OK Go video's always seem to manage to break new ground but inthis latest video for "Upside Down &Inside Out" they've blown it out of the water by taking to the skies to shoot the entire thing in zero gravity! We caught up with Director Trish Sie to get the low down on how the video came together and her long term creative collaboration with her brother Damian Kulash.
Have you and Damian always dreamed up projects together since you were kids? If so can you tell us about some of them?
I remember lying on the floor underneath Damian's crib when he was a baby. I'd push his mattress up with my feet, then let it slam down so he would wake up and I could play with him. That pretty much sums up our working relationship to this day. Honestly, I still remember the day he was born. I was four, and I couldn't believe my parents gave me a little brother so I would have a partner in crime. How thoughtful of them! I instantly worked him into my lineup. I was very involved in "making shows" my whole life, and he turned out to be an excellent collaborator.
We did a lot of edited-in-camera experimental short films using my parents' big old VHS camcorder. Damian used to do this move called "The Baked Chicken", where he held his feet behind his back and sort of arched upward like a contortionist and basically looked just like a roasted bird. I worked that move into our work quite a bit. My favorite baked chicken moment featured a shiny red satin bedspread (where the hell did we get that godawful thing? It looked like it belonged in a brothel in Bangkok), with me whipping it away very dramatically to reveal the baked chicken underneath.
I also taught Damian every single motherfucking word to the entire musical of Les Miserables, just so he could play any part opposite me and we could reenact the whole show at the drop of a hat
When did you start working together?
We've always done stuff together because we all grew up together but I guess in a formal sense it was when we did the video for "A Million Ways".
You and Damian co-directed this video, how long have you had the idea for it?
Damian and I went to Cape Canaveral and flew on NASA's version of the "Vomit Comet" back in November of 2012. We were excited to have the zero-g experience, of course, but we also wanted to see if there was music video potential there. We realized instantly that we would need the entire plane to ourselves-- not just a small section of a larger tourist flight. The price was going to be prohibitive, to say the least. And the limiting factor of the parabolic maneuver-- providing just 25-30 second stretches of weightlessness-- made us feel like there was never enough time to get the kind of one-shot flow for which OK Go videos are famous. Plus, we were unpleasantly surprised by how DIFFICULT everything was in zero-g.... how controlling yourself or objects is much harder than it looks. Repeating things and organizing things in that environment felt futile. We knew that if we were ever going to do this, we'd need a lot of time and rehearsal, which just seemed impractical and not feasible in the least.
All the same, we couldn't quite let go of the idea altogether. We kept coming back to it, fantasizing, dreaming and imagining, slowly coming up with the conditions under which is JUST MIGHT be possible to make it happen. It's like wanting so badly to date that one person who seems so unattainable. We had this tiny shred of hope that someday we might tame that beast and make it ours.
And then we got our chance in the most unlikely of ways! When Damian told me that a Russian airline was dead serious about funding our dream video, I thought I was hallucinating. Plus, I figured it would never happen, no matter what people were telling us. I was sure it would all fall through.
When you knew you were going to make this what were your first thoughts?
I was so deliriously excited, but also scared out of my wits. I was terrified of what this meant for us PHYSICALLY... the danger, the stress, the puking, the toll it would take on our bodies and the risks we might be facing to undertake this thing. But I was even more petrified of the creative risks we were shouldering. When I thought back to how we felt after that flight in Cape Canaveral-- how we were unconvinced that a truly great video could made under these circumstances-- I was really concerned about how we were going to solve the technical issues that made this so challenging. How were we going to bring the precision and creativity for which OK Go videos are renowned, when everything is, LITERALLY, up in the air?
Which parts were hardest for you as a director?
We wanted this video to be a complete choreography, rather than a montage of awesome things that can be done in zero-g. That was the first big hurdle. Not only do you only get about 27 seconds of weightlessness at any given stretch, but you only get 10-15 of those stretches per flight. And in between periods of zero-g, you are faced with the plane climbing steeply, putting you in double gravity that pins you to the floor, induces puking, and basically makes you feel like rhinos are landing on your chest and your organs are being sucked out of your body. How do you plan a dance that accommodates for that? And even if you can PLAN such a dance, how do you CREATE and REHEARSE such a thing, with such limited access to weightlessness and so many other concerns when you're up in the sky?
On top of that issue, there was the constraint of the way things look in zero-g. Everything hovers in the air, which is astonishing, of course. But after a minute, you realize that... well... everything hovers in the air. Period. Where's the contrast? The impact? The texture, when everything starts looking the same?
When we went to Russia for the first time to test our theories and get the lay of the land, we brought all these props with us-- high heeled shoes... hats.... scarves... goldfish crackers... books... strings of beads... cans of chili... hair gel...mustard... rain boots... spray cheese... disco balls. We suspected that the most impactful things would be the heavy objects-- items that had no business floating in the air in the first place. Sure-- feathers and confetti look great suspended in midair. But we're all used to seeing that. On the other hand, no one sees rusty chains and galoshes hovering in the air all that often.
And we were somewhat correct-- heavy and clunky objects were more startling when weightless. But that didn't solve the fundamental problem that everything acts pretty much the same when weightless. No matter who or what you are, you look essentially like you're in slow motion. And that's a cool look, for sure! But it's a lot cheaper and easier to accomplish slo-mo than flying to Russia and going into free-fall in a giant airplane in order to achieve a few seconds of zero-g. How can we make this look different and unique? How can we make this creatively WORTH the effort and investment?
How did you balance the constraints of limited time for movement with the choreography?
The way we ended up solving these issues was, first of all, to break the song into chunks that could be fit into a single period of weightlessness. We’d perform each section in order, then hold perfectly still and later speed through— or even cut out— the long periods of waiting between the zero-gravity segments, so the resulting video would feel like a long, single sequence of weightlessness. In practice, this meant that when the first round of zero gravity happened, we’d perform the first section of the song. Then, when gravity returned, we’d stop the music, and everyone would freeze and stay perfectly still for five minutes, waiting for the second round. Then, when the second round of weightlessness hit, we’d start the music again and resume right where we left off.
When looking at the way the song broke down, we couldn’t bring ourselves to chop up the song at times that didn’t feel musical. We wanted the shape of the dance to emphasize the structure of the song, not fight it. And the song itself moves in musical sections that are 21 seconds long. Each verse is 21 seconds, each round of the chorus is 21 seconds, etc. So in order to make the video feel musical and emotionally right with the song, it was important for us to be able to bring gravity back every 21 seconds.
But the pilots aren't able to do that. The weightless segments are about 27 seconds on average. The pilots (there are TEN OF THEM flying the plane at the same time, by the way) pull out of the parabola when the plane has enough downward speed and momentum in order to "scoop" itself up out of the downward acceleration. It's a complex mathematical equation that isn't to be fucked with, believe me. And it seemed like this whole adventure was death-defying enough as it was. So altering the length of the parabolas was not an option. Instead, while we were shooting, we slowed our playback of the song down a bit (28.5 percent, to be exact) and performed each portion of the dance a little slower. This way, the 21 seconds of song fit neatly into the 27 seconds of weightlessness. Then, when it was done, we sped the whole thing back up. This had the added bonus of combatting that slo-motion feeling that stuff gets when it’s in Zero-g.
Once we had a methodology and some clear ideas about what sorts of movements and objects were most effective in zero-g, we came home and spent a week in a dance studio here in Los Angeles. There was no point in using ropes or harnesses or scuba equipment in a swimming pool someplace (although we considered all of those options) because none of those really give you the information you need when it comes to what will work in weightlessness. Our experience and imaginations were our best tool in crafting a choreography roadmap we could rehearse and test when we returned to Russia for our final trip.
Were there any standout moments or challenges during filming?
A big one was how to power all of our lighting, monitors, sound and playback equipment on the airplane's power supply while in the air because we couldn't bring a separate generator up there with us? We blew the plane's battery a few times and had to land. That was exciting. We used a lot of LEDs and a pretty creative lighting design.
In fact, in general, the crew being weightless whenever the dance was happening-- that was a challenge. Our Russian cosmonaut trainers were awesome and completely comfortable in the air. But the film crew had never done anything like this. Everyone was disoriented, sick, and flailing around a lot of the time, especially in the beginning.
Finally, here's a pretty banal but major concern-- how the hell do you clean the plane between takes? The paint-filled water balloons in the final sequence made a glorious mess. We were never able to film that more than once per flight. So with 15 parabolas per flight, we we spent the first 7 parabolas rehearsing, and then ran the entire dance all the way through.
But most days, we had a second flight. With only about an hour in between. So a pretty intense cleaning crew rolled in and just HOSED the plane down, top to bottom. The result was that the entire plane was sopping wet AT ALL TIMES. And it was cold in Russia. It was like a frigid, stinking swamp.
Finally what do you want people to take away from the video?
I want people to have a sense of joy and wonder and limitless possibility when they watch this video. I want them to feel the playfulness and whimsy that dreams of flying evoke. But I also want them to realize it's all a grand illusion! For totally selfish reasons, I want everyone to know exactly how UNWHIMSICAL the process of creating this magnificent bitch was! It was such hard work! If we did our job right, people might watch this thing and say, "Wow. If I had 3 minutes free of gravity, I can only imagine the dope-ass shit I'd be doing up there!" And they would have no idea how incredibly difficult it actually is...
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