Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Secret 3-D Project With OK Go

On Tuesday, July 13th, 2010, I received a most interesting voice mail. “Hey, Eric, this is Damian Kulash, from the rock band OK Go,” it started. Now I should preface this by saying that Damian is a very talented artist, musician and political activist, and is the frontman for OK Go, the band most famous for their innovative and viral music videos. Thanks to the internet, even if people don't know the band's name, they are usually familiar with OK Go's videos. The band's dance number performed on eight moving treadmills, and their interaction with a warehouse spanning Rube Goldberg device have been viewed millions of times on Youtube and other websites. In fact, the band made national news earlier this year when they fired their record label, Capitol/EMI, over the company's attempts to limit the availability of the band's videos online. In true do-it-yourself fashion, OK Go formed their own label, Paracadute (Italian for parachute), to self-distribute their music and videos. They are also very vocal on the subject of net neutrality – Damian has written several op-eds, and has testified before Congress on the importance of keeping the internet available to everyone without corporate road-blocks. I've been a fan for a long time. I should also mention that Damian is a friend of mine.

The message continued, “We are working on a video, possibly our finest to date, and I think we should shoot it in 3-D.” I first met Damian in November 2009, at a monthly technology lecture series called Mindshare. We chatted about our respective creative work, and I suggested that they should do a 3-D video sometime. I guess he was interested in the idea, as he and the band soon came to visit me in my Secret Underground Lair to see my 3-D shorts, talk about their video concepts for their upcoming album, and brainstorm some ideas. While we made no definite plans, I was invited to help on the set of their Rube Goldberg machine video, and filmed some stereoscopic behind-the-scenes footage of the production. Last March, when I was in Austin, Texas to moderate a panel on 3-DIY at the SXSW Film Festival, I serendipitously ran into Damian while crossing a street. That chance meeting led to an introduction to some people from Youtube, and a great lunch discussion about 3-D's potential on the internet. In the months that followed, I found myself crossing paths with Damian and his bandmates, bassist Tim Nordwind, drummer Dan Konopka, and guitar/keyboard player Andy Ross, at a number of other events – video presentations at LACMA and the Hammer Museum, in a lounge at the LA Film Fest, at the Hollywood Bowl, and at the Bay Area Maker Faire, where the LA 3-D Club hosted the “3-D Village” and OK Go gave a live acoustic performance – under water! I even randomly ran into the band in the cafeteria at Youtube's corporate office last May, when I went up there to meet with the programmer behind the Youtube 3-D player. Ok Go had also scheduled a meeting at Youtube on the same day, at the same time. For a while, we joked that we were stalking each other, and all the while kept saying that we wanted to work together on a 3-D project. So it came as no surprise to hear Damian say that they wanted to shoot their next video in 3-D.

What was surprising was what Damian said next, “However, we are shooting it this week. I should've gotten in touch with you earlier, but... Are you busy this week? We are in Portland, Oregon, we would like to bring you to us.” I returned Damian's call and he gave me the details. They were to start shooting on Wednesday, and would work through the following Monday. It was currently Tuesday afternoon. Damian apologized for, as he put it, “stupidly expecting me to be available on such short notice,” and asked if there was any chance I could fly up to meet them in the morning, and at lease see a rehearsal to advise them on whether a 3-D shoot was even possible. I asked him what video they were shooting, and he said “The dog video.”

“I'm coming.” I replied.

I had seen an early concept reel for the video to the song "White Knuckles" – using stuffed animals in place of real dogs – and I was eager to be involved in the real thing. I told Damian that I wouldn't have much time to gather equipment together, and would be limited to what I could bring on the flight, but that I could at least come up for the day to consult. The booked my flight, and I scrambled to pack my cameras and monitors. The next day, I caught an early flight to Portland, and a car drove me to their shooting location in Corvallis. I found myself on a set with fourteen dogs and a goat, all trained to perform with the band in a continuous, four-minute dance number. I watched a rehearsal. The director and choreographer, Trish Sie, who also happens to be Damian's sister, had worked out the performance in a way that perfectly utilized the z-space from a fixed camera position. I told them it should look great in stereo, and that I was eager to stay for the duration of the shoot. I made a few phone calls to find someone to cover for me at the July SCSC meeting (thanks, Ray!), and to get extra clothes sent up to Oregon (thanks, Jodi!)

The 2-D video was being shot on a Sony EX-3 camera, which was mounted inside a wooden box that the dogs could jump up onto. I had to position my cameras inside the same box and match the shot as closely as possible. The Canon TX-1 cameras on my homemade side-by-side rig were small enough to position directly under the Sony lens, and I was able to match the focal length, so the difference between the two shots was marginal. I ran the video feed from the two cameras to my portable 3-D monitor – a pair of LCD panels positioned at 90 degrees to each other, with a half-mirror beamsplitter between them, to allow polarized 3-D viewing. Using this monitor, I could check the alignment and sync before each take. With my gear in place, we began shooting the performance.

The goal was to get the entire routine in one take, with no edits – not an easy task when you consider that trained animals are usually only expected to do one “trick” on set before the camera cuts. But Lauren Henry, Roland Sonnenberg and their team of trainers from Talented Animals were convinced that they could pull off the unheard of task of getting the dogs to do the full routine in time to the music. Over the next five days, we shot 124 takes, and managed to get through the whole routine only about thirty times. Sometimes the dogs missed a cue, sometimes the band missed their marks, and for a while, the dogs were having so much fun that they started going faster than the music. In the end, we were all in pretty strong agreement that there was something very magical about take number 72, and that became the one we used for the final video. We wrapped production in Oregon on Monday, and I promised to keep the 3-D video a secret for the next few months.

Post production on the 3-D video was done back in Los Angeles in my Secret Underground Lair. I utilized the Stereo Movie Maker application to do alignment and parallax adjustments, and did color correction, titling, and final output from Adobe After Effects. The band decided that they wanted to show the 3-D video during their fall tour, so the mastering included the creation of both a side-by-side version for polarized projection, 3DTV, and internet viewing, and also a color-optimized red/cyan anaglyph version that could be projected on the road with a single LCD projector and white screen. The 2-D version was released on Youtube on September 20th, 2010, and in just one month, had already received over 7 million views. The 3-D version is currently being shown at OK Go's live shows around the country, and if internet reviews are any indication, it is being very well received.

I've always been a strong believer in making the most out of whatever resources are available to me, and finding ways to work within whatever limitations those resources impose. I'm thrilled to have had this opportunity to work with a band that so embodies the do-it-yourself ethos. And I think that the video itself proves that it's not so much what camera or rig you use that's important - it's what you do with it.

UPDATED - Read PART II of this post here

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