Over the last couple of years, I have found it tough to feel present. Reality increasingly feels difficult to grapple with, and I, for one, have receded into reading, binge-watching, and reminiscing on pre-COVID times.
Last October, I was line producing for a three-day marketing shoot at a university in New England. I had never worked on a project so extensive, so I spent weeks anxiously preparing in the hopes that everything would run smoothly and no one would realize I was in over my head. I even wore a blazer. The day before we started shooting, I was introduced to the camera operator—a young man named Oli. Oli rode around on his skateboard with rented film equipment and greeted me with an aloof “sup.” He was wearing a t-shirt that read “TUNNEL.”
During a break from filming, I asked him about his t-shirt. He began telling me about his “fake” film company, Tunnels, and its respective “fake” universe that operated across a handful of interactive Instagram accounts. As a self-professed critical scholar of social media and the internet, I was intrigued by the concept—after he showed me some of his work on his cracked iPhone, I was beyond captivated. While I had found escape in stuffing my days full of work and media consumption, Oli had found his in creating his own world.
The Tunnel-verse is crafted almost entirely by 24-year-old Portland, Maine-based filmmaker Oliver “Oli” Randall. It is a semi-fictitious universe that relies on a series of ongoing, highly-stylized short videos posted to the Instagram account @tunneldaily (the news network of the Tunnel-verse), in addition to a handful of satellite accounts illustrating the narrative trajectory of his video production company Tunnel.
The Tunnel-verse’s protagonist is the fictional CEO of Tunnel Films, Fishar Stevens—played by (and loosely based on) Randall himself. Stevens is a young, arrogant filmmaking tycoon who lets the success of his popular experimental short, Mr. Sandman, get the best of him. In the series of Instagram Reels and Vimeo shorts that follow, viewers witness Stevens’s ego swell and his moral compass deteriorate, causing Tunnel Films to become a corrupt, money-grubbing Exxon-Mobile-esque corporation.
In a Tunnel company update, Stevens boasts that Tunnel now uses an “automated video production program” to churn out almost thirty videos a day in their brand new, state-of-the-art video factory.
Recently in the Tunnel-verse, Shovel—another fictional video production company with a CEO played by Randall's friend—released a ruthless slander campaign exposing all the wrongdoings of Fishar Stevens and the Tunnel conglomerate. To further blend worlds and put his own spin on guerilla marketing techniques, Randall collected “real” testimonials from angry Portland residents who disapproved of Tunnel’s trajectory. He also posted pickets protesting Fishar Stevens around Portland, bringing unsuspecting, offline bystanders into his world and broadening the Tunnel-verse’s reach.
“My goal with Tunnel is to create a narrative surrounding the growth and expansion of a video production company in a way that draws from real and made-up events,” said Randall in a conversation with me following the completion of our project. “It is a never-ending story about a company and [its] CEO, who chases success by any means necessary—but that’s just the surface.”
Currently, in the Tunnel-verse, tensions are high; there is a price on Stevens’s head amidst speculations that he is in hiding. According to Randall, the Tunnel and Shovel CEOs are scheduled to duke it out in a climactic battle sequence this spring, which he predicts will cause Stevens to have an epiphany—that it gets lonely at the top with tunnel vision on success.
Randall’s Tunnel-verse is flashy, chaotic, and beautifully-produced. The tone and feel is simultaneously poetic, turbulent and stylized—falling somewhere between Josh and Benny Safdies’s’s Uncut Gems (2019) and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003). While Randall is fixated on aesthetics and animation, his narrative reads more or less like an anti-hero coming of age in a post-capitalist society.
“I aim to challenge the glamorized lifestyles of the modern filmmaker or influencer,” Randall says of his narrative’s fundamental morals, which are neatly baked into an otherwise extraordinary visual experience. “I want to use the Tunnel-verse to paint a picture of the sacrifices, mistakes, and triumphs one can make when striving for success in an ever-changing, competitive industry. With a fake narrative, I can dramatize every step of the way and make commentary on things that exist right in front of us, but aren’t so obvious.”
As a filmmaker, Randall—who majored in engineering at the University of Vermont and also designs, creates, and sells merchandise that appears in his Tunnel-verse work—is just getting started. Every few weeks, Randall releases a new iteration of the Tunnel-verse narrative, which he has written, produced, and edited himself. For him, continuing to expand his fictional world is a given. In the same way that most of us constantly maintain and audit our online social media presence, Randall’s satire is integral to his identity—and thus, it keeps growing.
“The crooked Tunnel lawyer, the assistant that just can't seem to do anything right, the rival production company that won’t stop at anything to take Tunnel down—these are all players you can expect to meet. It's really fun to do, and it’s meant to be funny.”
And it is funny. Closely following the Tunnel narrative is pure, joyful escapism—just like how it is for Randall to create it. So, when a random “Team Fishar” fan created a fake Instagram account claiming to be a detective who could tie Shovel to international money-laundering, Randall was elated. His dream of leveraging the power of social media to decentralize an online production environment was coming alive. While @tunneldaily may be the epicenter of the narrative and branding action, a major part of the Tunnel-verse’s appeal is that anyone can join the fun. Randall invites fans to become creators, to drive the ongoing narrative forward. Structurally, the Tunnel-verse is half Choose Your Own Adventure and half virtual employee-owned collective of Randall’s friends, clients, and budding fan base.
“You can’t just follow @tunneldaily and expect to get the whole story—there are plot lines being played out in real time in the comments and through other related accounts. You can choose to be a viewer or a player.”
Outside the Tunnel-verse narrative, Tunnel Films is a functioning production company with actual paying clients in need of marketing reels for their businesses, or music videos to promote their art. Though Randall’s approach, as you might imagine, is anything but ordinary.
“It’s a company with multiple personalities—like, actual distinct character personalities with their own social media accounts,” claims Randall, referring to the network of satellite accounts and their respective characters that all work in tandem to bring the Tunnel-verse—and, subsequently, his video business—to life. “[Tunnel Films is] dynamic; ever-changing—not a rock of a company that adheres to set boundaries and standards which quickly become obsolete over time. Tunnel Films remains on its toes. And in that sense, it’s truly future-proof.”
Though difficult to understand or pin down, Tunnel Films (the company)—like the recreational shorts Randall creates within the Tunnel-verse—is ephemeral in nature. In a sense, Tunnel FIlms’s company structure mirrors the purely experimental aspects of the art films it produces, like Randall’s Tunnel-verse narrative.
Beyond the quality videography services that Tunnel Films offers, perhaps it’s this bizarre and chaotic “branding” that ultimately attracts clients. I know firsthand that I was inspired by the ridiculousness of it all, and reminded that creation is fun, regardless of outcome—I may even be adding a new character or account to the Tunnel-verse myself, to weigh in on the upcoming CEO fight.
When probed about his parallel universe and if he prefers it to reality, Randall hesitates to see the two as separate entities. Instead, he pulls from reality to create his wonderful fictional world, while also absorbing the lessons taught within it. At a time when reality is as difficult to navigate as an experimental short, neither is more significant than the other—and that goes for his identity as well.
“I might turn into Fishar Stevens. Or Fishar Stevens might eventually turn into me. I wonder who will come out on top.”