Monday, January 28, 2013

Trish Sie & the OK Go Music Videos

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When it comes to popular music, I'm a few decades behind, but I do pay some attention to music videos. So while I don't really follow the music of the band OK Go, I do know their videos play a lot with physical comedy, and I couldn't help wonder why. Did one of the performers have a weakness for our favorite form of merriment, or was it a particular choreographer or director they were working with?

Seek and ye shall find.

Trish Sie
And what I found — you guessed it — was Trish Sie, their primary choreographer and, not coincidentally, sister of lead singer Damian Kulash. "Sie" is her married name, and her many dance and music credits include being a champion ballroom dancer.

Damian & Trish
The collaboration began in 2005 when Sie and the band gathered in Kulash's backyard and shot "A Million Ways." Obviously a low-budget affair, and not as ambitious as their more recent work, but it does show a flair for comedy and for character-based choreography. Forsaking the pretentious artiness of most music videos, this one went viral, skyrocketing the band to new levels of popularity, with fame that would continue to grow and grow as successive videos went ultra-viral on youTube, making the band more famous for their short movement-based escapades than for their actual music. In fact, one writer labeled them "a post band band, a creative collective that makes music-driven experiences."

Here's a youTube hit tally as of 1-27-12, and these figures are low because they're from the official postings and don't include re-posts; one source claims their cumulative video hit total is 125 million, more than twice as many hits as my blog gets!

A Million Ways
(2005): 1,727,430
Here It Goes Again (2006): 15,951,944
WTF (2009): 2,038,077
This Too Shall Pass — Rube Goldberg Machine (2010): 8,135,815
End Love (2010) — 8,302,977
White Knuckles (2010): 15,114,187
Last Leaf (2010): 1,934,036
All Is Not Lost (2011): 1,444,866 (does not include dedicated site)
Needing/Getting (2012): 14,007,150

Here are there humble backyard beginnings:

Next came Here It Goes Again, which I already featured on this blog (here), and which was a real game changer — from a million plus hits to more than 15 million. This one contained yet more physical comedy elements, this time introducing machinery in the form of treadmills.

Ok Go performed this treadmill video live on the 2006 MTV music video awards, which has to be a rarity for music videos, what with their heavy reliance on digital visual effects.

I have enough treadmill running experience to know how treacherous it can be, so I was not surprised by some of the bruises in evidence in this behind-the-scenes segment about the making of the treadmill video:

I'll skip over WTF (2009), directed by Tim Nackashi, because it relies less on movement and more on VFX, especially trail effects, but you can watch it here.
“The fact is I always have help. I always have friends who are smarter than I am.  I always have friends who are more technically skilled than I am, who have better taste than I do, who know more about music, who have a different perspective, and that is the difference, that is the thing that helps me.” — Trish Sie

The year 2010 saw two videos based on their song This Too Shall Pass. The first, directed by Brian L. Perkins, was a silly-enough extravaganza featuring the Notre Dame marching band, which you can see here. The second, directed by James Frost, was a totally amazing foray into the world of Rube Goldberg, whose intersections with physical comedy I've already written about here and here. With a budget of only $90,000, and with a creative team whose credits included NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, the Mars Rover, and the MIT Media Lab, they built what must be the most complex Rube Goldberg contraption ever. The sequence was filmed with a single steadicam as a single shot. Out of sixty attempts, it worked perfectly only three times. The final version you see below had some minor edits in post for a smoother flow.

What I particularly like about this is the full involvement of human bodies (the band members) in the machine.

You can read more about the making of the video in this Wikipedia article, and here's a two-minute behind-the-scenes look:

Later in 2010 came End Love, directed by Jeff Lieberman. Like WTF, it relies on VFX, in this case time lapse, with sequences being slowed down as much as 32 times and sped up as much as 270. Unlike WTF, this one has more choreography and large-scale movement to it and, not surprisingly, a smattering of physical comedy .

Later in 2010, OK Go released yet another video, White Knuckles, but it had been in the works for a couple of years. Directed by Sie, this one features trained dogs and a circus presentation style. Sie's thought was that "wouldn’t it be kind of cool if this time the guys were the machines and they’re enabling and operating the dogs?" The results are impressive, not to mention humorous  and really sweet. I especially like that the human and the dog both do the old walking-over-the-chair bit! Again, Wikipedia has a good making-of article.

Their next video (also 2010—a busy year!) was Last Leaf, featuring some artful hand-drawn animation but no physical comedy. But 2011 brought my favorite, All Is Not Lost. Sie, the band, and the dance troupe Pilobolus teamed up with engineers at Google Chrome to create a unique kaleidoscopic, interactive video. A few quotes of explanation from an excellent article on the video:

About a year ago, she had the idea to create a human kaleidoscope, a sort of Busby Berkeley extravaganza but with a bottom-up perspective. "I wanted to explore gravity and geometry as seen from below," says Sie. Around that time, the modern dance company Pilobolus approached the band about a possible collaboration, and so the idea was suddenly real, and immediately began to take shape. "We couldn’t believe they were calling; they were like our Black Sabbath growing up," says Sie….

Unbelievably, the two siblings worked out the complex, fractured dance moves with nothing but wine bottles and cocktail napkins. "If we had known what it was going to involve, we would have hired mathematicians," says Sie. The team was already down the production path some way when Google Japan called and HTML5 became the vehicle for creating a multi-window, interactive dance….

The band doesn't view the video as "elbow grease type work that you have to put in" to sell records, says Kulash. With All Is Not Lost, for example, the band scheduled a full three weeks of "play time," those days devoted to exploring dance moves, lighting, props and anything else that came up. It's all terribly inefficient, and that's by design—the better to reap the ideas that bloom spontaneously in the rich loam of collaborative creative riffing.

"We tend to run much less efficient film sets than anyone else. Instead of coming up with everything in advance we make stuff up as we go," says Kulash. "So you get something you couldn’t have imagined at the beginning. When you don’t have a firm top-down style with a rigid set of goals, everyone realizes that their best ideas and their creativity can actually shine. You get better work and people actually enjoy themselves."

Now you could watch All Is Not Lost on youTube by clicking here, BUT you'd be missing out on the very cool interactive features. Instead, go to the dedicated site for the video, which you will find here, preferably using the Chrome browser; it may not work well or at all otherwise, but you can download Chrome for free here. And before watching, be sure to actually enter in some short text as a message. You will be amazed. One warning: this video is very memory-intensive. Shut down other programs and other browser windows and tabs before starting it!

If that didn't work on your computer, don't ask me! Try it on someone else's, but in the meantime you can still watch the non-interactive version on youTube. But it if did work... amazing, yes? And here's another short behind-the-scenes video for you about the 3D version they made for the Nintendo 3DS.
“You need to put walls around your idea at some point in order to feel secure enough inside of it to be able to push those boundaries and fill up every square inch of that idea.” — Trish Sie

Finally, their most recent video is Needing/Getting, a big-budget item sponsored by Chevrolet, directed by Brian L. Perkins. It's another Rube Goldberg-esque exploration, this time involving driving a Chevy Sonic through a rally course booby-trapped with over a thousand music-producing "instruments" that the vehicle "plays" upon impact.  An edited version was released as a Chevy commercial for last year's Super Bowl. By the way, Kulash went to a three-day stunt driving school to avoid having to use stunt doubles during filming — just one of the interesting facts in yet another good Wikipedia background article.

Now if you're wondering what makes Trish Sie tick, there's no better place to start than this Ted Talk, in which she discusses how she finds her spark, her "rules" for creating, and how OK Go worked with Pilobolus in developing "All Is Not Lost."

Some links:
Trish Sie's web site
Official home for all of their videos
That good article on All is Not Lost
More articles on OK Go

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