Crazy con­trap­tions

Mak­ing money – and movies – out of mad ma­chines


WAK­ING UP IN HIS Brook­lyn apart­ment, New Zealan­der Joseph Her­scher has a Rube Gold­berg ma­chine as his alarm clock. Tra­di­tional ones just don’t do it for him.

In­stead, turn­ing sleep­ily, Her­scher grabs his ring­ing phone off the desk. A wooden ruler be­low the phone lifts up, and a toy trucks rolls off. A spirit level is pulled by a piece of string tied to the toy truck, which then drops a small fire ex­tin­guisher. This tugs on more ropes, which dra­mat­i­cally pull apart Her­scher’s cur­tains.

It’s the sort of wake-up call you can’t just roll over and ig­nore.

Her­scher, 30, has been a Rube Gold­berg nut since he was a child. That was when he started tak­ing Gold­berg’s draw­ings – car­toons of con­trap­tions de­signed to make the sim­ple tasks of ev­ery day liv­ing (wa­ter­ing the plants or open­ing a news­pa­per) re­ally com­pli­cated – and turn­ing them into real-life mad con­trap­tions. A cou­ple of decades later, and mad ma­chines have be­come Her­scher’s liveli­hood.

Next month, a doc­u­men­tary about one of his ma­chines, which dresses him from head to toe (us­ing, among other things, a gi­ant rolling clock, a swing­ing chan­de­lier, a yel­low squir­rel and two iron­ing boards) will premier at the New Zealand In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. The film Joseph Gets Dressed is di­rected by Kiwi writer, mu­si­cian and film pro­ducer Gemma Grace­wood.

Born in Auck­land, Her­scher ar­rived in New York in 2009, with a job lined up as a soft­ware devel­oper. His par­ents were both mu­si­cians (duo act “The Jew Broth­ers Band”), so he didn’t fancy the path of a strug­gling artist. Cre­at­ing Rube Gold­berg ma­chines re­mained a hobby.

“I’d come home [from work] ev­ery­day and work for four hours on my ma­chine, be­cause I never thought it could be a more se­ri­ous thing.” Her­scher says. “Who would?”

But his first video, Crème That Egg, fea­tur­ing the com­pli­cated demise of a Cad­bury’s crème egg, had gone vi­ral. (It has had 2.7 mil­lion YouTube views.)

Her­scher de­cided he couldn’t ig­nore the urge any longer. He went part-time at his “grown up” job and in 2012 turned to his pas­sion full-time: cre­at­ing ma­chines, film­ing them, and stick­ing them on YouTube.

Some­what to his sur­prise, ad agen­cies and busi­nesses started pes­ter­ing (and pay­ing) him to make his mad ma­chines. He led a chil­dren’s work­shop at the 2011 Venice Bi­en­nale. And

2011 video The Page Turner, has more than eight mil­lion YouTube views. Not bad for a two-minute clip about open­ing a news­pa­per.

The rags to riches (cre­ativ­ity-wise) story would have res­onated with Rube Gold­berg him­self, who in the early 1900s left a job as an engi­neer for the San Fran­cisco Sew­ers Depart­ment and be­came a Pulitzer Prize win­ning car­toon­ist, sculp­tor and au­thor.

Grace­wood, another Kiwi in New York, ap­proached Her­scher with the idea of cre­at­ing a short doc­u­men­tary film about his ma­chines in March 2013. Joseph Gets Dressed was born.

The pro­ject was largely self-funded, but it also re­ceived around $20,000 from the New Zealand artists' ver­sion of Kick­Starter –

“I al­ways wanted the NZIFF to be our first fes­ti­val,” Grace­wood says. “We both live over­seas, but our fam­ily, friends, and sup­port­ers of the film are here.”

For the mo­ment they’re back in Auck­land, col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Auck­land Trans­port and Tech­nol­ogy Mu­seum (MOTAT) and the NZ On Air dig­i­tal media fund, to film a new YouTube se­ries called Jiwi’s Ma­chines, which Her­scher wants to turn into a full-length TV show.

In ad­di­tion, Her­scher is lead­ing work­shops for kids to learn how to cre­ate their own Rube Gold­berg ma­chines.

More than 130 years af­ter Gold­berg's birth, the next gen­er­a­tion of crazy ma­chine in­ven­tors are be­ing born.

Wake up Rube Rube Gold­berg's crazy in­ven­tions – the in­spi­ra­tion for Joseph Her­scher's mod­els, were de­signed to make the sim­ple things in life com­pli­cated.


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