Your Shot: The Slick Story Behind Honda’s Majestically Choreographed HR-V Ad
The end line of this Honda spot reads ‘Precisely, Pleasingly, Perfect’. And while those three alliterative are describe Honda’s new HR-V, they also fit the ad itself. It really is one of the most precise, pleasing and perfect productions that we at LBB have encountered this year. Created by mcgarrybowen London and directed by Somesuch’s Kim Gehrig, ‘Stepping’ is inspired by the Japanese art of ‘precision walking’ and features the most beautiful arrangement of choreographed people, moving to the sounds of M-Beat and General Levy’s ‘90s jungle classic ‘Incredible’. We had to find out how it was made. LBB’s Addison Capper spoke with mcgarrybowen ECD Paul Jordan, director Kim Gehrig, Factory founding partner & creative director Anthony Moore and MPC VFX supervisor Bevis Jones to find out.
LBB> What was the original brief like from Honda?
PJ> It was pretty inspiring actually. We went to the European research centre in Offenbach to interview the designers who'd flown in from Japan and then we drove the HR-V itself. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to do that these days.
LBB> Why was Kim the perfect person to helm such a meticulous shoot?
PJ> Kim is one of the best commercials directors in the business. She’s directed lots of brilliantly choreographed ads and promos and is an ex-creative, so really gets the ‘idea'. Kim is wonderfully collaborative and has a really strong vision and aesthetic. And of course, she’s a woman. We wanted to see what she’d bring to this traditionally very macho category and I’m really happy we did. Kim did an amazing job.
LBB> Kim, what was it about this script that jumped out as something you’d like to get involved with?
KG> I love movement and choreography and had been thinking about doing a more stylised piece after Sport England [Kim directed the super successful Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign], so when this script came in it was bang on where my head was at.
LBB> What inspired the ‘Stepping’ idea? It’s linked with the Japanese art of precision walking… can you tell us a bit about that?
PJ> It’s pretty straightforward really. The HR-V was designed to be perfectly 'in-step' with people’s lives. So we wanted to create an ad that demonstrated this. Yet we didn’t want to make a hackneyed lifestyle ad. We wanted to find a visually entertaining way to do it. The Japanese art of precision walking seemed perfect on lots of levels.
LBB> Kim, how familiar were you with Japanese precision walking prior to this project?
KG> I had seen it and loved it a few years ago, always hoping I could find a way to use it in a project. I loved the spectacle and discipline of it, as well as the sense of humour some of the groups had in their performances.
LBB> I hear you’re an ex-dancer…? How did that affect the way you approached this job?
KG> Embarrassingly, I am actually an ex-rhythmic gymnast… not very cool I know, but I spent my youth choreographing routines so I like that side of things and understand how it works.
LBB> I totally get the end idea but the concept is also quite abstract. How many iterations did it go through to end up at the final spot?
PJ> As I said – we could have had a more literal spot with people leading happy aspirational lives and fitting all their stuff into the HR-V. But it would have made a very dull ad. The spot stayed pretty intact from script to screen actually – some of the scenes and set-pieces evolved but it was always an idea about precision walking.
LBB> How did you find the process of developing such a meticulously choreographed ad?
PJ> It was actually a pretty joyful process. We had a great (and slightly OCD) choreographer called Supple, a brilliant director in Kim Gehrig, who is herself an ex-dancer, and we also had a really experienced precision driver. We all collaborated really well to develop the set pieces together.
LBB> The spot required six weeks of rehearsals - what was that process like?
PJ> Six weeks may seem like a long time but the Japanese precision walkers actually take a year to learn their routines. At the start of rehearsals It was a bit frightening, I honestly thought that we might have bitten off more than we could chew.
KG> The process was pretty hardcore. The rehearsals actually felt like shoot days so the job was very gruelling for all; the dancers, the choreographer and for me as well. But there was a real sense of community amongst the group so we pushed through it together.
LBB> How tricky was it deciding the motions that everyone in the film would be playing out?
PJ> We storyboarded all the ideas first, then created little pre-vis animations to test them out. This gave us a pretty good steer about what looked good and what we could fit in the time we had.
LBB> What kind of cast were you working with? As a director, what conversations were you having with them during rehearsals and the shoot?
KG> The cast was a mixture of actors and dancers all between a certain height range of a few centimetres. They were all put through a rigorous casting procedure that figured out who would let go and give themselves over to the group whilst still having their own individual character.
The main conversation I had with the cast was about making it their own as a group and working together. And also not being frightened, as some of the sequences got a bit hairy when interacting with the car.
LBB> What kind of relationship did you have with choreographer Supple during the shoot?
KG> Supple was great and we had a very close working relationship. He was tireless in his pursuit of sharpness and precision from the dancers. I was exhausted just watching.
LBB> I really love the music choice - it’s different but without seeming like it’s ‘trying to be cool’. What would you say to that?
PJ> You’re right, it’s a pretty cool track but, importantly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s got a wink and a smile about it. Funnily enough I was in a club at an Old School revival night when this track came on and half the room started to dance in formation. It was amazing to watch and stayed with me. Honda ‘Stepping’ has everyone moving in formation so I remembered it when we were looking for tracks. I really like how the squeaks that General Levy makes with his voice sound like the rubber of the tyres and the trainers squeaking on the floor.
LBB> The sound design of the spot is a real biggie here too. Anthony, how did its precision influence your approach to the sound?
AM> Precision was definitely the focus for the project. We had to ensure that the sound design worked perfectly with the music and visuals. We saw the car as the ‘conductor’ of our film, precisely choreographing the walkers and music within the featured space. Using a combination of shoot sound and original sound effects, myself and fellow Factory sound designer Phil Bolland built the soundtrack from the ground up, tracking every footstep and movement of the walkers, through to every action and engine rev of the car.
LBB> What kind of feel or atmosphere were you trying to conjure with the sound design?
AM> We wanted the sound to feel very clean, precise and utterly believable. There’s something rather beautiful about hearing syncopated footsteps, clothes rustles and tyre squeaks in a fantastically reverb-ed space such as Wembley Arena. We re-modeled the space of the arena and went about re-creating the majority of the footsteps due to the shoot sound feeling too muddy. As a tracklay, this job contains a Factory record for layers of footsteps!
LBB> How much was captured in camera and what needed to be added in post?
KG> Most of the film is in camera, but of course the opening and closing of the ad has an element of post.
BJ> The floor is often completely re-projected because of the amount of tape placed to help guide the walkers. The stadium, great as it was, was heavily matte painted and extended in places to build the magical environmental feel, and we removed some stuff so that it did not fight for screen space with our hero guys, and the car!
LBB> Bevis, from a VFX point of view, how much and what kind of research did you have to undertake for this project?
BJ> The research was very detailed. We pre-visualised every shot in 3D with accurate plans of Wembley arena and camera lens information. Kim was guiding all of this weeks before the shoot even started. Together we designed the shots in detail and fed that into the rehearsals, which we also attended. Then we knew where everyone had to be in relation to the camera.
LBB> What are your favourite moments of the film?
PJ> It’s the big set-piece where all of the walkers spell out H R – V with their jackets. It was originally scripted as the walkers making the letter shapes with their body positions. Kim had the inspired idea of making them spell out the letters using their jacket lining. For me, it’s the most vibrant moment in the film but also works hard because it’s the name of the product.
KG> I love the jacket flapping moment of the HRV. I remember seeing it for the first time in rehearsals and it took my breath away. Something so simple and so joyful. In the edit it looks almost too good to be true but it’s an effect we did all in-camera.
BJ> My favourite part is the opening shot with the guys falling out of the car. Its a great tone setter for the spot and was fun to do. We split the shot into four sections, front back and left and right. The art department built a rig that enabled each area to fall out at speed and land on each other, and then it was all layered up with the real car sitting on top of the composite.
AM> The film feels really fresh and original, there’s nothing like it out there. Credit to Kim and the agency for developing such a great idea and executing it so perfectly. The music choice is also inspired; it’s unexpected and brings the film masses of energy and a big sense of fun. Bring on the ‘90s junglist revival!
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
PJ> Getting 60 people to move in perfect synchronisation is painstaking. It only takes one person to miss their mark and the whole shot falls flat.
KG> Integrating the car into the choreography of the dancers was definitely hard work. Just as you think you have the people working you throw a car into the mix and it become a whole new set of problems.
AM> Footsteps – there’s loads of them!
LBB> In terms of art direction, why did you go with the black, white, red colour pallet? How was that to work as a colourist?
PJ> It was inspired by the brand itself. ‘HONDA’ usually appears in red, ‘The power of dreams’ is normally written in black, and it usually sits on a white background.
BJ> Mark Gethin (colourist) and Kim had worked together many times and they created a really great look. After the grade we also isolated small elements of costume and car and pushed them (within the palette) to add contrast and interest. For example the soles of the shoe had a red streak that gets revealed as the car brakes. We highlighted this to make sure the costume detail was visible in the final picture
LBB> How long was the campaign from idea to completion?
PJ> About 8 months beginning to end.
Category: Automotive , Cars
Genre: In-camera effects , choreography