In anticipation of OK Go’s fourth studio album, Hungry Ghosts, slated for release October 14, the band recently released a transfixing video for the LP’s first single, “The Writing’s on the Wall.” The video features more than 20 illusions, which the members quickly puncture by offering the viewer multiple perspectives of the visual trickery. Like many of OK Go’s previous clips, it’s filmed using only one take. For fans puzzled by how the band pulled off this optical feat, the band is offering a behind-the-scenes making-of video — the other option is to simply accept the idea that some secrets should remain exactly that.
We caught up with frontman Damian Kulash to talk about OK Go’s stunning videography and learned how they manage make each clip more captivating than the last.
I fell in love with my co-directors, Bob Partington and Aaron Duffy. We really saw eye to eye, and I spent five weeks with them in the space, doing all the idea tests. In most of the videos we make, we spend a lot of time with the people [working on them] and become really close friends with them, so that’s not unexpected. But to have filmmakers who so totally got it…Normally, I’m stuck pulling the filmmakers toward the nerds, or the nerds toward the filmmakers. In this one, the filmmakers were dead-on as nerdy as I am, and wanted it to be exactly what I wanted it to be, so it was super effortless.
The paintings are actually still up in that warehouse [in Brooklyn]. Our contract with the warehouse was that we’d paint the place back to white when we were done, but they were so psyched they said we didn’t have to, so the paintings are still there. The laser-cut mirrors that fit our bodies? We still have those.
The dogs are all looking at a tennis ball covered in Cheez Whiz. That’s how we got them to move their heads the right way. We wanted to have our eye-line the same as the dogs’ eye-line. If they weren’t going to look at the camera, we weren’t going to look at the camera.
The reason we like to do one-take videos is because we want people to experience the videos in the same way they experience the music. Instead of filmmaking trickery, we want people to understand this thing actually happened. In filmmaking, these days, it’s so hard to get people to not suspend their disbelief. Everything is possible with CG and the incredible technology we have. So getting people to believe something actually happened — and it was incredible, surprising and full of wonder — is really hard. You have to speak a very clear language of reality…and edits tend to throw it off.
We usually have a bunch of video ideas — way more than we’ll ever get to do because they’re expensive and very time consuming. Some of them are just flat-out impossible. Oftentimes, we come up with more than one idea for a song because we don’t know which one we’ll get to do. You can tell, though, that our videos are very rarely specific analogs of the song. I don’t tend to illustrate the lyrics or be literal about how these things connect. But where they do connect, where I hope they connect, at least, is the sort of emotional space the two live in together. I don’t believe if you have sad chords, you need sad lyrics, or if you have happy chords, you need happy lyrics. Only crappy one-dimensional music is made that way.
Both of the ideas [for "This Too Shall Pass"], the marching band and Rube Goldberg ideas, felt like the song they needed was a big melancholic anthem. They weren’t meant for a super-fast, happy pop song. They needed something with grandeur and sadness mixed in so when we surprisingly got both videos greenlit and paid for, we just did them both.
[When MTV asked us to perform at the 2006 Video Music Awards], we definitely wanted to [do the routine] live, but we weren’t sure we could pull it off. When we first learned it, by the end, I think we had done 17 numbered takes and only got through it three times. The statistical chances of us doing it right in a single shot were very low. We spent a good day agonizing about it until we said, “Fuck it.” If we fuck up, it’ll still be great TV. Dan’s shoe came off but he managed to rectify it in mid-stride. That’s some serious professional shit right there.
The video was directed by Brian Perkins, my dear, dear friend and drummer for my college band. [This] was an idea I pitched to the ad agency for Chevy, because I knew they were looking for crazy films involving cars. When they went for it, Brian and I spent three months in a warehouse with an acoustic nerd from M.I.T. named Noah Vawter and a guy whose whole musical output is made by banging on found objects. So the four of us and some other production-designer types spent months researching how we could make sounds at 40 miles an hour and basically ended up making a musical language we could speak. I faked what it would sound like in a sequencing computer program and then we went and measured stuff out.
It was a long process, but we did a lot of testing so we knew what was and wasn’t going to work. The biggest “a-ha” moment happened when we had been calculating really carefully what speeds I needed to drive in each section of the chorus, and we were really worried the speedometer wouldn’t be accurate enough, or I wouldn’t have been a good enough driver to match those. When we started doing tests, we realized right away the easiest thing to do was to make visual markers for the tempo. So if you look along the side of the track, you’ll see little flags. Some of them are red and some are blue. Obviously, we ran each section of the chorus between five and 20 times, so not every take was as good as the one that you’re seeing, but in the end, getting a feel for the rhythm of the track felt just like playing an instrument for me.
The point of our videos is not to make us look cool. If vanity was an issue in our videos, then the “A Million Ways” video never would’ve come out and none of this would’ve happened. By the time [this] video came around, we were so used to making asses of ourselves that nobody blinked an eye. I will tell you that during the scene where [guitarist] Andy [Ross] is being carried like a centipede, we had to do what we like to refer to as the “scrotoscope.” There’s a little more information than was in the final version of the video because it was semi-pornographic. You’re seeing a lot less than you would’ve otherwise. Very unsafe for work.