In October, Professor Robin Tremblay, a lecturer at Centre NAD, a technology university in Montreal, challenged his students in his video effects class to make a viral hoax video. If the students’ video received more than 100,000 views, they got an A. Four of Tremblay’s students, Normand Archambault, Félix Marquis-Poulin, Loïc Mireault, and Antoine Seigle, responded by creating the “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” video which collected 42 million views, was broadcast on talk shows, and embedded on sites (both major and minor) worldwide.
The video starts as a typical scene in a Montreal park: an eagle soars through the clear sky while the camera tracks it. But the eagle breaks from form, takes a dive toward the ground and predatorily arcs with its talons outstretched. Feet in front of the fast-approaching eagle a toddler stands. The eagle snatches the kid, lifts him a couple of feet into the air, and then drops him. The man holding the camera curses and runs to the kid to help before the video repeats the action in slow-motion then cuts out.
The team wanted to tap into the collective fear of apocryphal predatory birds. Taking reference from the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, they knew people would respond to the idea of birds as human predators. Further research proved that there were many first-hand, written accounts of bird-snatching. By tapping into this deep-situated psychological terror, they hoped they could have a hit on their hands.
They picked the 500-acre Mount Royal Park as the perfect location to find an eagle and child together, cast their friend’s 18-month-old son Jacob as the victim, and filmed for two hours on November 18. The entire project then took another 400 hours and many sleepless nights.BuzzFeed reports:
Over the next month, they ran their footage through three different programs: Autodesk Softimage (a 3-D-modeling app where they created the eagle and the computer-generated baby), Autodesk Maya (a program used to texture the eagle’s feathers), and NUKE, a post-production program that digitally composited the different source material and gave the studio-quality footage a believable rough quality.
By the morning after uploading it, the video had 1.2 million views and most people were fooled into believing it was real. This false belief helped it spread on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. But Tiago Duarte, who lives in Barcarena, Portugal, wasn’t fooled.
“It looked so fake to me,” he explains. “The main thing that gave it away was the baby falling down.” When the eagle snatches the child in its talons, it drags along the ground. As the bird gains a little altitude, the child slips. “It really looked like a 3-D model to me,” the kind of models that populate Call of Duty, says Duarte. This was a worry of the students too: “Making a realistic human in 3-D is very hard. When it looks fake, it’s very unconvincing,” explains Archambault.
But others were less skeptical than Duarte. “Every single person was believing it, and the top comment at the time was something like, ‘If you want to say this is fake, you better provide some proof.’ So I did.”
Duarte downloaded the file and used Sony Vegas Pro 11, a video editing suite, to run stabilization filters and color correction to make his case. He found one part of the video where the shadow of the bird disappears, and showed how when the eagle releases the boy, the child is still moving upwards for a fractional piece of a second. He cut together a short video of his evidence and uploaded it to YouTube five hours after the original video was released.
Duarte’s video along with the original kept racking up views even though they combatted each other. Part of what makes something go viral is the ability for discussion to occur around the content. People were debating whether or not it was a hoax, and whether or not Duarte’s “proof” was conclusive. The video became a puzzle and intrigue kept people watching and re-watching the clip.