There’s so much I don’t know about the world, but here’s one little piece of my ignorance that has recently been remedied: I have learned that it is possible to make your living as a professional domino artist. In fact, there’s a whole subculture of domino artists, some of whom do it as their full-time job, whose specialty is designing, building, and ultimately toppling elaborate structures constructed of thousands of colorful plastic dominoes.
The result, when all goes well, is a kind of kinetic sculpture that is both a work of art and a technical marvel, whose aura is enhanced by the sheer difficulty of its creation and the fragility of its existence. One false step or one shaky hand in the building stage could destroy multiple days’ worth of work, and the performance constituted by the toppling is a unique experience that can only happen once, because the original structure is destroyed in the process of creating the performance.
Most domino artists are male, but there’s one young woman who is among the best in the business. That would be Lily Hevesh, a.k.a. “Hevesh5,” who at age 20 has over 3 million subscribers to her YouTube channel and over 1 billion views of her videos. Even if you don’t know her name, you may have seen her work, which has been featured on television (including The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, and The Late Late Show), film (Collateral Beauty, starring Will Smith), music videos and promotion (Katy Perry, Bethany Mota), and in commercials and promotions for numerous companies (including Marvel, Pizza Hut, Gillette, LEGO, and Johnson & Johnson).
Lily’s story should encourage the nerds of the world, or basically anyone who’s ever felt left out and isolated from their peers. Adopted as a baby from a Chinese orphanage, she grew up in a white community in New Hampshire where she frequently felt isolated and insecure. Then one day, around age 10, she discovered a set of dominoes and began playing with them—not the game of dominoes, but setting them up and knocking them down. Soon she was hooked, began creating elaborate setups and posting videos of them on YouTube—circumventing a policy that required channel creators to be at least 13. She got her first commercial contract—for Campbell’s Soup—at age 13, and also posted her first viral video that year (it got over 163 million views).
Hevesh only revealed her true identity, and her gender, after she had been posting on YouTube for over 6 years—and the sad but predictable consequence was that some viewers left racist and sexist comments on her videos. She didn’t let the trolls get her down, however, and her popularity and fame continued to grow. She enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but left after a year to pursue her dream of being a professional domino artist. Hevesh is a remarkably poised young woman today, with a friendly yet professional manner that allows her to relate equally well to young people just beginning to work with dominoes, and to corporate clients and a toy designer with whom she wants to produce a branded line of dominoes.
Lily Topples the World is a remarkably upbeat documentary. It provides the kind of lift many of us could use in the midst of what seems to be an endless pandemic, but it can also feel ike a 90-minute infomercial for the Lily Hevesh brand. Director Jeremy Workman isn’t interested in probing beneath the polished presentation of his subject, but to be fair, there’s no reason that he should. Not every documentary has to take the tone of an exposé, and there’s plenty to enjoy in this one, from the many examples of domino art seen in action (well-captured by cinematographers Michael Lisnet and Workman pulling double duty) to the calm and collected personality of its central figure. | Sarah Boslaugh
Lily Topples the World will air on discovery+ on August 26 and will open in theaters at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, August 27.