Jillian and Adelaide McLaughlin are normal kids with one difference. They're stars of their own YouTube channel -- with help from dad and mom. While cute kids are staples of YouTube video making, the McLaughlin family's babyteeth4 channel takes it to another level.
Jillian, 8, and Adelaide, 6, have been appearing in videos made by their father, Bob, since before they could walk. It all started with a video invitation to Jillian's first birthday party. That morphed into regular videos made for friends and family. They held premiere parties at their Forest Hills home, complete with promotional posters and programs.
Mr. McLaughlin moved on to some fairy tale adaptations -- including "Jillian and the Beanstalk."
"That's where we had the idea to take it to the next level," he said.
Four years ago, he started making original scripted videos that he posted on YouTube. In 2012, the downloads "started going crazy," the girls' dad said.
While the videos are about kids, they're designed to appeal to all ages.
"I don't consider us to be a kids' channel. We try to make the videos I wish my kids could see," Mr. McLaughlin said. "It's really nice to have this to do as a family."
The videos feature the girls in a series of wildly imaginative adventures, along with everyday activities such as sled riding and going to the mall. Most include extensive use of special effects, including the use of a green screen and chroma key, which layers different video images together.
"Fast Cars, Bad Kids" (2010) wasn't the first video of the kids Mr. McLaughlin uploaded to YouTube, but it was the first made specifically for the site. The kids take the car keys and head out for a high-speed joyride. No actual driving was involved in the making of "Fast Cars": It was all done with the magic of special effects. In one scene, driver Jillian gets into the wrong lane on a busy highway and observes that "Everybody's going the wrong way."
"It never stopped getting views," Mr. McLaughlin said. "Fast Cars, Bad Kids" has now surpassed 46.3 million views.
In "Too Many Addies," Jillian creates a machine that duplicates things. When Addie plays around with it, she replicates herself several times over and the house is filled with Addie clones who trash the place. The second part of the two-part video "Too Many Addies" has passed the 2.8 million view mark, and part one has more than 650,000.
Jillian served as creative consultant, adding her own ideas to "Too Many Addies." Getting to pretend to use tools to construct the duplicating machine "was the most fun thing ever," she said.
In the western parody "Scallywags," the sisters play multiple roles -- good guys, bad guys and bartenders, while uttering hilarious western genre parody dialogue. In one scene, they ride on Paco, one of the family's cats.
"Kids in Space" is a wild ride through outer space with their pet guinea pig playing a space alien, which is voiced by their mother, Tommie.
They post a regular series of candy reviews, in which the girls sample and evaluate different kinds of candy based on flavor and "fun factor."
When another Pittsburgh-made YouTube Series, "Pittsburgh Dad," filmed its 100th episode recently, the creators invited people to give their best shot at doing a Pittsburgh Dad imitation. Addie made the cut and appeared in the anniversary episode. Mr. McLaughlin filmed a short segment with actor Curt Wootton during a public appearance, in which Mr. Wootton marvels in his Pittsburgh Dad voice about the number of hits Addie and Jillian are getting on YouTube: "17 million. Oh, you're blowin' me out of the water."
There are plans for plenty of upcoming productions, including a superhero movie, a sequel to "Fast Cars, Bad Kids" and a musical.
Both funny and human
The babyteeth4 videos draw viewers from every continent and age group. The channel has more than 32,000 subscribers. Recently, it had its first week with 1 million total views.
The videos are humorous and creative, but they also work on a human and emotional level. In "Fast Cars," the sisters hold hands while the car plunges over a cliff. In "Too Many Addies," Jillian posts a classified ad to get rid of Addie's doubles and then realizes how lonely her life would be without her little sister.
Mr. McLaughlin believes those elements are partly responsible for the videos' viral success.
"It's no coincidence that ["Fast Cars, Bad Kids"] is our most successful movie. You don't see much in the way of homemade video where it tries to be dramatic and touching at the same time that it's entertaining."
The scene with the kids holding hands "was a lot more emotional impact than I had intended. A lot of people say they cry when they watch that scene."
Still, a movie about a preschooler piloting a car is every parent's nightmare.
"We've always been upfront with the kids. We explained to them that real kids, real cars can get hurt," Mrs. McLaughlin said.
Theater in the basement
Babyteeth4 is one of YouTube's monetized channels. Ads run before the videos start, and the content creators are compensated per thousand views. Rates vary depending on what the ad is, and YouTube gets 45 percent of gross revenues. "We're not making life-changing money," Mr. McLaughlin said. "This is something we would do anyway."
Mr. McLaughlin, who's a longtime movie fan, built a home theater in the family's basement, using old theater seats from the former Buhl Planetarium, which he bought at Construction Junction. There's a candy counter and shelves filled with a sizable DVD library. The walls are decorated with classic movie posters, along with some that were made for the kids' videos. A small stage is used for the candy review videos.
Some of the videos have references to popular films: "Kids in Space" has a character similar to the HAL computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." A reverse zoom in the video birthday party invitation is a tip of the hat to a scene in Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." In 2012, Jillian and her dad filmed the diner scene from "Paper Moon," which starred Ryan O'Neal and daughter Tatum O'Neal. The McLaughlins filmed it in one unedited shot.
Jillian has a spinoff project: the animated series "Overly Sensitive Zombie Girl." She voices the main character and uses GoAnimate to produce the animations. Anthony Mennella, a YouTube video producer in New York, has done guest spots on the "Zombie Girl" videos. Mr. Mennella, who has the YouTube channel culter35, has collaborated with Mr. McLaughlin on other YouTube projects.
Jillian's favorite video is the sci-fi adventure "Kids in Space," partly because it starred her late pet guinea pig Licorice as a space alien. Her favorite thing about making the videos is "how they turn out," she says, adding that "they turn out a little better" than what she usually expects.
Addie likes the western "Scallywags" because "We're riding the cats." Addie would like to follow in her sister's footsteps and make her own videos someday, probably animated shorts featuring animals. And, she adds, "I want to thank our viewers for watching our movies."
Mrs. McLaughlin also plays a role in the videos.
"Originally I just stayed out of the way," she said. "Bob would use these as a way to keep the kids active and organized when I would be working. In later episodes, I get involved a little bit more."
She coaches on how to convey emotions and contributes story ideas and has done some voices.
The project has connected them with fans around the world. They try to engage their audience by responding to as many viewer comments as possible. Through social media there's a Babyteeth4 Nation blog on Blogspot, a Twitter feed and an Android app, with an iPhone app in the works.
Doing these ongoing videos has been a good experience for the kids, their mother said.
"They're a lot more savvy about art and how movies are made. When they're watching a movie with special effects, they know it was done using a green screen. They're much more aware of reality versus fantasy in anything that they see."
"I hope it's giving them the idea that they can create things instead of just being passive viewers," Mr. McLaughlin said.
Adrian McCoy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1865.