Pulling Back The Curtain On A Mind-Bending Campaign.


I’ve blogged before about the challenge of creating a campaign for a new season of a returning show and the subsequent difficulties that you face in coming up with something new, fresh, and differentiated from previous campaigns. This new campaign for “Brain Games” on Nat Geo is no exception – it was all about how to solve a problem that you’ve already solved before, only this time it demands a whole new answer. This post will be substantially shorter than the “standard” Client Blog post, because frankly the behind-the-scenes video we created to document the campaign says a lot about what we did this season, and how we approached it.  Even though the BTS video was already released prior to this post, I did just want to provide a little further peek behind the scenes (I just can’t help myself) into the process and the selection of our creative partners.

braingamesPhotographer and Photoshop wizard Erik Johannson and I on set shooting the curtain and background.


Back in the summer, Creative Director of Design Brian Everett found artist and photographer Erik Johannson in an article on BuzzFeed showcasing some of his coolest work. As soon as we saw what Erik does, we knew he would be an exciting addition to the campaign since he specialized in photo-based mind-bending illusions.  Some further research showed that he is probably one of the world’s most talented (and fastest) Photoshop artists in the world!  He’d done this cool viral experiment using Photoshop that’s got over 22 million views so far that was fun, and showed off his talents:

We contacted Erik (based in Germany) and he was excited to tackle the project – he’d heard of the show and clearly it was right up his alley. After some initial sketching and back and forth, we settled on an idea that allowed us to use our host Jason Silva, while also including space for all of the requisite tune-in, show title, etc. Here was Erik’s final concept illustration:

braingames-tear-it-downAnd here’s one of the pieces work he had done previously that we wanted to emulate – showcasing two different worlds crossing over in the same space:coverupImage courtesy of Erik Johannson.

While this work was initially intended to promote the July episodes of Brain Games, some programming changes dictated that we release it for the January episodes instead. This was huge, as we went from having a few weeks to finish to a few months. While it wouldn’t necessarily take Erik that long, we did have a lot of things to figure out – the sketch had outlined revealing a landscape – but we had a lot of discussion and tests with different “worlds.”  We tried going from city-to-country, but it didn’t feel like the same space. We tried night and day and winter and summer as our compare/contrasting worlds, but either the contrast wasn’t big enough, or similar enough to make you realize the ‘gag’. It was really a subtle yet critical shift. When we tried desert/verdent meadow, we knew we had the winner. Erik shot the desert shot as a plate, and the field as another plate, and then printed the desert one on an actual sheet to use as our big curtain to make sure the folds felt as authentic as possible. And here is the final art, with some text and typographical work from our internal design team of Brian Everett and Matt Jenkins:

NGC-BG-KeyArtWide-Jan19Final key art featuring the host Jason Silva. Art by Erik Johannson.

Working with someone the caliber of Erik was a wonderful experience.  During the course of the project, we experimented with many variations on the sketch, and Erik incorporated our suggestions all along the way (I had been keen on the birds-to-butterflies transition in the top left corner).  The final art is fresh, vibrant, and unique. I guess surfing around on BuzzFeed finally paid off!


After much discussion and debate about what to do in the TV spots, we selected the Director team at Syndicate and 1st Avenue Machine, Aaron Duffy and Bob Partington (who directed Ok Go’s “The Writing’s on the Wall” music video). One thing in the course of our collaboration that we gravitated towards was the idea of not just doing more visual illusions as we’d done in the previous 3 campaigns, but rather to also involve your emotions as another way to trick the viewer. With 3 separate vignettes within the spot, we demonstrate how your mind plays tricks on you even more when your emotions are involved.  To prevent any further spoilers, if you haven’t seen the promo yet, here it is:

Did it fool you? Hopefully so!  We believed that you’re simply more prone to be fooled when your heart gets lost in that moment of fear/drama/love. Here were the initial storyboards from the first scene, and a shot from on-set of the final baby and ‘table’:

Fear Brain Games Baby


Working with Bob and Aaron was not only a great honor and privilege, but just a ton of fun. Both were super collaborative and creative and their attention to detail – and there were many details – to each illusion was impressive. We spent an entire day shooting each scene, with about 130 takes of the babies walking on the mat, 65 takes of our arm/leg couple on the beach, and about 60 takes of the yoga woman (which required casting an extremely fit actress).  Every single frame and prop for all 3 scenes was highly scrutinized to maximize the illusion along the way. The props had to be at just the right angle, the toys on the ‘table’ picked and switched to maximize the illusion. And both Aaron and Bob were intently focused on making sure that each trick truly ‘worked’ to fool your brain.

IMG_9917We played with various toys on the ‘table’ to sell the illusion. Note the big and small red cars at the top and bottom of the table.

After hours of shooting the baby scene, we broke for lunch. Aaron and I hung back because I was very concerned that it didn’t look like a baby on a table (I had that classic “worried Client” look written all over my face) – seeing it in person and knowing it wasn’t ‘real’ was probably tainting my perception, but Aaron had a great idea. He used his iPhone and took a video of the playback monitor of one of our takes. Then he took his phone to the streets of Brooklyn during our break and walked up to random people, showed them the video and conducted  mini-focus groups! “What do you see here?” he would simply ask them. Every single one of the ‘viewers’ knew exactly what was happening, and even though it was on a small iPhone screen with lots of glare on it, a few of them even flinched in fear when the baby takes the fateful step. It takes a pretty confident and open Director to subject himself to that situation, when there’s no parachute should the effect not work. I often wonder what we would have done if people in our impromptu focus group hadn’t been fooled, since we were pretty much all-in to that idea, but luckily – it did work.

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 4.59.40 PMShooting the beach scenario with 1st Avenue Machine in Staten Island.

The day on the beach for our “romantic” scene also presented a few challenges – finding the right actor who was flexible, had arms that could pass as legs, and a good voice (since he was voicing over the whole spot, which was an interesting reveal in the spot as well). Getting the timing and camera move was something much more challenging than I’d anticipated, as any small variation made the trick not as believable. And you needed to keep both sets of ‘feet’ in frame the whole time, which meant that the actor’s pace had to be consistent each time. We had a dolly track set up on the beach as well as a faked boardwalk to set the scene.  Then the actor would read the script so that his audio would match throughout!  Truly a trickier scene to shoot than you’d think, but in the end it’s probably my favorite illusion of the three.

IMG_9880 IMG_9899Co-director Aaron Duffy (right) rushes back to the monitor after setting up the placement of the hand-feet.


As I said in the beginning, the behind-the-scenes piece we put together with our friends at Crave Media in DC really tells the  story – so watch the link below for the visual side of story on this campaign. I will say in closing that this project was one of the more fun campaigns I’ve ever worked on, and in large part that was due to collaborating with creative people that I wouldn’t normally get to partner with. Directors who shoot Ok Go videos and photographers like Erik are truly brilliant creative minds with incredibly unique skills and mindsets. Being around them and teaming up with them for this campaign that took many months to produce was a real thrill for me and allowed me to stretch some new creative muscles. I want to give a big thank you to everyone involved on this campaign, and there were many.  I hope enjoy this campaign, and this BTS video, as much as we loved putting it all together!