Unpacking The Strangely Calming Magic Of ‘How It’s Made’ Videos
What is it that makes us want to see bubble gum and chicken nuggets made, step by step?
The internet is home to thousands of strange video genres – cat videos, fail videos, unboxing videos, ASMR videos (extremely sensory clips designed to give you the tingles) — but my favourite, by far, is the How It’s Made video.
The genre is so ubiquitous that you’ve almost definitely seen one at this point. The basic concept is this: each How It’s Made video follows the manufacturing process of an item from its base materials all the way to the final product. These videos are often low quality and low budget. They feature tacky muzaak playing underneath a plain but lively voice — kinda like Siri, except a real human — explaining the processes as they happen.
The vast majority of How It’s Made videos on YouTube come from a single source — How It’s Made, a Canadian documentary show that began in 2001, and is still produced to this day. Each episode of How It’s Made shows the manufacturing processes of four different products, but a How It’s Made video generally only shows one product — say, hot dogs, or mayonnaise, or gold.
Each video is basically the same: a set of base ingredients are put through a series of ugly, transformative mechanisms before coming out the other side of the production line as a shiny, packaged product.
The concept seems niche, but these videos get millions of views, and have moved from being an internet spinoff of a TV show into their own thing. There are now hundreds of How It’s Made channels on YouTube — many archiving segments of the show — with some even producing original content. The How It’s Made video is so popular, in fact, that some brands like McDonalds and Lush Cosmetics have started producing shiny, highly sanitised in-house videos for their own products.
But why are they so popular in the first place?
Put simply: How It’s Made videos have the power to dismantle some of the core mysteries and anxieties of everyday life. Like, what the hell is our food made of? Nearly every food we eat has been on a factory production line at some point. Unprocessed foods are, sadly, a luxury that only the rich and the time rich can really afford, and even those who can afford to buy fresh foods and cook their own meals often don’t. Processed foods are often decried as an ‘unhealthy option’ but these statements are never really quantified; this nebulous thought of ‘unhealthiness’ is then just internalised and built up until it’s a horrible guilty feeling that hangs over us.
To watch a How It’s Made video is to ease your mind a little; you see something — a Pringle, say — turn from its base ingredients (likely ingredients you’re familiar with) into the food you’re consuming. This is comforting. There’s a reason that two of the most viewed How It’s Made videos are of hot dogs and McDonalds nuggets.
For me, the appeal of a How It’s Made video lies somewhere in the same-ness of it all. They’re so mundane. They’re each just a series of manufacturing processes, really. You can watch any of them – whether it’s hot dogs or ice cream sandwiches or whatever — and see the same processes, over and over.
There’s something oddly calming about the simplicity and delicacy of these mechanised processes. I often find myself watching the clips when I’m nervous or stressed, or when I’m so paralysed by my workload that I can’t even start. The repetition of the manufacturing process makes the strange chaos of Real Life seem a whole lot more manageable — a reminder to just take it one step at a time.
Shaad D’Souza is a freelance writer from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter here.