Mike Diva: On His Viral Trump Video and How YouTube’s Algorithms Debase Artistic Expression


Mike_Diva_YouTube_AvatarThe multi-talented Mike Dahlquist, mainly of YouTube fame under the moniker Mike Diva, makes music, videos, music videos, blue-chip memes, and probably a whole lot more no one’s yet aware of. He acts, writes, directs, produces, edits, composes, does often-incredible VFX work with a hilarious and original style, and has managed to rouse the support of a global army of loyal fans over the years since he emerged. Dahlquist’s latest video, the viral and exceptionally well‑produced “Japanese Donald Trump Commercial,” has accumulated approximately 20 million views across Dahlquist’s various social media outlets since its mid-June release, as of this article’s posting.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dahlquist’s widely viewed work goes all over the conceptual map, from his breakout viral prank video, “Sexy Sax Man,” to the irresistible “dog_meme.avi” to his underrated (and Google-funded) YouTube show, Turbo Time. Through all the neon and flashy memes and sometimes‑raunchy goofball humor, Mike Dahlquist is a unique artistic visionary, as well as a bright, shining beacon of hope, letting us all know that, just maybe, the internet’s not quite dead yet.

We talked with Dahlquist over the phone about his career and what all went into the making of his latest hit video.

S&P: Tell us some of your background, how you got into this, and so forth.

Mike Dahlquist (MD): I’ve been doing this for almost thirteen years. I started out just putting content on YouTube and making little music videos here and there, and I guess I’m still doing it to this day.

My main inspiration would be the Palm Pictures Directors Label DVDs. I’m sure they’ve inspired a lot of people. First and foremost, Michel Gondry’s DVD was what made me want to get into directing. Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham – they’re all like the founding fathers of what I want to do. They inspired me to get into music videos and into making visually inventive content and to strive for more ingenuity and to make something that nobody’s ever seen before. I try to combine elements that no one’s ever combined and to entertain in a way that’s not expected.

S&P: What gear and equipment do you use the most?

MD: It varies from video to video. I do all my work from my computer at home. I use an Origin PC, which I hate. It’s caused me nothing but trouble and crashed a million times, so I can’t really recommend that. But as far as software goes, I use Premiere and After Effects. For a lot of my music videos and stuff like the Trump video that has to look a lot better, I like to use a Red Dragon. That said, I prefer the Arri Alexa when possible, but it’s rare when I get a chance to actually rent one of those out.

All my plug-ins are pretty standard. Specifically, I use a lot from Aescripts.com and the Red Giant suite, but really it’s just kind of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what works. I’m always experimenting with a bunch of different ideas and trying out different methods. I don’t have a go-to process, really. All of my videos are so dissimilar that I’m flying by the seat of my pants most of the time. For me, it’s very much the concept first. And then I figure out later how the hell I’m going to do it.

S&P: Describe your creative process for the Trump video.

MD: The Trump commercial is my love letter to Japanese commercials. I think that a lot of people try to emulate the Japanese style, and it can come off as making fun of it and a bit like, “Oh, look at how kooky Japan is.” But that’s not what I was trying to do at all. I’m trying to celebrate that part of the culture. I wanted to take that Japanese-ad style and combine it with something disturbing, like Donald Trump, to make a video experience that will thoroughly weird people out. That’s what I aim to do with most of my content: entertain and confuse people.

When I came up with the concept for the Trump video, I instantly knew I had to do it. I got a lot of favors from my friends to make it all happen. I got a producer for free, this guy Mike Shafia, who let us use his Red Epic. It was really important to me that this video look as real as possible. Even though we had no budget, I wanted it to feel as if it could be a real Japanese commercial, in order to confuse as many people as possible.

We shot it in one day. My girlfriend at the time let me paint her room, and my manager helped by printing out all of these Trump posters. I decorated the room, and we shot for three hours or so. Then we went to my DP’s garage and shot the green-screen parts there. We had literally found a green-screen treadmill on the side of the road, and we made use of that. It worked great. Finding that was the biggest stroke of luck ever for someone like me.

In terms of post, I do most of the compositing myself. For this project, I was able to enlist some friends that were willing to work for free. I had a small group of people, mainly fans of my work and friends I’ve worked with for a while, from all over the world. They all contributed, and it became this awesome group effort. This guy from Germany, Calvin Cerrano, did the Trump robot. All I had to do is send him storyboards, and he went from there. It’s great that he’s a fan of my work, because he knew my style already. That goes for everyone I outsourced work to for this project. I didn’t have to give too many notes, because they already got what I was going for, which is super convenient. I’m very lucky to have fans and friends be so willing to help out like that.

We had a girl in New York, Kytten Janae, who helped with the buildings for the first sequence. For Trump himself, we shot out our buddy Tyler Hart doing all the different movements with tracking marks on his face. Then this guy who’s in Korea at the moment, Aaron Nelson-Purcel, was able to find a bunch of Trump imagery and footage and cut out Trump’s head and put it onto Tyler’s body, which we had recorded. It saved me a lot of time. If I didn’t have all this help, it would have taken me around half a year to make this single minute-long video.

Also, I had this guy named Cody Vondell. I told him about the heaven sequence, and he did some work on that and then sent me the Photoshop files of the backgrounds for that sequence. All I had to do was just put them into 3D space, animate the missiles and all of that, and then color grade it and do the keying.

So everyone contributed their various elements, and I composited it all together.

trump tsum tsumS&P: What was the design inspiration for those cute little copter guys?

MD: Those are Tsum Tsum. They’re Japanese Disney stuffed animals. It was based off of that design. I just thought it would be funny to see a Trump version of that.

Regarding the music in the Trump video, I ended up working with my new roommate, Stephen Burke, who goes by the name Siren, and he’s an amazing, amazing producer that was down to work on this for free, as well. We just sat in a room and banged out the music together in about three or four hours. It came out so much better than I thought it would. Originally, I wanted it to be just some quirky Japanese-inspired music, but it ended up becoming a song I’d actually listen to. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to collaborate with on the music.

S&P: Just how lucrative is it to have a career making online videos? Can you live well off of making videos like this?

MD: No. Not at all. YouTube is shit. It doesn’t benefit what we do. YouTube has changed their algorithms and made it to where, unless your videos are at least five-minutes long, they don’t pay you much and don’t present your full audience with the breadth of your content. All YouTube cares about is money and retention rates and how long people stay on your channel. The format for comedy these days is short. Five‑minute sketches that we used to see back ten years ago are no longer a thing. Nobody gives a shit about sketch comedy. Nobody has the time to watch a four- or five-minute entertainment video that’s action or comedy or anything like that. So what does YouTube benefit? Well, they benefit people who make vlogs and people who make Let’s Play videos. So that’s it. That’s all YouTube has become. And they’ve done that to themselves.

What was once a platform where creators like me could make a living is now just a place where you basically have to be a consumer and a person who plays video games or who just talks, and not a creator who makes stuff. So they’ve totally stifled the creativity in the community by changing their algorithms to the state they’re in now. This is on top of them shooting themselves in the foot numerous other times, like with Google+, for instance. YouTube used to be so great, but they’ve definitely ruined their platform. It sucks now. It’s essentially impossible to make a living off of it anymore, doing what I do. Luckily, I have a job on the side that I work at a few days every couple of weeks, creating content for Super Deluxe.

So this is all why there aren’t many people doing what I do on YouTube. There’s nobody doing what CorridorDigital does or what Freddie Wong does, because you can’t sustain that model. YouTube has made it unsustainable. To put content out at the rate you need to in order to be successful on YouTube, you need to hire your own team. But how’s anyone supposed to do that when they’re just starting out? And how’s anybody supposed to get ahead when YouTube’s algorithms don’t benefit them or make them any money? They’ve really made it a harsh environment for creators.

S&P: So where do you see creative digital content going from here?

MD: Facebook seems like it could be the future, but the problem with Facebook is that they don’t have Content ID, so people can easily steal your content once it’s posted. And they don’t have monetization, so you can’t make any money off of it. What Facebook does have is the social element built in, which is something YouTube wishes it has and, of course, doesn’t. If Facebook gets their shit together, then they could completely take over by picking up where YouTube left off. But we’ll see. Facebook is also a very dumb company that makes a lot of very dumb moves. They’ve become greedy. It’s looking bleak, to be honest.

And with Vimeo, I mean, what the hell are you even supposed to do with Vimeo? You have to sign up for a Vimeo account just to watch it, and no one wants to do that. It’s a crappy time for creators. Simultaneously, it’s a great time for creators because we have all the tools at our feet and can create whatever we want. We’re in a weird state of flux. I’m hopeful that things will change in the next couple of years. It would be nice to see a platform that rises above. Until then, it’s really difficult doing what I do unless you have a job on the side.

That being said, I’m not trying to deter anyone from creating. At the end of the day, my goal is to inspire people to create and do more and not just make Let’s Play videos and not just make stupid vlogs, but to actually make art. Art can come in many forms, right? I make stupid meme internet art, but it’s still art. It’s still creating and you’re still making something. I think that not enough people make stuff these days because they see all of the Let’s Plays and the vloggers making a crap-ton of money, and it’s very rare to see a channel like mine because, again, YouTube doesn’t benefit channels like mine. Either way, I feel like people should still go out there and make stuff. Personally, I want to see more good content. I want to be entertained.

S&P: Not to get onto mundane bodily designations, so to speak, but my understanding is that you have Asian heritage.

MD: That’s correct. I’m half Korean and half Swedish.

S&P: Cool. So with that in mind, I’m wondering what some of your inspirations and influences might be from that shared heritage.

MD: My friend [director] James Wan has had a big influence on me, for sure. He’s the coolest dude, and I can literally hit him up on Facebook and ask him for advice. I mean, he’s the leading creator in horror at the moment, and has been for a while, and he’s still nice enough to take the time out to talk with me about my work. He’s expressed his confidence in me, and coming from someone whose work I genuinely admire, that sort of feedback has been a major inspiration. I’ve known James since Insidious, and I imagine he’s a bit less accessible now. But it’s still great that he’s so down to earth and so chill.

S&P: Any sage counsel you’d like to offer to all the burgeoning young meme makers out there?

MD: You should always strive for more. If you’re going to make a meme video, enhance the meme. That’s what I always say. Enhance it. Don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Do something with it that’s different, and take it to that next level. You know, it’s a little strange because I’m not sure how to describe exactly what it is that I do. I guess you’d call me a net artist or a web artist or whatever. I don’t know. But it’s certainly an interesting moment for creators.

There will be those times when it seems like there’s no point to doing any of this. Trust me, I’ve been there. For the better part of the past three years, I was in a sort of existential crisis trying to figure out what the hell I’m going to do. I left YouTube for a bit and tried to do music videos and commercials, and that didn’t really work out. But then I went back to YouTube, and I just tried to do my own thing. And people responded.

So my main advice is that, in order to be successful in this business, you have to get your ass kicked a lot. You’re going to feel like shit. A lot. It’s a matter of growing thick skin and saying, “Fuck it. I’m going to keep doing it. I don’t care if people didn’t like my last video. I’m going to keep making stuff.” Eventually you’ll succeed if you pick yourself back up and keep trying. That’s it. That’s all it is. It’s just getting your ass kicked, picking yourself back up, and doing it again.

Everyone I know who has succeeded at this has failed so many times. I’ve failed so many times. I had a show given to me by Google, and I fucked it up. It was horrible and nobody liked it. There was all this money invested in it, and I failed. It happens to everyone. Everyone fails, and everyone’s going to go through shit. But it’s never too late to get it back.


Photo: Mike Diva / YouTube


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