Interview: Ze Frank, zefrank.com
Wednesday, December 4, 2002
by Mark Hurst - goodexperience.com
Recently I interviewed Ze Frank, online performance artist and humorist.
Zefrank.com won the 2002 Webby for the best personal website (People's
Voice award). It is perhaps the single best entertainment website I've
ever seen; the sheer variety of videos, toys, essays, and other projects
- all created by Ze Frank - show him to be a kind of genius in creating
Q: What's your background?
After getting a BS in neuroscience from Brown University in '95, I played
in a band for three years. When we split up in '98, a lot of unemployed
musicians were getting into Web design. The obvious thing to do at that
time was to take your already tremendous credit card debt and get one
of those beige Apple Macintosh G3s and starttinkering.
I started learning some code, started illustrating. Then I went to some
website where something moved and I freaked out. That's when I got into
Flash. I worked for awhile as a designer at an interactive agency, and
eventually went freelance. I found myself confronting the inevitable
freelance challenge: how to deal with downtime. So I started playing.
I built "Meine Kleine Drawtoy," a rudimentary drawing tool,
and "Your Mama," a basic motion sequencer. That was the beginning
Q: How did How to Dance Properly come about?
About a month before my 29th birthday, I aggressively launched a campaign
for my friends to come to my birthday party. I had just bought a digital
video camera, and I was trying to think of something I could do with
that, to learn more about putting video clips online.
My idea for the birthday invite was to create rudimentary video clips
of me dancing like a jackass. So I set up the camera, and for about
15 minutes I spazzed out to Madonna's "Justify My Love" remix
CD. I imported it and chopped it into pieces, and made each dance look
like a loop. I wrote some fake critical responses and posted it all
on my site as "How to Dance Properly." I sent the link to
That was on a Thursday afternoon. I went out to dinner, and when I came
back, I was getting an e-mail every three or four minutes from people
I didn't know, saying, "I love this, who are you?" So that
The next morning I woke up and found that the site was shut down. I
had a warning from Earthlink saying "we shut your site down as
a precaution, blah blah blah" because it was a free-hosting site.
I started calling Earthlink, and eventually they agreed put the site
back up, with a banner on the page.
When I went out Friday night, all my friends already knew about it.
I walked into the bar, and my friend said, "Hey, it's the dancing
guy," and some random woman turned around and said, "You saw
that link too?" Meanwhile, I was getting e-mails from people from
all walks of my life. Ex-girlfriends were writing me. My dad even got
the link from a colleague in Brazil before I told him about it. By Monday
it was getting over a million people a day, and I was getting over seven
e-mails a minute.
One of the first things I thought was, "How do I capitalize on
this?" But I was diverted from that model. A salesman friend of
mine told me, "I could make you $20,000 over six months, but that
might sacrifice some other good that could come to you." I was
very aware that something humorous and intelligent can become smarky
once you slap a Coke banner alongside it.
Q: What came after How to Dance?
The mass influx of e-mails I got gave me a lot of ideas. This one woman's
mother was fascinated with the kaleidoscope, so I created three digital
kaleidoscopes for her, including a "build your own" version.
Then this little girl and her family were on the site, and this girl
Ella asked her mom, "Where are all the animal noises?" The
family wrote me that, so I created this thing called Animal Noises for
Ella. Lots of other projects came from those early e-mails.
A lot of the projects have a humorous shell. It's an easy way to get
people involved, excited about submitting things. Like "When Office
Supplies Attack," I asked people to send me pictures of them getting
attacked by office supplies. Today that's the fourth most popular thing
on the site. At one point a few months ago, Office Supplies was getting
30,000 visits a day.
Once I get enough responses, I display the project with little or no
explanation of what it is. I set the rule up, run the project, and then
strip the rules away. People come to the site and see this huge page
of pictures showing people being attacked by office equipment, and they
have no idea what it is.
So it's been an experiment in rules, generating rule sets that allow
for enough variety. Most people entering aren't artists, animators,
or even Web people. They're just common, average everyday computer users.
The rules have to be inviting and easy so that I can have kids and older
people do it, users who don't know as much, but they have to be interesting
enough to allow creativity to filter into it. I just think it's so neat
to be able to motivate people into doing something that's joyous and
Q: You don't often hear "joy" when people talk about user
There's a stylistic choice behind what I do on the site. I decided early
on never to talk down to anyone. Even though my style of humor is sarcastic
and dry, I tried to keep that out of the site. I wanted to keep the
feeling light and fun.
There's the joyous sense of experimentation and play, which goes against
a very popular form of humor these days, which is unlimited up-scale
sarcastic anger, I guess. I happen to think it's very funny. I'm a huge
South Park fan, and I really enjoyed the Jackass movie. On the other
hand, I think there's a real lack of humor that has a kind of sweetness,
like what the Marx Brothers had, or Laurel and Hardy. There needs to
be a space for that more simple, fun, light, and intelligent humor.
Q: Can you think of contemporary examples in that camp, as opposed to
the South Park camp?
I love explodingdog.com, what Sam Brown does. The drawings and the way
that he interacts with his audience are along the lines of what we're
The Muppet Show would be a great example of what I'd ultimately want
to achieve, that split-level approach where you provide things immediately
funny and appealing, but intelligent enough for people to guffaw at,
on that other level.
Q: There's a similar spirit on zefrank.com. It's not sarcastic or demeaning.
Part of that comes from risk-taking. My most popular pieces were the
ones I was afraid of releasing. "How to Dance" I only released
to 17 people. My stomach churned before I released it because I look
like a total ass in it. There was this "wingin' it" kind of
feeling. A lot of people write to me imagining that I have this free
joyous life, where I just dance through life, creating projects.
Q: What actually motivates you, then?
Anxiety drives me. The only time that I'm really happy is generally
when I'm two-thirds the way through a project. Not after I complete
it, because then it's gone - and not when I start it, because I'm daunted
by it. I love being in the middle of making something, feeling like
it's almost done. The great way to achieve that is to do a lot of small
projects. The longer you work on a project, the more polish you want,
a lot of the quick and dirty personality leaves the project. Anyone
who's done design for larger websites knows, the larger the project,
the less personality it has intrinsically, because of the rules and
limitations that crop up.
Q: That raises an interesting question. How do you design corporate
experiences in your for-pay work?
I don't think that there is or should be as much room to bring your
personality into corporate design. You need to focus on elegant solutions.
You should be happy with something that strips away a lot of the crap,
says something in half as many words.
Unless you're an agency given the task of infusing a personality into
a brand, when you design sites, the brand is already out there, and
the client's bureaucracy has a kind of personality that it has somehow
agreed upon. It's your job just to find out what they respond to, and
repeat it right back to them.
In general, I don't have many clients where I say, "Here's your
personality, hope you like it." Usually they say they want "fun
and lively" and you say, "You're an architecture firm specializing
in psychiatric wards." That actually happened, by the way. If you
listen closely, all they mean is adding a couple shades of red into
their site, because their idea of what fun is so different - the words
are just failing them.
Q: So you create zefrank with a different sense than your corporate
I think they're kind of opposed. The stuff that I'm doing on zefrank,
I'd love for it not to influence designers commercially, but just help
people in how they think about making things, to show people that really
simple things, when done with care and enthusiasm, can become incredible.
They can be so much fun.
Q: What's next for zefrank.com?
Currently I'm working on a series of digital puppets that respond to
eq levels in MP3 tracks. Overall, things have slowed down a bit in terms
of how many things I've put up, mainly because the site management has
increased, just maintaining all the galleries and the contests. The
next big phase will have a lot more video. They'll be skit-based, improv-based
videos. I'm taking an improv comedy class, and I want to practice on
P.S. Ze (pronounced "Zay", short for Hosea) will be speaking
at the Gel conference in May.