The future of Instagram face filters is glossy, metallic, and surreal

Brenda Cardenas, an augmented reality effects creator, remembers the filter that ignited the recent Instagram craze.

“The Beauty3000 filter,” she says. “[It] just made everything explode. Like all of a sudden, all of our [filter usage] numbers started going up.”

A phosphorescent mask wraps around the face of anyone using the Beauty3000 filter, making it look like they just walked out of the shimmer in Annihilation. It’s eerie, intriguing, and makes everyone look good. It also isn’t made by Instagram, but rather by one of a cadre of designers whose offbeat tastes are changing the reigning aesthetic of face filters.

Beauty3000 comes from Johanna Jaskowska, a designer who participates in an Instagram beta program that allows people to create custom face filters and spread them to their followers. Instagram announced the program last May and expanded the closed beta in October, but the effects only recently seem to have taken hold.

Influencers have been posing with them in Stories, like the model Teddy Quinlivan and musicians iLoveMakonnen and Rosalía, and filter creators say their followings are growing because of it. Snapchat’s puppy dog filter may have started the face filter trend and become a meme unto itself, but now Instagram’s creators are moving filter design forward with a less cutesy look and more of a futuristic art kid vibe, often covered in gloss.

Most of these filters don’t perpetuate Kardashian-esque beauty standards, like contoured faces and manicured eyebrows. Instead, they’re more experimental. One filter creates a halo made out of metallic golden hot dogs. Another blocks a person’s face with crystal hands. Another, by the creator @exitsimulation, creates shimmering masks of a user’s face that orbit around their real face. The common vibe isn’t accidental: the creators talk to one another in a Facebook Group to share future ideas and crowdsource feedback or advice.

Mate Steinforth, who makes more cyborg-esque filters, says he avoids making filters with traditional looks, like bunny ears and glossy faces. “I’m not specifically interested in making Instagram influencers more beautiful,” he says.

Instagram has a unique way to unlock new filters: you have to follow their creator. If you want access to Beauty3000, for example, you’ll have to follow Jaskowska’s account, @johwska, before it’ll appear in your in-app Instagram camera. Every time it’s used, the filter name and its creator are listed at the top. Instagram doesn’t pay creators to make these masks, but the viral nature of how they spread means that designers whose work strikes a chord can see their followings grow exponentially.

Cardenas says she went from from 120 followers to 25,000 followers in about a month and a half. Another creator, Tomas Posse, or @tokyyto, had 1,000 followers when he started publishing filters in December. After his filters were posted around the app on various accounts, he reached 162,000 followers.

Posse doesn’t attribute his growth to one influencer in particular, although musician Rosalía, who has more than 1 million followers, used a filter of his named Woop on her makeup stylist’s account. Woop, which combines a number of effects including the one pictured above, is one of his two most popular filters, with the other being TK2, which offers a Beauty3000-esque purple-hued glow. Posse says “a lot” of people started posing with his filters, which caused other people to want to try them, too.

Filter makers are still figuring out what works best on the platform and what type of effect will become the next Beauty3000. The Facebook-owned creation software to make these effects, Spark AR Studio, also includes pointers to get people started. Don’t make people completely unrecognizable to themselves, the company suggests. Allow the recognizable parts of an environment to stay in frame. Consider adding support for multiple faces. All the best practices are suggested in the name of making photos and videos “more shareable.”

Steinforth believes there aren’t any constants to what type of filter goes viral. “I don’t think that there’s any recipe for making a filter that’s successful,” he says. “It’s totally random.”

Every creator I spoke with noted that Europeans and, in particular, Russians seemed to be posing with the effects more than people in the US. None of them could figure out why, and Instagram wouldn’t comment on why Russians apparently take to filters more than others.

“We just need some influencers using them in the US, and it’s going to explode,” Posse says. “It’s a trend, from my point of view, it’s going to go worldwide.”

Instagram’s effects solution is still messy for users. I only follow a few creators, yet I already get lost in my camera effects trying to find one to use. Plus, following more creators adds more and more posts to your feed. That’s good for Instagram, though, as it means more content to keep people coming back; and it’s good for creators, who get a built-in audience for all the work that they produce going forward. They can also pitch themselves to brands as having a large following. Steinforth and Cardenas both mentioned the potential to create filters for brands.

Instagram had a lot of catching up to do to Snapchat’s face lenses, which users have been able to create through Snap’s Lens Studio since December 2017. Snap says there are more than 100,000 custom lenses floating around, and creators say it isn’t as simple as checking a box to make their filters accessible on both Snapchat and Instagram. But given that Instagram Stories counts 400 million people as daily users compared to Snapchat’s 186 million daily users, it makes sense their focus would shift to Instagram.

Years after launching, Snapchat’s lenses let people play games with their selfies, augment their appearance, and even shop. Instagram’s filter future is still forming, but the first step to winning the filter market is clear: capture the creators.

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