who started posting weekly videos in March.
Timeliness is a big factor in a video going viral, King and Marshall at Teddie Films learned. The Gotye spoof took off on The Huffington Post and other sites because the original song was a big hit all summer, and the Teddie video captured not only the song but the cool trompe l'oeil animation of the video.
King and Marshall learned the hard way that a spoof that's behind the curve will get ignored. In mid-September, they released a spoof of the Korean rapper Psy's hit "Gangnam Style" in a song whose lyrics made fun of NBC's coverage of the London Olympics.
"We were at the back end of his wave," King acknowledged, as well as spoofing an Olympics that many people had already forgotten.
"This video really taught us how important it is to stick to your audience. Our audience is really geek-themed," King said. "We know better now: Don't piss off your audience."
The Warialasky group tried a sports-themed video once, and it bombed. Since then, they stick mostly with geek-friendly ideas, which they write on sticky notes in their shared Provo apartment above the computer on which they edit their films.
About a year ago, Casen Sperry took a class in viral-video filmmaking from Utah County's acknowledged expert in the field: Devin Graham, who makes the popular extreme-sports videos on the YouTube channel DevinSuperTramp.
According to his blog, Graham is also dating Utah County's hottest YouTube sensation, "hip-hop violinist" Lindsey Stirling, whose popular videos which Graham shoots landed the former "America's Got Talent" competitor a record deal and a U.S. concert tour.
"He knows the YouTube landscape so well," Landon Sperry said.
In Graham's class, everyone had to start a YouTube channel. Warialasky was the only one to take off, and Graham called the members up to meet them and offer them more advice.
"He took us under his wing personally," Landon Sperry said. "One of the things he told us: 'Your videos are way too long. … You need to cut it down a lot.' "
The Sperrys and Brown learned from Graham the four "C's" of YouTube success: consistency in the frequency of your videos; collaboration in working with good people; a call to action, to urge people to subscribe to your channel; and, most important, content.
"Content is king," Casen Sperry said.
YouTube as community • King and Marshall learned about the supportive nature of the YouTube community this summer when they attended VidCon, a national convention in Anaheim, Calif., for online-video makers and fans.
"At the beginning of the day, it was like being the new kid on the first day of school," King said. Then people saw the Gotye spoof, which they had just posted. "By the end of the day, people were really talking to us. … The next day, they knew who you were, and they wanted to talk about your video."
The viral-video world isn't a zero-sum game, Landon Sperry said, and one videomaker's success doesn't depend on another's failure. Because of that, the YouTube community is quite welcoming of new talent. "They'll tell you anything but what their next video is going to be," Landon Sperry said.
The filmmakers make money from ad revenue. YouTube gives them a bit of money whenever a viewer watches an ad attached to one of their videos. More recently, companies will pay filmmakers to use their products in videos.
None of the filmmakers would discuss how much money YouTube pays them. It's enough, though, to let the Warialasky guys out of the wedding-video business and to pay off the debt on Hales' investment in an Italian-ice cart business.
Teddie Films isn't yet at the stage where it's making money, King said, and for now "people are excited to work on something [for free] that might go viral."
So why did Utah County become an incubator for viral videos?
The Sperrys credit that to Orabrush, the tongue-scraping device and the viral videos, starting in 2009, that the Provo-based company made to sell it.
As Orabrush's corporate history tells it, the product's inventor, Bob Wagstaff, went to a BYU market-research class for help selling the gizmo. The one student who took up the challenge devised an online video idea and got his roommate to shoot it. The roommate was Devin Graham.
"There is a lot of talent down here, and people are always looking for ways to express that talent," King said. "There is a collection of talented, creative kids in Provo."
Hales suggested another reason for the viral-video boom in Utah County: "Maybe it's just so boring here that we have to make YouTube videos."
firstname.lastname@example.org Lindsey Stirling in concert
Lindsey Stirling, "hip-hop violinist" and YouTube sensation, brings her U.S. concert tour home to Utah.
Where • In the Venue, 219 S. 600 West, Salt Lake City.
When • Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m.
Opening act • DeLon
Tickets • $15 in advance, $18 on the day of the show, at Smith's Tix outlets.
Utah County Is 'YouTube County'
Utah County has become a hotbed for makers of viral videos. Here are some of the most popular YouTube channels from Utah County:
Performer • Lindsey Stirling
Home • Provo
Channel name • YouTube.com/lindseystomp
What she does • Hip-hop violin, with modern dance.
Subscribers • 858,138
Most popular video this year • "Dubstep Violin," posted Feb. 23; 29,822,988 views.
Performer/filmmaker • Devin Graham
Home • Provo
Channel name • YouTube.com/devinsupertramp
What he does • Extreme outdoor sports.
Subscribers • 533,934
Most popular video this year • "World's Largest Rope Swing," posted Feb. 15; 13,619,007 views.
Performers/filmmakers • Casen Sperry, Landon Sperry, Mike Brown
Home • Provo
Channel name • YouTube.com/warialasky
What they do • Geek-culture parodies.
Subscribers • 38,220
Most popular video this year • "Real Life GoldenEye 64," posted Feb. 17; 1,464,560 views.
Filmmakers • Eddie King, Tyler Marshall
Home • Orem
Channel name • YouTube.com/teddiefilms
What they do • Musical geek-culture parodies.
Subscribers • 32,184
Most popular video this year • "The Star Wars That I Used to Know," posted June 27; 6,598,660 views.
YouTube figures as of Oct. 5, 2012