The risqué dance style known as twerking has enjoyed something of a renaissance this year, notably at MTV's VMA awards, where Miley Cyrus delivered an eye-popping (for all the wrong reasons) performance covered by every news outlet imaginable. The cultural climate was just right for massive viral success with this dance that was previously part of a subculture--and it came in the form of a fail.
A video surfaced online in September showing a pretty, blonde college girl trying her hand at the rump-shaking dance craze, and not succeeding… spectacularly so. Not only does the poor soul crash into a table, she also catches on fire immediately afterward. The video ended up catching fire too, garnering millions of views in just a few days. It was also a hoax.
As late-night host Jimmy Kimmel revealed on his September 9th show, “Worst Twerk Fail EVER - Girl Catches Fire" was an elaborate prank that the entire Internet and conventional media machine fell for, face first. We talked with director Brad Morrison of Slim Pictures about to uncover all the twerky details of coordinating such a stunt.
Co.Create: Clearly, based on its success, the video looked fairly convincing. How did you approach the production--what kinds of choices were made to reinforce a feel of amateur video, either in terms of camera position or set decoration and so on?
Morrison: The goal was to fool people, so I wanted the video to look as authentic as possible. I started off by looking at a bunch of real twerking videos, and tried to notice all the details; who was in them, where they were shot, how they were shot, what was in the background, what were they wearing, what the lighting was like, etc.
A dorm room seemed like a great setting and ideally I would have shot this on location, but budget and logistics made that impossible, so we built a three-wall set in our studio at Jimmy Kimmel Live. Because our stuntwoman was going to be twerking against the door, we had to make sure the walls were rock solid and the door was a real, working door with real hardware. I also made sure that we had the appropriate door moldings, baseboards, the walls were the right color, light switches, a real thermostat on the wall--all the stuff that's in a real room. It was also important to have the right kind of furniture and other minor set dressing, like the bag hanging from the door handle, and clothes sticking out of the dresser. I wanted the room to look lived-in, in a realistic way.
I also had to find a good music cue. We didn't have the budget to license a recognizable song, so I looked though our Killer Tracks library to find a song that seemed legit, and that had a good beat. (The track is called “Grind Games”.)
What are some of the little details you focused to make it seem totally real?
In the spirit of keeping everything looking real, I decided to shoot the video using a MacBook Pro using the built in camera. To find the best angle, my DP, Bernd Reinhardt, and I moved the laptop around the set while Daphne (stunt woman Daphne Avalon) practiced the stunt. Because we wanted Jimmy to directly address the camera at the end of the video, I shot just the one angle. We also went with the automatic exposure built into the laptop camera. Some people have commented online, that it didn't make sense to have candle on during the day. We actually tried out a more "night time" look, but the auto exposure on the laptop automatically adjusted the light levels to make it look almost identical to the "day time" look we ended up using. In post, I didn't do anything to the picture or sound of the video. It's exactly how it happened live. Everything was practical and everything really happened in one continuous shot. I think that's one of the reasons it fooled so many people.
I blocked the dancing, stunt and entrances a bunch of times before we rolled cameras. Daphne was a real trooper when we rehearsed it--she must have landed on the cardboard practice table a couple dozen times. She needed to land in just the right place on the table, so it was a bit of a challenge for her to convincingly be knocked over by the door opening. The solution was having her friend push really hard on the door and for Daphne to simultaneously push off the door at the same time. If you really look, you can see that she pushes off the door a little bit with her left leg.
Then there’s the fire… it seems unlikely she’d be set aflame from a few votive candles on the table. Tell me how you made her burst into flames.
One of my ideas was to have our girl catch on fire after she crashed through the table. I didn't think that candles alone would actually cause that big of a fire so quickly in real life, so I added the bottle of tequila and shot glass on the table. I figured it would make sense that a college girl would be doing shots of tequila before making a twerking video for her boyfriend, and that the alcohol could catch on fire during the crash, splash on her, and light her pants on fire. The logic of everything had to make sense and even the smallest details were thought about--even the tag sticking out of her yoga pants seemed like something an amateur would do.
The second trick was to set her on fire at just the right time. We used a gel accelerant that my pyro guys applied to the floor and to Daphne's yoga pants. Under her pants, she was wearing Kevlar tights for protection. The plan was to set off a small charge igniting the gel the floor, which would then spread to her right leg. So she was actually on fire, and Jimmy really put out the fire with his fire extinguisher.
I had three takes, due to the fact that I only had three breakaway tables. During the first take, the force of Daphne hitting the table blew the charge out, so the fire was manually lit by one of the pyro guys with a torch, so the timing of the fire was a bit late. During the second take, the fire lit on time, but I cued Jimmy too early, so the fire wasn't as dramatic as I would have liked, so I decided to do a third take. However, when I squatted down to reset the shot, I heard a crunch in back of me--I knew immediately that I had just broken our third and last table. Lucky, when I turned around, I had just broken off the corner of the table. Still, I felt like a real idiot. Fortunately, we were able to frame out most the damage. If you look at the far left bottom corner of the video, you can see the broken edge of the table. The third take went well and it was the one we used.
Given that your actress is a stuntwoman it’s kind of amazing it wasn’t discovered as a stunt sooner. Were you worried about her being recognizable when casting her?
I was a little worried about it, but because the action was dangerous, I needed to cast a stuntwoman. I also needed a really convincing performance, and Daphne really nailed it during the audition. My hope was that since she's young, and not been in a lot of stuff, combined with the fact that she's not too recognizable on camera, that we wouldn't be discovered. Luckily, it didn't become an issue.
At what point did you think ‘holy shit this is going work?’
I think I always knew the stunt would work, but I was worried that I only had three takes. But then first take went really well, and when I saw Daphne catch on fire and Jimmy charge in with a fire extinguisher--I knew we would nail it.
It was crazy seeing the video go viral. I remember looking at the view count last Thursday, and it was at 48 views--mostly from me. Then on Friday it started to blow up. By the weekend it was into the millions of views, and by Monday it was at nine million views and all over the media--crazy!
Kimmel says they just put the video on Youtube and it took off on its own. Did anyone involved in the production gently fan the flames at all, though?
No. It was an experiment. We just posted it to YouTube and let it go. I don't think anyone expected it to blow up like it did.
Why do you think it blew up so massively?
The timing was excellent. Miley's performance at the VMAs had everyone talking about twerking, and my video--that looked very real--featured a very convincing twerking fail that ended with a cute girl catching on fire. Who wouldn't want to watch that? And people arguing over whether it was real or not just added fuel to the fire.
What are the most important things to consider when staging a massive hoax like this?
It's all in the details, and understanding what people want to see--which is apparently seeing webcam videos of girls twerking and catching on fire. It's a strange, but fun world we live in.
[Photo by Charles Sykes | Invision | AP Images]