Article presented in Creative Cow Magazine
Written by Mic Waugh
OK Go frontman Damian Kulash is sort of used to his band being known as “those guys with the video on the Internet.” The first time it happened was 2005, when their treadmill-riffic clip for “Here It Goes Again” launched them from obscurity onto the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards stage, sending them on a two-year trek around the globe and even earning them a Grammy for Best Short-Form Music Video.
On Monday, it happened again, with the premiere of their “This Too Shall Pass” video, an eye-popping mélange of machinery, choreography and wanton destruction that’s been viewed more than 900,000 times already. Chances are, it was forwarded to you at some point. And while Kulash’s first foray with Internet celebrity was a tad bit head-spinning, he’s better equipped this time around. In fact, he’s even getting to enjoy the band’s second go-round. Sort of.
“We put our new video for ‘This Too Shall Pass’ online 26 hours ago, and, needless to say, it’s been a very crazy 26 hours. It’s been really exciting,” Kulash told MTV News on Wednesday (March 3). “It’s really surreal, because last night, I had a quiet dinner and answered some e-mails and went to bed. And normally, when things are going crazy in the rock world, it’s because you’re playing, like, six shows in a day and then have to fly to a different continent or something. With this, all I did was wake up, and suddenly there were tons of extra zeros added to the page views.”
And all the attention is richly deserved. Because Kulash and his OK Go mates basically spent the past six months designing, building and implementing the massive Rube Goldberg machine that stars in the “Pass” video. Working closely with a group of like-minded engineers at Syyn Labs, the band created a sprawling, deliberately elaborate system of machinery — pipes, ramps, hydraulics and the occasional tumbling piano — that overran a two-story warehouse in Los Angeles, then built it from the ground up (a process which took some two and a half months). They began rehearsing the choreography necessary to make the video work — a process that called for not only achingly precise timing, but the synchronized movements of an entire team of engineers. It was not, shall we say, easy.
“Our band has always had a running list of things we’d like to do if somebody gave us the time or the money, and the Rube Goldberg machine has been on there for a long time. The barrier to entry with it is that you have to be a little crazy, you have to have a lot of time, and you have to be really, really patient,” Kulash laughed. “Of course, we had a lot of help. The people we were working with, they have day jobs at the jet-propulsion labs. They built the Mars Rover. They know how to make a set of dominoes fall over. It was just … I don’t think any of us anticipated how much work it would be.”
And the overwhelming majority of that work was spent getting the timing down. The whole idea of the Goldberg machine is to make things as complicated as possible — hundreds of individual parts working in unison to accomplish a very simple task. Which, in the case of the “Pass” video, meant precisely lining up rows of dominoes to trigger a series of ball bearings, which, in turn, would eventually lead to a piano falling from the ceiling and Kulash being catapulted across the room. Each part had to work perfectly. The timing had to be exact. Couple that with the fact that OK Go wanted to do the video in one continuous shot, and you’ve got an idea of how complex the shoot really was.
“We did actually shoot it in long, single takes. We only made it all the way through three times. But the truth is, one part, where we come down a waterfall, the action got a little behind, and three times, we actually got all the way through, the camera guy only got it once,” Kulash explained. “So there is a bit of an edit in there. One edit. The machine did run all the way through each time, though, which is important.”
And what was the biggest challenge of all? Well, it wasn’t the piano or the mannequin or the sledgehammer busting through the TV set. It wasn’t the paint cannons or the ping-pong balls, either. Turns out, it was those damn dominoes. And the mouse traps.
“The machine was basically designed to get more and more consistent as you go through it. So the larger interactions, while they are a lot more explosive and visual, they screwed up less. When you drop an oven from the ceiling, it almost always lands in the same place. When you take a giant file cabinet that’s been welded shut, it does fall in the same place,” Kulash laughed. “It was the smaller, more intricate interactions at the top that were more flaky. We reset the dominoes on that thing hundreds of times, and the ball-track table that comes after the dominoes, that would change with the temperature and the time of the day. We’d have it exactly right at 2 in the morning, and we’d come back at 10 and it wouldn’t work at all. We were trying different ball-bearing sizes, within a 16th of an inch, and that would change the way the thing ran by a second and a half, which was an eon in the machine.
“The one spot that was really a nightmare were the rainbow flags that were on the rat traps. … They were very sensitive, so when the piano would drop, they’d go off. So we had to put cushions under them so they wouldn’t go off,” he continued. “And as soon as one went off, they’d all go off. I don’t know if you’ve set a mouse trap recently, but you have to be very delicate in setting them, and if you need to set 25 of them in a row without setting any of them off, it’s a nightmare. So there were, like, two people who dedicated a week of their lives to learning how to exactly set those things … but it was worth it. At least, I hope it was