ITHACA, N.Y.—With hundreds of thousands of videos and millions of views, Jackson Gray’s #Horace filter has taken TikTok by storm, allowing the app’s users to dance with the friendly augmented reality (AR) character in whatever backdrop they wish.

Gray, an Ithaca native, has been drawing for as long as he can remember, and Horace was the final form of one of the characters he’d been developing along the way while completing his studio art degree, using him in various iterations or 3D-printed or sculpted figures and occupying animations and stills in different classes. 

Gray says that some people have assumed Horace to be an alien, but he is actually meant to resemble a human. The low, oversized eyes, short distance between the nose and eyes vertically, small mouth and long neck are all traits inspired by physical human qualities.

“Everybody’s got so many interesting features. As far as biodiversity within a single species, every human looks so different, and once you start seeing those little things, it’s hard to think about anything else,” Gray said.

After the “kind of focus where you get to the end of the day and realize you haven’t even thought about drinking a glass of water,” the sculpture-based character became Horace, a name Gray liked because of its uniqueness and lack of pop culture association or baggage.

Wanting to share Horace on social media to let the general public interact with him as a filter, Gray first added him to Instagram almost two years ago. With TikTok only recently allowing creators to add their own AR filters, Horace joined the app on April 15 in an introductory video on Gray’s account.

After the filter was available, #Horace began popping up on the “For You Page,” the app’s landing page, which uses an algorithm that allows any user to get on it, regardless of the account’s previous views, likes or following.

After several ideas that involved a still Horace, Gray decided he wanted to do something that very few people were doing: Make something that had the potential to go viral.

“I knew this character had what it takes to be sort of appreciated by people and widespread,” he said. “I have no audience really, but I’ve got a community around me and I’ve grown up in a town which is like superfuel for art.”

Now with more than 220 million views, hundreds of thousands of people dance with the friendly character, either copying his style or freestyling their own moves.

Horace is one of few character filters on TikTok, Gray said. “The fact that he danced, and that [TikTok] is very much a dancing app, he really suited the platform.”

Gray is perfectly happy to have Horace be the front-facing star, and his own account promotes the character’s life in various skits.

“People were posting him and I kind of was excitedly refreshing the data constantly, then I sort of forgot about him for a while,” he said, describing it as a “slow drip.”

A couple of months later while on a trip, Gray got a text from a friend saying that they had seen Horace starting to get more attention. “Then another person texted me the same thing, and then a lot of people were texting me. I went to look at the numbers, and sure enough, he was all over at the very top of the trending page.”

Gray even said that, anecdotally from people he’s communicated with within TikTok where the effects are managed, Horace is the most popular character of all time.

Even company accounts on TikTok have used the filter, dancing with Horace or using him on a backdrop of their brand. Aldi, McDonald’s, the Empire State Building, Paramount Plus and Peacock TV, Amazon Alexa, the Food Network, Subway and Firehouse Subs, Dorney Park and Six Flags, Nascar, Tinder, Zoom, football tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Australian Ballet and so many more have joined the trend.

“This was a really intentional process, I didn’t want it to just fail. I had really, really high hopes and expectations, […] and I had to plan it and orchestrate it,” Gray said, explaining that at one point, Horace had been flagged for nudity on Instagram, which led to the red one-piece outfit he now dons on both platforms.

Here’s a video from former Ithaca Voice editor Jolene Almendarez using the Horace filter.

Gray is excited to continue to see people interacting with the character. “At the end of the day, I created a tool for other people to create art. That’s how I like to think of it — the viewer doesn’t change the art, but they can have their own experience of it, which for them changes.”

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...