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Band or Brand? Behind OK Go's 'The Writing's on the Wall'

Band's Latest Music Video Centers on Optical Illusions

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Thanks to some treadmills, a big, messy, State Farm-sponsored contraption and a Chevy-powered drive through the desert, the indie band OK Go has practically become synonymous with viral content.

Yesterday, the band released a music video that should further cement that reputation.

The one-take, in camera video, which is for a new song called "The Writing's On the Wall," features the band walking through (and breaking) over 20 illusions crammed into a floodlit Brooklyn warehouse: guitarist Andy Ross bikes upside down; bassist Tim Nordwind reveals he's only working with half a beard; drummer Dan Konopka grips a beam that's not a beam at all.

It is, in every sense, an OK Go video, and that is exactly what Special Guest and 1st Ave Machine, the agencies the band collaborated with, had in mind.

"There's definitely a right and a wrong with this band," said Special Guest creative director Aaron Duffy. "They have such a strong brand."

"I didn't really approach this as a music video," he continued. "I see it more as a really strong brand project."

During the video's first kick-off call, OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash announced that he wanted to do something involving optical illusions. Over the next two weeks, a team of folks including Mr. Kulash, Mr. Nordwind, Mr. Duffy, band creative director Mary Fagot and 1st Ave Machine's Bob Partington, bandied about ideas over email, drawing inspiration from artists like Georges Rousse and Felice Varini, while trying to figure out how things might fit.

But when they got to the warehouse they'd rented out for a month to shoot, they still didn't quite know what they were going to do.

Aside from the fact that they wanted the video to be one take -- "I'm not sure anyone would see it any other way," Mr. Duffy said -- and the fact that they wanted it all to be in-camera, they hadn't yet figured out if any of what they'd been passing back and forth would actually work on screen.

"Some illusions are just more exciting to see in person," he added.

For example, in one high-wire sequence, the camera soars up from ground level and pauses momentarily at the top of a ladder, where Mr. Nordwind is perched over a painstakingly arranged mess of objects positioned to look, for a split second, exactly like his face.

That mess, which included a garbage can, an easel, a VHS cassette and a plate of cold cuts (among many other things), each clamped or suspended at a different height, was fretted over for weeks.

"If we made it too detailed," Mr. Duffy said, "people wouldn't be able to see all the funny objects in the bunch of junk. But if we made it too junky, people might not be able to read the face.

"In the end, I think we were able to balance these things out," he continued, "but we have been living in a warehouse for four weeks looking at illusions, so I wouldn't say we have 'perspective' on anything."

Though each of the three directors focused on certain facets of the project -- Mr. Partington on mechanics, Mr. Kulash on transitions and Mr. Duffy on camera work – they all shared creative direction equally, accepting that there would be bumps in the road.

"All the little problems, and the little solutions you come up with to fix them, those are how you create something original," Mr. Kulash said. "I wanted to do something where we said, 'Here's our plan, let's fill in the details later.'

"Bob and Aaron are the first two directors I've ever met who have that same instinct."

That instinct led to a lot of experimentation, with the team trying new things out well past the eleventh hour. On the last day of shooting, crew members were shocked to find a car sitting on the set first thing in the morning.

It was supposed to provide a point of contrast with an array of blue dots the crew had painted over an 80-foot stretch of the warehouse. The car never made the cut -- the directors decided it was too big -- but the fact that it drove onto the lot in the first place exemplified of the spirit of the project, which came directly from Mr. Kulash and the rest of the band.

"This is the kind of work we love to do," Mr. Kulash said. "This is a collaboration directly with the client."

Perhaps the biggest difference between the video for "The Writing's on the Wall" and its predecessors is its lack of sponsorship. At its premiere at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art on Monday, June 16, the only thing being promoted was the band's "Upside Out" EP, which was scheduled to be released the following day.

And whether "The Writing's On the Wall" keeps OK Go's viral streak alive or not, its collaborators stand proudly beside it.

"We win together," Duffy said, "and we lose together."

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