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Learn True Facts About Sloths, Moles, And Making A YouTube Hit: Ze Frank Reinvents The Nature Show

Ze Frank talks about his hit web series "True Facts" and two brand-new episodes made in partnership with the BBC. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the naked mole rat and the star-nosed mole.

  • 01 /12

    "I’m super interested in trying to figure out the network-native versions of a lot of the things we loved growing up, things that I think are still pretty incredible,” Frank says of the genesis of the series. “One of them is this notion of the nature documentary, which has really lived in this 30-minute to one-hour space. And trying to see what the possibilities are there, in this kind of shorter range, and also trying to imbue it with the stuff that really works well in the sharing world, like surprise. Sometimes the off-color stuff works pretty well.”

  • 02 /12

    "At the heart of this, it is trying to reimagine what a nature documentary is,” Frank says. “They are crammed with facts. I really try to let the footage drive this conversation--I feel that a lot of nature documentaries out there have gotten to the point where we’re just anthropomorphizing everything and we’re telling stories from the perspective of, like, 'The animal’s intention is this,' as though they’re this slightly dumbed-down human. But I think the real magic is that it’s just incredibly weird and marvelous and crazy. From a comedic standpoint, it’s just this wonderful playground."

  • 03 /12

    "I’m learning so much, really. I’m blown away each time I take on one of these topics. There’s a soft spot in me about the role that this series plays. I don’t want to take it too seriously, but I’m proud of the series because it does spotlight some stuff we just don’t pay attention to. It brings it into focus instead of these long, serious stories that are kind of depressing and make all animals seem basically like psychopaths. I feel they are actually educationally valuable, from the standpoint of the true reason that we try to educate, which is to get people interested in the sort of wonder of it all."

  • 04 /12

    "That was just because on some of the other videos, people said I sounded like Morgan Freeman. In the earliest ones, my voice is higher pitched; it almost has an overdone gravitas to it. I wasn’t trying to be Morgan Freeman, but once someone pointed it out, I listened to a whole bunch of his stuff and just gave it a shot. For people that are around for the long haul, you really want to play with the format a little bit from time to time and mix things up. So I rarely do heavy, actual false facts. Obviously the one on Morgan Freeman is not rooted in truth, but the other ones--I don’t make up facts about the animals. It’s pretty clear when I’m creating a joke versus talking about something that’s true. The classic sitcom model was a joke every 45 seconds; smash that down and we’re talking about a joke every five to seven seconds or so.”

  • 05 /12

    Will Morgan Freeman be the only deviation from animal videos? "No, no, not at all," Frank says. "I’ve become super excited about animals and the possibilities of partnerships, like the BBC one is super exciting for us. It’s a little bit of a dream come true. But I honestly think that the series has room to branch out. I’m a little cautious, as well, because I think it might be even more fun to think about what we learned from this and then try out a hard reset on a different topic altogether--like great literature is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. This super straight satirical model, the essence of it being light storytelling with some punctuated humor, I think we’re probably going to try to reach out a little farther. I’m really interested in Americana right now. It’s another format, like the documentary, where it’s old, it’s old people narrating it, the memorable stuff from when we were kids." He thinks some models ready for revivals are This American Life, A Prairie Home Companion and Reader’s Digest.

  • 06 /12

    "After something hits, trying to make sure the series has legs involves a couple things: One is to be focused on all the different ways that discovery has to happen. So the endplates, millions of views have been generated off of those. That’s one indication of the extent people are interested in seeing more of the content. Part of it is also a content challenge--in some cases, content was serialized specifically because there was success, not because there were a lot of legs left in the format. If I had done 'Angler Fish 2,' that would’ve been a problem. But in this case, there was a lot of room to expand."

  • 07 /12

    "One of the tricks to the online format, especially when you think about it in terms of a series, obviously you want some consistency because that’s really key to growth and recognition. 'Leaf Katydid’ was an outlier; it was at a moment when I was unsure if the format in and of itself could completely sustain itself. I was sort of reaching out. But then what happened in the ensuing weeks was the metrics really started coming in, and instead of the big spike and then decline that you see with a lot of videos, the playlists were really starting to get some usage. The metrics seemed to be supporting a slow-growth model rather than just trying to reach out for the big hits. Some of these that get to like 1.2 million can take well over a month to reach that number, which is a very different kind of traffic pattern than a lot of the highly shared content.”

  • 08 /12

    "The time coefficients change based on what platform you see growth in. So Facebook has a little bit of a longer burn. Twitter is very, very short and fast. Pinterest has its own growth metrics. The point is that after a while the content is basically obsolete, whereas these series models--and this is why formats are so interesting in general--you can build something that has archival value and people keep coming back.

  • 09 /12

    That is the challenge in this new crop of content, trying to balance the very fast, reactionary, poppy media that can get some traction, with this more traditional pursuit of trying to find a sustainable format. The one thing that I will say is that, in the pursuit of formats, what we have to do here is really veer away from the traditional pilot model--which is that people dream up entire series, then prove to executives in advance that the content has legs and all that kind of stuff, and I think that’s a massive over-commitment of resources. We’re pretty excited about this overall model. True Facts is a really great start and it should be a lot of fun."

  • 10 /12

    But is it Frank’s most successful endeavor ever? "It’s a little early to say. There’s only 12 of them so far. But certainly it is one of the most promising things. I love doing it. That’s the other big part of it; it feels very natural to me. And I love that model."

  • 11 /12
  • 12 /12

Ze Frank has enjoyed a robust web video following for nearly as long as the concept has existed. His original series, The Show, posted daily episodes for a full year before wrapping in 2006. In early 2013 he launched, through Kickstarter, Now Frank, who recently joined BuzzFeed as executive vice president of video, has created his most-seen content ever with the True Facts series. Yes, Ze Frank is the reason why nearly 10 million people have watched a nature video about the hideous angler fish. The rapid-fire clips are irreverent, hilarious, perfect for YouTube, and genuinely informative.

On Thursday, Frank teamed with BBC Worldwide to simultaneously launch two clips—one on the star-nosed mole, one on the naked mole rat. "The BBC Worldwide, they’ve done all the Attenborough stuff and everything. They’re probably the biggest content leaders in the animal world," Frank tells Co.Create. "They got in touch with us, and we basically formed this association where they’re letting us use footage that they’ve gotten since like 1980 from two animals which I’ve been obsessed with but can’t find footage on."

Frank, who has lent his authoritatively comedic narrative sensibilities to the echidna, the mantis, and the dung beetle lately, is exceptionally proud of the new clips. "It’s just incredible footage, and they’re the most incredible animals. One, because they’re so unbelievably ugly. The naked mole is like the ugliest freakin’ creature in the world. It is so radically, unbelievably disgusting. And the star-nosed mole is also. It looks like it snorted a firecracker. They live way underground and to get footage of them is basically impossible."

Frank’s next animal to get: The platypus. For now, in the slide show above, view some of the best clips from True Facts and enjoy Frank’s behind-the-scenes commentary, on both the creatures and the art of building a web series.

[Image: Flickr user Streamy Awards]