To pack four solid minutes of visual trickery into their new video, “The Writing’s on the Wall,” OK Go and their collaborators spent two months holed up in a Brooklyn warehouse, painstakingly building and painting the images that would become the video’s striking optical illusions. Inspired by the visually disorienting installations and photographs of artists like Felice Varini and Dan Tobin-Smith, OK Go frontman Damian Kulash enlisted directors Bob Partington (of the H2 Channel’s Thingamabob) and Aaron Duffy to help the band create a series of images in which nothing is as it seems.
From his home in Los Angeles, Kulash told the Daily Dot how the band’s latest single-shot video came into being.
How did you come up with the concept for the video?
Have you ever seen that Channel 4 British television ident from maybe five or 10 years ago? The camera rotates 90 degrees—that is, it tracks maybe 90 degrees, and the logo forms out of all these objects. I just remember seeing that, and that joy and wonder of watching something reveal itself out of nothing. I must have seen that maybe five years ago, and I always wanted to do a bigger, crazier version of that. It felt to me like the perfect playground for a video.
So we met Aaron and Bob, the other two directors, and we spent a couple of weeks going through every type of optical illusion we thought would work on film. We wanted to stay in this family of anamorphic illusions. Technically the gravity illusions and the mirror illusions aren’t really the same type—but they all felt based on the perspective of the viewer.
When you say “anamorphic illusion,” that’s the type of illusion where a group of objects looks different depending on what angle you’re viewing them from?
Yeah, or there’s a single perspective point that allows something to appear as a flat image, or to appear as an image at all. We kind of broke them down into different categories. There’s the ones where the space is painted in such a way that it suggests there’s another space there. Like the last shot in the video, where you see that wall that appears to run down the middle of the room, but it’s actually painted on the back of the room. There’s those kinds, and then there are the kinds where we built something out of objects that from one particular perspective flatten out. But the thing that holds them all together is that they only work from exactly one perspective point. It’s only when you move your eye to that one exact spot that suddenly this wondrous thing appears.
When you’re assembling the objects that form these images, is it just a lot of trial and error? Or were you using 3D graphics software to map things out in advance?
Both. The first three things—the square, circle, and triangle—those were basically trial and error. We set up a projector in the position we wanted, projected that image on the wall and whatever objects were in front of it, and taped off what was left. Then we’d set up a camera in that exact position where the projector had just been, and just sit there filling it in. We’d have teams of three or four people go out and find a red object, attach it to a C-stand and try to figure out exactly what angle and what height and what depth it had to be at.
So those first three were mostly trial and error. The cubes, though—in the second verse, that field of nine cubes—we had drawn all that stuff out by hand, as an idea, but the only way to get the shapes exactly right was to preview it all in Maya. So yes, that was all 3D modeled beforehand and then exactingly cut to spec.
Was there one particular setup or shot that was especially difficult to get?
It’s a copout, but all of them. You really have to be within an eighth of an inch on all of them. The one that was the most time-consuming was the last shot, just because it’s a vast space that we were painting. And a lot of that image is actually on the ceiling, and it’s really complicated—there are pipes and tubes and rafters. We set up a projector from the same spot as the camera, and we had to keep the lights off in the room for almost a week as people traced out every little last line of that thing. It was an incredible amount of work that went into making that one image happen.
How big was the crew?
I’d say maybe 60 to 100. There were a lot of volunteers who came in for a day or two just to help paint. But that last shot, where everybody comes running out from behind the columns? That’s basically the whole crew.
Why did you choose to shoot in New York, as opposed to in Los Angeles, where many of your other videos were shot?
The production company we wanted to work with is based in New York. I’ve wanted to make this idea as a video for many years, but you really have to find the right collaborators. These types of illusions, there’s a mix of so many different types of skills that I don’t know who else we would’ve gone to.
One of my favorite shots in the whole video is something that looks at first like an amazing optical illusion, then you kind of tip your hand later on when we see Tim Nordwind only has half a beard. Did he really shave half his beard off for the shoot, or was the whole thing a fake beard?
Yeah, for three days he had half a beard. I mean, half of it was prosthetics, but half of it was real.
That’s dedication to the cause, to walk around with half a beard for the whole shoot.
Yeah, he’s a dedicated man. I was worried that he wouldn’t want to do it, but I shouldn’t have been, because he’s awesome.
What was the camera that you used in the video? There’s a shot where we can see you holding it and it looks like a big steering wheel.
The camera’s a Panasonic GH4. It’s really a pretty incredible camera. It shoots 4K; the image quality is incredibly beautiful. And it’s tiny, which was super-important for this, because the band had to carry it around. That circle thing you see me holding is called a Fig Rig. It’s the world’s simplest and most ingenious technology: The farther away from the lens you hold a camera, the less any movement in your hand will affect it. You can still see it shake, because we’re not professional cameramen.
Was part of the concept from the very beginning to have the band members operate the camera?
I can’t remember exactly when that entered the picture. But no, I don’t think that was part of the original thing. I think Aaron and Bob suggested it at some point. We were trying to solve this problem: that those images are really beautiful but really still. The whole point of [an anamorphic illusion] is that it’s flat and still. The original way that the band could be involved was by building them in front of you. The other way is by having us sort of be your tour guide through them
The thing we’re trying to do with our videos usually is give that gift of joy and wonder. That thing that just makes your day better. The reason we usually shoot things in one shot is so people won’t feel tricked; they’ll actually get a sense of what it was like to be there. So having us actually operate the camera and show you the camera rig in a mirror made it really feel like, “OK, I understand this.” And as you can see from the words written out in the video, the point of the video is those brief moments of understanding—like you know there’s a riddle and you can’t figure it out. Then for a second you do figure it out—and then it disappears again.
You’ve made so many of these amazing videos now. Do you start thinking about visuals for your music during the songwriting and recording process? Are the two things intertwined, or does the music still come first?
It’s absolutely music first. Solving the riddle of writing a good song is every bit as much of a challenge as solving the riddle of making a good video. The music very much stands on its own to us.
Screengrab via OK Go/YouTube