4. The Morning After
More than 1 million people had seen the original video by the morning of Dec. 19. Everyone, from Professor Tremblay to the students, couldn't quite believe it. Being that kind of success was a crapshoot, believes Tremblay. "There's a lot of things we can't control. You can do the best thing," have the best and slickest 3-D effects, "but you need the spark," he says, when 72 hours worth of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute. "There's an undefinable quality to what makes a hoax a success. There's an X factor, which is kind of elusive."
Claude Arsenault, Centre NAD's public relations director, began getting press calls early on the morning of Dec. 19. "What happened was," says Arsenault, "we confirmed
very quickly it was a hoax. It was not generally accepted that it was a hoax. There was a 12-hour window where no one claimed it. We claimed it very fast."
"Well, that's a lie," Tiago Duarte replies when this is quoted to him. He links me to a screenshot of his YouTube analytics screen for the video, and seems to have a point; around three quarters of a million people had seen "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid — Fake" by Dec. 19, around the time Centre NAD was releasing its admission — and getting its star pupils ready to meet the swarming press.
"We had to call the students to wake them up because camera crews were showing up" at the college, Arsenault explains.
There was one problem: Marquis-Poulin's cell phone was dead. Archambault was dispatched to bang on his front door. "I knew it was kind of a special situation then," Marquis-Poulin sheepishly explains.
All present and correct and groggy, the four students underwent a crash course in media training — the main tenet of which was breathe and think before you answer a question, but also to, for some reason, drink a lot of water and eat a lot of fruit — before being coaxed and cajoled from one TV studio to another.
"From noon until 9:00 p.m. they barely had time to eat," says Arsenault of the full press blitz. "It was interview after interview after interview." The students were caught off guard by the response, and found it challenging traversing the world's media in English and their native French. Not one of them was an eager interview subject. "They really just wanted to get back to their projects," Arsenault explains.
Amid the chaos of television, print, and radio interviews, the students still had term papers to hand in. (They were eventually given an extension for their essays into the holidays.) By the second day — and following a good night's sleep — the group were alternating interviews in groups of two and four with a little downtime to tend to their essays and play Ping-Pong in the student lounge downstairs from the press office.
The students were happy with one aspect of their fame, though. It allowed their family members to better understand what their degree involved beyond playing about on computers. "My family was treating me a little bit like a star," says Marquis-Poulin. "For them to be proud was the best feeling."
As people panicked and freaked out, the school had to admit the video was a hoax, and the second phase of the viral half-life of a YouTube video kicked into action. Now that people knew it was smoke and mirrors, they wanted to learn more about how it was done.
One fear — that potentially killer birds were on the loose — was replaced with another: If a bunch of students can make something so convincing, what's to say that CCTV footage, or news footage, couldn't be forged? That week before Christmas saw the students everywhere, on every channel, in every language.
Two months on and inevitably the number of views has slowed on the video. The graph's leveled out; in truth, it'd been inching toward a plateau 24 hours after it was first uploaded. Such is the supersonic speed of the internet, chewing trends up and spitting them out, before moving down the road and onto the next phenomenon. "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid" did better than most, though. "There aren't a ton of videos so far that have been able to pick up over 15 million views in a single day," says Allocca. Centre NAD and Tremblay took some flack from veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators. Their video — though meant in jest — gave a species struggling to survive around the world bad press. (It also freaked out a few kids.)
Though largely, people were simply impressed by the quality of the fake.
Because the Centre NAD students made their video with educationally licensed versions of Autodesk Softimage, Autodesk Maya, and NUKE, they weren't entitled to make money from the video — and with nearly 42 million views, a potentially significant amount of revenue was about to go unclaimed. However, the school could take the money, which will be used to help fund a scholarship for students who ordinarily might not be able to afford Centre NAD's tuition.
The four students are happy with the impact their work will have on future students at the school. For now they're being coy about what'll happen when they graduate, though some already have work experience with professional studios. Archambault has won an individual VFX competition and will visit Pixar's studios in Emeryville, California this summer.
Tiago Duarte won't be making quite as much as Centre NAD from his video, though he was as quick off the mark. His debunking of the hoax, despite passing in front of more than 4 million pairs of eyeballs, has earned $94.77 as of Feb. 2. YouTube keeps $8.78 of that, and the remaining amount is split 40/60 between Duarte and a network called Maker Studios he joined months before coming across "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid." For a 17-year-old, that's not an inconsiderate amount of money — it'll keep him in games for a month or so — but it's not the amount it could've been. "Honestly, I don't really care much," he says. "I didn't want to have the video monetized in the first place…so I'll get whatever I get and I'm OK with it."
I mention to him that the profit from the original video will go toward scholarships.
"That's really awesome!" he responds. "Can't wait to see what they produce this year."