There’s still a month left in the year, but it’s probably not too soon to crown “Tiny Hamster” the breakout animal-meme franchise of 2014.
Since his debut in April, this oddly adorable rodent has eaten oddly adorable burritos. He’s tried birthday cake and devoured hot dogs. (Though the hot dogs were made of grapes, dates and carrots, because hamsters can’t actually eat hot dog meat.)
All told, the tiny hamster has starred in four two-minute videos of him eating things. Each video has averaged roughly 3.5 million YouTube views. And his latest installment, “A Tiny Hamster Thanksgiving,” may just be the best one yet: Jezebel has already crowned it “the goddamn greatest thing you’ve ever seen.”
That’s good news for both Denizen, the creative firm that produces the videos, and Joseph Matsushima and Joel Jensen, the creative duo behind it. Matsushima and Jensen have produced work for Budweiser, FedEx and Nissan, among others. But after four years in the business, Denizen’s probably best known for those hamster videos. Of all things.
“We have a policy on pitching stupid ideas,” Jensen said with a laugh, “because the most stupid ideas are often the best ones.”
The hamster idea, for its part, was born of desperation — and a whole lot of Internet browsing. Among other things, Denizen produces “branded content,” or social-media-friendly videos that will, they hope, go viral, to the benefit of the companies that sponsor them. It’s still an emerging industry, and one that bewilders more conservative executives. So, frustrated by many brands’ unwillingness to take on their zanier concepts, Jensen and Matsushima decided to just start a YouTube channel and film zany videos on their own.
That ended up being a bit more difficult than it initially appeared: One does not merely plop a burrito in front of a hamster and expect him to eat it. First, Denizen had to find an animal trainer with trained hamsters willing to endure a 12-hour shoot. (Yes, trained hamsters are a thing that exist — though not in large numbers, because hamsters aren’t the “sharpest little animals” around.)
Then they had to work with a set designer to create tiny hamster-sized tables and chairs. Then a food stylist, in consultation with the trainer, had to devise miniature, all-natural versions of human foods that hamsters could, and would, actually eat. In the birthday episode, for instance, the hamster (and a guest-starring hedgehog) are eating a mash of apples, bananas and rice flour, frosted with yogurt and beet juice. Yum.
“We definitely have these moments when we’re on the phone — totally stressed out, pinching our noses, talking about what kind of cake a hedgehog will eat,” Jensen said. “Then you realize what a privilege it is to be stressed out over a hedgehog.”
In total, planning, scripting and prepping a tiny hamster video takes a crew of 10 people roughly a month. Shooting can take a full day: The Thanksgiving video took 12 hours, with a 30-minute lunch for its human participants. And from those hours and hours of filming, only a minute or so of footage actually gets used.
The work has been worth it for Denizen, though: Matsushima and Jensen said that, to their surprise, the hamster videos have defined their work, and convinced the skeptics, in a way that a thousand explanations and pitches hadn’t. Denizen has signed several new contracts off the popularity of the Tiny Hamster videos. Perhaps more importantly, the men’s parents and grandparents finally understand what their kids are up to.
“I don’t know what it is, but that video explains our work better than anything else,” Jensen said. “It’s become a shorthand description for what we do.”
Matsushima puts it more bluntly: The success of the hamster video, he said, has taught doubters “how the Internet works.”