The band OK Go is probably best known for their complex, mind-twisting videos that make virologists wonder how they lost control of the word “viral.” Their latest video for the song Upside Down & Inside Out was shot entirely in an airplane flying in huge, zero-gravity simulating parabolas, and it’s astounding. The co-director, Trish Sie, told us how she did it in her own words.
First, here’s the video itself, so you can see what the final product looks like:
I was lucky enough to get into contact with Trish, who’s also the sister of frontman Damian Kulash, thanks to a chain of creative friends and a tenuous link I have to the band after a LeMons car I helped build and race was used in OK Go’s famous Rube Goldberg video back in 2010.
Here’s what Trish had to say about making this madness; and, yes, there’s talk of vomiting here, so, you know, enjoy.
Damian and I got a crush on weightlessness back in 2012, when we flew on the US “Vomit Comet” plane in Cape Canaveral.
Here’s what happens when these aircraft perform the parabolic maneuver that simulates weightlessness (see my hand-drawn diagram for super high-tech visuals!):
You get up to about 30,000 feet in the air, and then the plane makes a sudden, steep climb at about 45 degrees. This results in about 20 seconds of double gravity, which pretty much feels like your lungs are about to collapse, your eyeballs got punched by a hammer, and your blood is going to drain out of your body.
After that, the plane begins to crest the top of a curve, which has the effect of “tossing” everything inside it up in the air. As the plane goes over the top of the parabola and heads back down (at about a 30 degree angle), everything inside the aircraft feels like it is floating in midair for about 25-30 seconds, before the plane gets down to about 15,000 feet and “scoops” you back up again. At this point, you feel another 20 seconds or so of gorillas sitting on your face and chest— otherwise known as double gravity, before the plane stabilizes.
Then it takes the pilots another four minutes or so to regain altitude so you can do the entire thing over again.
The closest approximation we’ve found to illustrate the general principle of this is to toss a coin in the air but keep your hand around it as it falls. For that coin, it feels momentarily like it’s in zero-g as it and your hand accelerate together toward the ground. We’ve all had inklings of this sensation when we jump up in an downward-moving elevator.
For those interested in some technical details, the aircraft used here were Roscosmos Ilyushin IL-76 MDK aircraft. These planes were developed in the early ‘70s by the USSR as a heavy air freighter to carry machinery and equipment to far-flung, remote areas of the USSR. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, operates these planes equipped for parabolic flights for cosmonaut training.
Working in this sort of environment—with less than half a minute of weightlessness at any given stretch-poses obvious challenges for creating choreography, especially the fluid, single-take style for which OK Go is known. It also puts a monkey wrench in our go-to philosophy, which is practice, practice, practice, and practice some more until the piece is a finely tuned machine. There simply isn’t any way to do that in zero-g.
We knew we didn’t want a “Greatest Hits In Zero G” montage reel. We wanted a through-choreographed dance that was designed and structured meticulously, not cobbled together in an edit bay after the fact. But how do you do that? Working in a studio with cables or practicing in a pool with scuba gear wasn’t the answer. None of that comes close to simulating the way things move and feel in zero-g.
The way we ended up approaching this was by spending a week (6 flights) in Russia at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center to get the lay of the land. We spent all six flights of that week like kids in a candy shop (albeit, pretty nauseous kids... maybe that’s appropriate?). We just played like school children. We put Go-Pros all over the plane so nothing would get missed, and we went at it. We flipped and tumbled. We played with props— everything from cowboy hats to squeeze bottles of mustard and toothpaste. We tried dance moves. We tried partnered tricks and solo tricks and synchronized routines.
When that week was done, we came home to assess all the footage and assemble a working vocabulary of what worked and what didn’t. Some of the stuff I was certain we would love (for example, squeeze cheese!) was nothing spectacular after all. Other things— like big heavy chains— were surprisingly effective.
Coordinating moves was very tough, since controlling your trajectory and momentum is super tricky. And combatting the dreamy, drifty look of slo-mo that weightlessness imparts to everything and everyone— that was an additional consideration. How to create texture, impact and contrast when everything just sort of dangles, exactly the same way?
We also had to create a system for timing. We knew we wanted a continuous routine, so we broke the song into chunks, each of which could fit into one period of weightlessness. Then we created individual files for each section of the song, including a count-off that let the everyone know it was coming and reminded us what portion of the song was coming. The intention was for the band members to stay perfectly still between parabolas, picking up where they left off when zero-g returned. This way, we could speed through or cut out the 4-5 minute waiting period between each parabola. Our amazing editor, Meg Ramsay, made all that work using morphs to smooth over the transitions.
The pilots gave us a warning when we were getting ready to go weightless, and our playback guru, Roman, would start the track, with the music kicking right when gravity was departing.
Problem is, we couldn’t bear to cut the song up into pieces that weren’t musical, and the song broke neatly into 21-second bits. The pilots weren’t able to pull the plane out of the parabola after 21 seconds— it need to gain a critical amount of downward speed and momentum in order to safely recover.
And we couldn’t only use PART of any given parabola, because that means starting and/or ending that section with everything floating in the air— no way to hold perfectly still and pick up where you left off from that position!
So we slowed playback of the song by about 28.5 percent in order to stretch the song out to fit the length of the free-fall. We later sped the footage up in post to match the original tempo of the song. This had the added bonus of mitigating the floaty slo-mo affect of zero-g.
We rehearsed in a dance studio, blocking out the shape of the piece and figuring out camera moves. We created a roadmap, based on what we learned in our test phase, and hoped that most of it would prove possible when we went back to Russia a week later. (The actual wipe-board “roadmap” is included in the visuals attached!)
When we got back to the Russian Cosmonaut Training Center, we spent a week testing our roadmap, poking holes in our plan, reworking the parts that were boring, completely infeasible, or repetitive. Then we rehearsed as many times as we could, working out the kinks and ironing out the rough patches.
Our incredible DP, Evgeniy Ermolenko, and his team created an ingenious camera rig for the technocrane... because, crazy as it is, even a technocrane goes weightless in zero-g! And the head of the crane gets sucked down in double gravity as well. So he built a system of rolling tracks, top and bottom, that effectively wedged the entire enormous camera rig between the floor and ceiling.
After the rehearsal week came shoot week—with 10 flights that week, all devoted to getting the magical take that would become our video.
There were 15 parabolas per flight, and each run-through of the song took 7 of them. So we used the first 7 as a practice run, leaving out the final scene (the paint balloons, which we affectionately called “Thunderdome”). Then, we reset and ran the entire thing, front to back, including the berserk mayhem that is the finale.
Then the plane, which has been flying in a square pattern in a designated airspace, headed back to the airstrip, all of us drenched in paint and and soaking wet.
We would land, refuel, hose the plane down, and prepare to go back up. It was cold in Russia, so the water never dried. That plane was soaking wet and smelled like a warlock’s buttcrack by the end of this shoot, let me tell you. The floor under the carpet was about 4 inches of dense foam, just to prevent anyone from breaking her neck if she landed wrong. That foam was permanently soaked. It was like the devil’s frigid stinking marshland in there. You can even see at one point in the video— where the flight attendants are sitting on the floor— they are actually perched on in-flight magazines. That’s because their pants would have been soaking wet otherwise.
Trish didn’t mention it here, but the two flight attendants are trained aerialists, which is why they could spin and look graceful while airborne, with nothing to push off from. It’s a very specialized skillset, and they tried water ballet dancers, gymnasts, and other acrobats before finding the right fit with aerialists.
As for other discomforts, I can certainly dish the dirt on those as well. HA! There was a lot of puking. We kept a running tally and I believe the final count was 58 unscheduled regurgitations in all. And many more close calls. There were a lot of green people. A few pass-outs. Some wicked sinus headaches. And of course, the crew is all floating around during each take just like the band! So we’re trying to do our parts behind the camera without crashing into each other or anything else and without sailing into frame!
In between flights was hardly more comfortable than being in the air, though. We were on a desolate airstrip in the middle of rural Russia. No hangar or building. No restroom (on the plane or off), no coffee shop. No Star Waggons to hide in. No space heaters. There was a pretty rad little Russian lady who made ham sandwiches and hardboiled eggs and kept trying to get me to eat bananas. Like, all the time, with the bananas. The minute we got off the plane, she’d come at me in her headscarf with three bananas and make me eat them while she watched. She must have figured I was really low on potassium. Or maybe she could sense I was always on the verge of explosive diarrhea.
Anyway, on that final day, we didn’t really get the perfect take on our two flights. We had an okay-ish one and we had a good one that, sadly, was ruined by paint hitting the lens in the final scene. We were offered one extra flight, just 8 parabolas, one final attempt before leaving and calling it a day.
That was the flight where we nailed it.
It was such a euphoric moment. I mean, all these Russian Cosmonauts and engineers and badass hard-ass pilots spoke very little English and really had no idea what we were doing when this whole thing started. They must have thought we were such weirdos and lunatics, with our props and our tests and our slowed-down, chopped-up song and everything else. But as the process evolved, they saw what we were aiming for.
We all transcended the language and cultural barriers and truly became a family. The Russian crew were so invested in the video, at least as much as we were. And when we finally GOT IT, they were every bit as ecstatic and proud and delirious about the outcome.
It was a pretty enchanted experience. Hellish at times, scary, frustrating, overwhelming, uncomfortable. But the grandest, most exciting adventure. I’ll treasure the experience forever.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Sign me up!
There’s more good behind-the-scenes information in this video here, but I’m thrilled to hear a narrative from the director herself. If you have questions in the comments, I’ll see if I can’t convince her to pop in and answer things, too.
It’s also worth noting, for Russian/Soviet aerospace hardware geeks like me, some of the amazing equipment you can see being used in these pictures. For example, look at this shot of the navigator’s position in the airplane:
Look at those displays; right next to modern full-color LCD screens, you have real, no-joke Nixie tube displays! That’s just not something you see on American airplanes anymore. I love it.