Pitch, Production and Dolph Lundgren: The New Brain Games Campaign.
Hey everyone! It’s been a little while since the last entry, been a very busy period at Nat Geo, lots of exciting projects coming up in the future. In this post, I’m going to cover a recent promo campaign that covered some new ground. We’ll talk about the dynamics of a pitch all the way to final execution of a recent campaign featuring Dolph Lundgren – aka Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. It was not only a really fun project, but it reinforced a few key areas to any successful production. We’ll touch on the dynamics of pitching, the importance of art direction, and the differences working with celebrity talent. Let’s get started!
THE PROJECT (AND WARMING UP TO PITCH).
I have talked about Brain Games many times here in this blog, and the many fun campaigns we’ve produced for that show. I’ve covered what the show is about extensively, so I won’t rehash that – you can always go back to previous posts if you’d like. For the purposes of this post, let’s just say that we wanted to go in a direction that we’d never tried before. Visual gags and perception-based illusions are fun – but truth be told, we were just ready to try something new. It’s also quite difficult at this point to find visual tricks that can work effectively in less than :30, so we set out to try to solve this puzzle in a new way. As is often the case with Brain Games (one of the few shows that we do this with), we decided to engage three agencies in a pitch process for ideas. As the 5th season of this show, we knew we needed some fresh thinking and new ways “in.” While this blog is usually quite transparent, I won’t divulge the names of two of the agencies that didn’t get awarded the business that we worked with in the pitch process. But I will say this – we worked with three of the top companies out there, with incredibly smart and talented creatives. It was truly a dream team situation with all three. We were lucky to have them all join the process, and no matter what the outcome, all three were extremely collaborative and creative along the way. When we DO pitch out jobs, we always pay our partners for their time and work, and if we give them, say, 3 weeks to come back with final ideas, we usually check in with them 1 or 2 times prior to the final deadline. I am not a believer in a big “curtain reveal” process creatively. Meaning, we brief an agency, they ask questions and then 3 weeks later – ta DA! Here’s the idea. I prefer to brief them, then have a check-in along the way, perhaps a week later they throw some rough concepts and ideas at us, and then a second time do the same thing before the final presentation. Now, if the agency wants to have a curtain reveal, we won’t stop them, but we strongly encourage them to interact with us early and often. Especially for a show like Brain Games where, quite frankly, we have seen a LOT of ideas over the years and rejected them, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that doesn’t happen. If we’re paying pitch fees for ideas, we want something that is potentially usable, and an Agency presumably wants to win the pitch to get the production fee, so they will put their best foot forward as well.Spoiler Alert: The Dolph Lundgren idea won. Here are some for the eventual production of the spot from Juniper Jones.
THE PITCH (THE DELIVERY)
So, once we had briefed our three agencies, we gave them some time and then all three came back to us in about a week with some very rough ideas and concepts. We’d told them that we wanted to stay away from strictly perspective tricks and illusions, which had been done so effectively before. New approaches, new ideas were what we wanted. We saw a ton of ideas, some were good, some we’d seen in previous years, and some were very intriguing but needed a lot more work and development. And that was sort of the point – we saw some ideas that we knew there was something interesting about – but it just needed to be fleshed out more. And, as it turns out, the ‘winning’ idea came in this very first phase of the pitch process. I won’t forget that day – the agency that was pitching their initial ideas, named Juniper Jones, had a pretty robust deck, even for a check-in call.
And there was a pretty simple idea in that deck that had a picture of Dolph Lundgren – the iconic 80s and 90s action hero who was the star of movies like Rocky IV, the Expendables, He-Man, and Universal Soldier. Turns out that Dolph is a genius – like, a 160 IQ Mensa genius. The idea that Juniper Jones put out there was that Dolph was a genius, who loved Brain Games – even though we probably never realized how smart he really was. What I remember most about that day that they pitched the ideas was that I was actually home sick with a flu. I rarely call in sick, but I felt terrible that day – fever, cold, chills, etc. So I was home on a conference call, and Nat Geo Creative Directors Brian Everett and Tyler Korba were in the office also on the call. So I couldn’t see them at all, we couldn’t discuss ideas as they were being pitched – it was a totally blind process. The team at Juniper Jones (Kevin Robinson and Ryan McRee) was running through each idea, we’d give feedback, and move on. My initial thought about the Dolph concept was “ok…” – it just seemed too out there. And could we even make it happen? Would people care? And the concept as it was presented just felt a little too ‘retail’ – celebrity spokesman talks about how much he likes Brain Games as he did some ‘smart’ stuff. I just wasn’t sure if it would be right for this campaign or not, it seemed like it was missing a little spark or something.
So we went through the rest of their initial ideas, gave some feedback, hung up the phone, I went back to sleep to work off the cold, and then I went back to the office the next day. Well, immediately Brian and Tyler were like “how about that Dolph idea!?” They were clearly excited, and truth be told – I thought they were just messing with me. But they were really excited – it had grabbed them, they thought it was a truly unique idea, and one that had them thinking about the campaign extensions and possibilities outside of just the promo. “I think I came at it like a fan, really” recalls Tyler. “My first reaction when I heard that Dolph Lundgren was in Mensa was to want to go look it up and see if it was really true. “Seriously? That gigantic dude who played Drago in Rocky IV?” It completely reframed this awesome little piece of pop culture for me and got me curious. That by itself felt like reason enough to play… I just felt like there was some real social currency in it.” I wasn’t seeing it yet, but like any manager should – I wasn’t going to rely just on MY gut reaction – we kept it alive, and I heard their excitement and felt their energy. Tyler remembers the challenge that I laid out: “Rather than laughing it off, which would have been really easy to do- because let’s be honest; we’re not really a brand that’s known for pop culture comedy – Andy told us to convince him. He asked me to take the basic idea and try a few things with it to see if the excitement we were feeling could translate a little more clearly.” So Tyler continued to develop the idea on the side. The pitch process was far from over though – we continued on for several more weeks with all three agencies, developing multiple ideas (many of them I still love and am thinking about for future use, possibly) – continuing 2 and 3 rounds of development prior to the final deadline for concepts. Funny enough, in round 2, JJ came back with several new ideas – but no Dolph! Our first question was “what happened to Dolph Lundgren?!” which I think caught them a bit off guard because it was probably the last idea they thought we would want! So when it came to the final pitch, all three teams brought their best work – and it was really cool to see so many ideas – some were more developed versions of what had been pitched before, like the Dolph idea, and some more cinematic storytelling ideas, and some were brand new that we’d never seen prior to that. Monitor shot from the shoot.
Meanwhile, Tyler was still trying to figure out a way ‘in’ for the Dolph spot. Here’s how he approached it: “The script that they originally pitched had Dolph walking and talking on a movie set. He moved from place to place and banged out all of these really impressive mental tasks like it was no big deal… he’d sit down for a second and win a chess match while speaking Mandarin… that kind of thing. It was a really playful idea, but I felt like the part that was really attractive was waiting just beneath the surface. I went at it like it was a sketch we were writing or a scene we were building in improv. ‘Dolph Lundgren is a genius; what kind of fun can we have with that?’ It really didn’t take long to develop at all… the fact that Dolph was smart was interesting; how Dolph felt about being smart was the part that seemed to me like it could be funny. What if he really wishes he could overcome this action star persona? What if he just wants to be true to himself? What if he feels tortured by the fact that nobody knows the real Dolph Lundgren? What if he’s trapped inside this amazing body that won’t allow his brilliant mind to be free?” It all flowed pretty quickly.” He’s a handsome genius who can probably kick your ass.
We would show how powerful he was through a series of accidental pranks – easily breaking things like books and Rubik’s cubes, as he just tried to do smart stuff but couldn’t get past his own strength. All the while we had to make it clear that Dolph wasn’t the host of the show – just an ‘endorser’ of the content. “The script that convinced Andy (and the rest of the executive team, who were all just amazingly open-minded about the idea) was a little more exaggerated that we ultimately went with” says Tyler. “Dolph’s super-powerful body was doing things like turning pieces of chalk to dust in his fingers and breaking his glasses when he clenched his jaw. But everyone was liking the mock-melodrama idea of a tortured Dolph set to a sad piano. The sight gags and physical comedy ended up evolving in really natural (and practical) ways as we moved through pre-production, and the spot was definitely better and more grounded as a result.” We took the best idea from each agency, and saved Dolph for last in the deck, unsure of how it would be received. Well, I’ll give everyone credit, they saw the potential, and that it could be just what we needed to reach new viewers, and maybe going in the celebrity angle was a cool twist from previous campaigns. After all, a concept with celebs being ‘themselves’ had worked with actors like Rob Lowe for DirecTV, Jean Claude Van Damme for Volvo, and even Sly Stallone’s fun ad for Warburtons in the UK.
Lighting and set references for the Dolph Lundgren concept from the Rob Lowe campaign for DirecTV.
Our next step was to take all of the ideas to our internal folks, including the CMO and CEO, since this show is such a big priority project for us. We presented our top three ideas, and organized them in an order that ended with Dolph, and started with an idea that was closest to ground we’d covered before. To our surprise, it wasn’t even much of a decision from them – they wanted us to go for the Dolph concept. We’d already done some pre-vetting with our talent team internally, so we knew that Dolph and “his people” were interested in the concept, just so we didn’t sell an idea that could never come to fruition. Now that we had the Executive greenlight, we moved forward quickly and the talks became very real. At this point, it was late September and we had an early November delivery date so that we could make our long lead international deadlines (we even had a vetting with some folks from the international regions to make sure that the Dolph idea would play abroad), which meant that production in October was the only way to get it all done. Dolph was shooting in Mexico, and as luck would have it, he had a 1 week window open in late October to shoot with us. After a brief negotiation, and some script tweaks, the deal was done – and Tyler, Brian and I all looked at each other in amazement. Was this REALLY happening? I think it was a classic case of trust – we’d earned some trust for the work we’d done on campaigns like SharkFest, and people were willing to take a big swing on this one. We were thrilled, but now we had to really roll up our shirtsleeves and make sure we did it right. We awarded the bid to Juniper Jones (that was a fun call), and we were off.Early set designs and props for our “futuristic prison” set.
PRE PRODUCTION: THE ART OF ART DIRECTION
For this concept to work, for it to really work, it needed to look and feel high-quality. I mean, I guess you could say that about most every single ad – but our thought on this was that it was going to live and die with the gags. We went through many different possibilities for how to show Dolph’s superhuman strength, and to capture that he was “trapped” in his own body. Dolph had also said he didn’t want to be seen as a ‘body builder’ which actually helped sell the gags better if he accidentally broke ‘smart stuff’ rather than just randomly ripping his clothes or breaking drinking glasses. Juniper suggested many different iterations and concepts, and a few continued to rise to the top. We then had Juniper Jones come to DC for the day to sit in person and brainstorm some more ideas, more gags, and talk through production references. This is something that has worked really well in the past for us on big productions. Conference calls can be effective, but nothing beats meeting in person and really hashing through the details.
More frames from our early pre-pro book.
Pre-production was key at this point, because we had several sight/prop gags to sell the conceit, and needed to make sure that they would play well on camera, as well the fact that they could all fit into a :30 spot. And as anyone who’s made a :30 before knows, that’s really a :23 spot, because you need to say the show name, the time it’s on, and the channel, in those final :07. It’s a lot to cram into one spot, and with comedy you need time for jokes to play out. Juniper Jones took our full boards and turned it into an animatic, so we could see the timing of everything, and after a lot of back and forth, we even took out a gag which involved Dolph accidentally ripping his own lab coat. We just didn’t have the time to squeeze it in. What was also key was the sharing of references, and site locations. We continued to reference the Rob Lowe DirecTV spots, which felt high production value – in a spot like this, it needed to feel real and authentic to sell the concept, in the same way that the Rob Lowe alternate-Rob spots worked. More than once, I stressed that we needed to spend significant time and resources behind the art direction. That was what would make or break the spot. If it felt cheap, it would all fall flat. Those little details from the Rob Lowe spots of different hair, makeup and wardrobe made it all work and not FEEL like a gag, even though obviously it was. It was the same thing here – clearly it’s a gag, but we needed that Rubik’s cube to feel like it really was shattering in Dolph’s hands. The best lighting and camera in the world couldn’t hide a clearly faked prop – it needed to be believable.Lighting references for the ‘future prison’ set.
But we still needed to make it look good, too. The lighting needed to feel warm and rich, and frankly – expensive. Like this was a peek into the affluent life of a Hollywood star, who happens to have a curse of super strength. We were all involved in every aspect of the production, and even selected the final Art Director as a group to do everything we could to ensure the highest quality final product. We worked really well with Juniper Jones Director Kevin Robinson in those few weeks we had to get everything nailed down. We knew that it would all come down to the little details to help make the spot really good. So we prepared as best as we could, we had Dolph’s buy-in (that was a very surreal phone call to prep him for the job, but we could tell that he was totally into the idea, and willing to poke a little fun at himself), and now it was time to shoot.
That’s me, sticking my head out of the giant prison set we built. (Photo by Tyler Korba)
So Brian, Tyler and I all flew out to LA for the shoot. We’d picked all of our principals, including a great DP and Art Director, and our long day was set to begin. We’d met Dolph the day before for a fitting and pre-light day, he was super friendly, and ready to get to work. (My favorite story of the week was when Dolph got lost trying to find our fitting studio. As our wardrobe supervisor was giving him better directions he jokingly lamented – “my Ferrari doesn’t have a GPS!”) The next day, we shot the spot basically in order of each scene in the spot. It starts with Dolph in a more familiar location – in a futuristic prison set that was designed to look like the place where you’d expect to see Dolph. Chained up, in battle gear, sweaty and strong looking! He breaks out of the chains, and then the spot turns as you realize this isn’t the Dolph you know. This was the most challenging location because the house where we were shooting didn’t have a good space for it, so we actually built the prison cell in a driveway two doors down the street. It was built in a giant wooden box, completely blacked out and filled with giant oscillating fans, metal walls, and even a huge metal chair with custom breakable chains built into it. As a first shot of the day, this was pretty fun – it took a little while to get the timing and props working perfectly, but we could immediately tell that Dolph had a surprisingly good comedic timing. He was into the idea, and we were off – it was going to be a fun day, and for those of us who loved Rocky IV, and Ivan Drago, it was a totally surreal experience! Knowing that he was such a nice guy made us all breathe a sigh of relief. Working with celebrity talent can always be a bit unnerving, because you’re never sure what might happen – so seeing that he was really going to be a great partner made it a little easier.
Behind the scenes secret: the lasers were added in post.
“The one X factor in all of it was Dolph’s performance” remembers Tyler. “We knew he could deliver on the powerful part- he’s freaking Dolph Lundgren! But we’d never seen him do any comedy. We’d seen a few interviews and talkshow appearances where he was really quick and a comment and had a dry sense of humor, but so much of the spot was going to ride on his delivery… we really weren’t sure what to expect. But I’ll go on record and say that Dolph Lundgren’s talents have been under-used. He’s got a fantastic sense of timing and he totally threw himself in to the thinking behind each of our setups. The guy does comedy WELL. Maybe it has something to do with all of the stunt work and fight choreography? You have to have a good sense of timing and rhythm to make that physical stuff work, so maybe it translates. A beat is a beat, right? Or maybe he’s just a natural and he’s never been asked to do it before, I don’t know. I was really impressed by him, though. And incredibly flattered that he liked the idea and was willing to play along.” And while it could seem intimidating, he was actually quite approachable the whole time. “Dolph was amazing” said Kevin. “He was totally into it and just wanted the best result. He’s a large man, sure – and one who I grew up watching – so it was an honor, but not intimidating.” It was only one day of shooting, and we had a ton to do – 4 different setups, in a 10 hour day, plus extra b-roll to shoot for our digital experience our web team was building (“Brain Jitsu”) and all of the VO and tagging and scripts to run through. It was busy, and while under normal circumstances that doesn’t seem overwhelming, where our day was really challenged was the propping for each setup.The prison set was built halfway into a garage, as you can see from the roll-up door.
We had breakable Rubik’s cubes, tear-away books, breakaway chains, and a collapsing chair. With each of those props, they got a little more difficult each time to get it just right. While we knew it would be a challenge, we probably still didn’t estimate the amount of time each one would take to get just right. When Dolph “accidentally” rips a book in half, it’s got to feel accidental – and just like a perspective illusion from previous seasons, it really takes a lot of time to get the nuances right for that where it feels totally genuine. Kevin explains: “The gags were tough. If I were to do it again, I would have made sure that we built even more time into the schedule for build and testing. We did the best we could with the timeline and talent – but that’s something I would keep a keener eye on next time. When it comes to art department, even the simplest of things can suck time and energy out of the day. There is no such thing as a simple gag.” So as the day wore on, we slid a little later and later behind schedule. We must have ripped over a dozen books, broken dozens of Rubik’s cubes, and many, many chains! It was such a great reminder that no matter how great the lighting, cinematography, script or concept, you can never invest too much time or budget into your art department. When we had challenges in our pre-light day with the chair, Kevin insisted on working late to test the chair as much as we could. Every single minute prepping for the unpredictable was key. Especially for a concept like this, that lived and died off of those small little props that sold in the whole concept. Dolph and director Kevin Robinson on set. (Photo by Tyler Korba)
When we came to the end of the day, we had one last prop and that was the collapsing chair. Our day was down to the final minutes – literally – before we would run into serious overages and pass our time with Dolph. In the end, he was totally cool to stay a little longer which was amazing – but our window to get the chair right, while also keeping Dolph safe and comfortable, was closing. We had one shot at it – literally. This gag was the final joke, the final end of the spot when Dolph relaxes in his chair to watch “Brain Games” but even then he destroys the world around him accidentally. We rehearsed timings, scripts and had our art director ready to pull the release – we rolled camera, Dolph nailed his line, the chair ripped apart perfectly, and Dolph’s reaction and delivery were perfect. It was a huge relief, and while he was laying on the ground we got our iconic “I just broke you” callback from Rocky IV. The whole room breathed a sigh of relief, laughed a lot, and that was a wrap. We knew we had the funny content, we just had to bring it home in editorial. I leaned over to Tyler near the end of the day, feeling confident we had good stuff and set a goal of trying to get this spot featured in AdWeek. We’ve gotten some press in AdWeek before for “SharkFest” and this seemed like a good potential one as well – it gets a fair amount of industry attention, and since they mostly feature big brands like Coke and Chevy, it’s always fun to be featured in that company. Fingers were crossed!
JUST WHEN WE THOUGHT WE WERE GOLDEN…
“From a production standpoint – the edit was a difficult challenge” says Kevin. “We all built the spot to work in a certain way. And tested it with boards and board-o-matics. But once we got into it we realized the structure wasn’t quite working. It took a couple late nights and some gray hairs but we found the solution and it was better then the original plan.” Originally, our board-o-matic was pretty linear – scene A plays out, then scene B, then C, etc. But we started to see that it wasn’t working, as Kevin said. It felt too…intentional. Or we hadn’t established Dolph’s genius before he started accidentally destroying things. It just felt off. Take a look at the original animatic with each gag playing all the way through:
That’s where it really meant digging in deep. We could see the footage was great, but the edit just felt TOO linear. Once the editor and Kevin discovered the idea of setting up each scene, and Dolph’s sophisticated genius, then coming back to them for the delivery of the joke (the breaking of stuff), that was when we knew we had it. “Comedy in a 30 second commercial isn’t easy” says Kevin. “It’s all about the timing and the little subtleties that make something funny – boards and script give you a solid foundation – but it’s the on set direction, talents acting, music, sound design, art direction and camera work which all need to align in order for it to work. And if the timing or flow is off, it doesn’t sell. This is one of the reasons why we needed to re-work things a bit in the edit. When it comes to comedy you also need to put yourself in a fresh perspective each time looking at the edit – or after a while it wears off and your not sure what’s funny anymore. Having such an open process with the team at Nat Geo was essential in this process. We became so close to it all. But you guys were able to stay a bit fresher. Sharing it around to trusted people is really helpful when it comes to this type of work.” And there Kevin hit on it. They were never afraid to show us edits that weren’t working – and at one point we asked them to share edits that they didn’t like so we could become more familiar with what we’d tried. After lots of back and forth, we found the edit we all felt good with, and once we’d built that pattern, it was just a matter of finding time for everything to sit together. I loved both the long :45 version, which had the Drago button, as well as the really short versions when we had to write a script for a VO talent to talk about Dolph (rather than him talking about himself). Here’s the final :45:
And here’s the cutdowns, which took a more narrative style:
Finding those solutions together as a team was truly fun, and collaborative at every step. From beginning to end, it was a truly team effort. Juniper brought the nugget of an idea, Tyler found a unique way in to make the spot funny, Brian worked tirelessly on the design and art direction for all of the graphics and sets, and we brought this fun, unique idea to life exactly the way we’d hoped to. It was an incredible experience to meet Dolph and also meet a whole new team of people dedicated to making an awesome campaign together. And the cherry on top (after 2 months of waiting) was that it ended up being featured in AdWeek. A huge thank you to everyone involved on this amazing spot, and campaign that extended to additional digital content as well. Tyler sums up the project quite well: “In improv, we talk a lot about the power of agreement; look at these amazing worlds we can build and these incredible things that can happen when nobody denies what we’re doing or says no to the idea. I feel like this project was a great example of that… there was a whole lot of Yes And at work from the very beginning, and it was awesome to be a part of.”
BUT WAIT – THERE’S MORE!
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know that with Brain Games, we like to have a variety of creative ways to talk to the audience. Some of the most fun spots we’ve ever done for Brain Games have been the Jason Silva “Riffs” we’ve done over the years with Jason – the host. For this one, we actually shot it in the spring of 2015, around April, as part of our Talent ID campaign. Shooting with Variable, with Joey L. as the DP, and Jared Levy as camera op, we used the same set we’d built for the Talent ID and did a new Riff as well. We then partnered with the design company One Size in Amsterdam, editor Ian Rummer at Crave, and used footage that was shot by the team at Evolve exclusively for us. Jason and I collaborated on the script, and it was truly a dream-team project. With some sound design from our friends at Defacto, we came up with this pretty awesome new Riff that once again felt distinctive and different from previous seasons.
And last but not least, Brian had found a great team in Roof Studios to create our key art this year, which was a fun and game-ified version of the Brain Games logo. We loved the key art that they produced so much, we asked them to bring it to life in a TV spot as a long lead tease. Tyler wrote a playful script and Brian oversaw all of the animation, design, and concept development with Roof. Our partners at Echolab did the original score and sound design which brought the playful spirit to life. This tease felt very different from the other elements, but I liked that the campaign felt so diverse and yet everything felt true to the spirit of the shot. Here’s that final logo tease.
THE FINAL ROUND.
This campaign started with the Riff in April of last year, and then really geared up in the fall – then we had to sit on the materials for several months before we could release them. That’s always a challenge but what I like about it is that it gave me a little time to reflect on yet another new campaign for this always challenging but fun project. We always want to push ourselves to come up with new and imaginative ways to promote these shows. And in this round, I was reminded yet again about not only the importance of surrounding yourself with a good team, but also just some real practical knowledge. One is that good Art Direction will dictate a lot of how good your spot can be. Putting that extra time into your props, your set direction, and experimenting with gags or build outs is key. The same held true for our Riff spot, which relied heavily on the art direction of the set that Jason performed, and the intense lighting matrix for the huge LED curtain behind him. And we got very lucky that we had such a great talent (Dolph and Jason) to work with, and that they each worked at just the right time. Sometimes that little bit of luck, combined with a ton of hard work behind the scenes, is all you need to bring it home. As I reflect back on this project, I’m reminded once again about the amount of work that is done behind the scenes to make a ‘simple’ :30 promo. Months of preparation, tons of details, every single thing scrutinized to ensure the best final outcome. I love that about promos – the tireless attention to detail by a huge number of people with the same goal. “This was a true team effort” said Kevin. “I always say the best work happens when people don’t cling to their ideas but allow freedom to explore and experiment together. Decisions need to be made – but the process is so important.” Thanks to everyone involved on yet another awesome campaign for Brain Games.
The classic Andy/Dolph faceoff shot after we wrapped. Ivan Drago looks up to no man!