This ad makes the art of stacking dominoes, well, child’s play. The clever two-minute Honda ‘Cog’ commercial is a real-time creation that took seven painstaking months to prepare – and 606 video takes – that results in a mesmerizing chain reaction that will leave you scratching your head. Before you read further, I would like you to see the commercial first and then continue reading the story behind this legendary ad.
Very important to note that ‘No computer graphics or digital tricks have been used in the film. Everything you saw really happened in real time exactly as you saw it.’
The crew spent weeks shooting night and day. The film cost around six million dollars and took close to three months to complete including a full engineering of the sequence. When the ad was pitched to senior executives in Honda company, they signed off on it immediately without any hesitation — including the costs.
The ad was made in 2003. There were six and only six hand-made Accords in the world then. To the horror of Honda engineers, the filmmakers disassembled two of them to make the film. Everything you see in the film (aside from the walls, floor, ramp, and complete Honda Accord) are parts from those two cars.
The Cog ad is like a fine-lubricated line of dominoes. A single cog sets off a chain reaction across a selection of new Honda Accord components. “Isn’t it nice when things just… work”, we’re told. There’s not one human in the ad, which means of course that it can be shown anywhere in the world where Honda Accords are sold.
Back on 6 April 2003, viewers of the Brazilian Grand Prix were introduced to ‘Cog’, a two-minute work of art as advertising. The immediate reaction of many viewers was that this was trick photography. But no… it was all filmed in one take. The six hundred and sixth take. But one take in the studios of Partizan in Paris.
The Cog ad was the culmination of five months of pre-production stages carried out by Director Antoine Bardou-Jacquet. As filming began, the call went out for genuine parts from new model Honda Accord cars. It was a work of detail – getting the camera angles just right. Ensuring that everything would work just right. Making sure that the spray from the windscreen wipers would stimulate the next phase of the sweep.
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 of the six hundred and six 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.
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 around 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.
In answer to the most frequently asked question about the commercial: The sequence where the tyres roll up a slope looks particularly impressive but is very simple. There is a weight in each tyre and when the tyre is knocked, the weight is displaced and in an attempt to rebalance itself, the tyre rolls up the slope.
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.
If nothing else, Cog is a welcome departure from the generality of car advertisements that feature winding-road landscapes, empty highways and clear blue skies. The absence of people from the commercial at least saved Honda having to make any regional alterations.
There’s not one human in the ad, which means of course that it can be shown anywhere in the world where Honda Accords are sold. Perhaps the only alteration can be a change of the closing voiceover, delivered by laid-back Garrison Keillor, the American author, who announces: “Isn’t it nice when things just work?”
Cog is 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. It seems that was the first and last time it worked properly.
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. 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 Bollywood starlet, no cricketing 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 whinnying, 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 cannibalized 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 during a Brazilian Grand Prix, and brought bar patrons across the nation to a wide-eyed speechlessness after the Manchester United v Real Madrid game on a Tuesday night.
It was a painstaking process, a tough experience, surely.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 agonizingly close to the end. Story goes that 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 realizing 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.
Director: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet
Production Company: Partizan Midi Minuit
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy
Agency Producer: Rob Steiner
Agency Creatives: Matt Gooden & Ben Walker
Post Production: The Mill
Producer: Fi Kilroe
Flame Assistant: Dave Birkill