A quick Google search of Ze Frank will reveal that he is a pioneer of internet virality, head of Buzzfeed's newly organized research and development team, three-time TED Talk speaker, and a charismatic performer and comic.
However, what doesn't come up is that, in addition to the aforementioned, Frank has been a neuroscience researcher, musician, construction worker, festival organizer, hobbyist coder, designer and illustrator.
Despite his wildly multifaceted résumé, his introspective and humble nature appears to be a constant in his approach to life, and perhaps a fundamental reason why he has so seamlessly succeeded in an array of disparate roles. “I was not some genius who had some vision or perfect idea,” Frank says. “It was fluid and playful, and there were a lot of stops and starts.”
Frank has been an Angeleno for 10 years. “Los Angeles is a geographical marvel. I don't subscribe to the idea that it isn't a place,” he says. “It is nuanced and never stops.”
However, Frank hails from a much different world: the “sleepy town” of Albany, New York. Growing up, he relied heavily on his imagination as a source of entertainment. “I was an art kid and I felt like I never fit in,” he recalls. “But that never stopped me from searching for different ways to do interesting things.”
After graduating from Brown University with a bachelor's in neuroscience, he stayed at Brown to work in a lab studying rats' visual cortex. Although he was set on pursuing graduate work in neuroscience, Frank decided to instead pursue music. His rock band drew him out of the lab and took him to New York City — where he and his bandmates pursued music full-time. To make money on the side, he worked in construction.
At 27, when the band started to dissipate, Frank got his first credit card and with it purchased a computer. He started to teach himself how to use it to digitally illustrate. The temp agency where he was working at the time, placed him as an illustrator at Dennis Interactive, where he was quickly promoted to full-time art director.
He started learning and playing with a program called Flash, which combined graphic design and coding. With that foundation, he made his first major step in the world of internet entertainment with his viral video, “How to Dance Properly.” “I was very fortunate to come into my creative self with a certain kind of urgency at a time that rewarded playfulness and not a very strong understanding of the ways things were supposed to work,” Frank says.
Since his first viral video, Frank has continued his quest to understand the value and role of internet content in the shared human experience. He and his R&D team at Buzzfeed are looking into the way our physical and digital lives intersect. “People want real-life experiences that are connected to their digital lives,” he explains. “The plan is to look at the advantages of the digital age like sharing, organic distribution, the capacity to hit audiences across the world, examining data, leaning on production technologies that are now cheaper. [Virtual reality and augmented reality] are also certainly interesting to me, as are simple things like the fact that cellphones are making filmmakers and directors out of almost everyone.”
Beyond the impressive diversity of roles Frank has held are the themes that have and continue to inform much of his work. “That which makes us feel alone has the greatest ability to connect us,” he says. Viral content is a reflection of what connects us. “If you focus on joy, empathy and acceptance, you get good results.”