How does a face-painted Eastern European filmmaker rack up 88 million YouTube views? By sharing the truth behind digital lies.
You can’t believe anything you see on the Internet. Accounts get hacked, emails get spoofed and video technology can fool your eyes in hundreds of ways. If only there was someone who could cut through the nonsense and show us how it’s done.
There is, and he’s a goofy Latvian special effects whiz in a tracksuit who calls himself “Captain Disillusion.”
Alan Melikdjanian was born and raised in Latvia, a small country that made up part of the Soviet Union. His parents were circus performers, and as a kid he spent time with magicians, learning about deception and sleight of hand.
When Alan was 12, his family emigrated to the United States. As a teen, he pursued animation before enrolling in film school, developing the visual style and knack for effects he’d soon deploy on YouTube.
While promoting a Russian-language film he’d made, he noticed a lot of attention being given to Paranormal Activity-styled scare videos, and his trained eye quickly spotted how they were done. He began creating videos so he could show what was going on and thus Captain Disillusion was born, with his first video in 2007.
Scraping together what he had on hand to create a costume, Alan’s alter ego had one purpose: Take viewers behind the curtain to expose the visual trickery behind viral videos, especially ones that purported to be supernatural or paranormal.
His film training gave him knowledge of the software that people employ to cheat shots, and it wasn’t long before his debunks were racking up hundreds of thousands of views.
The Captain Disillusion YouTube channel originally didn’t adhere to any of vlogging’s best practices. Videos were released sporadically at irregular intervals, about whatever topics he found interesting. He didn’t do social media feuds, call-outs, or drama. CD just made quality content.
And unlike many of the platform’s other stars, his videos take a ton of effort. Alan creates custom 3D assets, builds props, and generally does whatever it takes to pull off his debunks with style and wit. It typically takes him a month to do each one, and it shows: The big debunks can clock in at fifteen minutes or more, and even his “mini-Ds” are robust and satisfying.
“Love with your heart and use your brain for everything else.”
Very few YouTube stars can survive, let alone profit, on a schedule that slow. But the Captain Disillusion videos aren’t dependent on ads alone for monetization. Alan was an early adopter of crowdfunding platform Patreon in 2015, and with over 3,000 patrons he’s now earning north of $11,000 a month. That’s a pretty solid paycheck for a single video.
But he didn’t get there overnight. Captain Disillusion’s first mega-viral debunk didn’t come until 2013 when he exposed the methods behind the “Miss Ping” ping-pong stunt video. With over 2 million views, it brought him to a larger audience that stuck around for the ride.
In 2009, Alan opened his own visual effects studio in Florida, and did commercial work, music videos and other local projects. That has become less and less necessary as the Captain Disillusion videos grew in popularity, and they have basically become his day job.
Even though his debunks are extremely funny, Alan is performing a public service with his clips. He’s teaching the Internet generation to take everything they see with a grain of salt, and not get duped by a viral clip that seems too good to be true.
As Captain D’s motto goes, “Love with your heart and use your brain for everything else.” He certainly leveraged that brain into a killer niche business.