Several dozen New Yorkers found themselves wondering if the truth really was out there when they had a close encounter with an alien last week. The stunt was the work of Thinkmodo, a company that specializes in viral videos (remember “Devil Baby Attack” and “Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise”?), to promote the Jan. 3 return of The X-Files on Fox.
To get the backstory of “Aliens in NYC,” which debuted Wednesday morning, Yahoo Entertainment talked with James Percelay, who, along with co-founder Mike Krivicka and producer Sam Pezzullo, makes a living scaring the bejeezus out of people.
Where does one begin to come up with the concept for a viral video? “We just kind of shoot the s***,” Percelay says. “Sometimes it’s over a beer. It’s a real casual process.” Of course, it’s really not as easy as that. The filmmaker used to create parody commercials for Saturday Night Live, so he has years of world-class experience zeroing in on just what makes a particular property tick.
“We take a very sticky element out of the movie or TV show and we put it into real life,” he says. Though actual aliens rarely make an onscreen appearance in The X-Files, the “alien presence” is a constant throughout the series.
By its very definition, a viral video is something that you can’t just manufacture — it’s something that gets spread organically. You can pay for a TV commercial, but you can’t pay millions of people to share a video on Facebook or forward it to friends. So the job isn’t making people want something; it’s making something people want.
Part of it is picking projects that can go viral. “We have to decide whether we can come up with an idea with the right viral DNA. Sometimes we just can’t and, rather than us doing the project, we just turn it down,” Percelay says. There’s a lot of pressure for a hit: “If you’re not going to do a home run, then it’s really not worth doing.”
And sometimes it’s pure luck. In the week between shooting and releasing the video, the New York Times published an article about the real-life government funding for a program investigating UFOs. Maybe it’s just something in the air?
The nuts and bolts of the alien
Once they decided on the idea of an alien popping out of a newspaper box, they went to Creature Effects in L.A. (which also handled their Devil Baby animatronic). The alien contains eight remote control servo motors that were used to turn the head and blink the eyes. Five servo motors were needed to control the fingers and the arm. A 50-pound tank of nitrogen powered the hydraulics, and a tiny smoke machine added to the spookiness.
Thinkmodo took photos of close to 100 people over two days in SoHo and the Upper West Side. “The top of the newspaper dispenser box was made of Styrofoam painted to look like metal,” Percelay says. “The alien would pop up through the top and destroy it. We would slide it out and prepare for the next victim.”
New York state of mind
Why the New York Post? “We just felt that (a) it’s iconic New York, and (b) nobody does a better grabbing headline than the Post.” Not only did the Post agree, it published a special edition just for the stunt. “It’s great because, if there’s going to be an alien story, it won’t be covered better by anybody than the Post,” Percelay says.
Why are Thinkmodo’s stunts always set in the Big Apple? The short answer is that’s where the company is based. But you get the sense when talking to Percelay that there’s an element of challenge to it as well. He calls New Yorkers “the most cynical viewers on the planet,” crediting the “high stimulus environment.”
He thinks it would be a very interesting experiment to do something like this outside the city. “I would love to do this in Iowa or somewhere where people are not conditioned to see very unusual crazy things like we do in New York every day,” Percelay says.
They’ve been doing this long enough that they can quantify the kinds of reactions they’re going to get. Percelay calls the breakdown “strangely predictable.” A third of the people freak out: They jump, scream, or shout “Oh, s***!” (a strangely uniform expletive that was repeated over and over). Another third try to get a reality check: Even though the scenario is completely unbelievable, the level of detail in the execution forces people to take a moment to question whether their world just got upended. The final third — New Yorkers through and through — laugh or have no response at all. (Bonus, there’s the woman who says, “Aw, hell no!” — which might be all three?)
“We had a lot of cars stop,” Percelay recalls. Their cameras weren’t in position to catch people screeching to a halt in the middle of the street, so none of that made it into the video. Little beyond that was outside of their control, though, which is one of the things that separates Thinkmodo’s stunts from a lot of other prank-style projects. They need to be realistic but also safe, “so nobody feels threatened,” Percelay says.
At the same time, though, paranoia is a key component of The X-Files, which is why the men in black and the hazmat suits show up at the end. Even some of the more jaded passersby were shaken by their appearance; you can see some people bolt as soon as the trucks pull up. That’s the fine line the company walks when creating these videos. “X-Files really does have a lot of dark humor, but it’s basically a serious show. Had we wanted to turn this into a comedy thing, it would have been much easier,” Percelay says, “but you have to respect the show itself.”
The X-Files returns Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. on Fox.
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