It's just past dawn in Jacksonville, Florida, and I’m on the set of YouTube filmmaker Devin Graham’s latest video project, at EverBank Field, home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The action is unfolding at the tippy-top of one of eight towers that support the lighting arrays, 350 feet above the playing surface, from which various members of Graham’s crew and the Jaguar squad will zip-line across the field.
Graham, 30, is based out of Provo, Utah, and happens to be the world’s most bankable action-sports video maker, as measured by the Internet’s global reserve currency: the click. He’s polite and affable, Mormon like the rest of his team, and a tad husky, with his trademark plaid baseball cap turned backward over a floppy mop of brown hair that makes him look half his age. “I’m scared of heights,” he readily acknowledges as he steps out into a crow’s nest, where a crew is rigging the massive zip line.
Though you may not be familiar with Graham, you’re almost certainly familiar with his work. His YouTube channel, Devin Super Tramp—the name is taken from Chris McCandless’s moniker in Into the Wild—has 1.7 million subscribers and falls a few rungs below Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel and a few above Coldplay’s in popularity. Graham has uploaded 106 catchy, watchable videos in the past three years, and they’ve been viewed a combined 288 million times. These days, he’s uploading a video every week. Highlights include a 140-foot rope swing at Corona Arch, near Moab, Utah, that has netted 22 million views. And the dubstep music video he shot for former America’s Got Talent contestant Lindsey “Epic Violin Girl” Stirling, where she dances while playing in an ice palace, which topped 77 million views last year. There was the Australia grass-kart-racing video, where millennials caromed down a ski hill in open soapbox racers. And then there’s the second Moab rope-swing video, in which Creighton Baird, 25, a reality-show-worthy wild man and a frequent star in Graham’s movies, pushes his then girlfriend over the edge of a 400-foot precipice. Seconds later, her tiny voice shouts from the distance, “I’m breaking up with you!”
“If we’re being honest, she deserved it,” jokes Seth Jones, 26, a crew member and high school friend of Baird’s, during a pause in the action. The incident made Baird “as undatable as Chris Brown” for several months. (In truth, she’d asked him to push her if she couldn’t bring herself to jump.)
Ever since the share button became the driving force in media consumption, debate has raged over whether viral content is an animal spirit that can’t be captured or a wild horse simply in need of a harness. In 2013, the tamers declared victory. BuzzFeed has generated billions of clicks through its sharable-content model, and more recently, sites like Upworthy have exploded by tapping into our willingness to pass along anything fresh and uplifting, no matter how banal. (Example: “This supercut of animals yawning might kill you with cuteness.”)
But as far as one-man viral-video auteurs go, Graham is in a league of his own, and Corporate America has taken notice. Graham now gets paid tens of thousands of dollars on top of production costs to place products, from Ford to Kellogg’s to Mountain Dew, in his videos. Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube, says Graham is emblematic “of a big change that’s happened in the gatekeeping system of media. A guy like Devin can set up shop in a place like Utah and become a mogul in the entertainment space without needing a giant studio.” Graham is in such demand that when one sponsor dropped out of the Jacksonville zip-line-party shoot, Panasonic replaced it within hours, sending Graham a GoPro-like action cam and a set of headphones that he had his talent wear while he filmed them. Though not a client, the Jaguars also understand the value of Graham’s mojo and are more than willing to give him the run of the place.
At 9 a.m., Graham’s hired riggers are ready to stress-test their creation, built by 53-year-old Tom Andrews, a sun-worn Gunks climber. The contraption consists of a bungee-jumping cord attached by pulleys to an 850-foot zip line that spans the width of the stadium, terminating at the top of the opposite lighting tower. A rigger named Paul kicks a pair of 100-pound disc weights over the edge. The weights rocket briefly toward the nosebleed seats 80 feet below us, clank together dully, and arc cleanly toward the 50-yard line, all of it in near silence. “That’s what we like,” says Andrews.
They reset the apparatus and get ready for the day’s action. The Jaguars’ furry mascot, Jaxson de Ville, along with Baird, Jones, and a half-dozen of the team’s cheerleaders, clad in booty shorts and high-heeled boots, will leap, dive, and somersault off the stadium lights using the bungee-zip-line rig.
Graham shouts to his crew, positioned with cameras around the tower: “Everyone good? Creighton? Good?” He signals for another cameraman to launch a drone that will record the action from above and begins the jump countdown. Then comes a shout from Jones down on the field: “Hey, where’s the record button on this one?”
“I like to hire guys who don’t know the rules, so they aren’t worried about breaking them,” says Graham.
Despite what his videos might imply, Graham is less a visionary than a diligent researcher. He gets ideas from his fans and from videos on Facebook that have performed decently but could really catch fire if they were shot and edited a little more strategically. Climbers had been swinging at Corona Arch well before Baird first showed Graham a clip of the action. And Graham’s video of slow-motion underwater dogs, uploaded in October 2012, arrived shortly after similar still photos became a brief Internet meme. Says Graham: “The whole game is looking at what other people are sharing, what’s viral, and doing my own rendition of it.”
His rendition is his secret. Graham’s signature is in making short videos in which attractive people are having crazy fun and don’t say much, and (it appears) somebody happened to bring along a camera. They’re the sort of thing you’d like to imagine you and your friends doing—mud fights, being pulled in a cardboard box behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., getting flung from a human slingshot. “I watch his stuff online on my TV when I get home at night all the time,” says Allocca. “Devin’s friends are having way more fun than whatever I’m doing.” That it looks like a low-budget production is another big part of the formula. The goal is for it to seem attainable. (Warning: It isn’t. Last March, a copycat who attempted to re-create the rope swing died.) And while the rest of the action-sports world has adopted Hollywood production values, Graham shoots mostly with a Canon DSLR. “I realized that people would connect with me better if I did everything on a camera they could afford,” he says.
Graham’s journey to mogulhood began in 2009, when he made his first video, a tutorial on how to beat halitosis for a company called Orabrush, which was launching a breath-freshening tongue cleaner. The clip killed it (18 million views and counting) because there hadn’t yet been a really good video on how to combat bad breath. He quickly dropped out of Brigham Young University’s film school. A series of cliff-jumping videos he shot in Hawaii went viral in December 2010 and were his first product-placement gigs. Business has grown quickly from there, with enough money rolling in to allow Graham to keep a small crew working consistently and to hire his father, who handles communications in addition to running his own drywalling business. Graham’s got an agent in Los Angeles who’s there largely to make his old-media clients feel comfortable about doing business with a guy who seems to shoot from the hip. “The fight for creative control is one of my least favorite things,” says Graham. “But they’re starting to trust me.”
Occasionally, safety has been an issue. A guy broke his collarbone and a girl coughed up blood in Lake Powell in October 2012, both either leaping onto or being launched from a giant inflatable air bladder called the Blob. And several participants have been knocked unconscious by hitting the water at high speed after being launched by a slingshot.
Graham has taken extra precautions in Jacksonville. He hired the riggers from Aerial Concepts, a stunt-safety-management firm, to set up the zip line. Then each jump requires about an hour to prepare. By 9 P.M., the crew has executed seven jumps. Baird pulled a double backflip and Jones a gainer. A cheerleader named Caitlin swan-dived with a pom-pom in one hand and a GoPro camera on a stick in the other. The riggers are exhausted and need to quit, but Graham has other ideas.
“Maybe we can just shoot the intro with Jaxson,” he offers. Parker Walbeck, another cameraman, is playing catch on the sidelines with Baird, and Jones is dozing in a folding chair in the tunnel to the locker rooms. Graham keeps rolling, shot after shot. He’s got no time to waste. In a few weeks is Zorb bowling (with those inflatable hamster balls people ride inside) in Mammoth, California, and after that, the Island of Aruba needs him and his friends to stage an epic pirate battle using two tall sailing ships.