Trish Sie on OK Go's 'Upside Down' video: "I was petrified of this one!"
David Knight - 15th Feb 2016
You've seen the video. You may have watched the BTS films. But now we have the full inside story on the making of the amazing video for OK Go's Upside Down & Inside Out from the source - co-director Trish Sie.
Trish has been OK Go's prime collaborator on their remarkable series of music videos for a decade. She's been choreographing the band since their early days, when they would drop occasional dance routines into their live shows (she's lead singer Damian Kulash Jr's sister). When she shot them practising to the song A Million Ways, it became a viral sensation. Then came the first deliberate attempt at a one-shot choreographed video - the 'treadmill' video for Here It Goes Again.
Ten years later, with so many videos and having gained so much experience, she and Kulash have devised the most ambitious video they have ever made, and arguably the most jawdroppingly brilliant – which is really saying something. This is the 'zero gravity one'. So how on Earth did she, Damian and the band pull it off? On-set photography by Sergey Polishuk
PromoNews: First of all, when and how did you come up with the idea? How long as have you been working on it?
Trish Sie: Damian and I actually hatched this idea back in 2012 when we took a ride on Cape Canaveral's 'Vomit Comet' – the plane that simulates weightlessness by flying in parabolas. At the time, it was instantly apparent to us that there was nothing in the world quite like weightlessness (obviously), but also, that getting anything worthy of OK Go in this environment was going to be nearly impossible.
Controlling momentum and objects in zero-g is tricky and unpredictable. And weightlessness comes in very short increments – about 25-30 seconds while the plane is arcing and diving toward the ground – so to create the kind of precision and choreographic flow for which we're known was going to be a big challenge. And VERY expensive. But it was hard to let the dream die because there was so much promise inherent in it. Who are we to turn our noses up at a good challenge?
As usual for a OK Go video it seems like it took weeks of rehearsal. But was this even more difficult than normal, considering where the action happens? Could you rehearse ‘on land’ or did you have to do it all airborne?
We did a week of testing at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center outside of Moscow. We brought all kinds of props aboard the plane – from sequined stripper shoes to basketballs – and played in zero-gravity for six flights. We filmed everything, using cameras mounted at a variety of angles. We began to develop a vocabulary for what worked and what didn't work, what was possible and what wasn't, what felt impactful, what was disappointing. We knew heavy objects that have no business floating in the air would be more astonishing than confetti or feathers; that sort of thing.
"This badass plane does a very sudden and steep uphill climb, which places you in double gravity. When it begins to nosedive, everything goes into a freefall that feels like Zero-G."
But we learned a lot about how things look and behave; how much control we would be able to muster; and very importantly, how we might be able to time and coordinate the whole thing so we could have a single choreography rather than a "highlight reel" of sorts. We didn't simply want a collection of cool moments in weightlessness. We wanted a real dance.
So that meant cutting the song into chunks that would fit within the weightless segments... coordinating with the pilots and Cosmonaut trainers about when we would be pitched into zero-g and figuring out how to time the playback of the correct portion of the song, etc. It was a bit of a math mindfuck, to be honest.
How exactly was it done? You are in a plane, falling from how many feet, creating the weightless effect - is that right? Do you have to work with special planes? Is it all done with one falling movement?
The plane is a giant behemoth with a VERY powerful engine, obviously. Legend has it that this particular aircraft, the Ilyushin 76, doesn't even need runways to take-off or land. It just kinda goes wherever it wants, whenever it wants. It's also rumoured to be the LOUDEST aircraft ever. I believe both of those rumours. And I can vouch for the fact that it takes TEN pilots to fly it at any one time. The thing is truly insane.
Anyway, this badass plane does a very sudden and steep uphill climb, which places you in DOUBLE gravity for about 20 seconds. This move has the effect of essentially "tossing" everything inside it into the air. When it reverses its trajectory, crests the top of the curve, and begins to nosedive, everything goes into a free-fall that feels like zero-g inside the plane.
"You feel another 20 seconds or so of double gravity as the pilots pull out of the maneouvre. Which is nice. Hitting the ground at that speed would be a bummer."
Over the course of about 25-30 seconds, the plane dives from about 30,000 to about 15,000, then it "scoops" you back up. You feel another 20 seconds or so of double gravity as the pilots pull out of the maneouvre. Which is nice. Hitting the ground at that speed would be a bummer. Then, you climb back up to do the whole thing all over again.
Once we had an idea of what sorts of moves and props were most effective in zero-g, we worked out a choreographic roadmap on the ground, then went back to Russia to rehearse and shoot in the plane. We did 21 flights in all, with 15 parabolas per flight.
You worked with Russian airline S7. Are these guys usually working with astronauts?
We made the video thanks to the gracious sponsorship of S7, the Siberian airline. They were an awesome partner in this – they really trusted us to do our thing, even when our process was terrifying and unlike anything anyone was used to. They had never worked with cosmonauts, either. This entire adventure was new for everyone.
"There were just so many challenges - how do you communicate with a crew that needs to work together like a well-oiled machine, but doesn't speak your language?"
How many takes before you got it right? Did you have to land and clean up the plane after every take?
On shoot week, we allotted ten flights to shooting full takes of the dance. Each take took about 45 minutes in real time, since we had to wait for the plane to regain altitude so we could resume the dance. We cut all those boring waiting periods out in post-production, of course. Our editor, Meg Ramsay, was a godsend is smoothing over the morphs so it all looks seamless.
We ended up getting three decent and usable takes on the final day of shooting. And one take on that last day just felt clearly better than the others. No take was flawless, but the one we used was by far the most magical.
And yes! We had to hose the plane down between each flight! It was such a mess. The plane was always soaking wet and freezing, like a frigid hell-swamp... and by the end of the shoot, it seriously smelled like ass.
Was there anything from your box of tricks that you thought about dropping because it was difficult to get it right? Or things you had to change?
I was sure that foods would be more useful – chunky soups or Bloody Mary mix or sandwiches flying around. I dreamed of these thing erupting from the beverage carts. During our test week, our props master, Sergey, actually quarantined himself in the back of the plane in a spot that we affectionately called his "Dexter Killing Room" because it was all encased in plastic sheeting.
A Go-Pro mounted on the wall back there captured him opening all kinds of horrific stuff into the air – Pepto Bismol, chili beans, hair gel and shaving cream, spray cheese. He was often forced to stop and barf in a bag – that's how gross it all was... on top of the intense motion sickness this sort of flight elicits. But in spite of his valiant efforts and some excellent work with toothpaste, paint balloons were the only liquid that made the cut.
We also had to drop a lot of the synchronized moves that we had imagined. It's simply impossible to coordinate ANYTHING up there. People doing the same thing at the same time is virtually unthinkable.
"Our props master, Sergey, was often forced to stop and barf in a bag – that's how gross it all was."
Presumably you were confident going in that you could make this happen, but its a different order of difficulty than your early OK Go videos. How different is this experience to the one when you were making the A Million Ways and Here It Goes Again videos, back in the day?
Are you kidding?! I was petrified of this one! Besides the physical terror of flying for days in a plane that accelerates TOWARD THE GROUND, the creative and technical limitations and restrictions of the parabolic flights were daunting. Weightlessness was much harder to harness than I had imagined. I wanted the flow and the precision that OK Go pulls off so well, but that seemed far-fetched in this situation. And I wanted it to be musical and expressive, not just a mash-up created in an editorial suite.
There were just so many challenges - how do you steady a technocrane in both weightlessness AND in double gravity? How do you power all your equipment when you can't bring a generator with you? (We melted the plane's battery at least once, by the way. ACK.) How do you communicate closely with a crew that needs to work together like a well-oiled machine, but doesn't speak your language?
How do you create texture, impact, and contrast when everything is hanging in the air and therefore appears to be in slo-mo all the time? How do you and your crew hit buttons, pull focus, and do other filmmakerish things when you're also floating around and possibly barfing and/or passing out yourself? How do you assign parts of the song to different parabolas when the song breaks neatly into 21-second increments, but weightlessness comes in 27-second-bits, to the extent that you can count on those weightless bits being consistent in the first place...?!
So it was a lot to think about and a lot to tackle. But what an adventure. I wouldn't trade it for the world!
• Trish Sie is with Bob Industries in the US, and now represented by Good Egg in the UK. Full credits for the Upside Down & Inside Out video here
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David Knight - 15th Feb 2016