Kaplamino Marble runs, Rube Goldberg machines and other contraptions

Illustration by Pauline Klieber.
Illustration by Pauline Klieber.
WordsOlivia Solon

There is a weird and wonderful world of YouTube videos featuring marble runs, Rube Goldberg machines and Mousetrap-style contraptions.

Olivia Solon talks to some of those who make them and asks why these intricate but largely pointless productions fascinate and delight us in equal measure.

It’s a gripping 92 seconds. A single blue marble embarks on a precarious journey across a painstakingly assembled desktop covered in wooden ramps, dominoes, fidget spinners, a disposable fork and a single chopstick. Humdrum household objects are somehow elevated to a high-stakes obstacle course that’s both thrilling and deeply satisfying to watch.

Like an analogue version of a 1990s platformer video game, the marble snakes its way through a series of interconnected mechanisms powered by magnets, ball-bearings, pendulums and even the closing jaws of a pair of scissors until it clinks to a satisfying stop inside a drinking glass propped on top of a tin can.

The blue marble is the brainchild of YouTuber Kaplamino who, over the last three years, has spent hundreds of hours creating mesmerising chain reaction videos that have attracted more than 25 million views and over 100,000 subscribers.

He’s one of a growing number of filmmakers carving out a niche in building labor-intensive contraptions including domino runs, chain reaction videos and Rube Goldberg machines. In an age of slick, black box devices these makeshift machines with exposed inner workings provide surprising and delightful online entertainment – the kind that couldn’t exist on traditional TV.

Kaplamino is actually Mathieu Carillat, a 22-year-old engineering student based in Paris. When he’s not studying at The Leonardo da Vinci Engineering School (ESILV), he spends hours building and filming elaborate chain reactions on a tilted tabletop in his bedroom.

Mathieu started watching elaborate domino videos on YouTube when he was a teenager. “I remember exactly the first video I saw. It was 68 Domino Techniques/Inventions by ShanesDominoez,” he says. “I don’t know why but it was very satisfying to watch.”

“I used to play with dominoes when I was a kid and this video gave me the idea to post projects on YouTube,” he added.

The username Kaplamino is reflective of his craft: it’s a portmanteau made from “kapla” – the construction toy comprised of small wooden building planks – and “domino.”

Mathieu’s first video was a six-minute showcase of 50 domino tricks, which he made over the course of a few months, starting with his tabby cat Tagada knocking the first domino with her paw.

In 50 different short scenes, Mathieu connects rows of dominoes and kaplas with household items that continue the momentum, from precariously balanced playing cards, small pedal bins, books, coat hangers and plastic cups. A jaunty keyboard tune plays under the satisfying plastic and wooden clacks of dominoes and kaplas.

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I always try to make something that’s never been done before... I just try to build it – testing and failing until it works.

“I didn’t really expect anyone to watch it,” he says. Six years on and the video has been watched more than 500,000 times.

His first video to go truly “viral” was one called Magnets and Marbles that he published in April 2016. It’s a compilation of tricks performed with large ball bearings and marbles moving their way around a kapla maze, with the odd piece of spaghetti acting as a lever.

It reached the front page of Reddit, and has since amassed more than 11 million views. “I didn’t think it was possible to make a viral video,” he says. “The channel wasn’t even monetized at the time.”

Within a week he signed up to YouTube’s partner programme, meaning he could put advertising on his videos and take a cut of the revenue. So far he’s made around 5000 euros.

Mathieu is inspired by other YouTubers, like DoodleChaos who makes witty marble chain reaction videos using dominoes, kaplas and little drawings on the tilted surface.

“But I always try to make something that’s never been done before,” he says. He doesn’t sketch out his ideas. “I just try to build it – testing and failing until it works.”

The blue marble was a true labor of love. The single-shot film was more complex than anything he had tackled before and took 500 takes to get it right. “I recorded everything because I had no idea which attempt was going to work,” he says. “I filled three memory cards.”

The biggest challenge was finding the “exact position of equilibrium” for lots of objects on the table so that they only moved when required.

He points to a single white domino towards the end of the chain reaction, leaning upright against some stacked red planks and weighted at the top with a couple of cents.

“(The domino) has to be triggered by only a tiny hit from the blue marble, but be stable enough to not fall earlier because of the vibrations of other parts.”

When he finally succeeded in capturing a perfect run it was, he says, “the best moment of my life.”

After posting it to YouTube, again the video made it to the first page of Reddit. It’s been viewed more than 1.8 million times.

One of the first chain reactions to become a major viral hit on YouTube was OK Go’s music video for This Too Shall Pass. The band worked with 30 engineers for three months to create an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine – named after a famous American engineer and cartoonist – which escalates from a toy car and dominoes to rolling barrels, a falling piano and paint cannons splattering the band members.

Published in 2010, it's been viewed about 60 million times, making it the most viewed video of its kind on YouTube.

Although “Rube Goldberg machine” has become a generic term for any complex chain reaction, Goldberg purists – and the Goldberg estate – insist it must also have some additional properties.

“Rube’s contraptions were normally made out of ordinary, everyday objects placed in a logical sequence to do an illogically simple thing,” says Jennifer George, Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter, who runs Rube Goldberg Inc., a company built upon her grandfather’s intellectual property.

The cartoonist himself said his work, which remained on paper during his lifetime, was a “symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results.”

One of his most iconic cartoons is the Self-Operating Napkin which features Professor Butts wearing an elaborate piece of headgear as he drinks soup and a numbered explanation of the mechanism to one side. As the professor raises his spoon to his mouth, a string at the end of the spoon jerks a ladle and throws a cracker past a parrot. The parrot jumps after the cracker, causing a cigar lighter to ignite a small firework which causes a sickle to cut through a string. This releases a pendulum with an attached napkin that swings back and forth to wipe the professor’s chin.

Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter credits YouTube – and the popularity of OK Go’s music video – for the renewed interest in her grandfather’s work.

“Suddenly what had been relegated to the back of the dusty archive – an oblique reference to a cartoonist of long ago – became viral, searchable, hashtaggable. YouTube really put Rube Goldberg back on the map,” she says.

Seven years before This Too Shall Pass and two years before YouTube launched, Honda had released a two-minute advertisement called Cog which showcased a chain reaction made out of 140 working pieces of the vehicle. At the time, many assumed it had been computer generated, but behind-the-scenes videos revealed months and months of preparation in an enormous warehouse, and 606 takes to capture the entire chain reaction. Advertising trade bible AdAge described the film as an “instant classic.” In 2012, Auto Express magazine named it the best car ad of all time.

Cog was only aired a handful times because it was so expensive to buy a two-minute advertising spot, but it quickly became one of the most famous car commercials. It did spread virally but, without YouTube it was mostly shared via email attachment. It spawned countless imitators and parodies and allowed the advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy to clean up on the awards circuit. Had it launched two years later it would have no doubt been one of the most popular viral videos ever made.

Despite their videos’ popularity both the team behind Cog and OK Go were accused of plagiarising German artists Fischli and Weiss’ 1987 film The Way Things Go.

“The fine art community thought it was a rip-off,” says Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go. So much so that when the band played a show at The Guggenheim Museum in New York, the curator banned them from playing their video.

Damian acknowledges that he had seen the artwork and found it “incredibly beautiful” but he was amused by the idea that Fischli and Weiss could claim to have invented such Rube Goldberg machines, when they are named after a cartoonist from the 1920s. “It’s like saying no-one can show dancers because of Degas.”

What separates Cog from This Too Shall Pass, Kaplamino and other chain reactions on YouTube is its extremely high production value, costing around 1.5 million dollars to make. Perversely it was this slickness that made audience members question its authenticity and assume CG trickery was at play. OK Go wanted a more raw aesthetic.

“We didn’t want the machine that worked the best, but one that feels the most precarious,” Damian says, recalling the creative process.

“It’s amazing how a toy car rolling down a plank has some emotional risk to it. If that plank had railings on it, it doesn’t have the same emotional risk. It can’t come off,” he says.

One of the engineers working on the video made an “insanely beautiful machine” using paper clips, but it didn’t fit the Rube Goldberg aesthetic. “It was somehow too well designed. It was made to do this thing rather than repurposed,” Damian explains.

In addition to precarious design, OK Go settled on another unifying principle for their contraption: no magic is allowed.

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If the viewer can’t follow it, it stops being a mechanical delight and turns into magic.

“If the viewer can’t follow it, it stops being a mechanical delight and turns into magic,” Damian says. This meant ruling out an idea to use the laser from a BlueRay to pop a balloon.

In Damian’s mind, people are drawn to these types of videos because they bring order to our chaotic world.

“It’s the opposite of the entropy that normally drags our lives down. Mostly things fall into disarray and take a lot of effort to upkeep,” he says. “(With chain reaction videos) there’s this sense that all these tiny precarious things went fucking right for once.”

For Jennifer, the appeal is linked to our increasingly complex technological world.

“The farther and farther removed we are from how our technology works, the more delightful and appealing and nostalgic these chain reaction machines become,” she says.

“I am certain there are hundreds of different chain reaction events that go on inside my cell phone, but I can’t see them. It’s so charming and miraculous when you see all these unique steps work and the outcome is a ridiculously simple thing.”

Damian agrees that seeing the inner workings of machinery is satisfying, but believes this is something that preceded the internet.

“Physicality and cause and effect are universally satisfying,” he says. “Think of how nice it is to throw a ball up and down and catch it, to feel the predictability of it.”

He also suggests that people are impressed by the evidence of many hours of human labor.

“When you see one of those things you are aware that some human has done all this work to make you feel wonder. There’s a shared warmth and pride in that. It gives me a real sense of camaraderie and optimism about what humans are,” he explains.

Today, one of the most popular Rube Goldberg creators is Joseph Herscher who runs the channel Joseph’s Machines. His work has the right mix of household items and humor to appeal to Goldberg purists.

Joseph’s most popular video, which has amassed more than nine million views, features an elaborate sequence triggered by him drinking from his cup of coffee, involving snooker balls, fire, a hairdryer and a live hamster, culminating in a roll of tape turning over the page of his newspaper.

Some of his contraptions are much simpler, for example the saucer squirter which attaches mustard and ketchup bottles to a desktop fan and places four hotdogs below the blades. Once switched on, the sauce flies out at speed, applying the condiments to the sausages and splattering surfaces in every other direction.

“Machines are usually designed to achieve a task as efficiently as possible,” Joseph told Ars Electronica in 2017. “My machines are the opposite of that, they are as inefficient as possible. This is inherently absurd. But as human beings we are naturally playful creatures. I think we are tickled when we see a playful machine, as it is somehow more human.”

Mathieu’s latest release Spinners plays with this idea. Like The blue marble, it’s another single-shot marble run featuring tricks built around fidget spinners. The sequence ends with the marble pushing a fidget spinner into a bin, and the lid closing on top of it. The camera pans down to the side of the bin, where Mathieu has written “RIP fidget spinners 2017-2017” – a comment on their fad status.

Mathieu is tight-lipped about his next marble project, but says it will involve “fire and air.” He’s planning that around an engineering internship at a renewable energy company in Switzerland, but would prefer to turn his dalliance with internet virality into a career.

“That would be awesome, but I know it’s hard,” he says.