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35 Hours for a 10-Second Clip: The Art of the TikTok Trick Shot

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There are nights when Michael Shields lies awake next to his wife and thinks about Ping-Pong balls. He muses on their arcs and speeds, the ways they bounce off a wooden plank or roll down a Hot Wheels track. In the mornings he often turns his visions into reality, and millions tune in to watch.

Mr. Shields, 33, is a creator of trick shots, among the more popular armchair athletes who seek out ever more elaborate and challenging ways to, for example, sink a Ping-Pong ball in a cup or land a CD in a disc tray after bouncing it off three basketballs. If, as in Mr. Shields’s case, the trick shots garner enough views on social media, talent agents begin to call, and money and corporate partnerships help to keep new content coming.

For one of his most popular shots of 2023, Mr. Shields, who posts under the account name That’ll Work, attached a small cup to a clothes hanger perched near the ceiling, looped to a string that reaches the floor. His brother-in-law, Trent Golz, tosses an orange Ping-Pong ball and Mr. Shields releases the hanger, which slides toward the ground while the ball ricochets among five meticulously placed tiles.

On the fifth bounce, as the hanger nears the end of its path, the Ping-Pong ball, miraculously, lands and stays inside the tiny cup. The two men scream with joy (and relief) and clench their fists. The sea of Ping-Pong balls across the floor testifies to their many failed attempts.

“I try to post two or three times a week, because it takes hours to hit a shot,” Mr. Shields, of Urbandale, Iowa, said. “On TikTok they say, post every day or three times a day. I’m lucky if I make one or two of these a week.”

Setting up a trick shot can appear deceptively straightforward: Align a few tiles and cups and sink a ball in a target. But even the simplest shots can take hours or even days to execute. Being transparent about the process, by sharing footage of their failed attempts, makes viewers feel as if they have a stake in the outcome.

Matt Brockman, another trick shot constructor, began posting feats of precision card-throwing during the pandemic. By the beginning of 2023, he and a childhood friend and frequent collaborator, Andre Void, had enough content to create a compilation video of their trick shots, with time stamps indicating how long their attempts actually took. The video has been viewed nearly 150 million times on TikTok.

Throwing a hanger from a second-story window onto a pole in a backyard: 45 minutes. Flicking a playing card through the air so that it lands perfectly inside a spinning card case: 35 hours.

“I find it very meditative,” Mr. Brockman, 23, of Milwaukee, said in an interview. “If I have a shot that I know is going to take a long time, I kind of go into that flow state: I’m going to be here for probably a while, I’m just going to hang out, it’s going to be a good time.”

The modern concept of a trick shot video is often credited to Dude Perfect, a collective of creators whose YouTube video of a long-range basketball shot reached a large audience in 2009. With 60 million YouTube subscribers, Dude Perfect has since moved into a large office space with an area called the “Fun Zone,” where they attempt tricks on a larger scale. Last year, they mounted an arena tour.

Dude Perfect’s ascension to stardom created an opening for others who had the will and the spare time to follow their example.

Among them are David Hulett, 22, and Daniel Hulett, 25, who, like many of their peers, started experimenting with simple trick shots during the pandemic. They swiftly moved on to more ambitious setups, for instance by arranging kitchen pots and pans on stairs and across living room floors, bouncing a Ping-Pong ball among the surfaces and landing it in a cup or shot glass. Their videos found a wider audience on SportsCenter and were featured in local news reports, and what was once a way to pass the time became a serious business venture.

“The first brand we ever worked with was SunnyD,” Daniel Hulett said, adding that at first the offer was hard to believe: “We can do what we’re doing and they’re going to pay us money that we can live on?”

Since then, the Huletts have challenged members of the New York Jets to roll a marble down a table and onto the tip of a glue stick, and they have set up trick shots to promote such brands as Red Bull, Bojangles and Wimbledon. Last year they purchased office space in Virginia that doubles as a trick shot facility. They usually spend their mornings there, conceiving new ideas and working out the mechanics.

It can take hours just to set up a shot and even longer to execute one — trying over and over, for example, to land a Ping-Pong ball hanging from a parachute in a cup attached to a remote-controlled Jeep as it jumps off a ramp. The Huletts also have to keep their audience in mind, they said.

“Sometimes it would work really well, but it just doesn’t show well on the camera,” David Hulett said. And now that the brothers have decided to pursue trick shots full time, every view matters.

That kind of dedication can be difficult to juggle with the demands of family, school and day jobs, and there’s no certainty the TikTok path will pay off. Mr. Brockman has begun working as a creative producer for That’s Amazing, another trick shot channel, while Mr. Void enrolled in school for graphic design. Mr. Shields, who still works in finance, said he felt the need to re-evaluate how he manages the time he spends on his trick shots.

“It started to become too much,” Mr. Shields said. “If I’m trying to get two videos out per week, I might work 40 to 60 hours total — set up, ideation, hit the shot, edit it.” He said he plans to set weekly time limits.

The pursuit can leave friends and relatives scratching their heads, skeptical about its viability as a career path. But for those who have built a following of millions, the long hours spent finding creative ways to, say, land a dart squarely in the center of a Cheez-It would seem to have paid dividends.

“The biggest, I think, regret I would have is not doing this,” David Hulett said. “Having this crazy opportunity and not trying to do it, and make it become real.”

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