Lights! Camera! Retake!
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.
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.
One of the more striking moments in the film is when a lone windscreen wiper blade helicopters through the air, suspended from a line of metal twine. "That was the first and last time it worked properly," recalls Tony Davidson, of the London-based advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy. "I wanted it to look like ballet."
After that, a few yards and several ingenious connections down the assembly line, another pair of windscreen wiper blades is squirted by an activated washer jet. Because Honda wipers have automatic sensors that can detect water, they start a crablike crawl across the floor. It is as though they have come to life.
As take 300 led to 400 which led to 500, a certain madness settled on the crew. Rob Steiner, the agency producer, started talking about "our friends, the parts", but in the slightly menacing tone of a primary school teacher discussing her charges at the end of a trying day. Some workers on the film went whole days without sleep and had to be asked to stay away from the more delicate parts of the assembly. Others started to have bad dreams about throttle activator shafts and bonnet release cables.
When things were going wrong - a tyre that kept trundling off to the left, or a rocker shaft that kept toppling over like a tipsy cyclist - the production lads on the shoot would start grumbling that "the parts are being very moody today".
Commercial makers are often accustomed to working with human prima donnas but no Hollywood starlet, no footballing prodigy or showbiz celeb, was ever as troublesome and unpredictable as the con rods and pulley wheels and solenoids that Davidson, Steiner and Co had to work with.
Towards the end of the production, Olivier Coulhon, the first assistant director, had spent so many hours in the darkened studio that his skin had turned a luminous green and his eyes had sunk deep into his Gallic cheeks.
Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, the commercial's director, kept puffing out his cheeks and whinneying, a note of deranged despair twitching at the corners of his mouth. Asked how long he had been working on the commercial, he gave a high-pitched giggle and replied: "Five years? Or is it eight?" It felt that long.
Two hand-made pre-production Accords - there were only six in existence in the entire world - were needed for the exercise, one of them being ripped apart and cannibalised to the considerable distress of Honda engineers. By the end of the months-long production, the film had used so many spare parts that two articulated lorries were required to take them away.
The idea for the advert derived partly from the old children's game Mouse Trap, and from the wacky engineering of Caractacus Potts's breakfast-making machine in the Sixties film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The corporate suits at Honda liked the idea immediately, despite the high costs of production and the fact that it was more than twice as long, and therefore twice as pricey, as normal car ads.
The two-minute version of the ad ran for the first time last Sunday during the Brazilian Grand Prix, and brought pubgoers across the nation to a wide-eyed speechlessness after the Manchester United v Real Madrid game on Tuesday night.
"It was a painstaking process, a tough experience," says Honda's communications manager Matt Coombe, recalling the making of Cog. Some of the original ideas, such as one stunt involving an airbag, had to be dropped owing to a shortage of new Accord parts or simply because they were too hard to set up. And on some takes the process would go perfectly until agonisingly close to the end.
"It was like watching a brilliant footballer weaving his way the whole way through a defending team's players, and then shooting wide right at the end," says Tony Davidson. The crew resorted to placing bets on which part of the sequence would go wrong. Invariably it was the windscreen wipers.
When the final, 606th take eventually succeeded, there was a stunned silence around the Paris studio. Then, like shipwrecked mariners finally realising that their ordeal was at an end, the team broke into a careworn chorus of increasingly defiant cheers and hurrahs.
Champagne bottles popped. The cylinder liner had brushed its nose affectionately against the rocker shaft and the gear wheel cog for the last time. The interior grab handles and the suspension spring coils had done their bit. A classic was complete. Cog was in the can.