How a designer of surreal Instagram filters reaches more than 173 million people and lands partnerships with brands like Netflix and Selena Gomez

  • Since their introduction in 2018, augmented reality filters have become a core part of the Instagram experience.
  • Instagram lets users create their own filters using its tool Spark AR, a decision that has launched the careers of a number of high-profile filter creators.
  • The creators don't get paid for their filters, but a popular filter can accrue billions of impressions worldwide, offering wide-reaching, low-cost exposure for digital artists.
  • Aaron Jablonski, who designs as @exitsimulation, was one of Instagram's first filter-creators. Now he has over 265,000 followers and has leveraged that exposure into dozens of collaborations.
  • Jablonski explained to Business Insider how he turned his Instagram-filter fame into a revenue stream that allows him to work as an artist full-time. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 

Puppy ears, sparkly cheeks, Squidward chins, cyborg faces: The world of augmented reality has become a daily reality for billions of social media users across the world.

Snap first introduced AR effects in 2015, and Instagram infamously mimicked the technology. Now, AR filters on both apps have been used billions of times, cementing their status as a fixture of the selfie economy.

On Instagram, whose user base dwarfs that of Snap, engineers have been gradually outsourcing the process of creating these filters to artists. 

Establish a trademark style

In October 2018, Berlin-based artist Aaron Jablonski was one of the creators invited to test Instagram's new tool for building augmented reality effects, Spark AR. About a year later, when Spark AR was released to the public as an open-sourced tool, Jablonski's filters stood out as unique. While other filters worked to beautify users' faces, rouging cheeks and turning eyeballs into emerald marbles, Jablonski's work went the other way.

new filter out 'neon void' you should find it in your camera section . . . . . #exitsimulation #virtualvoid #hyperreality #filter #sparkar #AR #digitalart #netart #contemporaryarts #postinternet #newaesthetic #videoart #interactiveart #surrealart #cyberpunk #mediaart #instagram #facetracking #virtual #realtime #augmentedreality

A post shared byAaron Jablonski (@exitsimulation) on Jan 19, 2019 at 6:28pm PST

His style leaned into the uncanny, emphasizing rather than minimizing the hybridization of man and machine that facial technology is built on. His filters feature molten liquids, chromes and neons, distortion, fractals, and animatronics, blurring the line between effects and faces. 

At the time, Instagram users could only access creators' filters by following their accounts, which helped Jablonski's acclaim balloon; he went from 1,200 followers in January 2019 to nearly 300,000 in a matter of months.

"The first two weeks were crazy because I did something that wasn't being done, taking this surreal approach to filters," said Jablonski. That made people really stop and ask what was going on, he said.

According to analytics shared with Business Insider, Jablonski's most popular filters are: "one," "monologue," "REFLECTION," and "OBSERVER." Each embodies his trademark style, and they have cumulatively accrued more than 173 million impressions.

Leverage exposure for paid gigs

Instagram no longer requires users to follow filter creators to access their creations, but Jablonski is unbothered by the shift. He still has 265,000 followers and, more importantly, the attention of brands and creative agencies across the world who want to put his style to work.

In recent months, Jablonski has worked with brands like the UK band The 1975, Snapchat, Netflix, and Selena Gomez. He worked with the the LA-based creative studio Blnk on the Selena Gomez project, and collaborated alongside Ben Ditto for The 1975 video.

'scramble' . I noticed halfway through developing it that it reminded me a bit of Philip K Dick and A Scanner Darkly. Kinda useless as a scramble suit though 👁️ . . #exitsimulation #virtualvoid

A post shared byAaron Jablonski (@exitsimulation) on Apr 16, 2019 at 12:50pm PDT

 

Typically, these brands commission filters from Jablonski or ask him to create a custom visual for them. The clients compensate Jablonski for the specific project, but the exposure his designs receive as a result of the partnerships are often the real reward.

As a working artist, Jablonski wants to get his work in front of as many people as possible, and collaborating with some of the biggest musicians and social media in the world is a surefire way to accomplish that.

He is also trying to parlay the exposure he gets through the use of his filters into future projects and more stable sources of income. 

"You build your portfolio, you show your style, and you show your vision, and that's what you get approached for," said Jablonski.

Jablonski declined to share his monthly revenue, but he said he's done between 20 to 30 AR projects in the last year-and-a-half and has lived comfortably off the work. 

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