Just How Did They Do It? : With a lot of imagination and heavy equipment, the law of gravity is repealed for a Honda commercial

It's relatively easy to hang a car on a wall and call it art. It just takes some strong cables and bolts and the audacity to compare something with a body by Fisher to a body by Rodin.

But it's quite another thing to hang a car on the wall of an art gallery and then have a man hop in and, defying the laws of gravity, drive it away.

Yet there it is, via the magic of special effects and video--repeated countless times on our television sets during breaks from football games and "Murphy Brown"--in perhaps the most-talked-about commercial of the past year.

How did Honda do it? Only the advertising wizards at Rubin Postaer & Associates, the same guys who compared last year's Honda Accord to the stealth bomber, know for sure.

In the current commercial for the top-selling car in America: A guy walks into an art gallery. There's a fake Miro on the wall and an anemic replica of a Henry Moore sculpture sitting on the floor. And in between, as Ad Week magazine glowingly described the spot, "hangs a massive piece of gleaming steel and chrome . . . that forceful work of late-20th Century art, the new Accord.

"The art lover skids by the car, but comes back for another look," the Ad Week review continued, lavishing the commercial with such adjectives as "clever, graceful and beautifully shot." "He reads the little inscription on the wall and sits down on a bench to admire the object fully. Overcome, he can't resist the urge to climb right in. He does so and takes off, literally driving the Accord off the wall."

And if that weren't enough of an attention-getting trick, there's more. The car drives off, leaving two dark tread marks behind. Meanwhile, a little old lady waddles into the art gallery. Mystified by the tire marks, she repeatedly looks up at the wall and down at her gallery guide for some sort of explanation as . . . the commercial fades out.

The story behind this catchy ad begins with Robert Coburn and Gary Yoshida, the Los Angeles-based agency's top creative team, sitting around in Yoshida's darkened office last summer, musing, agonizing, doodling, staring out the window at the Los Angeles smog, scratching their heads in an effort to figure out how to sell yet another car.

"We sit there with the lights off," Coburn, the copywriter, explained, "throwing out one bad idea after another. When it gets pitch black, we know it's time to go home."

"Let's hang it on a wall as a piece of art," Yoshida, the artist, eventually blurted out that day. And off they went.

Actually, the story began on another day in the same office with the same two guys trying to think of a slogan for the new Accord--something that will break through the clutter, something along the memorable lines of "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" or "Where's the beef?"

They traveled to Japan. They drove the car. They truly loved it. "Amazingly," Yoshida said, "when you get in the car, it just feels terrific." So, after many hours of staring blankly at the walls and suggesting dumb puns, they settled on: "You have to drive it to believe it."

The "Art Gallery" commercial is just one of several the agency dreamed up to illustrate the slogan. In another, they created a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean and stuck the Accord in the sun on top of the dredged-up sand.

"We throw out lots of ideas," Coburn said. "Some good, most of them bad. I remember Gary just said, 'Let's hang it on the wall as a piece of art.' You've seen things like that, as sculpture. And it made sense. It wasn't just a whimsical thing because the car is rather beautiful in its lines and it looks like a piece of sculpture in a certain sense."

"And the big trick of driving it off the wall," Yoshida said, "brought home the point of 'You have to drive it to believe it.' "

And besides making some sort of intrinsic sense, the big trick would help separate the spot from the thousands of others. To do that, advertisers employ all their wit, charm and cinematic skill, anything, said agency boss Larry Postaer, "short of hollering fire in a theater."

OK, so the idea was great. But what about the logistics?

They knew the cinematic technology existed. Fred Astaire had danced on the walls and the ceiling in the 1951 film "Royal Wedding," and various music videos, including Lionel Richie's "Dancing on the Ceiling," had done the same thing. But in "Royal Wedding" it was just one man. No one had ever done it with a 2,846-pound automobile.

Yoshida drew up a story board, which told the tale of the gallery, the man and the car on the wall. In the original drawings, the man climbs right up on the wall himself to inspect the car more closely. Later, they decided that the commercial would be more "magical" if they didn't give away the trick before the man actually climbs in and drives off. There was no little old lady in the story board either. She was a "magical" afterthought, dreamed up while Yoshida, Coburn and the agency's producer, Gary Paticoff, were sitting around idly in a Florida rainstorm while working on a different Honda spot.

Postaer presented this story board, along with a whole array of other ideas, to Honda, and they immediately loved it. "I was somewhat surprised, to be honest, because car people usually like to see more of their car," Postaer said. "They don't like to see just the overhead shot (what the viewer sees in this commercial). They like to see the side and the front and the three-quarter view. But Honda understood that this could be something special."

The Astaire and the Lionel Richie anti-gravity tricks had been executed through the use of a room built inside a giant rotating drum, which enables the walls and the ceiling of the room to rotate around until they actually become the floor. Paticoff even found an existing rig of this sort at Universal, but he said he quickly realized that to pull off the trick with a car, they would have to start from scratch.

They hired a construction team to build their own giant, 12-ton, four-story rig of welded steel that would rotate in all directions without sticking, shaking or jerking. Built on a sound stage here in Los Angeles, it looked like a massive barred drum of oil turned on its side. Inside the huge, circular contraption they built a two-wall set: one wall to simulate the floor of the gallery, the other to simulate the gallery wall.

To turn the huge rig, they commandeered the same construction crane that they used to assemble it in the first place, with cables and counterweights attached to various spots on the drum.

The tire marks were painted on the wall. The car was bolted on top of them with steel cables. The gallery bench and statue were fastened to the floor. And the camera was locked down tight on the bars of the rig, directly opposite the car.

A huge bank of lights, vital to presenting the car as attractively as possible, were mounted on what would have been the ceiling of the gallery, installed in such a way that as they rotated en masse with the entire set, the shadows they cast within the view of the camera would not change a bit.

The trick to the commercial is relatively simple in theory, but a cinematic nightmare in actuality. As the man walks around the gallery, the entire contraption, including the floor, wall, camera and lights, begins to rotate clockwise.

"The director would say, 'Roll camera, action, OK rotate,' and there would be all these clinks and cracks, but it worked perfectly," Coburn said. "It was like a Leonardo da Vinci stage come to life except instead of people pushing and pulling things, we had a crane."

On "action," the man (Albie Selznick) saunters onto the set and begins to poke around. As he does this, the entire set starts to turn slowly, making it necessary for the actor to adjust his movement so that it appears he is walking and sitting on a level floor, even though the actual floor beneath him is tilting as he goes. When the floor and the wall gets to about a 45-degree angle, the man hops into the car. As he pulls the door of the car closed, the set has rotated a full 90 degrees and the car is now resting on the floor.

The camera, meanwhile, is straight up in the air, still directly opposite the car. Henry Sandbank, the director as well as the camera operator, yells cut while hovering 40 feet in the air, his body parallel to the Earth like a Macy's Parade balloon, held in place by a strap.

The crew then unbolts the car. The camera rolls and the Accord moves off the set, leaving behind the tread marks on the wall, er, at this point, the wall that is actually serving as the floor.

Sandbank, still hovering like Superman, again yells, 'Cut,' and the entire set is rotated back to its original position, putting the wall back up as a wall, the gallery floor back on the ground and Sandbank and his camera back in an upright position. The only change is that the car is no longer there.

Again the camera rolls and the little old lady (Mitzi Stollery) shuffles onto the set.

The commercial was shot in three pieces, although on the screen it appears seamless, as if it were all shot in one take. "We haven't told anyone this," Postaer said. "This is like Blackstone the magician giving away all of his tricks."

Since everything was locked down and frozen, it was easy to edit the three pieces of film together and make it look like one shot. "If we had enough time, the trick could have been done in one take, but obviously it takes some doing to unbolt the car and turn the set back for the old lady," Yoshida said.

"The little old lady was nervous that we were going to try to do it in one take and we'd have to hammer her shoes to the floor," Coburn joked.

"That's why it was so important that the build was so rigid," Yoshida continued. "Everything had to be exact. If anything moved even a quarter of an inch, you would have seen it as a joggle when we put the pieces of film together."

The finished product, which Paticoff said cost only slightly more than the average $250,000 generally spent on a 30-second commercial, was then set to a European, Fellini-esque, pantomime-type music by composer Don Piestrup, and it has been airing, to good reviews and lots of public marveling, since October.

All that was left for these triumphant advertising magicians was to dismantle the gigantic rig and then sit back and hope for a slew of Clios, advertising's version of the Academy Awards. Thanks at least in part to their ad work, the Honda Accord ended up as the No. 1 selling individual car model in the United States in 1989.

But getting rid of the rig proved to be more difficult than winning those Clios is likely to be. The contraption was so big that there was no way to get the entire thing out of the warehouse-like sound stage on which it was built. So as soon as the film was processed and the producers saw that it all fit together perfectly, they sent in a crew of deconstruction workers to tear it apart.

"It's over at Joe's salvage yard by now," Coburn said.

And then there was the problem of the forged Miro. For the commercial, an artist painted a fish, in the style of Miro, whose eyes, when the painting hung on the set wall, were greedily peering at the car on the wall beside it. After the shoot, Postaer thought it would be a kick to hang it in the reception area of his agency's West Los Angeles offices.

"But the client was here and saw it and he pulled out some rule and regulation that all props of any value should be donated to charity," Postaer said. "So it was given to the Salvation Army and God knows what they did with it."

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