This post was written by Jen Ponton.

As an actor and fledgling producer, I came up during the era of the web series: if you wanted to make your own work, you had to crowdfund, get it on Vimeo or YouTube, and then let someone replace you if and when a production company bought it from you. It was an exhausting time to be a maker, shadowed only by how exhausting it was to be their Kickstarter-savvy friend.

In a few short years, the portrait-oriented video took over social media. Suddenly, slickly-produced YouTube videos get only a fraction of those boasted by quick, unscripted, shaky, lo-fi green screen TikToks and Reels, the worst of them narrated by The TikTok Voice who cannot pronounce anything. These videos perform absurdly well, often without any real production costs–save for a cheap Amazon ring light.

I swiped and swiped, finding virality in everything from dancing families to nauseating recipe commentary to people Wes Anderson-ing their lives. The one thing that was missing was what they were all playing at: narrative fictitious content. Filmic storytelling. It seemed a baffling omission from a platform full of people vying for fame. I grew more and more set on finding a way to make this swipe-through platform the setting for a new film.

I wanted to create an immersive TikTok film, one that combined fly-on-the-wall cinema with a typical first-person influencer account. I had been chewing quite a bit on feminist stories of madness, lingering quite a bit on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Before long, my co-creator Jody Lauren Miller and I had written CARETAKER, a haunting story about the new caretaker of a decrepit, shuttered Bed and Breakfast.

We shot the thing in one day, down the Jersey Shore in Cape May, with only three people: Jody as director and DP, myself as talent and creator, and my partner as an extra set of hands. We brought just a ring light and an iPhone along with us.

Jody shot entirely in portrait orientation, and we shot each piece of the script as though they were the TikToks themselves: only 15-60 seconds per clip. The script, incredibly light on dialogue, ran on tension and creeping dread. Each individual TikTok would deliver a discovery, a moment, or drop a breadcrumb in the viewer’s path.

As we edited the master of what, all told, was a 21-minute film, we prepared our corner of the TikTok platform. We would need an account for the film (@caretakerfilm), of course. The plot centered around my character, Ros, being an influencer–so we had to make her a functioning TikTok account, as well (@capemaycaretaker). From her account, Ros would post a few times before the release of the film, establishing her verity in the world and on the internet. Soon, her posts would be concurrent with the film–goofy videos she’d shot for TikTok would be matched by awkward, meta glimpses of her shooting them in real-time on @caretakerfilm. The disparity revealed the chasm between musical, filtered videos, punctuated by stickers and captions and pointing fingers… and the lonely, vicariously mortifying reality of filming such things. (For more of this madness, check out @influencersinthewild.)

Our initial rollout was meant to be one massive drop, where we posted each video (about 40 in total) over the course of 15 minutes. Having no way to roll anything out in beta, we posted each video privately. This is where we hit our first real snag. I got through 17 of them when I came up against an unexpected obstacle: I was now being flagged as a bot.

If I continued to try and post, the account would be suspended or removed. Horrified by this technical bear trap, we punted, opting to quietly roll every video out over three days. We would post one per hour until they were all available, and then we would start publicizing the accounts.

The home scroll of TikTok is madness. Unless you click through to a user’s page, you can go weeks without seeing the same creator again. This was the anticipated chaos of the platform, and we were hoping that users’ curiosity would be piqued–by the horror as much as the novelty of filmic storytelling–and urge them to click through and watch more.

While I’m sure many of the views were one-offs, there were many people who went on to follow and watch the videos in chronological order. What was even better was those who discovered the Easter egg of @capemaycaretaker. If one wanted to watch the film itself without seeing Ros’ videos, they could. If, however, they noticed that Ros was tagged, and clicked through to her account? Well, then they would find all her earlier posts, as well as her audience’s view of her influence (complete with stickers and music).

My favorite part–the part I’d hoped for all along–was the viewers who discovered Ros all by her lonesome. She’d end up in someone’s feed, and they would watch her dances or her talking head tell-alls. They might click through to watch more of this run-of-the-mill influencer, and if they did, they might start to catch up to her newer videos. Ones that document Ros changing. Shifting into someone mad and sinister. Comments reflected users’ concerns, and I could only hope that @caretakerfilm would find its way into their algorithm as well.

While CARETAKER didn’t take the internet by storm, it set an exciting precedent for this kind of filmmaking. These platforms are full of invested users, and while think pieces crow about the death of the attention span, a good story can draw almost anyone in.

This post was written by Jen Ponton.