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Lights! Camera! Retake!


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 13/04/2003
Page 1 of 3



The Honda Accord campaign launched last week looks certain to become an advertising legend. Quentin Letts goes behind the scenes

Six hundred and six takes it took, and if they had been forced to do a 607th it is probable, if not downright certain, that one of the film crew would have snapped and gone mad.

On the first 605 occasions something small, usually infuriatingly minute, went just slightly awry and the whole delicate arrangement was wrecked. A drop too much oil there, or here maybe one ball-bearing too many giving a fraction too much impetus to the movement. Whirr, creak, crash, the entire, card-house of consequences was a write-off and they had to start again.

Honda's latest television advertisement, a two-minute film called "Cog", is like a fine-lubricated line of dominoes. It begins with a transmission bearing which rolls into a synchro hub which in turn rolls into a gear wheel cog and plummets off a table on to a camshaft and pulley wheel. All the parts are from the new Honda Accord - £16,495 to you, guv'nor, or £6 million if you want to pay for the advertising campaign. And what an amazing ad campaign it is, too.

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Back on Cog, things are still moving, in a what-happened-next manner redolent of "there was an old woman who swallowed a fly". With a ting and a ding of metal on metal, a thud of contact and the occasional thwock, plop and extended scraping sound, the viewer watches as individual, stripped-down parts of car roll into one another and set off more reactions.

Three valve stems roll down a sloped bonnet. An exhaust box is pushed with just enough energy into a rear suspension link which nudges a transmission selector arm which releases the brake pedal loaded with a small rubber brake grommit. Catapult! Boing! On goes the beautiful dance, everything intricately balanced and poised. Nothing must be even a sixteenth of an inch off course or the momentum will be lost.

At one point three tyres, amazingly, roll uphill. They do so because inside they have been weighted with bolts and screws which have been positioned with fingertip care so that the slightest kiss of kinetic energy pushes them over, onward and, yes, upward. During the pre-shoot set-ups, film assistants had to tiptoe round the set so as not to disturb the feather-sensitive superstructure of the arranged metalwork. The slightest tremor of an ill-judged hand could have undone hours of work.

Utter silence, a check that the lighting is just right, and "action!". Scores of grown men hold their breath as the cameras roll. An oil can is tipped and glugs just enough of its contents on to a shelf that has been weighted with a Honda flywheel. Some valve springs roll into the oil and are slowed to a pace perfect to make them drop into a cylinder head assembly.

If all these technical names are confusing, that is partly the point. The advertisement was designed to show motorists all the fiddly little bits of engineering that go into the modern Honda. The result, in this film at least, is something approaching mechanical perfection and a bewitching aesthetic. As car adverts go, it certainly beats the "Nicole! Papa!" school of commercial.

If nothing else, Cog is a welcome departure from the generality of car advertisements that feature winding-road landcapes, empty highways and clear blue skies. The absence of people from the commercial at least saved Honda having to make any regional alterations.

It will be able to be shown everywhere from Japan to South America, Finland to the Maldives, without any more alteration than perhaps a change of the closing voiceover, currently delivered by laid-back Garrison Keillor, the American author, who announces: "Isn't it nice when things just work?"

Cog looks certain to become an advertising legend and part of its allure is the seemingly effortless way the relay of parts slide and touch and roll with such apparent ease. The reality of the film's production was slightly different. It was, by most measures of human patience, a nightmare.

Filming was done over four near-sleepless days in a Paris studio, after one month of script approval, two months of concept drawings and a further four months of development and testing. One of the more surprising things about the ad is that it was not a cheat. Although it would have been much easier to fiddle the chain of events by using computer graphics, the seesaw and shunt of events really did happen, and in one, clean take.

The bigshots at Honda's world headquarters in Japan, when shown Cog for the first time, replied that yes, it was very clever, and how impressive trick photography was these days. When told that it was all real, they were astonished.

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