Why YouTube star Zach King is 'The Greatest Showman'
When Zach King walks into the room, you’d hardly think he’s one of the world’s foremost entertainers. He’s an unassuming, mild-mannered late twenty-something; often clad in a simple hoodie and backwards cap. He’s quiet, too.
When he walks through the doors of Esquire’s Dubai studio — ahead of his first-ever magazine cover shoot — apart from the usual pleasantries, he barely says a word. He looks over the photographer’s mood board, nods his approval and steps out in front of the cameras. And that’s when the magic — quite literally — starts.
Through the lens, this is a very different Zach King. He’s animated, energetic, and almost hyperactive. He moves and poses like a seasoned veteran; someone who isn’t just used to the camera, but at home in front of it. As the behind-the-scenes videographer gets closer to the action, King — totally unprompted — starts talking to it, as if it’s second nature.
In many ways, it is.
Online Zack King has an audience of around 30 million. People follow him on Instagram and subscribe to his content on YouTube. They do so because King makes some of the most widely watched videos on the internet. Some call what he does magic, others call it sleight-of-hand or just great video editing. Regardless, people watch it in droves.
His YouTube channel sits just shy of 500 million video views. On Instagram, it’s even higher: almost a billion.
He has 3.5 million subscribers on one video platform, and 25 million on another. And that’s not counting the thousands of copy-cat accounts, which take his content and repackage it as their own. A cautious estimate puts his total internet reach at around one billion — but in truth, it’s probably a lot more than that.
To put those numbers in perspective: Las Vegas shows entertained 150 million people last year. For King, that’s an average week in March.
Zach King started making videos ten years ago. His first video is a tutorial, “Final Cut Pro — Pleasantville Effect”, which was watched by no one. But that didn’t really matter, King was making content because he wanted to. “My first channel was all about film-making,” he says, “because
I wanted to go to film school. I applied to a school called Biola University, down in Southern California. I got rejected.”
While he wasn’t accepted into the film program, the school let him enrol in general classes like maths and science. He moved down to southern California, and despite being told he wasn’t good enough for the film department, started making short films and tutorials on YouTube.
“I think the platform was only about three years old at the time, so there was no way to monetise videos or make any money from what I was putting online,” says King. “But I kept putting up tutorials, and slowly grew this audience of filmmaking people who were passionate about seeing what I was up to”.
King would continue making how-to videos for the next four years, right up to the point he left university. “I actually ended up sneaking into those filmmaking classes, and got my degree after four years.” With a decent number of YouTube followers (a few thousand) and his name now associated with video editing tutorials, Zach King thought that was it, “I had a pretty good job, and I could support my family and make
a living doing that — so I just assumed that’s what I would be doing for the rest of my life.” But then a friend recommended he check out a little-known social media platform called Vine.
Vine launched in 2012 (before Instagram set its sights on video). It let users make six-second clips and post them online. Billed as the video version of Twitter’s micro-messenger service, it attracted a slew of video-focused creators. King was one of them. “Vine really took what I was doing to another level. It helped me find my voice and my style”.
Previously, King had only made tutorial videos — he’d never branched out to storytelling. But Vine’s six-second format didn’t allow him to do that; he’d have to demonstrate his skills in real life and put himself on camera. His first videos made use of several filmmaking techniques, but
chief above them was the jump-cut — a technique that abruptly transitions to another scene.
Filmmakers tend to use this technique for dramatic effect, but King uses it differently. Instead of using it to transition quickly (a quick cut between a protagonist’s conversations, for example), King keeps himself in the frame, stops the camera, and then adds or removes something from the scene. To the naked eye, nothing about the overall film has changed. But King will have conjured up something on screen —
as if by magic.
“Before Vine, I hadn’t been doing anything ‘magic’ related, just tutorials. But then I slowly moved over to this massive theme of what it would look like if I had magic in a modern day setting, which I could use to solve my problems.”
King’s first Vines were simple: he used an iPad to print real dollar bills, jumped through walls and created objects out of thin air. In magic circles, this is called ‘sleight-of-hand’ and is usually the first technique a junior magician will learn.
But until Zach King, it had never really been portrayed in this way on camera. It turns out, this wasn’t a coincidence.
Zach King was always fascinated with magic. He used to practice card tricks in his bedroom at night, and read books on some of the world’s most famous magicians. “When I was in elementary school I was a magic geek. I would get my grandfather to take me to magic expos all around the state,” says King. “We would walk up and down these halls, and magicians would be lined up. You’d walk up to them, they’d demonstrate the trick and you’d either buy it or move on.
I never really had the money to buy the tricks, so I had to think about how I could reverse engineer them.”
Instead of buying a magic pen for $75, for example, King would attempt to build it himself. Once he’d mastered a trick, he’d bring it to school and entertain his fellow students.
He got so good; he started being asked to perform at parties.
“My mum was constantly driving me to other kids’ birthdays. It was super nerdy. I would go in and teach the kids a couple of tricks, then perform a little bit. I did a couple of these little shows at school, some at church or community centres. I also did a lot of retirement homes.”
King was slowly developing his practical magic but was then forced to make a choice. “My dad believes in hard work like nobody else, and in my first year of high school he pulled me aside and said, “You can only commit to one thing,” he said, “and I want you to be really good at that one thing”. It should have been an easy choice, but at that time I had started to get into film making.” King was forced to choose between doing tricks or making movies. He chose to make movies.
“So I stopped doing practical magic around about the age of sixteen, and really doubled down on filmmaking. But I think all that magic stuff just sat in the back of my mind. When I began making Vines — it might’ve just been luck — but these tricks just started spewing out.”
King began looking at the tricks he’d reverse engineered as a child and re-imagined what they’d look like in a modern-day setting. “My idea was to see what these types of magic would look like in a digital world. If I needed something, I could pull it out of my hat. But not a traditional hat, not a top hat, but a baseball cap. My original films were all slight variations on magical stereotypes”.
In magic circles, what Zack King does is a matter of debate. On Reddit — the popular social media forum — there are thousands of threads dedicated to discussing whether or not King is a bona fide magician or a just an excellent video editor. Yes, his tricks look like magic. But unlike a performing magician, King has the luxury of lots of time, editing software and — most importantly — an audience who can only see what he shows them.
“I have huge admiration for magicians. I have seen so many shows. Basically, any magician that comes to my area I go to see them.”
Despite playing to an audience of millions, King never stops being impressed by practical magic.
“I think what they do is ten times cooler than what I do because they’re pulling it off right in front of your eyes. It’s mind-blowing.”
It would seem natural for any performer to one day play for a live audience. Not Zach King. “I hold magicians to a high standard because they are so believable. If you mess up a trick, the audience gets confused, and they stop believing in magic. They realize it’s just cheap tricks.”
But there’s another aspect to why King would rather perform on the internet rather than in person. And considering his rise to fame using social media, it makes a lot of sense. “Look, practical magic is hard. To really be the best at it — and to invent new tricks — you need to have lots and lots of time. And you have to spend lots of that time practising alone. Yes, I have to practice a lot to do what I do, but it’s a lot more community based.”
King’s success can be put down to one thing: community.
Any social media star worth his blue tick requires a community around them to be successful. It’s what drives Engagement, Likes and the all-important Shares. It’s what takes someone from a few hundred YouTube subscribers to millions. And it’s this online audience that King values most.
“A few years ago — I think we only had a couple of million followers — I always saw it as a stepping stone. I thought that if I had enough followers, I could move over to Hollywood. But over the past few years, that’s totally changed.”
When Zack King made the decision to focus on filmmaking, he always dreamed of Hollywood and working with some of the all-time greats. By the time he had finished film school, he had assumed that one day he’d be directing and producing feature films. It’s why he was making tutorials in the first place. Now? It’s about all about his audience.
“I don’t ever want to be in a place where I’m just using the millions of people who follow me to get what I want. I am super grateful to my audience, who have been watching me entertain as long as I’ve enjoyed making these videos,” he says. “But I think it’s more like I am bringing the audience along with me on this journey. I’m not sure where that journey is leading, but as long as I enjoy it — and they do — that’s all that matters.”
King is first to admit that his on-screen persona (who is also called Zach) isn’t the one you meet in person.
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“In real life, I’m very mellow, very calm. But in my videos, Zach has a lot of personality. He’s curious and energized and fun. We definitely play that out because, at the end of the day, entertainment is about helping someone. Whether it’s helping them find an escape online, giving them a few minutes of joy or inspiring them. The Zach in my videos can do that.”
What’s next for on-screen Zach?
“I’m working on a bunch of things — longer-form narrative pieces, television show ideas I’m hoping to pitch. More magic on Instagram and YouTube. The world of media is changing so quickly — who knows, maybe one day I’ll be making feature films for mobiles, it doesn’t really matter so long as people enjoy what I am doing.”
Across the world millions of people are familiar with the on-screen Zach, however in a few short hours in his company it’s clear that the real Zach King is the actual star. Grounded by his humility and calm demeanour, it is his ambition, passion and unwaivering commitment to entertain his audience, that makes him a true showman.
Photography: Vaughan Treyvellan / Styling: Mark McMahon / Art Direction: Cate Warde