Mind Over Matter: Jen K. Messer

At Brain Games, production design is equal parts set and science.

 

Abstract ideas rule Jen K. Messer’s working life. As a production designer for the National Geographic series Brain Games, Messer is charged with the not-so-simple task of creating physical props, set design, and set pieces that help experts illustrate complex science concepts. During this past season, the show tackled tough topics ranging from how the brain processes time to the mechanics of optical illusions to the neurology of fear.

Normally, you would read a script and you would look at character and you would look at time period and you would look at someone’s financial means or background and come up with a [set] design that communicates that,” Messer says. “With Brain Games, it’s totally different. I have to talk to magicians, illusionists, scientists, experts, and psychologists. I have to make sure the science fits into the space we have.”

To add one more challenge to the mix, Brain Games is also interactive, meaning that everything demonstrated on the show has to be done in a way that viewers at home can participate too. Hailing from a music video and independent feature background, Messer says the work is unlike anything she’s ever done before, but she’s getting one hell of an education in the process.

Get In Media: From a production perspective, what is the toughest segment you’ve ever put together?

Jen K. Messer: We did this thing called Box Smash [a game wherein host Jason Silva hid in one of 12 crates]. These crates had to bust in one smash and I had to figure out how to not only make the boxes look aesthetically pleasing in front of the camera by aging them and putting stencil design on the sides and the tops, but also how to reset that every time.

The illusionist would be like, “Which box do you think [Silva is] in?” And the basic gist of the game is that no matter what you’re going to land on the same box every time, so there’s mathematics involved. We had the host of the show stored in one of the boxes, so not only did we have to figure out how to make the boxes smash with one hit, but we also had to make sure the host was safe and the illusionist who was performing the trick was safe. We had to pick a very specific kind of wood. A lot of times that kind of wood is a balsa wood. It’s a special effects wood. We got to this giant studio and we had probably 60 different crates built just in the back waiting to be rolled in. Once [we] set up the light, we only had five hours left in the day to shoot it, let alone resetting these giant pieces. That was something I had never done before and it was really challenging. It actually, for me, was the best-looking piece in the show. It’s actually quite fun to watch. What’s amazing about Brain Games is that it’s all interactive. People at home can play it.

GIM: Does that interactive element change your job in any way?

JKM: It does. You have to make sure that the choices that you’re making can be communicated to the audience at home. There are people who are contestants on the show, but there are also the contestants at home, so we have to be very careful about not exposing the show contestant’s answer until the people at home have enough time and are prepared to give their own answer. That becomes tricky too because my props have to be designed in a way where it’s not too revealing to the at-home audience.

GIM: Can you walk us through your responsibilities for a typical episode?

JKM: We have writers that come in. They write and those scripts get sent to me and then I break those scripts down with props, set decorating, set pieces. I communicate with a costume designer and a gaffer and DP [director of photography] and with the director and I come up with a color scheme. Also, [I think about] how we can present different props and set pieces and how they will relate to the script in order to tell the story that we’re trying to tell. Basically, my job is to visualize and materialize how the script reads.

GIM: How do you come up with a specific color scheme for a segment or episode?

JKM: Here’s where Brain Games is different than all of the other things I’ve ever worked on. I have to make sure the science fits. For example, [for a segment on sound patterns airing on an upcoming episode] basically we have a table and we have an expert come in and they put different vibrations through the top of this table. We pour colored sand on top and different frequencies and different vibrations make the sand come up with a pattern. [On other shows], I could normally just read that and say, “Oh, I want it to be a red table,” but I can’t necessarily do that because I have to make sure the science works with the weight of the table and the height of the table. I have to communicate with an expert in order to make the final decision and I can’t just go based on what I would think is aesthetically pleasing.

GIM: How does that process of communicating with an expert work?

JKM: They’ll show me and say, “Hey, we want this done,” and it’s my job to figure that out. A lot of my job is teaching myself. This is beyond aesthetics and design and interior design. It’s bringing science into TV in a way that I’ve never done before. Luckily, I have three different assistants that help me, but we have to research. A lot of a production designer’s job is researching. Usually, they’ll already have an expert that’s signed up for the show, so I’ll just call them and communicate to them about what I think would be aesthetically pleasing and how we can tell the story of the script in the space that we’re shooting. A lot of times it’s on location or in a studio. I have to get their feedback because if the science doesn’t work, we’re not shooting. They have to give me very specific specs on how it could work. It’s not just me being able to pick a color and a palette.

GIM: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to build or track down for the show?

JKM: Oh boy. … One of the weird things we did is we had to build a giant chair. Basically, it was a chair that was maybe 4 or 5 feet high, the back and seat of it, and the legs of it were probably less than 2 feet high. The way that the chair came together was based on the perspective of the camera and the way the art department positioned the chair in front of the lens. That was a really weird piece to design, this huge chair with these tiny legs, but in front of the camera it looks like a normal chair. It’s actually quite fun to watch. That’s one of the most amazing things about my personal experience working on the show; I learn a lot. I’m learning so much about science and illusions and magic and psychology. It’s quite a fulfilling show to be on, to be quite honest.

GIM: You’re coming from a filmmaking and cinematography background. Do you feel like that artistic background is necessary for what you’re currently doing?

JKM: I went to college after seeing Pink Flamingos and I wanted to be just like John Waters. I wanted to [make] trash cinema. Being a student of photography originally actually helps me quite a lot in production design because I understand lighting and how lighting is going to affect shade or saturation of a color that I choose and put on set. I can anticipate what the camera will see and how the image will look based on the lens. This allows you to understand how your set will be compressed or how much of it will be in focus. If you have a telephoto lens, your foreground, middle ground, or background pieces may be out of focus, meaning you can make design choices based on the overall composition.

GIM: What hours do you work for the show?

JKM: I’m on the show for 10-to 12-hour days and we do five days a week and four to five weeks of prep. But during shoot days, you’ll work 12 hours easily and that doesn’t even include your commute. At the end of the day you’re working 14 hours. It’s a lot of hours.

GIM: As a freelance designer, how do you find jobs?

JKM: Originally, when I first went to Los Angeles, I got a job right away because a friend of mine referred me. After that one was over, you scour Craigslist. There’s a [job listings] site called Mandy. You would email people you worked with in the past being like, “I need work.” You bust your ass and you try really hard and you constantly work whether it’s for free or you’re doing it for nothing, you’re doing it for food. All my jobs are referrals now. You build up a resume and people call you. You don’t have to worry about calling them anymore. It takes a while to get there though. I don’t want that to deter anybody. It takes a long time. It takes a lot of hard work to get to. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ‘n’ roll.

GIM: For someone who wants to move into production design, what do you recommend they do to break in?

JKM: One thing you have to do, and this is a must, is you have to work for free as a production designer. You’re not going to get paid for probably the first two years and you’re going to have to prove yourself. Don’t be afraid of being poor, basically. You have to swallow your dignity, or pride is a better word to use, because in the end, you’re working towards your own goal. You’re not just helping someone out for free; you’re making yourself a production designer.

Brain Games airs Mondays at 9 p.m. EST on National Geographic.

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