Intensified Play: Cinematic study of TikTok mobile app
University of Southern California, Division of Media Arts + Practice, firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract. This article analyzes TikTok, a video creation and sharing app, within the contexts of film editing and
play behaviors. The first five sections examine the history, creative functions, and play experience of TikTok. The
final section discusses its moral panic and social ramifications.
Keywords: TikTok, mobile video, film editing, play theories, playgrounds.
TikTok, a mobile video creation and sharing application, formerly known as Musical.ly, has
seized the attention of young audiences around the globe. As a result of its design, technology,
and surrounding cultural conditions, TikTok has spawned into the most downloaded Apple iOS
video app, with youth ages 13 - 18 comprising half of the 500 million monthly users (Cheng,
2018). The app strategically targets a user segment not considered by video hosting websites and
editing apps of the past. Children born in the 2010s are taken by the thrill of playing with video.
TikTok is a virtual play structure: a recreational space manifested in electronic media. In the
present, virtual play structures (i.e. virtual playgrounds) are digital experiences that correspond
to physical playground experiences. Virtual playgrounds offer quick video creation and sharing
workflows as forms of play (e.g. Apple Photo Booth, YouTube). This virtual playground,
TikTok, is comprised of audiovisual controls for making looping 15-second videos. These
elevated editing features include in-camera speed controls, image-tracking composites,
collaborative split-screens, and a shortened video timeline.
Editing TikTok videos on a mobile device reproduces the elaborate post-production of
professional cinema. TikTok shares post-classical feature cinema’s “intensification of established
[visual] techniques” (Bordwell, 16). In his 2002 essay, film scholar David Bordwell identifies
this aesthetic change with the term and essay title, “Intensified Continuity.” Bordwell writes
about the tools that give rise to “intensification,” such as shot duration, camera motion, and
visual effects. “The crucial technical devices aren’t brand new—many go back to the silent
cinema—but recently they’ve become very salient, and they’ve been blended into a fairly distinct
style.” (16). TikTok emulates post-classical editing techniques in the design of a virtual
playground. Playground equipment corresponds to intensified audiovisual effects. In practice,
TikTok’s video editing features amplify traditional characteristics of play, producing an
experience of intensified play. Intensified play connects the intensification of contemporary
cinematic techniques to the changing characteristics of play on mobile devices.
2 The Slide
TikTok was launched in 2014 as a music video creation app, formerly known as Musical.ly. The
app initially focused on recording and hosting user-generated music videos with increased
playback speeds. Video playback speed, previously regarded as an editing decision, was
relocated to the recording interface. This feature allowed for TikTok video creators such as
Ocean Angela (1.2 million followers) to record lip-sync music videos with intricate
choreography and realize speed changes instantaneously. The app slows music playback during
recording and then speeds up the encoded clip. Music videos captured in TikTok accelerate
motion, thereby separating its content from other video apps with fixed recordings of time. “I
started out lip-syncing to songs...back when it [TikTok] was Musical.ly, it was more popular to
do the sped-up videos,” says Angela
FaceTime interview with Angela, O., April 4, 2019.
The sped-up effect that TikTok artists employ results in short-form videos with racing
motion. In her essay, “Reframing Fast and Slow Cinemas,” media professor Karen Beckman
Redrobe characterizes fast cinema as a “race” in her analysis of chase sequences in early cartoon
films (128). TikTok music videos are animated and “cartoony” with video speed effects. This
cloud of motion races to the ending, mesmerizing young viewers similar to classic cartoon films.
TikTok videos are squeezed to the 15-second timeline, moving faster and more theatrically than
user-generated video on other apps and websites.
The racing motion in TikTok videos reinforces the separation of playful video creation
from other mobile video production and consumption applications. Play is a significant category
of child behavior because of its importance to development and creativity. It is an abstract
behavior that requires extensive analysis to fully grasp. French literary theorist Roger Caillois
demystified the characteristics of play in his 1958 book, Man, Play, and Games. Caillois writes
that separation is a defining characteristic of play where “intricate laws of ordinary life are
replaced, in this fixed space.” (Caillois, 7) In physical playgrounds, slides contribute to this
replacement of ordinary life. Slides have a thrill of increased speed separate from other
playground equipment and ordinary activities. Racing down the slide is a separate temporal
experience. In the virtual playground, TikTok videos have a differentiated playback speed in
comparison to other online video. The thrill is shortened to 15 second durations of play to serve a
fast-paced target demographic. These temporal constraints separate TikTok as a video app that is
wildly unlike play of the past.
3 The Sandbox
Part of TikTok’s enhanced playfulness is the capacity to mold imaginative images with image-
tracking and augmented reality effects. While recording clips, users select from a menu of
objects and masks to composite into the frame. Facial motions are computationally tracked in
front-facing camera recordings. Users can embody an in-animate character or reconfigure their
appearance in surprising formations. Erica Cornelius (1 million TikTok followers) repeats a
“shrinky dink” effect in her TikTok video series, acting as a character named Pam. The effect
squeezes the video frame as a carnival mirror does with distorted reflections. “I created Pam as
an alter ego…people ended up loving this character,” says Cornelius
. The recorded material is
malleable, allowing Cornelius to perform as a make-believe character in her videos.
This attribute of video malleability extends to the setting. “World effects” are augmented
reality environments that video subjects can step into. A TikTok video by Andrea Okeke (2.7
million TikTok followers) depicts Okeke sitting in traffic while an animated emoticon dances in
the middle of the road. Augmented reality adds a visual layer to an otherwise unmediated video
clip of Okeke sitting in traffic. “It makes them more eye-catching… they [the effects] are fun to
play around with,” says Okeke
Caillois asserts that this experience of the “make-believe” is a consistent aspect of play
(9). TikTok users play and perform in simulated characters and settings. Users can imagine a
story and act out their scene in a make-believe environment. This video creation app is an escape
from reality, an environment where users play dress-up from a selection of template effects. The
sandbox is a play environment that invites make-believe. The physical material is highly
malleable allowing users to construct structures from the sand and temporarily inhabit
FaceTime interview with Cornelius, E., April 14, 2019.
FaceTime interview with Okeke, A., April 22, 2019.
miniaturized architecture. Molds provide points of access to create spatial stories. Castle and
tower structures are the sandy foundations from which players continue creating. On TikTok,
users are given a selection of molds to choose from such as Cornelius’s “shrinky dink” face
effect and Okeke’s emoticon composite layer. Imagination and the make-believe are intensified
with malleable image creation and an accumulating menu of molded effects.
4 The Seesaw
Video creation on TikTok is a conversation. The unplanned back and forth motion between
creators makes the app an incredibly social playground. Users imitate rising trends (referred to as
“tags” or “challenges”) and collaborate through a practice of repurposing and remixing peer
content. This social activity has brought about a dialect of catchphrases, terms and jokes (i.e.
internet memes) isolated to the app and its young users. One recurring genre is the “challenge
video” in which users re-perform a given task or activity in their individual style.
The “#Flamingo” challenge became a popular video theme in 2019 when TikTok
licensed “Flamingo,” a song by Kero Kero Bonito that enumerates colors of the rainbow in its
lyrics. TikTok users made use of the song to montage through elaborate makeup styles in sync
with each color in the song. Autumn Klein, a ballet dancer with 1.4 million TikTok followers,
adapted the trend by wearing different color tutus. Her version of the #Flamingo challenge
received 700,000 likes by TokTok users. “I look for these [trends] and then I’ll try to flip it so its
dance-related,” says Klein
. Challenge videos spread socially in the back and forth motion of
users promoting themes and their followers responding through personalized content. This
playfulness is rapid, self-sustaining, and multi-player. A menu of licensed audio tracks and
original visual effects keeps the app fresh and relevant to its media-connected users.
FaceTime interview with Klein A., April 21, 2019.
TikTok grew out of a practice of remixing and repurposing music. In the former
incarnation of the app as Musical.ly, users would dance to licensed pop songs collaboratively
with split screen and picture-in-picture video compositing. These features, named Duet and
React, are the “sharing” options on the TikTok video feed. Duet recording splits the screen in
half for side-by-side synchronized performance with a repurposed video, while React layers an
original front-facing recording in the top left corner of a repurposed video. “I do Duets
sometimes...there’s a lot of dance trends on TikTok and sometimes I’ll take a step and change it
to ballet, and do it side-by-side with the other creator,” says Klein. This call and response style,
an unpredictable seesaw, makes TikTok a high speed social playground. The video conversation
can inspire a trend or challenge localized to TikTok overnight.
The popularity of the app springs from its uncertainty. Even the most ludicrous ideas can
trigger video themes to spread through the user base such as montaging color props in the
#Flamingo challenge. It is difficult to predict how public content might be repurposed or
appropriated in Duet and React videos. Users do not know what will happen next, and the
unknown keeps users tuned to the app. Caillois considers play to be an “uncertain activity” in
which “doubt must remain until the end” (10). Joining another player on a seesaw is an uncertain
activity. One player determines the force and direction, sending the other player in an unknown
trajectory. This two-way physical interaction on the seesaw is why split-screen video remixing
adds uncertainty and interactivity to media production.
The direction of a TikTok video is unknown. Users get on board and bring fame to
creators unexpectedly such as Ocean Angela (1.2 million TikTok followers). “I started making
them for myself and my friends...The fact that it was fun made me keep doing it. When people
started to follow me, I was kind of shocked and I didn’t know it was going to be as big in my life
as it is now,” says Angela. TikTok requires multiple players to keep itself in motion. This
conversation through video is what keeps TikTok and its local culture alive. The app is a global
playground with 500 million players interacting.
5 The Swing
A universal hallmark of TikTok videos is the bisected structure: a sequence “jump cutting”
between two clips. It is the underlying formula to popularity on the app. This two-part structure
involves a set up (“Shot A”) and a punchline (“Shot B”). The setup introduces the setting,
activity, or character until a punchline interrupts the continuity with a reveal or resolution in the
latter half. The jump cut truncates traditional three-part narrative (beginning, middle, and end) to
a editing structure fitting the 15 second duration. “There has to be a surprise ending. The way
that the TikTok algorithm is set up, it’s really important for people to complete [the duration of]
your video,” says dancer Autumn Klein. The fast-paced user consumes the content and moves
down to the next video in the feed. Josh Sadowski (1.3 million TikTok followers) describes the
bisected structure as “going from seriousness to humor.” “You always build up and have that
climax and a surprise at the end, whether it's a funny joke or a scream [sound effect] or a funny
GIF,” says Sadowski
. This rule to TikTok matches the format and its user. It importantly
designates “latitude of the player” which Caillois believes is necessary to achieve the pleasure
and excitement of play (7). Creativity emerges within the challenging rule set.
TikTok videos are thrilling with a beginning and surprise end; a rise and a fall.
Playground swings go up and go down, and although gravity governs this play structure, users
return to the swing set time and time again. The repetition of the two-part motion calls attention
to the social aspects of the experience. The swing is enjoyable to play with because of its
FaceTime interview with Sadowski J., April 4, 2019.
changing setting and the participants joining in. TikTok similarly repeats its mechanics. The
jump cut or punch line at the end of the video is anticipated. Within a familiar structure,
creativity is vibrant and users stretch what is possible in 15 seconds.
A rising genre on TikTok are “satisfying videos.” These videos contextualize ordinary
objects in aesthetically pleasing destructions. Satisfying videos are the visual counterpart of
autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) soundtracks which are orchestrated with close-
up audio samples to induce a sense of euphoria in the listener. One TikTok creator under the
pseudonym of “Sand Tagious” (2.2 million TikTok followers) pairs videos of crushing synthetic
colored sand with synesthetic audio samples. Sand Tagious sustains attention by resolving the
object’s destruction in the second half of the video duration. Sand Tagious allows for their
creative process, manipulating the sand while recording, to dictate the jump cut moment. “I think
of an idea for the initial shape, make the shape, and start filming. The videos usually start out
how I planned...Sometimes new ideas come as I’m filming so it could evolve into a second
In “satisfying videos,” the delightful endings follow the consistent TikTok structure.
6 The Fall
By developing the app largely for children, TikTok has tremendous pressure to have appropriate
content and social conduct. Published articles to this point are fiercely critical of the app, and
particularly of its alleged data collection from users under 13 years old (Herman, 2019).
ByteDance, the Chinese firm owning TikTok, settled the data collection lawsuit with the Federal
Trade Commission for a sum of $5.7 million dollars in 2019 (Timberg et al., 2019). This
magnification of danger on TikTok is typical of technologies designed for children. The dangers
have evolved into intensified forms in the virtual medium. Injuries on playground equipment are
Email received from Sand Tagious, April 19, 2019.
now TikTok video challenges. Child predators loitering near playgrounds are now anonymous
TikTok accounts subscribing to young creators.
Because TikTok exists within a private smartphone rather than a public place, parents are
not present to catch their child from falling off the play structure or to ward off unwelcome
voyeurs. Playgrounds were designed in the late 1930s to protect children from the dangers of
playing in roadways as automobiles proliferated and play activities were deemed reckless and
unstructured (Stutzin, 34). Areas for children and parents were fenced off and segregated from
the city. The design of the playground mitigated injury, “the fall,” by structuring play activity.
The virtual playground lacks this perimeter and oversight, promoting parental “moral panic.”
The absence of parental supervision intensifies the moral panic that new technologies
regularly instigate. In his book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, sociologist Stanley Cohen
describes moral panics as efforts by societal institutions to exaggerate the dangers of new
practices and undermine their adoption (Cohen, 1). For virtual playgrounds, the moral panic
focuses the narrative on data collection, hazardous filming, and online predators before
examining the creativity that media production motivates. Moral panics loop with each media
technology, blurring what dangers are specific to TikTok (Vickery, 35). The pressure on
ByteDance following the 2019 lawsuit prompted strict age requirements to register for an
account and robust automated software for detecting user comments with adult language. The
moral panic brought about a designed parental figure, exerting control over what occurs on the
Often moral panics involve a misdirected notion that technology is unproductive for
children. TikTok is unlike social media applications that emphasize content consumption over
production. “This is the only app that I’ve found where people are so creative,” says comedian
Sarah Cornelius. The app is more a creative media than a social media. TikTok liberates young
people to play without adhering to the visual styles, narratives, and online cultures of the past. “I
get messages from people who say my videos take away their anxiety...saying their child has
autism and it actually helps them stay calm and focused,” says artist Sand Tagious. “My favorite
thing about TikTok is the ability to use trends and memes to expose people to ballet who might
otherwise not be exposed to it,” says ballet dancer Autumn Klein. Speaking with TikTok creators
in this study uncovered a global community for youth to create videos about their interests.
The characteristics of intensified play are qualities valued in childhood, such as imagining make-
believe worlds, accepting uncertain outcomes, and following rule sets. Virtual playgrounds
engage the cognitive skills of physical playgrounds and incorporate motor skills in the artistic
process of producing videos. With time creating and socializing in video, TikTok feels more like
an energetic playground than a passive video sharing application. The virtual playground shapes
its user to play through video creation. Interviews and application testing identified the virtual
playground equipment that stimulates intensified play:
• Playback speed increase and decrease
• Face-replacement and augmented reality
• Audiovisual remixing (split-screen, picture-in-picture, audio library)
• Chronological sequencing and montage
The fundamental features in TikTok suggest new aesthetics of children's entertainment media.
Mobile video is treated with an extensive amount of audiovisual enhancements such that TikTok
videos hyperbolize mainstream feature cinema. TikTok democratizes cutting-edge cinema
technology and allows for effects to be rendered while recording the video or promptly post-
capture. The library of content to create videos with (face tracking filters, licensed music, color
tinting styles) and user-generated video to remix (Duets and Reacts) is increasing as ByteDance
sustains app features and users contribute to the video database. As children being raised on the
virtual playground enter adulthood in the coming decade, intensified play will no longer cause
moral panic. Quick video production on mobile devices will become an acceptable form of play.
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Fast and Slow Cinemas. Cinema Journal, 55(2).
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Film Quarterly, 55 (3).
3. Caillois, R. (2001). Man, play and games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
4. Chen, Q. (2018, September 18). The biggest trend in Chinese social media is dying, and
another has already taken its place. Retrieved April, 2019, from
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known as TikTok $5.7 million for illegally collecting children’s data. Retrieved April,
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9. Vickery, J. R. (2018). Worried about the wrong things: Youth, risk, and opportunity in the
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