Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards
Your Shot: PES and RPA on Honda’s Journey Through Paper
London, UK
Academy Award-nominated director joins RPA creative director Ken Pappanduros to talk us through a brilliantly complex animation

Many of you won’t need an introduction to the work of PES (and if you do, please just check out his incredible work here). The director’s latest project, though, a mind-bogglingly brilliant two-minute journey through Honda’s history, moves away from his more well-known object-based techniques to focus solely on hand drawn imagery. Created with LA agency RPA, the film is entitled ‘Paper’ and focuses on the fact that many of Honda’s greatest creations began life as an idea on paper - hence the hand drawn animation. In true PES style, ‘Paper’ is complex and grips viewers frame-by-frame. The project involved months of nonstop work for a team of illustrators and animators as they hand drew everything and experimented with different animation styles that involved 2D, 3D, optical illusions and even a number of techniques that don’t have a name. We had to know how it was made. LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with PES and RPA’s VP, creative director Ken Pappanduros to find out.

LBB> Why did you decide to focus the campaign on paper?

KP> Many of Honda’s greatest ideas begin with this simple form of expression, a sketch on a piece of paper. We were trying to capture that initial moment of inspiration that later becomes one of Honda’s amazing products.

LBB> Why did you decide to get PES involved?

KP> Like Honda, PES is an innovator. Look at his body of work. He does things no one else does. The guy’s films are incredible. They’re art. His stories just draw you in and the animation makes you want to watch every frame. He’s also a great collaborator, and an all-around great person to work with.

LBB> PES, Honda put its entire backstory in your hands… what were you thinking when the job first came in? 

PES> As a director you hope that you have a sense of opportunity, and as soon as this one came in I knew I had to do this. I was really hired to do something that wasn’t already on my reel and it takes an agency with real vision to do that. In advertising you’re often asked to do different iterations of things you’ve already done. 

There was so much potential for this to be something so great and almost non-commercial, with no narration, no music. It was a rare opportunity, especially because it’s such a wonderful brand with a wonderful history - there’s nothing in there that you have to make up. It’s always great to be able to tell the truth and feel good about it. 

LBB> How closely did you work together as agency and director?

KP> We worked very closely with PES from day one. We presented him the idea on a huge concept board, with all these rough pictures of Honda vehicles pinned and taped on it.  We literally flipped these little scraps by hand to show how the journey would unfold, so to speak.  PES instantly sparked to the potential, and we began having working meetings with him, figuring out the evolving paper textures and drawing styles and new sequences. It was a blast. From there, PES and his massive crew drew all the illustrations we’d ultimately shoot. They mapped it all out on two huge tables, each with its own motion-control camera. We were there with him every shoot day watching the painstaking process the animators went through bringing this to life. The skill and patience was extraordinary. I’m still in awe of what his team did.

LBB> What kind of research did you have to undertake for the project?

KP> Tons of research. We really had to dig deep into Honda’s history and full product line. It was a learning exercise for all of us. We read books and scoured the Internet and talked with our Honda clients for months. We all learned quite a bit and came away even more inspired by Soichiro Honda and the company he set in motion.

LBB> And as a director PES, talk us through the kind of research and planning that you have to do for a spot like this… 

PES> Well it was months of work. All in all I’d say it broke out into about four months of work for me. The first month was just getting my ideas together, the approach, pitching. The second month was pre-vis. Some of the effects in the film, such as the optical illusion drawings (for instance the plane appears to fly above the surface of the table but is in fact flat on the table) were complex things that I knew would need CGI to help me figure out exactly what camera angle to use to see these drawings and create the effect that I wanted. So the pre-vis was entirely CGI but the intention was always to execute it in stop motion and bring all of that warmth, imperfection and handmade quality. 

LBB> There’s a huge focus on the actual craft of the spot – much like the Honda products that it’s showcasing. How important was that when developing the idea?

KP> It was very important for the craft of the spot to reflect the craft of the company. Honda is a remarkable engineering company. We really wanted the work to feel like it was engineered as well. It needed to have that “How the heck did they do that?” sense of amazement.  The way the story was told was as important as the story itself.

LBB> When you started out, did you imagine that the final film would be so complex?

KP> The scope of it was apparent from the beginning. I think PES brought a level of intricacy to it that only he could. There’s so much detail, so many special little moments and touches. The first time we all saw the physical shooting tables, fully laid-out and camera-ready, our jaws dropped.

LBB> PES, going back to the optical illusion drawings you mentioned… Can you tell us about those?

PES> The optical illusions were actually part of my pitch. The technique has been circulating a fair bit on Vine and Instagram so it’s fairly popular, but I hadn’t seen anyone attempt to animate them or bring them to life. I thought this was the perfect opportunity because we’re dealing with drawn things throughout. And I had a concept that the camera shouldn’t just look down on the board and that it should be released from above and be able to see the board from different angles. That really opened up opportunities for optical illusions.

LBB> This is probably an extremely complex question, but could you summarise the different animation styles, tricks and techniques that you used during the entire process? 

PES> That’s hard to answer because… how does one define a different paper-flicking technique? The opening sequence is more traditional, but for the moment Asimo the robot enters the film, I came up with a totally different, angled approach that unfolds on a notebook, seen from the side. The whole thing is part flip book, part stop motion, part pixelation - which is itself a subset of stop motion. But then there are other things thrown in there that really have no name. For instance, the octopus sequence involves a hand swiping pages that’s almost like a reverse flip book.

LBB> How big was the production team?

PES> There were dozens of illustrators and animators working around the clock for about a month and a half, in preparation for the shoot. 

LBB> So it was one big collaborative team…

PES> Yeah. I have to give a lot of credit to RPA - they’re the ones who came up with this giant idea board, which is the core of automotive design. The interpretation of it, how it comes to life, the design decisions, those are what I brought to the table.

LBB> And you were allowed a lot of creative control? 

PES> Completely. This was one of the most amazingly collaborative efforts I’ve had the chance to work on. I had so much freedom to make the film as I wanted. Of course there was an approvals process to get through with pre-vis but once it came down to interpreting and bringing to life each sequence, they gave me complete and utter control. They gave me some feedback here and there but they really wanted me to make this film as a film, perhaps more in line with my original content, not a typical commercial. And then I was able to be involved in the entire post process and the sound design, which I try to do with most of my films.

LBB> I really love the sound design actually. Who did you work with on that? 

PES> I often do my own sound design work. For this particular project we went to Phil Bolland, a sound designer at Factory in London. The agency was sending teams to record the actual sounds of these vehicles - the NSX engine, what it sounds like to slam the trunk of an NSX - so it’s very specific. And then these would be sent back to London and Phil and I would go back and forth on how to bring this thing to life. He did a wonderful job. As it is with a lot of my films, sound design is half of the work. And this is the first time I’ve had to negotiate it across the ocean and it worked out really well. 

LBB> A lot of your work is object-based, where as this doesn’t feature any. How was that for you? 

PES> There were many temptations along the way to introduce objects - rulers, old compasses, pushpins - but I really kept them out of there. I feel like as a director people are often expecting a type of quirky cleverness, but the agency was totally supportive in me keeping this film in a totally different tone. 

It suited their agenda but it was also an opportunity for me to work within a medium that I’m known for but doing something totally different. I give RPA a lot of credit because as a director this is how you want to be hired. You want to be able to do something that hasn’t been done before. Don’t get me wrong, there is a short history of paper-flipping experimentation online and it is an established genre. But one of the key things for this project was looking at and referencing those examples but evolving the medium too, so it wasn’t just a pricier version of what’s out there. It was something new. And that gave me the freedom as a director to introduce so many different techniques. For instance, when the motocross bikes jump over the mountain, it becomes more of a 3D film and we depart from the paper-flipping. 

LBB> If you had to pick a favourite moment of the film, what would it be and why?

PES> The transition from the first formula one car as it comes off the blueprint onto the racetrack was always a very important moment for me. That’s the moment when the camera comes unhinged and leaves that straight-down angle, and when I begin using the optical illusion drawings. That was always such an exciting moment for me, even in the pre-vis. And it turned out  to be the hardest thing to achieve because of what we were asking the camera to do at that moment, which was go from looking straight down to looking at the side. Making that transition work was very difficult. 

Another wonderful moment for me is the Honda jet at the end. My concept was that the plane should be drawn on the flat surface but appear to be floating above the board. There was quite a bit of research, development and testing into how we could create this effect and how it should be drawn. Someone did a test on vellum paper which was slightly translucent and the thing just immediately popped. It was a great discovery in the animation testing stage.

KP> Man, that is a tough one. I love so much of it. If I have to pick one, it’s the moment the Honda ‘Isle of Man’ victory poster gets slapped to the board. There’s this brief moment of stillness...then BAM!, the modern-day Interceptor bursts through the page. It gets me every time.

LBB> The last few years have seen a lot of big Honda brand work come out of the U.K. market. How was it for you to produce this in the U.S.?

KP> It was great. Honda’s U.K. brand work sets a standard that all advertisers should aspire to.  How could you not want to do work at that level? In the U.S., Honda’s huge sales volume and larger dealer network is very different than in the UK. There are many diverse objectives to satisfy. Pure branding opportunities like this are rarer, but when you get the chance to work on one, you grab it and use the momentum it creates to elevate the work across the board.

LBB> How long was the project from start to finish?

KP> All told, it was close to a year.  The production itself was about four months of planning, illustrating, figuring out the mechanics of all the paper flips and camera movements and then, of course, the actual shoot.  But RPA began working on concepts for this film eight months prior to that. Honda and RPA had set the creative bar very high. We looked at hundreds of ideas before we all said, “Yeah, that’s the one.”

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