It was an ambitious effort…
…produce a follow-up to the infamous “Bromance” video (an entry for a contest at work in celebration of the MathWorks 25th anniversary back in 2009). Fast forward 5 years and the MathWorks is once again celebrating its now 30th anniversary with another video contest known as MathWorks Idol. The first order of business? Me and cohorts Jeff Goodwin and Mark Ainscow wanted to ensure we didn’t get banned this time around! After some discussion, it was decided the safest bet for going from cult classic status, to mass market appeal, would be for Jeff to hand directing duties over to me. My manager spidey senses had predicted us getting banned 5 years ago, so it seemed logical that manager intuition would serve us well. And it did! Call us sell outs if you will, but we’ve gone wholesome!
The Bromance Brothers are back and up to their silly antics, but this time they’ve brought a few of their MathWorks friends for a cleaner and more festive celebration!
I’ve been busy editing, re-editing, and re-re-editing the last couple weeks, on top of making teasers, and developing a video roll-out strategy with my besties, so there was no way I was going to have time to write something up for the blog. Instead, I recruited Mr. Mark Ainscow to guest write a post, asking him to reflect back on the Bromance Brothers experience, how we came to be, and the experience of filming our latest venture, “Call Me Nerdy”. So without further ado, I’ll hand things over to Mark.
- Chris P
“The Call Me Nerdy Experience” by Mark Ainscow
The Birth of Bromance (2009)
We all knew that if we were to do this again, it would all be done differently. We’d made that idol video five years ago – it pushed something marginally acceptable into, well, something completely unacceptable. And because a MathWorks’ core value is that of continual improvement, we saw this as an opportunity. We needed to dust ourselves off and to give the Bromance Brothers a second chance. We’d learn from our mistakes and put a wrong, right – as it were. Because we’d all matured, at least a little bit. There had been a rumor for a couple of months about another idol competition, celebrating MathWorks’ thirtieth, and so when Jeff Goodwin said “it’s on” our collective minds had already been made.
Everyone was in with the exception of John Booker who unfortunately had prior commitments but we found the perfect replacement in Reeve Goodenough, and like a fresh lamb to the slaughter, he joined the Bromance Brothers.
Now, we just needed an idea. The original Bromance video from 2009, a song parodying Apple Hill Three meeting room names, stuffed to the brim with double entendres, and I mean completely and utterly stuffed, was just exactly that. Jeff Goodwin, yeah I blame him, came up with the original Bromance idea seemingly out of nowhere. He wrote some lyrics and then sat Ellen Mangan and myself in his office while he sung it to us over an R. Kelly karaoke backing track. And as if the visual of that wasn’t funny enough, it was hilarious for two other reasons. The song, although inappropriate, was hysterically funny and Jeff was uncharacteristically nervous.
So, Chris Portal agreed to film it, almost like a home video and thus we had a very basic plan. We recorded the song over one weekend in Mike Carney’s basement and then filmed the video the following weekend at MathWorks. The filming wasn’t planned, or if it was, I didn’t know what the plan was. We knew we had to get some shots of the rooms and us, the Bromance Brothers and Ellen just goofing around, but that was it really. Bromance was born.
MathWorks 30th Anniversary (2013)
This time, of course, it had to be different, very different. When we sat around shortly after the November announcement and thought about what we could do. We knew that we would have to pay more attention to the production value of the video and music because we were no longer able to rely on our self-styled smutty wit.
Jeff floated the first ideas, which seemed like a good place to start. The concept was to have the Bromance Brothers sitting in a conference room (it was not going to be Hot Tub for sure) throwing around some concepts. Jeff had been working on a short parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines (Gaussian Blurred Lines), a kind of dream sequence, and then move to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky (Get FUNCy, as in function handles, get it?) and then end with a grand finale, one that the Bromance Brothers would see as an acceptable idol submission to the MathWorks organization. It was remarkably close to the truth.
We knew that we needed the final video in the sequence to be something big, something choreographed, inclusive, and colorful, celebratory, and something very MathWorky. I’d tossed around an idea to Jeff and Chris about the closing sequence to Slumdog Millionaire, a two-minute choreographed dance shoot where Freida Pinto and Dev Patel dance with the cast in a railway station as the closing credits roll. Yes, it was a lofty idea, but it’s best to shoot high right? They seemed to like it and encouraged me to develop it a bit further.
For a dance sequence you need dancers, because, you know, dancers are important especially if that’s your big finale. When this idea came up, I’d thought about the MathWorks flash mob so I dug up the YouTube clips and spent thirty minutes going through them in the hope of finding somebody I recognized. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I recognized Aarti Ramani, hidden away in the corner, and only visible when the YouTube clip played in HD mode.
Aarti, bless her, when water-boarded, she sung like a canary (no pun intended) and spilled the names of the flash mob instigators, Harvey Abaya and Vidya Gopalakrishnan. I set up a meeting with all of us just to test the water to see if they were interested in doing something together. Now bear in mind we still didn’t have a plan, we didn’t even have a song, but Harvey was incredibly enthusiastic, and to be honest, there was no stopping him.
For the song, we settled with ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepson. I’m going to be honest here, I have a three year old kid, I’m busy, I have hobbies, and I’d never heard of her or this song, and so when it got floated around, and everyone was excited by it, I just kind of said, “yeah, I like that – that’s cool”. Harvey said he’d start to think of some moves to the song. I didn’t really know this until then, but there is a group called MathWorks Dance. It’s a bunch of MathWorkers that like to dance, and they’re part of a group, and the meet once a week and dance. It’s pretty cool. And Harvey, our Harvey, plays a part in that group and was able to recruit dancers. Holy crap, this thing was coming together.
However, we had a problem. Well, actually, we had a lot of problems, but as far as big problems went, we had one. Jeff, while scratching his head, so eloquently put it to me one evening, “Carly Rae Jepson sings in an octave where we don’t comfortably find ourselves,” and he was right. We needed a singer. There was no way in hell that any of us could sing lead on that track. I asked Vidya and Harvey if they knew anybody, and they immediately volunteered Aarti – the same very freshly water-boarded Aarti. Yes, what are the chances? Aarti jams with a band at MathWorks and she invited Jeff to listen in. “Yup – she can sing” was the text I received that night. And she can sing quite well, very well in fact.
Great, so we had a singer, and dance group, what else? Lyrics, we needed lyrics. Jeff does this thing where he squirrels himself away for a few hours and writes. He’s a writing machine, this guy can write anything, blogs, short stories, music reviews, documentation, RFAIN Requirements, marketing material, software specifications, and lyrics. He’s the real deal. And, after one weekend of being somewhere – between you and me I’m thinking a cabin in New Hampshire with Walter White, out Jeff popped with new lyrics to Call Me Maybe, now called, ‘Call Me Nerdy.’
Chris storyboarded a film sequence with the lyrics and worked with Harvey on choreography. The concept he came up with and pitched to the whole team was the following:
Aarti Ramani sings in celebration of MathWorks 30th as she is joined by the Bromance Bros, followed by a growing posse of MathWorks dancers, as they dance through the MathWorks hallways, AH4 stairwell, new cafeteria and lunchroom, and finally out onto the new quad. Along the way, their celebration is humorously punctuated with various MathWorks’ sites, lore, and celebrities, reminding us of its unique and idiosyncratic culture!
The idea was to start small and simple as far as dancers and choreography, and build up to a dance number that we would attempt to make as big as possible (or as big as people’s schedules would allow). Everyone was game for it. In the meantime, Reeve, Ellen, Jeff and myself set up time with Harvey and the core dance troupe in the studio at the MathWorks gym to start dance rehearsals.
We recorded the initial version of the song with Luke Stark’s help in the webinar studio to give us something to dance to. We knew we’d have to get two goes around with the music, and the first attempt despite indications to the contrary actually didn’t turn out too badly. Jeff, Aarti, Chris and Luke plugged the holes left by the beer from the first attempt after the final video shoot. The first recording was always going to be rough, we knew that, but it gave us something to dance to.
Dancing. Ugh. Dancing is a pastime I’m not terribly comfortable with. It requires effort, rhythm and coordination. When I dance, I can’t smile, I can’t smile because I’m either in pain, or I’m concentrating, or both. I thought I’d get better at it, and, perhaps I did a little, but I never really got comfortable with it. But with Harvey’s undying patience and commitment, I learned the moves, for the most part anyway. And learning here means that I knew what I was supposed to do – it doesn’t mean that I could actually do it. So when you see me dance in the video, I look like I’m in gastric discomfort, my face dour and contorted as if I’m sucking on poison ivy, recently awakened from a coma. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, I truly was, I just had to concentrate, and was under constant pressure not screw up the take, again.
The filming started with the stair sequence in Apple Hill Four. Chris showed up with lighting, a jib, dolly, and tracks for the camera and two or three helpers. It looked like we were making a movie, a real one. I thought we were going to have to show union cards. Filming lasted all day and ended with intro to the cafeteria sequence. The following week we filmed outside.
That’s right, the following week we filmed outside, in December, in Massachusetts. It was cold, like 35 degrees – yes it could have been a lot worse, but cold is still cold. Every few takes were punctuated with the cast running out of shot to wear a coat and get warm.
I’ve watched that closing sequence, the sequence filmed in the quad, many many times. I’m constantly amazed how Chris made it look as if we were dancing on a beautiful spring day. The sun, gorgeous, reflects joyously from Apple Hill Three as we dance happily (well, everyone is happy but me) on that lush green grass. But just look more closely, not one of those trees has leaves, those aren’t smiles – they’re grimaces, our lips are turning blue, goose bumps on goose bumps, you’ll catch sight of a mitten, a hat under a hat, and look at where we are standing, on rain sodden grass, our feet slowly sinking deeper with every take. I think I actually got trench foot from that sequence. I’m also not ashamed to tell you that I was wearing long johns under my pants because we were running around in tee-shirts. Some even wore shorts. And look at what Jeff was wearing. Those god awful blue Halloween pants and that white vest.
We had a total cast of about thirty-five people and a crew of four. Coordinating almost forty people, especially for the larger choreographed sequences was a challenge – you can ask Chris exactly how, because he managed to do it. The larger sequences were broken down into three location shoots – the Apple Hill Four stair shoot, the cafeteria sequence and then the outside quad sequence. Chris (thanks Chris, it was my job to organize and I dropped the ball, I wholeheartedly apologize) set up a series of Doodles and we had to figure out what we could do with the number of people we had. In the end we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot, no more than four weekends perhaps, one of which was Thanksgiving, and so we made do.
We’d talked much earlier about bringing in some kind of closing shot, a shot to tie up the finale. Either something from one of the garages, or a roof shot, but Chris was able to go one step further. Maybe he cashed in part of his 401k but on the day of the outside sequence, Chris told me that he brought a quad copter with him, to get the final sequence shot. Now, when he said quad copter, I’m not really sure what I was thinking – a CIA drone perhaps? Armed with hellfire missiles? I don’t know, I was expecting a big thing, like Airwolf, or Blue Thunder and I was really excited to see it. We were in the cafeteria preparing for the shoot, and I kept asking him where it was, you know, because, like I said, I was excited. He kept gesturing over to the Pi bar.
“Where is it?”
“Over there! On the counter.”
And I saw it. It was tiny, plasticky, white. Like it fell out of a Christmas cracker. I wanted it to be army green. I asked him what the test flight went like, and he told me he hadn’t done one yet. Today was going to be the maiden voyage. “Oh,” I said, and left it at that.
Knowing that this was Chris’s first time flying this and having to dance under it while it whirred around at low altitude was a little disconcerting. Jeff was eager to point out that a man had recently been partially decapitated and died in Brooklyn, New York by something similar. He seemed to take great pleasure in telling us this as our rookie pilot flew the drone overhead. It started to look a lot more like Airwolf. The quad copter has about twenty minutes of powered flight, and is somehow flown from a transmitter box and an iphone. The very last closing shot was taken from the copter, rising slowly over the quad, peeking over the roof of Apple Hill Three.
With the large choreographed sequences behind us, it was time to finish up and capture the shorter takes – the intro, the Harlem Shake/usability night scene (which incidentally is played in reverse to give it a more frenetic feel), the gym and the corridor scenes. Ned Gulley and Joe Hicklin were frighteningly eager to make cameo appearances in the video, and Roy Lurie, well – that’s quite the story.
Roy just happened to be walking through the cafeteria one afternoon shortly before we were about to go hunt him down for a cameo appearance in the video. He spotted Jeff with the wig, and insisted that he wear it. Donning Jeff’s wig is analogous to wearing the Ring of Mordor – it makes you do weird stuff. Roy, literally, stood around in the cafeteria for around thirty minutes, with wig, eager to film his scene. He even started foraging around for bling to wear. It was all quite bizarre. So, with props in tow, we filmed Roy dancing with us in a conference room wearing the wig, bling, and for an unknown reason, my work jacket. Jeff repossessed the wig therefore returning Roy back to sanity, sent him on his way to his next meeting, and we headed up to the office of MathWorks’ CEO, Jack Little.
Jack has come to accept that every five years he’s going to have MathWorks Idol filmmakers camping outside his office until he comes out. I’m sure we were neither the first nor the last. We suspected he knew we were lying in wait and was tying bed sheets together in order to escape through his fourth floor window, but, alas, he appeared. Jack asked us if we wanted him to look nerdy and we giggled like school children. He ducked back into his office and returned with a notebook and calculator, and put in an Oscar winning performance.
Our biggest constraint for the whole project was that the video could be no longer than three minutes. The three-minute constraint introduced a serious problem – the original Carly Rae Jepson song runs three minutes and twelve seconds, therefore our video, after adding the credits, ran around three minutes and twenty-two (we had forty-four cast and crew to thank). Even though the competition rules stipulated no more than three minutes, we didn’t know what that precisely meant. Did the rules mean that our entry would be rejected? Did the rules mean that if our video were just twelve measly seconds over, they, the competition organizers, would let it slide? Or did the rules mean that it would be cut off right at the three-minute mark?
We’d heard through the grapevine that videos would be clipped at exactly three minutes, and given that this was in the heart of the closing scene, we had to do something. We could either cut a verse or speed up the song. Chris and Luke experimented with speeding up the video. What a royal pain. Who would’ve thought speeding up the audio slightly would introduce artifacts and make Aarti sound like she was singing in a cave. That was a last minute scramble between Chris and Luke to “fix” the sped up audio and re-edit it into the video. There was concern that speeding everything up would make us sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks on crystal meth, but the difference turned out to be subtle. The result was something we called the ‘Caffeinated Mix.’ By speeding the sequence by just 4%, we were able to bring the conclusion of the quad copter shot above Apple Hill Three perfectly to the three-minute mark. We could live with the video being cut here if the organizers stayed true to the rumor of the three-minute death clip. It did however make a difference to the song; it gave it a little slight techno feel. But, if you’ve not heard the original non-caffeinated version, I don’t think you’d ever know.
And there you have it, the story behind the song and the video. Yes, we knew this had to be something completely different, we knew that we had to weigh more heavily on the production value of the video, invest more in the music, tone down the innuendo. Ultimately we believe we achieved exactly what we set out to achieve – something colorful, fun, energetic, diverse and downright nerdy – MathWorky.
We hope you enjoy watching it as much as we enjoyed making it, but that would be pretty near damn impossible.