It's clichéd to say “it takes two to tango”, but it sort of explains the wild popularity of the "clone dance effect", a two-year-old augmented reality (AR) filter that shows you and your holographic clone dancing together on a mobile screen....
The rise of a new creator economy where ‘filter’ is the content
It's clichéd to say “it takes two to tango”, but it sort of explains the wild popularity of the "clone dance effect", a two-year-old augmented reality (AR) filter that shows you and your holographic clone dancing together on a mobile screen. On August 19, 2020, Varun Raikar (@vr7.tech), a digital creator, uploaded this effect on Instagram via Spark AR, Meta's platform for users to create their own augmented reality effects for Instagram and Facebook, generically referred to as 'filters'. “The idea was to visualise the aura/soul of the person using the effect,” he says. The filter–used in over 1.2 million reels to date–went viral and continues to be used by creators globally. Last week, a Spanish child content creator, @Aanas.tasia_, used it in a dance reel that has fetched over 230,000 views so far. The clone dance effect gave Varun his breakthrough in the digital industry as an AR creator. "The global and local Instagram teams reached out to me for work and so did brands like T-Series for AR projects," recalls the 22-year-old from Bengaluru.
Before this, he would upload tutorials on creating AR filters on his YouTube channel and sell project files (of these filters) for Rs 1,200 or so. Now, the minimum he charges for an AR project is Rs 1.2 lakh. His Instagram following of over 15,000 users includes popular content creators from categories like dance and yoga, some of whom have roped him in to create AR filters for their videos.
Varun is a member of the rising creator economy around AR filters. In what has largely remained a B2B space, there are 30 to 40 AR creators from different parts of the country who've gained popularity within and outside the AR community that comprises thousands of creators from India alone. These include AR creators like Pradeepa Anandhi, RB Kavin, Gayathri Shri, Naveen Upadhyay and Gauri Kumar, among others. A lot of them simultaneously work with Snapchat and prefer Snap's Lens Studio, a platform for user-generated-AR effects (which it refers to as "lenses"), for its technical capabilities.
Nonetheless, it is hard to get recognition for a filter on any short-video-sharing platform. Firstly, the audience doesn’t care, and secondly, anyone can copy your filter, make a few tweaks, and call it their own. A lot of these creators put YouTube tutorials on their AR filters using SEO-friendly terms to claim ownership and catch attention. They use this recognition to pitch to brands. Varun has spent many months cold-emailing and DMing brands and content creators. "I have sent filters like the clone dance effect to dance creators around the world, asking for work." Most never replied, but some did, and that's how he built his network among creators and brands. Once their work gains traction, they are approached by platforms or brands and their creative agencies for AR campaigns. A lot of these creators work directly with Meta and Snap now.
In an email, Manish Chopra, director and head of partnerships at Facebook India, said that over "35% of reels produced daily in India feature AR effects". Filters have always been an integral part of the content we see on social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. For the longest time, they've been used to improve appearance or to entertain. But filters today go beyond that to take a life of their own on the internet. Trending filters are source material for meme-makers and content creators who have to churn out short videos every day. Artist and graphic designer Neha (@neha.doodles), who has over 300,000 followers on Instagram, creates filters to use in her own content to tell her stories better.
Filters are serious business, and so far, only a handful of studios from India specialising in AR, like AliveNow and Superfan, have been able to create a standing in the industry for their AR-led branded content. Now, individuals are trying to occupy a bigger place for themselves in this growing space.
Six months ago, RB Kavin, an AR creator who lives in Sankagiri near Erode in Tamil Nadu, left his job at a specialised AR agency to set up an independent AR services outfit. He has a team of designers and takes on four to five projects in a month. "We charge a minimum of $2,000 or Rs 1.5 lakh per project," he says. "Most of my work is for companies operating outside India," he adds.
Most individual AR creators, as well as studios, get over 50% of their annual income from international projects. Since they are connected to a global community of hundreds of thousands of AR creators via Facebook groups and other online forums, it helps these Indian creators charge appropriately for projects.
Gauri Kumar (@gaurik10) mentions a collective called DIGI-GXL, a global community for women, intersex, trans folk and non-binary people who specialise in digital design, 3D and XR (extended reality, which includes AR, VR, and MR or mixed reality). “In India, there’s a tendency not to talk about how much we’re charging, but here [at the collective], we’re constantly talking about skills and how to price them which is quite beneficial,” says the Delhi-based AR creator who is also an official lens creator for Snapchat.
Brands in India largely have limited budgets for AR, and often a limited understanding of its scope and influence. But the limited awareness of AR, in general, makes cohort-based courses a huge draw for AR creators.
Gayathri Shri charges Rs 30,000 for a 5-hour beginner’s session on creating AR filters and Rs 50,000 for a higher level training session. She regularly does AR workshops in engineering colleges across Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. “For government colleges in Chennai, I do these sessions for free and even get devices on rent to teach students how to create filters via these platforms,” says the 23-year-old creator from Chennai.
Still, it is tougher for individual AR creators to get work, admits Gayathri. Most of them continue to get work via agencies that specialise in AR. Now there's a lot of chatter around how web3 will change that among the many other things it promises to change. But I'll stick to web2 for now, the world I still somewhat understand.
In this world, “individual content creators are slowly emerging as potential clients for AR filters and lenses,” says Adhvith Dhuddu, CEO of AliveNow. “This has been one of the ways individual creators are trying to differentiate themselves,” he adds.
Creators tend to leverage AR filters by encouraging their followers to use their filters to create more content. It helps keep the content pipeline flowing as they can remix or repost the best ones out of what the fans make using their filters. But, for a tech studio such as AliveNow, the commercials don't work out, says Adhvith, as content creators have very limited production budgets for AR filters.
Therefore, the “creator-to-creator” business model, where a content creator directly works with an AR creator, has a lot of potential, says Mihir Surana, partner and chief talent officer at NOFILTR, an influencer marketing agency. “I see content creators putting out stories on Instagram, looking for resources including AR filter creators. Soon, you may see a creator and an AR creator doing a collab,” he adds. For the uninitiated, an Instagram collab allows a single post to appear on both users’ accounts at once. So the likes, shares, and views are added to both their accounts and each user stands to gain recognition and followers from the other user’s fan-following.
Over the course of reporting for this piece, I’ve come across stories of AR creators from the US earning $750,000 a year. I’ve found out about AR creators like Paige Piskin who commands a following of millions on Instagram. She specialises in makeup AR and has reportedly created some of the most famous lenses for Snapchat over the years. If Mihir’s prediction comes true, then who knows, we might see a Paige Piskin from India, too.
[Programming note: There will be no newsletter next Sunday. See you on the first Sunday of June.]
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