Did you watch football on Sunday? If so, you might have caught Honda’s new “Paper” ad, tracing the Japanese corporation’s history through 70 years, from motorcycles to futuristic robots, all in under two minutes. But what really stuck with you was the style. It was rendered as a beautifully hand-illustrated series of cards, with engines flying out of one vehicle and tumbling into another, all seemingly animated by hands flipping the cards over.
“Seemingly,” because it was. Although the “Paper” ad feels like CGI trickery, the digital posing as the analog, it actually is what it appears to be: an elaborate ad brought to life through stop-motion animation, which took four months to pull off. Featuring thousands of hand-drawn illustrations from various artists, and a dozen or so animators’ hands, the ad traces Honda founder Soichiro Honda’s first motorcycles to future innovations, like outboard motors, automobiles, racecars, and . . . more motorcycles.
“Paper” was directed by PES, real name Adam Pesapane. An accomplished director, PES is an Academy Award-winning animator whose first film–about two chairs humping each other–won animation’s version of the Oscars in 2002. Since then, PES has found a lot of success in commercial work, as well as a number of surreal and whimsical animated shorts.
The creative concept behind the ad, PES tells me, was the idea that so many of Honda’s innovations had started as little more than a sketch. As delivered, the spec was to bring to life the story behind the countless napkin sketches that Honda’s engineering team had made over the years, illustrating a new project. The challenge was how to do it all in this giant motion shot, where everything weaves together. PES decided to center upon the original Honda motor, pinching it, flicking it, and rebuilding it over and over again across an entire cosmos of devices.
“One of the core points of my pitch was that the era of design surrounding each Honda innovation should be reflected in the paper and art we used to animate it,” says PES. So for the earliest sequences in the film, where everything is happening in the 1930s and 1940s, all the paper is yellowed and the illustrations are simple pen drawings. As times goes on, the art evolves, into cleaner paper, more detailed drawings, and more colorful, modern palettes, not to mention the evolution of the vehicles. “I was trying to build a sense of history into not just the chronology, but the style,” PES says.
One of the standout effects of the ad is, bizarrely, the hands. Throughout “Paper,” hands fly out, flipping over pieces of paper and animating the piece fluidly, as if in real time. It almost looks like a Super Mario Maker effect, or some kind of CGI, but PES says it was all done by hand, no pun intended. The technique is called pixilation, in which human bodies are animated like clay models. PES says it’s one of the most challenging aspects of his art, because people naturally can’t stay still long enough to animate them frame by frame. The fluid motion of the hands you see in “Paper” isn’t CGI, it’s the fact that they were animated four frames to one with the rest of the film.
Which brings up another innovative aspect of “Paper”: It was shot entirely in camera, with no computers involved at all. The only place CGI was used in producing the ad was in the initial planning phase, or pre-viz. “That’s a big part of the project,” says PES. “How to take something digital and make it into something physical and real, but look just as polished.”