OK Go's Human Kaleidoscope, All Is Not Lost, And How It Translates Into Sales

Damian Kulash and director Trish Sie walk us through the making of All Is Not Lost, and OK Go's approach to the music experience.

In the course of producing its distinctive videos, OK Go has contended with the unpredictable (dogs, toast) and the potentially dangerous (paint cannons, treadmills). But nothing prepared band members for what awaited them on the set of their latest epic, All Is Not Lost: the dance belt.  "What's weird is that the flossy thing in the back is not designed for comfort," says Ok Go lead singer Damian Kulash. "It's not made out of material that seeks to please your sensitive areas."

But the chafing and wedging were worth it, and not only because it all added up to another eyeball grabbing interactive music video. OK Go, the band famous mostly for its Internet videos, doesn’t view their viral hits as glorified commercials to help sell records. All Is Not Lost is the latest from a band that is breaking down the boundaries between the creative disciplines of music creation and distribution. The pop rock foursome has been called a post-Internet band, but it’s perhaps more accurately a post band band, a creative collective that makes music-driven experiences. And the treadmills, the dogs, the dance belts, the inefficient but wildly creative production processes, the sponsors, and yes, even selling records, are all part of the OK Go experience.

All Is Not Lost is a collaboration between OK Go, director Trish Sie, Google Chrome, and dance company Pilobolus. It’s an HTML5-enabled multi-window piece of choreography that has bandmates and dancers forming kaleidoscopic shapes and words. The twist is that the performers, clad in sea foam unitards, dance on a glass floor and the audience sees the action from below. A further twist is that, as the video progresses, the dance is split into more and more panes (or HTML5 windows), that, together, form a complete shape or movement. Yet another twist is that viewers who access the video on its dedicated site ("suggested" browser is Chrome, of course) can type in a custom message for the dancers to spell out in the video. A 3-D version of the video will also appear on the Nintendo 3DS.

The video involved a simple, though difficult to visualize idea, some mathematically intense choreography, weeks of playing around on a glass table and some luck. Sie (who is Kulash’s sister) has directed past OK Go hits, including the original monster viral Here It Goes Again, and the dog-driven White Knuckles. About a year ago, she had the idea to create a human kaleidoscope, a sort of Busby Berkeley extravaganza but with a bottom-up perspective. "I wanted to explore gravity and geometry as seen from below," says Sie. Around that time, the modern dance company Pilobolus approached the band about a possible collaboration, and so the idea was suddenly real, and immediately began to take shape. "We couldn’t believe they were calling; they were like our Black Sabbath growing up," says Sie, who is a professional ballroom dancer and choreographer in addition to being a director (she's currently underway on her next project, a commercial, through production company, Bob Industries).

Unbelievably, the two siblings worked out the complex, fractured dance moves with nothing but wine bottles and cocktail napkins. "If we had known what it was going to involve, we would have hired mathematicians," says Sie. The team was already down the production path some way when Google Japan called and HTML5 became the vehicle for creating a multi-window, interactive dance.

Sie and the production team effectively shot and delivered 12 separate films, each one a continuous take, up until the end of the video when the screen splits into 48 cells (at which point the custom messages appear in the interactive version of the video).

Filmmaker Eric Kurland spearheaded 3-D production, conceiving both the mirror-assisted mechanism that made the shoot possible within the bounds of budgetary reason, and the bigger idea of making the 3-D experience pop behind the screen rather than in your face.

"When you’re shooting 3-D you decide what the convergence point is, and often that's right in front of your face, where you feel like bullets and pies are flying at you," says Sie. "That's a very exciting and adrenaline soaked way of seeing 3-D but obviously adrenaline soaked wasn’t what were going for here. So, the thought was to make that convergence point be essentially the surface of your computer or DS screen so you feel like you’re looking into another universe."

Though Sie calls it her most challenging shoot to date, she says the biggest difficulty was "having it end." Likewise, Kulash says, "our film sets have been some of the most satisfying experiences of my life," and perhaps that's a window onto the band's approach to the process of making music, explaining why each OK Go video is an Internet event and why they have been viewed over 125 million times online.

The band doesn't view the video as "elbow grease type work that you have to put in" to sell records, says Kulash. With All Is Not Lost, for example, the band scheduled a full three weeks of "play time," those days devoted to exploring dance moves, lighting, props and anything else that came up. It's all terribly inefficient, and that's by design—the better to reap the ideas that bloom spontaneously in the rich loam of collaborative creative riffing.

"We tend to run much less efficient film sets than anyone else. Instead of coming up with everything in advance we make stuff up as we go," says Kulash. "So you get something you couldn’t have imagined at the beginning. When you don’t have a firm top down style with a rigid set of goals, everyone realizes that their best ideas and their creativity can actually shine. You get better work and people actually enjoy themselves."

And as for the eternal OK Go question, Kulash says the short answer is yes, the effort and the Internet fame do translate into record sales; "not the same way MTV views used to, but then nothing does. It's like asking does your faster Internet connection sell more fax machines" (and it's here where perhaps Ok Go doesn’t get sufficient credit for the music part of the music experience, in that the videos wouldn’t be as successful if viewers weren’t enjoying the music).

But the longer answer is that Kulash thinks it's the wrong question. "There was a reason that a song was always three and a half minutes or why the art form of music stopped at the edge of songwriting—because the value in the music industry was selling copies of recordings. So concerts are promotions for records, videos are ads for records, etc."

When the power of accessible digital production became evident, "the edges started to blur," he says. "Some ones and zeros are going to turn into buildings and some are going to turn into a cell phone call and some are going to turn into an Internet video," says Kulash. "If you're like me, the creative impulses you wake up in the morning with are not particularly limited; they don’t line up very well with the categories that were thrust upon creativity in the last century."

So the band has focused on the whole music experience, and, of course, on building a massive audience—the better to explore brand sponsorships and other non record-based ways of making money. The band has been vocal about allowing fans unfettered access to its videos, publicly criticizing former label EMI over its misguided attempt to prevent sites from embedding its videos and finally breaking away to form its own label.

The blockbuster This Too Shall Pass video was sponsored by State Farm. The band teamed with Land Rover last year to create a GPS-guided parade through L.A. Google got on board this time around.  "The money that runs through the music industry hasn’t changed much in the last few decades," says Kulash, referring to the brands that once might have advertised on a music network and which now might sponsor, say, a music video. "They just might not go through the same channels. You can't buy an entire demographic en masse anymore. So, at least when we're working with these companies we have control over what we do and the compromises we will and won't make."

And while doing parades and making videos for the Today Show aren't "super cool rock and roll things to do," says Kulash, "we wake up in the morning and get to work on creative projects we like. If the bills get paid and we keep on getting to do that, who cares what the music industry thinks about it?"

Follow this author on Twitter: @tiezzi

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