How to engineer a viral music video

How to engineer a viral music video

Hi there. I’m going to be talking a little bit about music, machines and life. Or, more specifically, what we learned from the creation of a very large and complicated machine for a music video. Some of you may recognize this image. This is the opening frame of the video that we created. We’ll be showing the video at the end, but before we do, I want to talk a little bit about what it is that they wanted.

Now, when we first started talking to OK Go — the name of the song is “This Too Shall Pass” — we were really excited because they expressed interest in building a machine that they could dance with. And we were very excited about this because, of course, they have a history of dancing with machines. They’re responsible for this video, “Here It Goes Again.” 50-million-plus views on YouTube. Four guys dancing on treadmills, no cuts, just a static camera. A fantastically viral and wonderful video. So we were really excited about working with them. And we sort of started talking about what it is that they wanted. And they explained that they wanted kind of a Rube Goldberg machine.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, a Rube Goldberg machine is a complicated contraption, an incredibly over-engineered piece of machinery that accomplishes a relatively simple task. So we were excited by this idea, and we started talking about exactly what it would look like. And we came up with some parameters, because, you know, building a Rube Goldberg machine has limitations, but it also is pretty wide open.

And we wanted to make sure that we did something that would work for a music video. So we came up with a list of requirements, the “10 commandments,” and they were, in order of ascending difficulty: The first is “No magic.” Everything that happened on screen had to be very easily understood by a typical viewer. The rule of thumb was that, if my mother couldn’t understand it, then we couldn’t use it in the video. They wanted band integration, that is, the machine acting upon the band members, specifically not the other way around. They wanted the machine action to follow the song feeling. So as the song picks up emotion, so should the machine get grander in its process. They wanted us to make use of the space. So we have this 10,000-square-foot warehouse we were using, divided between two floors. It included an exterior loading dock. We used all of that, including a giant hole in the floor that we actually descended the camera and cameraman through. They wanted it messy, and we were happy to oblige. The machine itself would start the music. So the machine would get started, it would travel some distance, reacting along the way, hit play on an iPod or a tape deck or something that would start playback. And the machine would maintain synchronization throughout. And speaking of synchronization, they wanted it to sync to the rhythm and to hit specific beats along the way. Okay. (Laughter) They wanted it to end precisely on time. Okay, so now the start to finish timing has to be perfect. And they wanted the music to drop out at a certain point in the video and actual live audio from the machine to play part of the song. And as if that wasn’t enough, all of these incredibly complicating things, right, they wanted it in one shot.



Okay. So, just some statistics about what we went through in the process. The machine itself has 89 distinct interactions. It took us 85 takes to get it on film to our satisfaction. Of those 85 takes, only three actually successfully completed their run. We destroyed two pianos and 10 televisions in the process. We went to Home Depot well over a hundred times. (Laughter) And we lost one high-heeled shoe when one of our engineers, Heather Knight, left her high-heeled shoe — after a nice dinner, and returned back to the build — and left it in a pile of stuff. And another engineer thought, “Well, that would be a really good thing to use” and ended up using it as a really nice trigger. And it’s actually in the machine.

So what did we learn from all of this? Well, having completed this, we have the opportunity to step back and reflect on some of the things. And we learned that small stuff stinks. Little balls in wooden tracks are really susceptible to humidity and temperature and a little bit of dust, and they fall out of the tracks, the exact angles makes it hard to get right. And yet, a bowling ball will always follow the same path. It doesn’t matter what temperature it is, doesn’t matter what’s in its way; it will pretty much get where it needs to go. But as much as the small stuff stinks, we needed somewhere to start, so that we would have somewhere to go. And so you have to start with it. You have to focus on it. Small stuff stinks, but, of course, it’s essential, right?

What else? Planning is incredibly important. (Laughter) You know, we spent a lot of time ideating and even building some of these things. It’s been said that, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” I think our enemy was physics — (Laughter) and she’s a cruel mistress. Often, we had to pull things out as a result because of timing or aesthetics or whatever. And so while planning is important, so is flexibility. These are all things that ended up not making it into the final machine. So also, put reliable stuff last, the stuff that’s going to run every time. Again, small to large is relevant here. The little Lego car in the beginning of the video references the big, real car near the end of the video. The big, real car works every time; there’s no problem about it. The little one had a tendency to try to run off the track and that’s a problem. But you don’t want to have to reset the whole machine because the Lego car at the end doesn’t work, right. So you put that up front so that, if it fails, at least you know you don’t have to reset the whole thing.

Life can be messy. There were incredibly difficult moments in the building of this thing. Months were spent in this tiny, cold warehouse. And the wonderful elation that we had when we finally completed it. So it’s important to remember that whether it’s good or it’s bad, “This Too Shall Pass.”

Thank you very much.

(Applause) And now to introduce

their music video, we have OK Go.

OK Go: An introduction. Hello TEDxUSC. We are OK Go. What are we doing? Oh, just hanging out with our Grammy. What what! It think we can do better than this. Hello TEDxUSC. We are OK Go. Have you read the “Natural Curiosity Cabinet?” I mean, “Curiosity” — excuse me. Let me start again. We need some more ridiculous things besides “The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities.” Tim’s sundial hat. Have you seen the new work they’ve done to the Waltz Towers? Sorry, start again. (Barking) Dogs. Hello, TEDxUSC. We are OK Go, and this our new video, “This Too Shall Pass.” [unclear] Kay, we can still do one better I think, yeah. That one’s pretty good. It’s getting better.


♫ You know you can’t keep letting it get you down ♫

♫ And you can’t keep dragging that dead weight around ♫

♫ If there ain’t all that much to lug around ♫

♫ Better run like hell when you hit the ground ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ You can’t stop these kids from dancing ♫

♫ Why would you want to? ♫

♫ Especially when you’re already getting yours ♫

♫ Cuz if your mind don’t move and your knees don’t bend ♫

♫ Well don’t go blaming the kids again ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ Let it go ♫

♫ This too shall pass ♫

♫ Let it go ♫

♫ This too shall pass ♫

♫ You know you can’t keep letting it get you down ♫

♫ No, you can’t keep letting it get you down ♫

♫ Let it go ♫

♫ This too shall pass ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫

♫ When the morning comes ♫


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