Brain Pickings

Before OK Go: The History of Rube Goldberg Machines


Endless tipping points, or what today’s music hipsters can learn from 80s Swiss filmmakers.

You may have seen the new OK Go video, This Too Shall Pass, making the viral rounds this week.

And while we do love us some OK Go, we have to raise an eyebrow at all the collective gushing about how innovative the video’s approach is. Over the years we’ve seen our share of this domino-effect, object-based-chain-reaction creative execution — like this 2006 Honda commercial, or this 2007 Guinness spot from director Nicolai Fuglsig, or even Timo Arnall’s much-acclaimed Nearness project last year.

This object chain reaction is known as a Rube Goldberg machine. But where its use in visual storytelling really originated is a little-known Swiss film from 1987 by director duo Peter Fischli and David Weis, titled Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go). In it, an incredible chain reaction of common household objects — tea pots, tires, ladders, trash bags, shoes, soap — unfolds over 29 minutes and 45 seconds across 100 feet of meticulously arranged ramps, swings and surfaces.

The Way Things Go is available on DVD, which we highly recommend for experiencing this trend ancestor in its full glory and understanding its influence on a number of contemporary art trends, from urban prankstership to stop-frame animation.

And while we love seeing this historically-fueled cross-pollination of creative disciplines — film inspiring everything from physical interaction design to advertising to music videos — we also think it’s important to understand the roots and origins of things we laud as innovative today. Or else we end up with suspicious similarities.

Thanks, @claudius!

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