It's past midnight in a cute, comfortably shabby home in Chula Vista. Two children are tucked snugly in bed in the next room. Mom is working the graveyard shift as a nurse at a local hospital. This is when magic happens at Jethro Ames' house.

Like any working parent, Ames doesn't get a lot of time for fun and games that don't involve Yo Gabba Gabba! Until night falls, that is. Then it's his playtime. He raids the refrigerator for cool-looking food, empties out his kids' toy box and creates a story in his mind that he'll turn into short stop-motion animation.

Hunched over a piece of white construction paper, Ames lays out coffee beans to form a rocket ship. He positions lamps to create the perfect warm lighting for the scene. His iPhone sits pressed between two books that serve as a makeshift tripod. He repositions each bean a centimeter at a time, and taps the screen of his phone to capture the image. The result is an animated rocket fluidly morphing into a fish, then into a snake.

Ames is using Vine, the free video-sharing app that allows users to create six-second looped videos. You hold your finger down on the screen for as long as you want to film, and then share the finished product on Facebook, Twitter and your personal Vine page.

"It was a little intriguing because it's really simplistic," says Ames, 35, an art director at a North County advertising firm. "I'm always trying new stuff, and I love Apple and trying new apps, so this was just another app for me to try out. I just kind of fell in love with it right away."

Less than a month ago, Vine announced that it had roughly 13 million users. The app's been on the market since January, and an Android version was released just this month. It's still in its infancy, but already other social-media platforms are trying to catch up. Instagram launched a video component to its photo-sharing app last week.

What makes Vine special is how users like Ames have taken its simple capabilities to create whimsical, entertaining videos that go beyond a cat wearing a bowtie, or a cat nuzzling a dog, or a cat doing just about anything. Ames' vines are like six-second art films without being esoteric bummers.

"I love its simplicity," he says. "There's no filters. Everything is done in camera. My first vine was at work. I was moving my little Darth Vader USB stick around, and I just kind of got the concept. Ever since then I couldn't put Vine down."

Still, like any other art form that relies on technology, there are moments of complete, shake-your-fist-in-the-air frustration.

"There are times where I just want to cry because, like, the app will shut down for some reason or crash," Ames says. "The bad thing about stop-motion vines is that it's such a long, laborious project. If you screw up, that's an hour or two hours down the drain. That has happened to me a couple times."

His vines have gotten more sophisticated with each attempt, and, as a result, he's become Vine-famous, so to speak—he's inching toward 18,000 followers. In his most popular vine, a school of goldfish crackers swim among anchovies through an underwater scene created on a cast-iron frying pan. That one caught the attention of Vine editors and major tech websites like Mashable and Gizmodo.

Then, Ames made a vine that featured a ghost— made out of a trash bag and construction paper—backing his car out of the garage. He entered it into this year's Tribeca Film Festival, which has a special Six-Second Film Vine competition that challenged people to create a vine in one of four categories: auteur (aka artsy-fartsy), animated, series (a trilogy of vines) or genre (as in western, sci-fi, horror, etc.). Ames walked away with the prize in animation. Leave it to a guy named after a flute-centric prog-rock band to dominate a competition filled with creative rock stars.

Vine "levels the playing field between everybody," Ames says. "You don't have any filters to play with. It's just what you can do with this camera. You just push the button and not push the button and see what kind of story you can tell."

Since his win at Tribeca, Ames has been courted by major brands hoping to use his Vine skills to market their products. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, for instance, recently commissioned him to do a series of five vines.

"I'm blessed to have all these opportunities," he says. "Without Vine, this would have seriously never happened. It's kind of crazy."

The ability to showcase his creative side is what initially drew Ames to Vine.

"I've been doing web-design work and print-design work most of my life. It's my career," he says.

"But with Vine, it lets me become a filmmaker or a storyteller and a photographer, and it lets me be creative in a different way. It's kind of nice."

Now he's hoping to bring exposure to others doing what he does. Ames and a small group of popular viners created a Vine channel called "Unpopular Now," which plays on Vine's celebrity-filled "Popular Now" page. On Unpopular Now, users can watch innovative vines and then, in a separate accompanying vine, see how they were made. A search of #unpop brings up the channel.

"We wanted to create a channel so people can learn and get inspired, and to filter all the celebrity stuff," Ames says. "They're going to always be popular. Harry Styles from [the boy band] One Direction showed a vine of a ceiling fan. It had, like, 40,000 likes. I mean, that's cool, but it doesn't really push the app. It doesn't show the creativity that other artists can do. We're hoping to use this channel to show that there's creative people out there."


Write to alexz@sdcitybeat.com. You can also bug her on Twitter.

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