If you’ve ever seen an enthusiastic gym rat fall off a treadmill while trying an overly ambitious dance maneuver, you probably have Damian Kulash and his band OK Go to thank. The group struck it big in 2009 with their music video for “Here It Goes Again,” which blew up thanks to its inventive, fun, treadmill-based choreography. Since then, the band has continued to push the limits of what is possible with a music video, effectively raising the bar for everybody else and causing every band to more carefully consider what they can accomplish with a three-to-four-minute visual.
OK Go just released (click below) a new music video for the song “Upside Down & Inside Out,” and they’ve taken things to a new level, a level that has limited amounts of gravity. We spoke to Kulash, who co-directed the video with his sister Trish Sie, about what went into the ambitious project. We also chatted more broadly about where the music video as a format stands today.
Nerdist: First off, I wanted to say nice job on the video. I watched it and it’s pretty nuts.
Damian Kulash of OK Go: Thank you! It was a lot of fun to make.
N: I would imagine. So what went in to making this thing? I know you guys are in zero-g up there in an airplane, so how did you pull it all together?
DK: The biggest challenge is that within the Earth’s atmosphere, the best way to get zero-g is parabolic flights, right? It’s a plane that’s essentially throwing you up into the air and catching you. The longest amount of time you can safely do that for is about 30 seconds. We wanted the video to be, you know, a full three-plus minutes of zero-g, so we had to figure out how to make a single take with only 30 seconds at a time.
So we did a single take that was 45 minutes long by doing these parabolic flights, which throws you up into the air for 30 seconds, catches you, resets for the next scene, and then starts again. It takes about four or five minutes for the plane to get ready to throw you in the air again, and during that time, we’re all just sitting perfectly still in our seats. So our eventual take, it’s 40 minutes long with only three and a half minutes of zero-g over these eight periods. We then cut out all of the long waiting periods where we were in double gravity or normal gravity, and sort of sew it all together. It is one long routine, but we’ve cut out a lot of the waiting periods.
The other challenge is that because you only get 30 seconds at a time of weightlessness, testing anything or practicing anything is really hard. Basically, we go to Russia for a week and over the course of that week, we had a half hour of practice. You really have to optimize the time you have, you know?
N: So with that short frame in which to do it, how many tries did you guys actually have at getting one good take?
OK: In the end, we got eight full takes. We could get one full take per flight, because each flight had 15 parabolas of weightlessness, so what we would do on our shooting week, our final week of shooting, we had eight flights, two flights per day, and we did the first seven scenes of the video all in a row, and then reset, and then did the full video from scene one to scene eight. The eighth scene is the one with the balloons and the liquid everywhere, so we could only do that once per flight because we couldn’t be up there and clean the plane. So what we’d do is we’d do the first seven scenes as a practice in our run-through, then reset and do all eight in a row.
N: Is it hard to meet these high standards you’ve set for yourself with all these videos?
OK: Well, the challenge is keeping ourselves challenged, you know? The bar we’ve set is basically to keep ourselves thrilled and excited about chasing something. It doesn’t have to be something as logistically daunting as this was. There’s plenty of stuff we chase that isn’t nearly as involved as this is. On the other hand, there is a kind of arms race within ourselves; once we’ve done something, it’s less exciting to do it again, so looking for what the next challenge gets harder and harder and the challenges themselves get harder and harder.
N: For you guys as a band, videos are obviously very important, but in a broader sense, how do you think the role of the music video has changed?
OK: The biggest music streaming service on the planet is YouTube. It’s a video streaming service, so like it or not, your music is coming with a visual channel. From what I understand, people ten or twenty years younger than me are more likely than not to use YouTube or other video streaming services to DJ at parties. I think it’s a little bit like moving from mono to stereo: you don’t have to put that other channel in there, you don’t have to be hearing things in stereo, but once that is there, it’s pretty hard to get people to focus on just making one channel, you know? I feel like video is sort of the same thing.
There are very few artists who are releasing music and aren’t also putting out videos. I like the fact that the industry has shifted so much in the last decade or two away from videos as these sort of efficient commercial vehicles that have to go through a highly gated system. Like, in 1995 or 2000, the only sense in making a video at all was to have it air on MTV, and they were going to air very few of them. So there was a big arms race to make things as expensive and as flashy as possible, and to make things as much like the last thing that succeeded as possible, because the safest way to make sure you have a big hit is to take the last hit and try to sprinkle a little more fairy dust on it.
With the Internet being the primary driver for videos these days and the primary distribution platform for videos, it invites everybody to make something and try to make something cool at whatever budget level they have and whatever level of creativity and imagination they have. It invites artists to be artists with their videos as opposed to record labels to be commercially efficient.
N: Do you have any favorite music videos? This one, in the way that there’s a lot of strange human movements that don’t really seem human, it brings to mind “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai for me.
OK: “Virtual Insanity” was a great video, a really great video. It was an elegant and inventive visual idea. It’s really simple what they did and really beautiful. Yeah, I like that one a lot. I’m trying to think of what other music videos I really love… there’s a song called “Birds” by a French electronic group called Vitalic, and it’s just dogs shaking water off in hyper slo-mo… well, they don’t get wet until about half way through, but I just love watching dogs in slow motion.
N: This song is off your last album; do you guys have any new songs on the way, a new album on the horizon perhaps?
OK: We do. We’re writing new material now, and when it comes out is… uh, we’ll see [laughs]. We do have new stuff coming, and hopefully soon.
OK Go wrote an FAQ on their website that further explains the intricacies of making the music video for “Upside Down & Inside Out,” so curious minds can check that out here.
IMAGES: OK Go