Exhilarated by the process of arranging then setting off lines of dominos at a very young age, Lily Hevesh also intuited how much pleasure others find in watching them fall. At age 9, she started posting her domino topples to YouTube as Hevesh5.
Now 22 years old and living outside Boston, not only has Hevesh kept up with dominos and become the center of its online community, she has also exponentially evolved her setups with jaw-dropping and sometimes hilarious chain reactions that have broken records and earned more than one billion views.
A celebratory new documentary, “Lily Topples The World,” captures the wonder of Hevesh’s mind-bending creations as well as the painstaking patience and careful handiwork domino artistry requires. Hevesh plans to attend the film’s Massachusetts premiere on the closing night of the 30th annual Woods Hole Film Festival (July 31-Aug. 7) where she’ll see it for the first time with an audience.
Part coming of age story and part chronicle of the YouTube generation, “Lily” begins with Hevesh in her first year of college, happy as she’s ever been socially, but compelled to leave to nurture her booming career. From there, it tracks her rise of influence as well as her pursuit of a toy company to make and sell her personally branded domino sets. For SXSW (where it took home the Grand Jury Prize for documentary feature), Hevesh took charge of the teaser in the friendliest way possible:
“Whether building something I love or spelling out a friend’s name, you can really do anything out of dominos. That’s the coolest part,” says Hevesh recently by phone. Her designs focus on the brightly colored rectangles (her personal record involved 32,000; a collaboration exceeded 300,000) but often include towers, balls, cups and popsicle sticks. With persuasive enthusiasm she adds, “There are no limits.”
Indeed, the documentary shows that the same could be said for her “dream job” as a professional domino artist. Yet even with more than a decade on YouTube and public exposure that includes appearances on morning and late-night TV, the film shows an unseen side to its eponymous inspiration. The story takes an emotional turn when it tells of her adoption from China into a white family and what it was like to grow up as one of the only Asian Americans in a small New Hampshire town. Hevesh marvels that the odds of having internet access, the YouTube platform, and supportive parents (who appear in the documentary as well) are the only combination that could have led her to where she is today.
Director Jeremy Workman says he stumbled upon domino videos while trying to unwind after late-night edit sessions for his last documentary (“The World Before Your Feet,” about a man who walks every block of New York City). He found them “transfixing and relaxing” and became an instant fan of Hevesh5. “Once you turn on the domino videos, all roads lead to Lily,” he says.
He emailed her out of the blue. A phone conversation turned into a meeting which turned into three years of Workman showing up with a camera when Lily sat down at board meetings full of skeptical toy executives or set off a room full of dominos in Brattleboro, Vermont. (Many of the scenes take place in New England and Workman frequently called on Boston area crew for shoots.)
In one scene, Hevesh explains to a couple of camera operators exactly how to film a particularly elaborate example of domino engineering. The pair of men silently nod and ask no questions. “Lily is the best filmmaker of dominos and domino toppling on planet Earth, there’s no question,” says Workman. (He often shot the audience reactions and left the topple documentation to Hevesh.) Workman says it was important to show Hevesh at her most confident, especially in scenarios like that, where she’s often the only young woman in the room.
Throughout her domino dominance, Hevesh has often been the only girl in the room, a fact that remains puzzling to her. “Being a girl shouldn’t affect what I do in the world,” she observes, and she extends that sentiment to others, regardless of identity. One early segment in the documentary introduces her fellow domino-obsessed YouTubers, all boys, who confess their surprise upon learning Hevesh5 was a girl. Now, they often collaborate on setups and work-for-hire.
Workman likewise describes a constant state of shock over the gender imbalance he observed while filming. “Everywhere we went it was all boys. It’s inexplicable. I don’t really have an answer,” he says, though he’s aware that STEM fields remain skewed toward boys and men. While Hevesh outpaces the other domino artists on YouTube, in terms of subscribers, she’s nearly on her own as a young woman in the subculture.
Ever optimistic, Hevesh says, “I’ve been noticing more and more [girls] throughout the years,” in terms of what gets posted and shared on YouTube. “Dominos are really universal. They’re not a gendered product.” Based on comments on her channels, she believes that appreciation for domino art is “growing pretty well in the U.S.” and in India. Because she says people didn’t understand her passion until “much, much later,” she hopes the film “inspires young girls to chase their dreams and be themselves and try something that might be out of the norm.”
In the film, Workman explores the interconnection between how YouTube has redefined art for Hevesh’s generation — Generation Z — and how that pursuit relates to branding. “They don’t see art in traditional ways. You make art and put it on a wall? No, art is this thing you’re involved in as an active participant,” says Workman. Over and over, Workman says he saw Gen Z creators talk about monetization as the way to control their careers without being hung up on selling out. “If you can get some brand to pay you, you’re winning,” he says.
As for her future, Hevesh says she would like to explore the educational side of dominos and possibly create domino clubs world-wide. Many scenes in the film feature Hevesh joyfully and patiently showing people of all ages the basics of domino setups. She cheers them on when they inevitably fail, which, she reminds her students, comes with the territory.
Reflecting on the documentary’s impact on her personally, Hevesh says, “I still feel like I am coming of age, even now. It’s a never-ending process of growing up, learning about yourself, and trying to understand who you are.” She may have a billion views, millions of subscribers and now a documentary, but for this domino artist, there’s definitely another setup around the corner.
“Lily Topples The World” screens at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Aug. 7 and begins streaming on Discovery+ Aug. 26.