Watch movie-making magic as a sitcom is slowly coaxed into life — but expect plenty of standing around

A one-liner variously attributed to Michael Caine and Orson Welles and probably apocryphal anyway explains why film stars get paid such eye-watering sums.

It runs something like, "It's all the standing around we get paid for; the acting we do for free."

You can get a handle on what that means at Motat between now and the end of the month. Visitors to the Welcome to the Machine exhibition can watch from a walkway as a rather special sitcom is slowly coaxed into life by people. They're making a movie, but they do a lot of standing around.

The sitcom, Jiwi's Machines, is a web series created by Grey Lynn-born Joseph Herscher, who has made waves in his adopted home, New York, as a creator of what is known as Rube Goldberg machines.

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Named for the American cartoonist who thought up the idea, these are contraptions that will accomplish the simplest task by the most complicated means imaginable.

When I promised to be very careful about where I put my feet, they let me on to the set one afternoon last week where the crew, supplemented by interns from Western Springs College, Unitec and AUT, was doing a lot of that standing around while Herscher got all his ducks in a row.

Well, they weren't ducks really: they were billiard balls which dropped from inverted jam jars on to tracks which swivelled as the balls rolled down them until they dropped, activating spring-loaded hammers, which ... well, really, you have to see it to understand. And you can.

The Breakfast Machine, as this one is called, is designed to deliver Jiwi/Joseph a bite-ready slice of toast every time he turns a page on his book. It's a task for which the human hand is, you might think, already well designed, but if that point occurred to you, you have much to learn about Rube Goldberg machines.

"His machines are so delightful," says Gemma Gracewood, who is producing the four-part series, "and I am a great believer in peddling delight."

Gracewood, who lives half-time in New York, made a great short film, Joseph Gets Dressed (it screened in the film festival just ended) which followed Brooklyn-based Herscher through the construction of a machine that ... well, you probably worked that bit out.

Herscher has built a machine by invitation at the Venice Biennale and made the New York Times with a machine that turned the newspaper's pages so he wouldn't have to (8.3 million YouTube views and counting). He devised and wrote the four episodes of Jiwi's Machines which, Gracewood says, all have a proper storyline.

"I think I am safe in saying that it is the first sitcom in history that features a single-shot Rube Goldberg machine in every episode," she said, and I decided to just take her word for it.

Jiwi was Herscher's childhood nickname (the name, like the boy, was a blend of his father's Jewish and his mother's Kiwi identities) and Jiwi's machines are an attempt to bring order into the character's life but invariably create chaos.

The episode I get to watch - well, would have got to watch if I had stood around long enough - is called The Petitioner and looks at what happens when Jiwi, who is enjoying a machine-delivered breakfast, is interrupted by a knock at the door.

I knew it wasn't going to happen quickly when the director of photography Bevan Crothers asked, "How much of a mission would it be to move that wall, actually?" If you've ever spent time on a film set, you will know that's the time to say, "If you need me, I'll be in my trailer."

"A big part of working with Joseph is allowing a lot of time," says Gracewood. "It takes time to think up his ideas and test them and make them work."

And Herscher underlines the point when he tells me, speaking very slowly and quietly, that "pace is very important" in his line of work.

"You can do the coolest thing in the world but it's no good if people don't understand it. If you need to push a button, you could use a rod and just push it. But what if you use, say, a hammer? When it starts to move, people already know that hammers swing and they can figure out what's happening before it happens."

Production of Jiwi's Machines runs until the end of the month and Herscher is running workshops in September for people who want to learn how to make Rube Goldberg machines.