By now you've seen them. They're infiltrating your news feed with promises of a quick, easy dinner — or at least cheese-stuffed pizza pretzels.
Time-lapse food videos, or “thumb-stoppers”, as The Wall Street Journal calls them, are taking over social media with the goal of compelling users to stop scrolling mid-feed.
And it's working. These minute-long POV tutorials for everything from Sandcastle Cake to Tater Tot Breakfast Bake prove that mashing together the words “viral” and “food” doesn't have to spell disaster.
At least that's the view from Buzzfeed, the media company whose online cooking channel, Tasty, churns out food videos that score big clicks. In March 2016, Tasty saw more online engagement growth than any U.S. media publisher, with all of that traffic driven by Facebook recipe videos that would give Julia Child fits.
What's behind the infectious nature of these videos? Tiffany Lo, supervising producer at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, points to the universal appeal of food and cooking.
“There are very few essential questions everyone asks themselves everyday. 'What am I going to eat?' is one of them,” she says. “It's something people constantly have to think about — and who doesn't love food, whether you like to cook or not?”
If social media is the fire around which younger generations increasingly gather, these videos are the salty snacks passed around the circle. Lo, who notes a million people shared a recipe for Broccoli Tots over a few short days, thinks the videos may render cookbooks obsolete among a generation more at home with iPhones than recipes on yellowed index cards.
“With the rise of smartphones, the ability to watch videos while cooking has become more accessible,” she says. “It also visually shows you each step, what the consistency or color is supposed to look like, the texture, etc. This is something cookbooks lack.”
But Kathleen Purvis, food editor for the Charlotte Observer and author of Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook, isn't so sure the era of cookbooks is drawing to a close.
Despite dire warnings that the digital information age would kill print food writing, today there are more cookbooks than ever, Purvis says. “Unlike other areas of publishing, cooking is still where people crave advice from an author with a track record and a physical record they can hold in their hands," she explains.
While Purvis says she can certainly get behind the democratization of cooking, particularly for a younger generation more given to Instagram-ing dinner than making it, she's not so sold on the junk food culture the videos spread.
“Most of them seem to be pretty heavily loaded toward lowest-common-denominator cooking,” she says.
And the minute-long running time of most of the recipes? “'Birds-eye' recipes are eye candy, and they can make you hungry,” Purvis says. “But at the end of the day, it isn't really practical to cook from something that moves that fast and has so little detail.”
That lack of detail can be quite attractive from a production standpoint, according to Joseph Nilo, post-production director for HiLo Media, which has produced hundreds of YouTube culinary videos, a 13-episode culinary series for PBS, and a number of brand-related cooking shorts. “We do tons of video for web and, regardless of whether it's food or not, we're finding that the shorter the better,” he says. “You very simply get to see the technique and it's done very quickly without a chef personality getting in the way.”
Whereas a traditional full-length recipe shoot is a complex matter of multiple cameras, characters and sounds, time-lapse cooking shoots can be produced with one camera, one set of hands, and a snappy soundtrack.
“And it can even be my hands, so there's a lot fewer moving parts,” Nilo says. “So that's something I've been recommending to my clients — I can do 10-15 videos a day, as opposed to getting a chef in and doing three or four.”
BuzzFeed's staff also eschews the many-hands-on-deck style of traditional video tutorials, Lo explains. “Each producer comes up with the recipe and shoots and edits the video,” she says. “Typically, we create 14 videos a week, so our workflow and turnaround time is pretty quick.”
That quick turnaround time keeps the Tasty machine turning. And the snappy nature of the production ensures millions of people are tuning in — even if they've no intention of so much as picking up a spatula.
“There is something very satisfying about seeing something being made start to finish,” Lo says. “Even if the dish doesn't appeal to you, it's still cool to see the process.”