Recently a video popped up on the internet featuring what claimed to be a real hoverboard from the Back to the Future films (specifically the 2nd and 3rd films), from a company called HUVr. It had celebrity endorsement after celebrity endorsement, with the likes of Tony Hawk and even Doc Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd, making an appearance. Turns out comedy website Funny or Die was behind the whole thing, but that doesn't mean it's a total letdown. The response from people and how quickly the video spread can teach us a lot about these kinds of videos, how to make them (with a little bit of money), and how to keep the illusion a reality for as long as possible.
If you happened to miss the original videos, here they are:
And Christopher Lloyd's "apology," which includes an offer to win a free signed hoverboard replica from the movies:
Take Something That People Wish Existed & Make It a Reality
Hoverboards are not real, and the actual technology to make anything "hover" currently involves magnets and superconductors -- which is essentially how high-speed maglev trains work, or Electrohydrodynamic devices, which can create lift by electrically charging air molecules (and there are more we don't really need to get into). To put it simply, the flying cars and hoverboards of Back to the Future are safely in the realm of science fiction, and we won't be seeing them anytime soon.
That doesn't mean it wouldn't be cool to have them, and that's one of the reasons the video worked on enough people. Even in the face of something unbelievable, we want to believe -- because it's just so damn cool if it were true.
Use Actual Celebrities
When it comes to convincing people, celebrities do a pretty good job, and we tend to trust them, which is why they frequently vouch for all sorts of charity organizations. When you get stars like Moby, Tony Hawk, and Terrell Owens (not to mention Christopher Lloyd who was in the movies), and they are all acting sincere, people are likely going to play along a bit longer. This is obviously not cheapt, and it may only work for certain kinds of videos, but without the celebrity endorsements, the whole thing would have fallen apart much faster than it did.
Build a Slick-Looking Website
Speaking of celebrity endorsements, getting someone like Mark Cuban to give their support on your website isn't a bad start. Putting together a very slick website goes a long way towards convincing people what you're doing is real, and the HUVr site, with its ample white space and clean lines, does the job perfectly.
Don't Have Credited Actors Playing "Real-life" People
If you have someone claiming to be a scientist, and they have a decent list of IMDb credits (which includes their picture), people are going to figure it out pretty fast. The main engineer working for HUVr in the video is Nelson Cheng. If you want great performances, actors are a good place to start, but at the very least they shouldn't be so easily recognizable.
It Must Be Kept Secret By Everyone Involved
Another way this unraveled as quickly as it did, a costume designer who worked on the project had added the HUVr video to her resume. If you want something to seem real as long as possible, secrecy is extremely important. Friends and family can certainly slip, and it doesn't take long for the circle to get big enough for plenty of people on the internet to catch wind of the situation.
Don't Let the Seams Show
The harness that was holding up the actors is seen in a shadow in at least one part of the video. If you want your viral to be believable for longer, those little details matter. Many of these involve special effects, and if you're having trouble getting those effects to look real, you're not going to convince too many folks (though the effects are superb in this video). A frequent technique is to make the video low enough quality to hide those seams. If people can't quite make out what is really going on, it's hard to discredit the video outright. That wasn't the strategy in this case, and it may or may not have worked out in their favor.
When People Figure It Out
If you're creating a viral or hoax video for whatever it is you're advertising (and it's still unclear what Funny or Die's true purpose was in creating this), when people figure out for certain that this thing is fake (and they will), some are either going to be upset, or they may even make it a point not to have anything to do with whatever it is you're promoting. If you're at a level where money is being thrown effortlessly, feel free to carry on, but if you might just have a chance to create that perfect viral video, the end product needs to live up to the hype you created in the first place or the backlash just might be worse than if you never created it at all.
This isn't really a guide (since doing this intentionally often requires more money than most of us are working with), but it's interesting how quickly many of these details unraveled the entire illusion (disregarding how fake parts of it look). Maybe it was Funny or Die's plan all along to come out very quickly and admit they had created it, but then again it seems like an awful lot of work if they weren't going to let the thing play out for very long. The ultimate laugh may be that they aren't really promoting anything, and the entire joke was to see how long people would play along? Unlikely, but we'll probably find out soon enough.