Over the last decade, indie-pop artists OK Go have become so well-known for their groundbreaking music videos that each time they release a new one, it’s become something of a mini media event. Last time around, they shot their entire video for “Upside Down & Inside Out” in micro-gravity, carrying out a carefully choreographed routine while performing parabolas in a specially outfitted aircraft. This time, they’ve accomplished yet another feat, capturing the clip for “The One Moment” at ultra high speeds with the latest in camera technology.
Sponsored by Morton Salt for the brand’s “Walk Her Walk” activism campaign, the video (or the majority of it) was shot in a staggeringly short 4.2 seconds. Using speeds of up to 6,000 frames per second on cutting-edge Phantom cameras including the Flex4K, they were able to slow the resulting footage down to match the length of the song. But while the shoot may have been over in a blink, the planning was anything but easy. With the band about to collect an American Ingenuity Award from Smithsonian magazine, we caught up with frontman Damian Kulash — who also directed “The One Moment” clip — to talk about the intricately involved process behind the project.
Camera Movement and Mind-Boggling Math
“The biggest challenge, first and foremost, was camera movement,” says Kulash. “You just need the camera to be moving so damn fast to catch these things with any sense of movement in the eventual piece. Any camera-movement system we could have gone with, we would have been pushing the envelope on. We were mostly using the Bolts. Our Bolt operator, this amazing guy, Simon, was just spectacular. We were pushing the Bolt so hard that after we had run a test shot, it would have knocked its own rails 10 inches across the ground. It was just throwing itself back and forth.”
With hundreds of digitally triggered events happening in that initial 4.2 seconds, it also meant that the timing had to be perfect on absolutely everything, down to the millisecond. “We always had to have the cameras running at the fastest frame rate that they’re meant to catch,” explains Kulash, adding that even with all that planning, they still had to break up the events into segments. “The segments were each caught with different cameras, because no single camera-movement system could have done that entire move.”
“More largely, it’s about just how deeply multivariable the math is to make this happen,” says Damian. “When you switch one thing — like saying, ‘Actually, move this moment back. I want to have us see this a beat earlier’ — when you change the apparent frame rate for five seconds of the eventual film, you’ve just thrown off the math of every other thing in the entire piece. It’s just a very, very complicated web of numbers.” This meant that the planning for the video not only required creative thinking, but also the creation of a spreadsheet with hundreds of rows of crucial data.
“Each individual thing wasn’t complicated,” elaborates the frontman. “It’s not that hard to figure out how long it takes something to fall 12 feet. It’s not that hard to figure out that if the camera is moving 50 feet per second and it’s rotating at 360 degrees per second and you’re on a 24mm lens, how much ground you can cover at 20 feet away. That’s all math that you could do once you’ve gotten through trigonometry. But the fact that that number then flows downhill to affect all the numbers behind it and all the numbers in front of it makes it very hard to find any solid ground, because you still have so many questions. ‘What frame rate will we be using at this point?’ ‘Are we going to be zoomed in at all?’ Every single part of it had to be thought out in advance, because you can’t adjust anything on the fly. It’s all happening too fast for you to react.”
The Limitations of Reality
“What I really wanted to show was things being synchronized,” explains Damian. “You take this moment of total chaos and you unpack it, and the idea is that everything that felt like chaos actually has order to it and is beautifully in sync with the song. In terms of things that could have been synchronized, we had a million ideas that were just physically impossible. Not even like we couldn’t get it done, but literally physics wouldn’t let it happen. We really wanted things to collide in the air, for instance.”
“I also had hopes of doing projections onto the things that we were making happen. Imagine when you chop through a can of spray paint and you get this big cloud of spray paint on the other side — what if we could have used a laser projector to actually project images, or the lyrics or something, onto that? We actually tried a bunch of that. The problem is that no one makes any projection system that’s faster than, say, 60 frames per second. There’s no reason to have a projection system which can do 6,000 frames per second. No one can see 6,000 frames a second. There are a lot of things which just don’t exist because the only use you could have for them would be a video like this, and no one else would need one.”
The Importance of Pre-Visualization
“Another limiting factor I had never really thought of until we did this video is that I have always expected that I can do testing, messing around with facsimiles of things,” says Kulash. “Usually, your iPhone camera is a good enough camera to do a test with. However, for things shot at 6,000 frames per second, you can’t just go grab a prosumer camera and do a quick test. We had a 1,000 frame-per-second prosumer camera that we did some tests on, but when you’re blowing up a guitar with black powder, it does not look the same at a 1,000 frames-per-second as it does at 6,000 frames-per-second. There’s only so much of it you can really try before you’re on set. Much more than most, this one was done in pre-vis and on spreadsheets, and thinking it all out in advance.”
Not that any of that means the band didn’t face challenges of their own on screen. In addition to performing some risky feats for the shoot, they had to get everything pretty much perfect on the first take. “Tim and Andy both have lip-sync moments that took a lot of practice,” says Damian. “Tim’s two lip-sync moments are less than half a second apart in real time, and he had to do the flip book at the same time. That stuff took a lot of human effort. But in terms of the synchronicity of things falling from the ceiling or paint buckets exploding, there’s no improvisational element whatsoever. There’s nothing you can do once you’re there. That was all pre-vis stuff — and there’s only so much you can do in pre-vis, because there are X-factors in reality that pre-vis never accounts for. There was no way we could afford to do the entire thing over and over again, but we could do a pre-vis and then shoot a single element to make sure it was working the way we thought it would. We blew up paint buckets a lot of times before we felt confident that it was going to work.”
Of course, it all leaves you wondering what on Earth (or beyond?) OK Go will get up to next — after you’ve finished watching the results for the tenth time, that is. In the meantime, for even more info on the making of “The One Moment” video, check out the full background notes and credits from Kulash (including a glimpse of the abovementioned spreadsheet) over at OK Go’s official site.