A ‘Riff’ on Collaboration.


In My last post, I discussed the “Are You Tougher than a Boy Scout” campaign, and explored themes that will likely always be covered in this blog: collaboration, trust, unleashing on-set, and having fun.

I will likely continue to reinforce those themes, and ultimately, that’s the purpose behind this blog. To look at both ‘sides’ of the ever-challenging dynamics between the client side and the vendor side, since I sit perched in both worlds fairly equally.  (Please click the “About this blog” link above for further explanation of this blog’s goals/purpose.) Now, let’s continue to explore these themes – and introduce a few new takeaways.



Back in 2011, ‘Brain Games’ aired on Nat Geo and quickly became a huge ratings win for the Channel. It’s not hard to see why – it’s an insanely addictive, interactive, and highly engaging TV show that challenges viewers to lean forward rather than allowing them to sit back (yeah, I’m a little biased). It was a brand new TV concept when it first launched, and led to the greenlight of a full blown series. So as we prepared to launch the first season as a true series this past April, there were a few new pieces to the show that would hopefully make it even more successful – and there were some large expectations on the marketing campaign.

Set for Brain Games promo production.


Our goal was simple – to preserve the fun and engaging spirit of the previous campaign, and to elevate the production value – to make it feel bigger.  We also wanted to showcase our new host, Jason Silva, who was a perfect fit for the show and the energy we wanted to imbue into the marketing. It needed to feel smart, accessible, engaging and mind-bending.


Despite the fun and light-hearted nature of the show, this show is actually quite difficult to promote using the actual show itself. Many of the games or gags take a while to play out, or require explanation so you know what is going on and why you’re seeing what you’re seeing. So we knew a custom shoot would be necessary.  And it’s tough to create games that can be quickly understood, don’t feel just like magic tricks, and showcase Jason without making him look like a game show host.

Jason and the uphill-rolling-can game through the mini-monitor


We got started very early on this job, and had more prep time than normal for a show like this.  The production cycle is quite long for the show because of the complex nature of the topics and games.  Which was perfect for us, as it gave us lots of time to get a plan together, and to find some cool executional ideas.  We tapped our partners at Big Smack TV to help us again, as they had collaborated with us on the first season’s mini-series campaign. Promoting this show takes more than just great graphics or editorial or cinematography – it takes smart thinking (and thinkers) to pull it off.  Where this story takes a twist is that there was another collaborator on this job – and that was Jason Silva himself. Early on, I decided to bring Jason in on the project in more than just a normal check-in-with-the-talent. I knew that his energy, his enthusiasm, and his delivery would be critical to make this successful – and that meant having him own the project with us from start to finish.

Jason (far right) on set with Director Andy Hann & DP Andrew Turman. Not to be confused with Andy Baker, the other guy with dark hair and glasses on set.


In our first internal kickoff meeting for the new season of Brain Games, the show producers showed us a video of the new host, Jason Silva. Honestly this was the first time I’d seen any of his videos.  Right away, I got an immediate surge of positive vibes about what Jason would not only bring to the show, but also to whatever we were planning to create for promotion. Jason’s style of improvised/freestyle Philoso-rap was infectious – you can’t turn away from it, even if you don’t fully understand the concepts he discusses! Shortly after that initial kickoff, this video from Jason was shown at a TED Global conference:

At that moment, I knew what exactly I wanted to create for part of the campaign. The idea felt so powerful and  clear to me. I wanted Jason to ‘Riff’ but instead of talking about The Human Condition, Singularity, or Radical Openness, he’d talk about the show. His words. His energy. His passion. It wouldn’t be the WHOLE campaign, but at the very least, it would be part of a digital release to Jason’s tens of thousands of Twitter and Vimeo followers.


What I mean is that if you have an idea that is perhaps more art than commerce, and seems like it may not fit into a larger campaign or feels out of place with more functional “here-is-the-show-and-here’s-when-it’s-on” sort of needs – find a place where your idea can manifest itself.  I believed so strongly in this idea of having Jason ‘Riff’ about Brain Games, that I sold it in as a social-media play. We’d have Jason tweet it, or put it on his Vimeo page, no matter what. But in my mind, I knew it could be bigger than that. I wanted to take the “Radical Openness” video and bring it to the next level visually. I knew the language needed to be more ‘digestible’ for our viewers, but the concept remained the same. Channel Jason’s energy, and get out of the way. So before we even had a budget or a brief, and before we were even in production, I knew we had to make it happen. It was just a matter of making it feel like just a PART of the campaign, not the whole thing.  This was all a balancing act, because as the client it would be very easy to just force it through creatively – and put on creative blinders to do it how I wanted it to be done. It might seem easy for the Client to get their idea through – we’re paying for it, right? But always remember – even though I was the Client, I still had to sell the idea in to my boss, and the internal execs. THEY are the Client, truly, and pitching and selling it in still fell on my shoulders. So for creatives out there, always remember that even the client you’re directly working with has HIS/HER own client to make happy, too.

On set, collaborating side-by-side with Big Smack.


The bulk of our creative plan was still the same – find a way to make the show feel ‘bigger’ than the mini-series had, while showcasing games and Jason in an accessible yet entertaining manner. Most of our efforts were geared towards the primary :30 off-channel promo spot. I always had the Riff at the front of my brain, but at a certain point I had to prioritize – and a :45 “Riff” promo was not going to be the Channel’s #1 priority because most of our paid media was going to be against the :30.  But don’t be fooled – the :30 was going to be pretty cool too. Big Smack proposed a great idea – use Jason to host a set of games, with him leading the viewer through a series of games and illusions in a sparse, minimal environment, in an excited and conversational tone. The selection of games would be key, of course, but the overall conceit was simple and on-brief. As great collaborators, Big Smack threw this idea our way and didn’t flinch when I threw some pretty large curve balls their way. The biggest was that I felt that to elevate the concept, we needed to shoot the promo in real-time, in a single take – no edits, no cutaways – just Jason going from room to room in succession. Back to our takeaway, we spent the next few months completely focused on how we could pull this promo off – from set construction, game selection, even choreography of movement, it was not an easy task. So the “Riff” was back burnered. For now.

Panoramic shot of the full set construction.


One of our next key steps, about 2 months prior to the shoot, was to get on the phone with Jason. To walk him through our concept for the “Games” :30, and to plant the seed for the “Riff” :45 to find out what our best way to create that spot would be. After all, there is nothing like what he does – so we had a lot of questions about the best way to simulate that freestyle feeling that also could incorporate the key ideas of the show. Jason was all-in on everything, and it was clear that he was flexible and going to be easy to work with. In particular, it was so gratifying to hear how much he loved the ‘Riff’ idea. He explained his process, which is a combination of using a basic outline of what he wants to say, and the message he wants to convey, along with some good old fashioned practice.  We took the first stab at the writing, with Big Smack penning an outline, then I tweaked it to be a bit more focused on the show, nailed it down a bit more, and then we handed it to Jason, who took our outline, and put it into his own flow and language.  Back and forth we went, collaborating on terminology, takeaways, and themes of Brain Games that would flow best in a ‘Riff.’  Per our takeaway #1 on focusing on the priority, we also never stopped working on the :30 “Games” spot, and I wrote scripts for the single-take promo that was the primary focus of the campaign.

Jason at game #3, the backwards-flowing water.


If you’ve never seen Kirby Ferguson’s seminal “Everything is a Remix” video series on Vimeo, please watch it. It’s an incredible series that delves into the nature of remixing creative ideas. Essentially, there are no new ideas. Ideas (and creativity) is basically just the act of copying someone else’s idea, transforming it into something a little better/different, and combining that idea with other copied ideas to make one wholly new idea. The road to genius is riddled with copied ideas – everything from Apple’s computer mouse, Led Zeppelin tunes, every Tarantino movie, and the list goes on. (Watch the series, trust me on this) This campaign is a perfect example of C/T/C – the “Games” spot is just a variation on one take visually interesting Ok Go videos, and the Riff is just a variation on…well…Jason’s other Riff videos (some transformations are shorter than others). But each piece transformed the medium a little big, and combined other elements together to form something new.  So whether you’re a client or a creative, I would urge you to constantly be seeking to broaden your base of knowledge about the world. Give yourself more options of things to copy/transform and combine, and you’ll find you have more ideas than ever before. (Maybe start by watching Jason’s videos on Vimeo!)



We were ready – we picked a studio outside of Philly, Big Smack had sketches for the set they built, games were approved and constructed, and now it was time for the Clients to head to the set. It was scheduled to be a 2 day shoot, with day 1 focused primarily on the single-take “Games” shoot.  We probably shot about 20 takes before we had nailed it with the right timing, script reads, game play and camera motion, all shot on Steadicam with a Red Epic.  As we were shooting, Director Andy Hann and I sat side by side tweaking those various factors, and working closely with Jason – who never seemed to lose energy despite the exhausting nature of the setup. Here’s the final :30 promo that resulted from that day’s shoot.

Jason Silva in action on set.


Day 2 began, and the shoot I’d been really waiting for. The Riff.  We placed Jason in the same set as Game 1 from the :30 (the upside-down room) which was sparse and simple. A blank canvas. My idea had been that we’d never cut away from Jason – we’d animate the world around him in that room. Unlike his own riffs, which intercut him talking with fantastical and imaginative clips and imagery – I wanted to never leave Jason’s world. To build a free-flowing visual feast as he spoke.  After a few warm-ups, Jason was off and running. The energy was palpable, and when he had completed each take, you could literally feel that energy on the set.  I am a huge believer in the power of positive energy, and the positive feeling in that room in that moment fed every single person. I was happy. Jason was happy. It was going to be awesome. I didn’t need anything else, I could have gone home right then. But the power of collaboration reared itself up once more. Andy Hann said “wait a minute.”  And he asked Jason to go through the Riff again 3 or 4 more times, but moved him around the space each time. Sometimes up close to the camera, sometimes walking in the back of the room not looking at the camera, and sometimes with his head and shoulders cut off completely. I wasn’t sure what Andy had in mind, but I trusted that he had something up his sleeve. I didn’t question him – after all, we were following two of my golden rules – ripping more footage, and trusting in your team.

Jason Silva, in mid-riff mode.


The shoot wrapped up a few hours after we finished the Riff – and my Design Director and I took off for the train back to DC. The whole ride to the train station with Jason, we fed off of that energy we’d just experienced. We watched some of Jason’s older Riff videos online and chatted about the potential of what we were going to create. It was exciting, and another reminder of what I’ve blogged about before. Shooting is an incredible experience – you bond with others, meet new collaborative creatives, and make something that came from all of your collective consciousnesses and creative thoughts. It served as a reminder that while I’m a huge believer in the grip-n-rip shooting style of shooting everything and anything with multiple cameras, sometimes you only need one camera and an intense focus to pull off something special. A visual effects, set-heavy shoot doesn’t need that shotgun approach, it just needs a really badass sniper. We set to work on the Riff, and worked back and forth on animation styles, techniques and looks. Rotoscope artists tirelessly roto’d every single frame of the :45 spot to build the world around Jason, and Nat Geo Design Director Carla Daeninckx worked tirelessly on every detail. Andy Hann’s suggestion to move Jason throughout the room was brilliant, as it broke it up, kept it moving, and just looked cool. The final piece of the puzzle was music – and in true collaborative spirit, when we couldn’t find the right track, Jason suggested one from a friend of his, Composer Bix Sigurdsson. And the result was incredible. And true to my hopes, the spot became more than just an online play. It ran on NGC every hour, and was part of our in-cinema buy. Jason also put it out there, and a technology website did an exclusive release of the spot. Here it is, the ‘Riff.’  Inspired by Jason, crafted through collaboration, and created from an unforgettable energy.  Thank you to all who were involved on this incredible ride, and thank you to Big Smack, who took the idea, and when they were given the trust and co-ownership, delivered beyond my expectations. The show also delivered beyond expectations, becoming the #1 series on Nat Geo. Now…what are we going to do for the next season?!