Launching the Latest OK Go Video in Zero-G
The band OK Go is known for their geeked-out videos featuring a NASA-built Rube Goldberg machine and lyrics played through optical illusions. They choreographed their latest video—“Upside Down & Inside Out”—in zero-G. Lead singer Damian Kulash and bassist Tim Nordwind talk about training and dancing while weightless and how experimentation is key to their complex videos.
Damian Kulash is the lead singer for OK Go. He’s based in Los Angeles, California.
Tim Nordwind is the bassist for OK Go. He’s based in Los Angeles, California.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we call our SciFri Book Club to order. We’re talking about Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On The Move. And if you’ve been reading On The Move with us, tell us what you think. We’ll be taking your calls at 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. So we’ll be talking about the book club a little bit later, want to hear from you. But first–
[MUSIC – OK GO, “UPSIDE DOWN AND INSIDE OUT”]
That’s the new song from OK Go. It’s called “Upside Down and Inside Out.” You might know the band from their geeked-out videos. Their videos have featured a Rube Goldberg Machine built by NASA scientists and a musical instrument played by a car speeding around a race track.
Well, they have topped themselves on this one. For their latest video, they took their choreography to an even higher level, 37,000 feet to be exact. And they shot their video in zero-G– in other words, while completely weightless. They are here to tell us how and why they decided to shoot a video in a Vomit Comet. Joining us is Damian Kulash. He is the lead singer. They are all based out in Los Angeles. Welcome to Science Friday.
DAMIAN KULASH: Thanks for having me. I’m a big fan. This is a big honor.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. It’s great that the– well, it’s mutual admiration society. How do you like that? While I was watching the video, I kept asking myself, how did they do that? I mean, how many takes? It looks like it’s one long take. But is it?
DAMIAN KULASH: It is one long take. Here’s the thing. It took about 45 minutes to get that one long take. So in parabolic flight, which people like to call the Vomit Comet, the plane is basically moving in, like, a sine wave. And so it throws you up in the air and then it catches you. So you’re weightless for about 30 seconds at a time. And you’ve got sort of like what feels like double gravity right before it, while it’s throwing you up in the air, and then double gravity right after it, while it’s catching you.
And then there’s a period where the plane has to, like, regain altitude and get reset up for the next round of zero-G. So you only get this little period, slightly less than 30 seconds, of zero-G. So to make one long take, what we did was we would do the first section in the first round of zero gravity. Then when we’d land back in our seats, we’d just stay as perfectly still as we could for the four minutes until the next round.
We’d pause the music at that point and restart the music when zero-G came back so that we basically did each section sequentially but with these long periods of sort of waiting in between, which we later pulled out. We just edited those chunks out. And we had three-plus minutes of pure zero-G.
IRA FLATOW: Did the Vomit Comet live up to its name?
DAMIAN KULASH: Oh, yes. Our crew was, like, 60-ish people total, but on any given flight, there were usually around 20, 25. Luckily, the band members– we were all on pretty heavy anti-nausea drugs. But of some of our crew were, like, wanted to go all-natural. And boy, did they go all natural. Like, by the end of 21 flights, we had, I think, 58 separate regurgitations.
IRA FLATOW: You’re qualified now for space, I think, after that many.
DAMIAN KULASH: Well, we’re qualified for part of it. We actually asked. We were working with the cosmonaut trainers at Roscosmos outside of Moscow. And apparently, in the three weeks that we were doing this pretty much nonstop, we did two to three times what a training cosmonaut does before they’re ready for space. Of course, those cosmonauts are also doing all sorts of other athletic and science training that we did not do, so I can’t just leap into space. But on the zero-G part, we have a lot of experience now.
IRA FLATOW: Did you find yourself at all saying during it, whose idea was this?
DAMIAN KULASH: You’re asking the wrong member of the band. I really loved it. And also, this is an idea that I’ve wanted to do for, like, a decade. Basically, back in the mid-aughts, like, do you remember when SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and everything sort of first burst onto the scene and everybody was like, you know what? Space is now going to have people in it that aren’t just, like, government-trained astronauts. Other people are going to get up there.
And I remember thinking to myself, someone’s going to get to make art in space soon. And I was like, I really want to do that. And so this is an idea we’ve sort of been chasing since then. And I met with some NASA people. I met a bunch– I’m just sort of a nerd myself. And whenever I meet a scientist or a mathematician who knows about this stuff, I really love to dig into it with them.
And this is something we’ve been chasing for awhile. In 2011, we got the opportunity to go on a US commercial flight that does this. You can actually do this for fun. And so I invited my sister, who often co-directs these videos with me, to join me on that flight. And she and I went on that and did some testing. And the first flight we did together, we were like, this is going to be too hard. It’s really hard to control yourself. And there’s not a lot to– you need a lot of flights. We knew we would need a lot of time practicing and playing before we could really come up with something that lasted three full minutes and not just, like, oh, that was cool.
IRA FLATOW: You can tell. Take us through one of the scenes. I want to take us through a scene. I’m going to play it here. And I want you to describe what’s happening here. How did you coordinate all the moves in here? Let me play this scene. Here we go.
[MUSIC – OK GO, “UPSIDE DOWN AND INSIDE OUT”]
IRA FLATOW: OK. So–
DAMIAN KULASH: So this one is actually one of the ones where I’m sort of– I have to improvise a little bit. Basically, I’m alone at this point. And I have to do a little dance on the ceiling before a pinata comes flying out of the back. So my job there was to keep my face to camera as much as I could for the lip sync and to sort of get my moves repeatable. One of the difficult things is to figure out how to, once you do something cool, how do you do that a second time? Because it’s such a novel environment.
At this point now, we’re opening up the overhead bins, and the room is filling with disco balls. And then the final scene, of course, is just us popping paint balloons in zero-G, and we just have paint everywhere.
Liquids are one of the things that really does the best job of describing zero-G. Because most things in zero-G actually look like they’re just in slow motion. If you think about it, the way you know your mind knows something is in slow motion is that stuff just hangs in the air. So when stuff really is hanging in the air, your brain goes with the quickest and the simplest solution, which is, oh, I must be watching slow-mo.
It is a little different with liquids in the sense that, I mean, obviously, they do the same thing in slow motion. But when you see us moving at real speed and liquids actually hanging in the air around us, you really know, wow, this is something different.
IRA FLATOW: You know, bands have a reputation sometimes of trashing the stage. You trashed this plane.
DAMIAN KULASH: We trashed this plane.
IRA FLATOW: Like I have not seen with all the liquids going around there, splashing around.
DAMIAN KULASH: So on each flight we have 15 parabolas. And it takes eight of those to make a video. So what we would usually do is use the first seven as practice and then shoot a full take on the last eight. That last parabola is the only one where we do the paints. And so when we get back down to the ground, the plane was trashed. Our clothes were trashed. We had six copies of our clothes so that we could clean them as many times as necessary.
And because we were outside of Moscow, it was really cold. This was in October, November. So the plane never actually dried. So we’d get back on the ground, and people would spray it down with water. But the next day, we’d get in there, and the floor was soaked. By the way, Tim, our bassist, has just joined me.
IRA FLATOW: We have about four minutes, Tim. Welcome to Science Friday, Tim Nordwind. Tim, let me ask you right off, what’s your lasting impression about this video?
TIM NORDWIND: Oh, my gosh. I mean, it’s definitely the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done. I think I can safely say it’s the most adventurous thing the band has ever done.
IRA FLATOW: You have these circling flight attendants right in the middle of going on there. They seem acrobatic.
TIM NORDWIND: I’ve never seen that before, either.
DAMIAN KULASH: They’re actually trained aerialist acrobats. And we chose them because they– when we were trying to pick out who would be able to do really cool moves in this environment, we thought of synchronized swimmers. We thought of gymnasts. But one thing was that we knew these people would have amazing vestibular systems. Most of us get dizzy after we spin around twice. Their job is to spin around on a hoop or on fabric strands. And so they spin like the head of a power drill, and they’re just fine.
And another thing is that they have to learn how to control their movements mostly with their own strength and by sort of reacting against inertia as opposed to pushing against– like, a swimmer pushes against water. A gymnast pushes against the floor. But when you’re in weightlessness, you really can’t control your movements at all. You push something and then you’re sailing until you hit something else.
TIM NORDWIND: Also those dancers, they had no fear. They just went right for it. On the first flight, when I was, like, holding on to everything I could, basically, they were– the very first parabola, they were doing circles and flipping and spinning around. It was amazing to watch.
IRA FLATOW: We talked to astronaut Scott Kelly. He was aboard the space station for a year. Any interest after making this video of spending some time up there?
DAMIAN KULASH: I would love that. I would love that.
TIM NORDWIND: Sure.
IRA FLATOW: So how do you top this? I mean, how can you top this on your next video? Are you thinking about that already? When you were doing the parabolas up there, were you thinking, how are we going to top this while you were still doing it?
DAMIAN KULASH: No. I mean, we’re always chasing new ideas. The thing is, like, everyone’s sort of assumption is that we’re trying to top the last video or the last song or the last tour with something specifically designed to one-up it. It’s not really like that. We love chasing our creative ideas. And there is a tendency towards this mission creep. It’s like, once you’ve done something, that stops being like a challenge or stops being thrilling. And so it is really hard to think of what could possibly be a bigger logistical challenge, a bigger artistic challenge than this situation.
TIM NORDWIND: We may never feel thrill again.
IRA FLATOW: Tim, you’re part of a hack n roll course at the Royal College of Art. What is that about? What’s the collaboration there?
TIM NORDWIND: That’s actually Damian.
DAMIAN KULASH: Yeah. I was working with a friend of mine, Yuri Suzuki, who’s a designer in London. He teaches at the Royal College of London. And we did a course where the students, what they set out to do was hack synthesizers to make new art projects out of them. So I went and taught with them for a couple days. And the students did some amazing, amazing work.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ve run out of time. But this is a great video. We’re talking with Damian Kulash and Tim Nordwind, the bassist for OK Go. They’re based out of Los Angeles. And the new video is “Upside Down, Inside Out.” Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time–
DAMIAN KULASH: Thank you for having us.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.
TIM NORDWIND: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: And we have the video. You can watch OK Go’s video on our website at sciencefriday.com/okgo.