FAQs about Keith Johnson, Bubbleology, Consulting & etc., based on a recent interview.
Please tell us a little about the techniques you use and what viewers can expect from your show, Bubbleology.
BUBBLEOLOGY is a funny, fast-paced stage show exploring how soap bubbles work and some amazing things we can do with them. Bubble art and science. While demonstrating my favorite tricks & experiments I explain the science behind what’s going on, using concepts and vocabulary elementary school students are working on in class.
Imagine: Fog filled bubble snow-people standing on their own, doing a little dance and finally jumping up to pop on the ceiling. Bouncing bubbles. Bubbles the size of bathtubs wobbling through the air. A full sized audience volunteer encased like a sausage in a massive 20' tubular bubble.
We may be surrounded by bubbles all the time (in the food we eat, when we brush our teeth-all kind of bubbles) but we never really stop to really think about them. It’s fascinating when we do.
One of the many awesome things about your show is that it is not only incredibly fun to watch, but also educational. Can you tell us just a few things we can learn about through bubbles?
Thanks for your kind comments. Like I always say, you can learn a lot from a bubble. As the program rolls along, we touch on topics such as: Surface tension (which explains why bubbles are spherical). Sir. Isaac Newton (discovered why bubbles have rainbow colors). Engineering (how to build your own bubble makers & why your choice of materials matters). Shapes and geometry (How to construct a bubble cube or shape them into a 5 pointed star. Since bubbles join at an angle of 120 degrees, by doing a little geometry you can form clusters of bubbles that make many surprising shapes).
[My first thought when answering this question: Bubbles teach humility. Attention to detail. Patience. The great potential that can be hiding in small things.]
You mention on your website that Bubbleology is a mix of science and art (and fun), which background would you say your interest stemmed most from in terms of creating the show?
These 4 things are true:
The first version of BUBBLEOLOGY was created around 2005 with help from a Rhode Island Council on the Arts grant. The challenge was to combine all 4 of those interests (science, performance, teaching, humor) into a soap bubble show that could appeal to audiences of all ages and successfully tour around Rhode Island libraries and other venues.
These days the show has evolved, the venues have changed and the territory I travel is larger but my passion for sharing the wonder of soap bubbles is just as strong as it ever was.
On your site, there is a video link to a music video for the artist Railbird that you provided bubble and fog special effects for. Can you tell us a little bit about this experience and the differences/challenges you might face when working for a client with a specific need, as opposed to performing a show?
I never intended to become a globally recognized expert of soap bubble play and performance. Who does? Luckily, the more obscure one’s interests are, the easier it becomes to reach that Expert status. I started posting videos of bubble tricks and experiments very early on. People with interesting bubble related problems find me now mostly through YouTube.
Consulting & Bubble Wrangling is a blast. Sometimes, client’s problems seem unsolvable (swarms of basketball sized, magenta colored smoke filled bubbles parading through the cobblestone streets of old town Krakow on cue?) but they insist I try and an acceptable solution has always presented itself — after a lot of research, experimentation and engineering.
In projects that involve a director’s vision (music videos, films, theme park shows, photo shoots), a big part of the challenge is getting the creative team up to speed on the realities of working with soap bubbles. How the location, environment and weather will influence what we can expect on the day of the shoot.
Directors may have a nebulous dream & lots of “what ifs?”. My job: 1. Absorb & help to focus their vision by injecting some reality into the scenario. 2. Run their vision through the filter of my bubble wrangling experience, taking into account the limitations and assets we’ve got to work with, what cameras they will use, the personality of the actors involved etc. 3. Come up with an actual plan (plus a few back up plans) involving real bubbles. 4. Present alternatives & let their creative team decide which plan to move ahead with. 5. Invent (almost always) the special apparatus required to get the job done most efficiently & practice, practice, practice. 6. On the day of shooting, be ready to follow the plan and equally ready to scrap it all and try something else on the spot.
Railbird’s Jump-Ship music video was shot over two days in a studio in NYC. The visual concept involved dark spaces and distortion of time. I was asked to make bubbles for the performers to interact with and which magnified the directors vision.
Knowing we would be shooting high fps (frames per second) to translate later into slow motion footage, I chose to offer the director Huge Bubbles because they wobble and look cool in slow-mo, fog and fog filled bubbles (because tendrils of fog from popped bubbles reaching out through the air against a jet black background is also cool), odd sculptures of tiny bubbles for the performers to marvel at and pop in extreme closeups and some well place fog-only effects to add to the dark, mysterious environment (fog pushing its way through a specific spot of performer’s head of hair to make it look like their brain might be steaming over).
Major difference between Show doing and Consulting: Getting to do takes and retakes is so nice, compared to live performance. We shot maybe 10 hours of video to capture the 90 seconds of footage used in the video.
I noticed on your site that a requirement of any venue where your show is performed is that there be no strong airflow on stage. Have you ever had any unexpected loss of control over the bubbles?
The reality is this: You start off thinking bubble tricks will be easy to present. You quickly discover that in the real world bubbles are at the mercy of many forces and environmental factors. Some you can control for and others you need to be ready to work around.
It takes a long while to graduate from “ The School of Unexpected Pops”. There is no way to prepare for the unexpected. Shows were and always be a gamble. Eventually, the gap between unexpected events grows wider. That said, the unexpected will always strike the moment you feel overconfident.
Asking for calm air in the performance area goes a long way toward heading off many troubles. Moving air makes bubbles hard to hold onto. It causes bubbles to evaporate and pop faster. It carries dust and other airborne debris that can pop the bubbles. It makes some tricks impossible to do.
For the most part, I’ve learned how to work with the bubbles to get through trouble. I’ve also learned how to cover for unfortunate events.
In the end, the audience gets it. Sometimes bubbles will pop. Because the audience so appreciates what I can do with bubbles that don’t pop they’re very forgiving about second chances… as long as I’m ok with it too and have an alternative plan (an “out”) up my sleeve.
Example: Once I was doing an elementary school show. Before the show the air was as calm as could be. Once we got started, every so often a surprising gust of air would sweep the room and send the trick I was working on flying. The gusts came more frequently as the show progressed. Come time for the grand finale — the air was gusting more often than not. I build up the final trick… encasing an audience volunteer inside of a bubble. There’s not much extra room in there. So after all the pre-finale hype, every time I tried to pull the bubble up and around the student the wind kicked in, pushing the bubble film onto the kid inside and the bubble would pop.
My back-up plan, a less fantastic way to encase a volunteer, worked fine.
Later I learned the AM kindergarteners were being dismissed and every time the front door to the school opened, fresh breezes would race through the building.
Do you have any advice for anyone interested in exploring the science and art of bubble performance?
The best advice: use a really good bubble solution & you’ll leap past all sorts of trouble.
For too many years I brewed my own and worked with chemists to create new formulas. Then I discovered a toy bubble solution called Uncle Bubble’s Ultra Bubble Concentrate Solution. It was exactly what I had been trying to invent all along, such amazing performance qualities. Ever since, I’ve been using UB in all of my professional work. Search the web for: Uncle Bubble Ultra Bubble Concentrate
There are excellent resources on the web to help you get started doing tricks, they’re just a 5 minute Google search away. That said, in my opinion Tom Noddy’s BUBBLE MAGIC book is the single best book on this topic & while it’s now out of print, used copies are easy to find and cost very little.
Sites to visit:
Good info here from many knowledgeable bubblers—Especially recipes for big outdoor bubbles if you're willing to brew your own not so easy formulas. (Otherwise, stick with UB's Ultra Bubble Concentrate!)
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