Performance Art, Rock Music Reach Engineering Nirvana in OK Go Video

What do NASA techies do with their spare time? They make rock-n-roll videos. Not the big-hair, booty-shaking, smoke-and-fire kind. They help make rock videos that would make their daytime colleagues proud or jealous, or both.

The rock band OK Go prides itself on creative visual expressions of their music, and they wanted an extra dose of gee-whiz fun for their song “This Too Shall Pass.” In early 2010, the group enlisted the help of Syyn Labs — a self-described “group of creative engineers who twist together art and technology.” The Syyn Labs fraternity included (or ensnared) four staff members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


[Remember to turn your sound on.]

OK Go requested a Rube Goldberg machine as the centerpiece of a video. To borrow from wikipedia, a “Rube Goldberg machine is a deliberately over-engineered machine that performs a very simple task in a very complex fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The name is drawn from American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg.” Think of the classic board game Mousetrap or your favorite chain reactions from Tom & Jerry cartoons.

More than 40 engineers, techies, artists, and circus types spent several months designing, building, rebuilding, and re-setting a machine that took up two floors of a Los Angeles warehouse. The volunteers went to work after work, giving up many nights, weekends, and even some vacation days to build a machine that has drawn more than 13 million views on YouTube.

The JPL staffers included:

  • Mike Pauken, Ph.D., a senior thermal systems engineer
  • Chris Becker, a graduate student at the Art Center College of Design and a JPL intern
  • Heather Knight, a former JPL engineering associate (instrumentation and robotics) who is now preparing to start work on a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University
  • Eldar Noe Dobrea, Ph.D., a planetary scientist working to study landing sites for the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory.

What on Earth caught up with these rock-n-roll moonlighters to learn more about the machine and video.

What on Earth: What was your role in the creation of the machine, and what was the inspiration behind your piece?

Eldar: My main role was to help design and construct the descent stage (2:06 to 2:28 in the video). The inspiration for the rover was a small Japanese Rube Goldberg machine that had a tiny mock-up of a mouse rover, about the size of a Hot Wheels car. It struck me that since I am representing JPL, we should have a Mars Rover in our machine.

Chris: I helped finish up the sequence of interactions and the filming. I have a couple things that I was involved with, but cannot take complete ownership of any. But during the filming, I redesigned the beginning dominos (0:06-0:18 sec.) and helped set them up between the numerous takes (60+).

Mike: I worked on the tire ramp, mostly focusing on wiring the relay circuits for the lamps that were triggered by the tire. You’ve got to wonder when a mechanical guy does electrical work. A friend from CalTech told me about a band making a music video featuring a Rube-Goldberg machine. Any time I’ve seen one in a movie, like in Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’ve always wanted to make one myself.

Heather: I helped make sure all the modules came together in the first half of the video. I also worked on the intro, the Lego table, and the inflatables. There were a few guiding principles behind the machine. No magic: Mechanisms should be understandable and built from found objects where possible. Small to big: The size of the modules and parts becomes bigger over the course of the video. One take: As in their other videos, the band wanted the entire piece shot in one piece by a single handheld camera.

What on Earth: How many “takes” did it take to get the machine to work?

Mike: Before filming, it took more tries to get things right than anyone could ever have counted. Sometimes I’d spend three or four hours just fiddling with one part to get it right. Even then, it often got changed a couple days later to something else.

Heather: We learned something very important about physics in the process of making this video. It is much harder to make small things reliable. Temperature, friction, even dust all greatly effect the repeatability and timing of the small stuff. The first minute of the video failed at a rate that was tenfold of the rest of the machine. Remembering that rule about getting everything in one shot — if your module is further down the line in the video, you’re in big trouble if it doesn’t work! The machine took half an hour and 20 people to reset.

What on Earth: What’s the funniest or strangest thing that happened on the set?

Chris: Realizing that a number of PhDs built one thing and a clown from a circus built another part. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was there for the same purpose: to build a machine that worked and was fun!

Mike: I helped assemble the sequence between the piano and the shopping cart (1:34 to 1:41). The tetherball pole was supposed to trigger the shopping cart, but when we played the song, the timing was off. The band wanted more delay so that the cart crashed at the end of ‘when the morning comes.’ I added in a sequence using a director’s chair, a piano cover, a waffle iron, and a 10-pound weight to give the necessary delay. Heather’s shoe became part of the sequence, too.

The director’s chair has a rope holding one arm in place. My first thought on holding this rope was to use an umbrella, but Heather told me there were already too many umbrellas in the machine. I rummaged around the warehouse and found a high-heeled shoe sitting around a bunch of junk, and I thought this would make a great holder for the rope. I fastened the shoe to a 2-by-4 with three large wood screws, pried off the rubber tip of the heel, and sanded it a bit to allow the rope to slip off with just the right amount of force.

Then Heather walks up with a friend, who says: ‘Heather, isn’t that your shoe?’ I thought she was kidding, but then Heather said, ‘What are you doing with my shoe?’ I still thought they were making a joke, but then I could tell that Heather was serious and getting mad. Then she started laughing and said: “The machine needs a high-heeled shoe!”

What on Earth: What is your favorite part of the machine?

Eldar: I think the beginning, where the ball bearing jumps out of the speaker when the music begins (0:24) is absolute genius. But the guitar hitting the glasses and taking over the music (1:24) is also quite phenomenal in timing and execution. There were so many things in this machine that blew my mind.

Heather: There are various ‘Easter eggs’ from the band’s other videos that are nestled within the machine. The most obvious is the treadmill video playing on the TV that gets smashed (2:37). But there are also references to the Notre Dame marching band video on the Lego table (1:17) — from the tall Lego drummer to the dancing grass people (I made those!).

Chris: My favorite is the falling piano! That thing took such a beating and was screwed together take after take. It only lasts for a fraction of the video, but it has such comical importance and was triggered after one of the best parts of the video — the clinking glasses.

What on Earth: So if you could quit the day job and get paid for such things, would you?

Mike: I don’t think so because I really like my day job. And even though working on the video was great fun, if it became a full-time job, I don’t think it would seem as fun anymore. The build seemed like a college frat house at times, and that would definitely go away if it became a job.

Eldar: No, I work on missions to other planets! This was fun, but the real deal is at NASA. They say that there is no business like show business. They can keep it.

Postscript: If you want to enter the world of music videos – or of the NASA engineer – you can make your own Rube Goldberg machine for the band’s video contest.

Mike Carlowicz, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

44 thoughts on “Performance Art, Rock Music Reach Engineering Nirvana in OK Go Video”

  1. I saw this video a week ago and wondered who was lucky enough to have worked on it. Thanks for such an informative interview.

  2. Lenny From San Francisco, CA, USA, NorthAmerica, Western/Northern Hemisphere, Earth, Sol System,VirgoArm, MilkyWayGalaxy, NearCluster, Blahblahblah, KnownUniverse. says:

    WOW!!!!!!!!!!! Peace, xoxoxox, L

  3. In the winter of 2010, the group enlisted the help of Syyn Labs — a self-described “group of creative engineers who twist together art and technology.”

    So this video was made in the Future?

    Carey

  4. This world need people like you Guys to keep the soul alive.
    Thanks for the hope of man kind.
    Tony V.

  5. fascinating what modern artists and rock-musicians are able to invent.
    besides they are tecnicians who can catch any person´s admiration for their perfection. A GREAT SIMBIOSIS OF MUSIC, KINETIC AND TECNIQUE

  6. You people have done phenomenal things, and I sincerely hope that you get to do them again. A great vid!!

  7. I’m sure this would be great stuff if I could view it as a normal (non-Flash) movie, but as it stands, it’s jerky enough that I can’t usually pick up on the connections between different stages in the device. It was annoying to try to watch. I had to stop watching it halfway through. (Yes, I let the whole thing load before watching it). Is there a smooth-playing version of this available anywhere?

    –Keith Johnson

  8. Wow! What a waste of real estate!

    The BEST thing about REAL Rube Goldburg machines is that the people who REALLY do that have a limited amount of space in which they can perform the activity.

    Forgive me, but this sucked.

  9. After putting that lot together putting a man on mars will be easy.

    Let your mind run free and the mysteries of the universe will unfold

  10. “ahh–nothing like being a government “worker” “

    ahh–nothing like being an internet troll. You did understand that they did this on their own time, right? Or, is reading comprehension something you don’t understand too?

    Great stuff, especially if you know how difficult it is to sync anything to an already-recorded music track.

  11. I am in my late 50’s but absolutely loved every micro second thanks to all now I understand a bit more about how you all make sat or a robot last 5 times longer than predicted you love your jobs!!

  12. To mouseanon,

    And did the players provide all the props and buildings in the scene? What about the camera’s and paint? Electricity? Heat/Air? Cleanup? It’s hard to imagine that all the time, effort, space, and equipment was provided by only these four individuals. Next you will tell us it was one of their garages and a digital camera.

  13. Guest —

    It is my understanding that the props, set, and materials were provided by band management and/or Syyn Labs, or simply found/brought by volunteers. Though I didn’t get into it in the story, my reporting found that almost everything you see was collected from yard sales, junkyards, thrift stores…that is, they were “found” or donated objects, which I think adds an interesting layer to the project.

    By the way, this was not NASA-sponsored project. This was something that four NASA employees, as part of a much larger group, did for fun in their spare time. Not a bad hobby for a few weeks.

    You can learn a little more about the making of the video — from the band’s perspective — by going here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9Do-zRgyJc
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cel4EXsjp-M
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsPn-tD5zvg
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsxcVpmwCo8

    Mike Carlowicz

  14. I give them an “A” for effort and a “A” for execution.
    But I give a “D” for video quality. The “steady cam” 1 camera shoot did not work well with this, as the motion was quicker than the cameraman’s arm sometimes, and some of the “hand off” points were lost or badly blurred. (There is also something to be said for some better lighting to see these as well). If the camera had been shooting at a higher shutter rate, it might have been easier to see. Overall I say good job, from what you could see, it looks phenominal.
    You guys should be proud.

  15. I think besides being a lot of fun the best part is that it reminds brilliant people of the basics like temperature, etc. When the Challenger exploded I called my husband and asked why they launched that day as it was too cold. Every housewife knows you don’t instantly heat cold materials–they break. Anyway this video was a blast and I now have a new group to listen to. Fla Girl

  16. Aloha…

    Thanks for the entertainment the video was awesome and my 3-year-old daughter loved it.

    In response to comment #22 your a schmuck….who are you Steven Spielberg? Next time leave your negative critique on your own blog unless you are willing to work on your own time like all the others who worked so hard after work to complete this project.

  17. I’ve seen a lot of skepticism about this video, and I’ve experienced some myself. I’ve watched it many times, and looked at all of the “making of” videos, and didn’t see the one thing that would have been most convincing — a remote viewing camera somewhere else in the warehouse, that showed the steadicam doing its work and the band running around. Is there really hard evidence that this was done in one take? There are certainly places where cuts were possible.

    The part that’s hard to believe isn’t that they could make a machine that would do all of that in one take. The part I find hard to swallow is the timing. What makes me most skeptical is the scene where the bowling ball rolls down the ramp, and the three screens flip aside IN PERFECT TIME with the beats of the music. Previously, I saw a lot of randomness in the video — chairs tipping, balls rolling down pegboards, piles of junk falling over. No matter how many times someone puts something like that together and tests it, I find it hard to believe that they can get the accuracy of the timing down to less than plus or minus a few tenths of a second. Add all those tenths together over the length of the video, and you’d have significant variations by the time you got to the bowling ball.

    Now, normally if you wanted to sync something like that, you could just film it and speed up or slow down different sections of the video so the machine matches up with the music. BUT NOT WHEN THE BAND IS LIP-SYNCING THE WORDS ON SCREEN. That method just wouldn’t work. So I’m forced to suspect that there were cuts, or at least some kind of electronic way of speeding or delaying key points of the machine so that the timing was maintained.

    Was there any actual evidence of the single take besides the video we saw?

  18. Does anybody know who the Steadicam operator/cameraman was for this video? I would like to nominate him for an award in the UK from The Guild of Television Cameramen.

    James French

  19. I’ve only spotted one cut, when the curtain opens to the metal ball. Did not saw any other cut, the video is awesome! I’ve seen it so many times, and followed the HUGE viralization occurring to that wonderful piece of work!!! 2muchFUN!!!!

  20. Great minds at play… I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched if these great minds could do something better with their time like find a way to clean up and stop the Gulf oil spill.

  21. @33 YOU’RE BORING AND ANTI-CLIMACTIC! 😉 This is a hoot and a half. OK Go usually does something very clever to go with their great music. Kudos to everyone involved. I love it! Oh and @22, zzzzzzzzz. Now excuse me I have to watch it again…

  22. Since all our manufacturing has been outsourced, I guess if we can make movies it’s not all bad.

  23. now THAT was impressive or to quote the late Jack Lemmon from the movie “The great Race’..
    “Let’s see the Great Leslie top THAT ONE!”

  24. Thank you for something wonderful and not the dirty, rank, and offensive stuff of today. Our whole family had to see to believe. Thank you for your time & effort. It was appreciated by all.

  25. Absolutely gorgeous. I liked the green. I believe it was johannes itten (?) who included green as a primary color.

  26. That was the neatest video I have seen in a long time.Nice to see sceince being put to fun uses kids will love it. and if they learn along the way great!! keep it up SCIENCE should be fun.

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