Domino Effect

For M.F.A. grad Brett Doar, who builds large-scale Rube Goldberg machines, one success has led to another

By Roy Rivenburg

If Hasbro ever invents a million-dollar version of the game Mouse Trap, it might look like one of Brett Doar’s madcap contraptions. The 2009 M.F.A. grad is gaining fame for his elaborate chain-reaction machines, which have starred in popular music videos, television shows and commercials – and will appear in an upcoming movie.

Like falling dominoes on steroids, Doar’s creations rely on synchronized sledgehammers, crashing pianos, toy sharks, chainsaws, catapults and other quirky props. The mesmerizing results have gone viral on YouTube and turned heads at major art museums.

“I’ve always built stuff, but making something that just sat there wasn’t enough,” Doar says. “I wanted it to get up and walk away from you.”

Domino Effect: Brett Doar

In a tour of his cluttered Los Angeles workshop – part flea market, part mad scientist’s lab – the 43-year-old recounts his unusual career path, tells humorous tales about his past and tests some of his latest gadgets.

The son of a Baptist minister mom and electrical engineer dad, Doar first exhibited MacGyver-ish tendencies as a child. He built a suspension bridge from toothpicks and dental floss for his G.I. Joe action figure, designed downhill karts that rumbled through his North Carolina neighborhood and dug a patchwork of holes in the backyard, hoping to establish a “Hogan’s Heroes” tunnel network.

After high school, Doar hopscotched through various odd jobs – tour bus guide, commercial fisherman, special education teacher, jalopy racer, artist – and five colleges before a life-changing encounter in Ireland.

“If everything goes as planned, that’s sort of a disappointment. You come in with your ideas, and the piece has its own ideas.”

While participating in a robot talent show in Dublin, he met University of California, Irvine alumnus Garnet Hertz, M.F.A. ’05, Ph.D. ’09, who cajoled him into enrolling in UCI’s graduate arts, computation and engineering program.

The fusion of technological and creative training “took my art to the next level,” Doar says. But it also left him puzzled about what to do after graduation. “With an M.F.A., it’s not like you have job interviews lined up,” he notes.

Once again, Hertz intervened. In 2009, he forwarded a strange request from the rock band OK Go, which needed science geeks to create a Rube Goldberg machine for a music video. Doar got on board and eventually built about 30 percent of the quarter-mile-long contraption, he says. Titled “This Too Shall Pass,” the video exploded online, garnering millions of YouTube eyeballs, extensive media coverage and appearances at the L.A. County Museum of Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

That set off a chain reaction of new assignments, including devices for Stephen Colbert’s former television show, a Red Bull promotional stunt and several corporate shindigs. Doar also built a mechanical sculpture for Google that used a lawn mower, belt sander and ice ax to drop an olive into a martini glass. When asked if his own house has similar gizmos to make toast or empty the trash, he deadpans, “No, I’m married.”

Rube Goldberg machine

On average, it takes about three weeks for the UCI grad and his crew – a welder, a carpenter and a former Navy SEAL – to design and construct one of their visual feasts. Getting all the parts to work properly is typically a headache. The OK Go video, for example, required numerous takes (and 10 smashed television sets) before all the triggers operated without a hitch.

“If everything goes as planned, that’s sort of a disappointment,” says Doar, who regards each machine as almost a living creature. “You come in with your ideas, and the piece has its own ideas. So you have to collaborate with the materials.”

The ingredients vary wildly – Doar’s workshop houses everything from mini-trampolines and a gong to bullet casings and a cardboard Ronald Reagan cutout – but two props seem to be constants.

“I have so many sledgehammers and bowling balls, it’s ridiculous,” he says, explaining that both items possess inherent comedic properties. “You look at them and say, ‘I know something’s going to happen with that.’”

"Adweek magazine recently listed Doar as one of '10 visual artists who are changing the way we see advertising, and the world.' ”

The final element, lurking in the background of all his work, is Doar’s mischievous sense of humor. “Want me to set it on fire?” he quips as a photographer snaps pictures of him demonstrating a medieval-style catapult. Later, after he winces under the glare of a spotlight and someone jokingly asks, “Where were you on the night of …,” Doar instantly blurts: “She was dead when I found her.”

Adweek magazine recently listed Doar as one of “10 visual artists who are changing the way we see advertising, and the world.”

Hollywood has also taken notice. A forthcoming film called “The Book of Henry” is set to feature one of his pieces. Doar declines to reveal much about his contribution, except to say that it employs a moo can toy.

Meanwhile, he’s busy devising gadgetry for a television show and other clients. He says he has enough harebrained ideas to last a lifetime. And after that? Will there be a mechanized send-off to the afterworld? Maybe.

“When I was 20, I played around with funerary concepts,” Doar says. “And I came up with the idea of a coffin attached to a rocket engine that you could launch out over the sea and then it would explode.”

No doubt a sledgehammer and bowling ball would be along for the ride.