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Two years ago, cable news footage from Parma, Ohio, began attracting the attention of ghost enthusiasts on YouTube. The videos depicted a blue something hovering above the parking lot of a gas station. The news coverage showed locals reacting with delight and terror as the something swooped around the lot. One gas station customer said the apparition was an angel; another suggested the gas station was built upon an old Indian reservation. No reporter suggested that the entity's appearance might have a more mundane explanation.
Captain Disillusion was appalled. The Captain is a YouTube phenomenon, with more than 2 million views. The superhero's mission: to rid the world of video fakery and spread the gospel of critical thinking across the internet.
In Gas Station Ghost — Recut, the Captain begins with his standard salutation: "Greetings, children," he says, sitting in the corner of a bare room with red walls. He wears a vintage 1980s tracksuit, and the skin of the lower part of his face is covered in silvery paint. (This makes him almost unique among superheroes, most of whom disguise the upper parts of their face.)
"Captain D. here," he continues in a voice made melodious by a subtle, unidentifiable accent: "It occurred to me recently that, despite all the advances in internet media distribution and the amazing improvements in the field of newspaper-ink smell reduction, television remains the primary source of information for people your age. The problem is, TV news programs sometimes show stuff... like this." He holds aloft his signature prop — a computer-generated, wafer-thin monitor, which in this case displays a still shot from the Parma footage. In the middle of the screen is a "Play" icon, which he mashes with one gloved hand while he holds the monitor to the camera.
The Captain has fashioned 15 videos like this one, each a minor masterpiece of DIY wit and ingenuity. Although other YouTube stars take a convenient pride in lax production standards, the Captain's vids are utterly professional, complete with slick special effects, camera tricks, and smart lighting.
Devoid of superpowers, his ordinary tactic is to find famous viral videos depicting allegedly paranormal events, or at least surpassingly unlikely ones, and subject them to critical deconstruction.
Captain Disillusion was born Alan Melikdjanian in Riga, Latvia, in 1980, to circus performer parents. His father, Bilen, was an acrobat before he moved into clowning and juggling; his mother, Tatiana, did a cowboy-themed hula-hoop act. The Captain assumed he'd grow up to be a circus performer himself. "I thought I'd do magic, maybe," he says. "I'd get to know all the magicians. They'd show me little sleight-of-hand things, and I was all set to go that route when I was maybe 5, 6 years old."
He toured the Soviet Union with his parents until beginning school at age 6. Thereafter, he lived with his grandmother in Riga while his parents toured, and he made friends with a neighborhood boy named Pavel. When he was 8, he and Pavel began making animations on their own. In Riga, during the school year, the young Captain would spend most of his free time trying to copy the styles of Disney animators. During summer, he'd resume his circus life on the road.
When he was 12, his parents defected from the Soviet Union while touring the United States. Months later, the young Captain followed them here. He attended high school at William H. Turner Tech in Miami and studied video production and 3-D animation. He continued to do so at the International Fine Arts College, now known as the Miami International University of Arts & Design.
It was a viral video of a penguin that compelled him to produce his first piece as Captain Disillusion. As of today, 16,000 YouTubers have subscribed to Captain D.'s channel, but because of his exacting production standards, new videos arrive at a rate of only three or four a year.
Shooting the Captain's videos is simple enough. He recruits an assistant to man the machines, takes half an hour putting on makeup, and spends a night in front of the camera. "Ninety percent of the work I do is in post-production," he says. It takes about two weeks of full-time work to do the editing of a full episode, toiling away on his computer with a copy of Adobe Aftereffects, the program he uses to stuff his videos with nearly Hollywood-level special effects.
In a video called Holly + Shark Surfer Debunk, the Captain has a long conversation with a disembodied head. The head of an attractive young African-American girl named Holly is something of a metaphor for God, who periodically shoots lasers from her eyeballs and causes the walls of the Captain's studio to tumble away, revealing a sparkly vista of outer space. The video goes on to debunk a viral video in which a guy supposedly catches a ride on a surfboard by hooking a shark with a fishing pole (the Captain explains that it's actually a viral marketing campaign by a sunglass company).
The effect of all of this is startling: High-concept space travel is a genre that most YouTubers have yet to attempt, and seeing it attempted — and accomplished — seems to bode well for DIY filmmaking. The Captain certainly hopes it does: His superheroing brings in no money, and throughout most of his adulthood, the Captain has subsisted on money from freelance editing gigs. He has lately helped launch a social-networking and file-sharing site, Filmnet.com, for serious amateur filmmakers who don't want to soil their work by placing it alongside YouTube's infinite mediocrities.