The wonderful world of PES

As his latest ad for Honda is released, we speak to director PES about his creative process, balancing commercials and personal work and the importance of being succinct


Adam Pesapane has achieved a rare feat as a director. He not only gets paid to direct commercials but to make original content. His animated short Fresh Guacamole received an Oscar nomination in 2013 and his YouTube channel now has more than one million subscribers.

Alongside his technically ambitious and inventive personal work, Pesapane – or PES as he is better known – has directed a trio of brilliant ads for Honda. Paper presented the history of the brand through thousands of drawings and paintings, while follow-up The Power of Ridgeline used large-scale sets and long exposure stop motion to promote Honda’s Ridgeline pickup.

His latest ad for Honda promotes the Clarity (a vehicle that runs on hydrogen fuel cells) and features a choir of floating children’s heads singing a choral version of Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop.

The children and blue sky background provide a nod to Honda’s Blue Skies for Children initiative. An ad filled with floating heads sounds a little disturbing on paper – “My first glance at the concept, I thought … this thing can be totally creepy if we don’t do it right,” admits PES – but the end result is an amusing spot with a catchy sound track that will remain lodged in your brain long after viewing. It also features some brilliant performances from eager child actors.

PES began making films when he was working as an assistant at an ad agency in New York. His first hit was Roof Sex, an ingenious stop motion short about a pair of amorous armchairs. The film led to commercial representation as well as commissions and an award at the Annecy Animation Festival.

He went on to make a series of mesmerising films using everyday and found objects. 2006’s Game Over, inspired by classic arcade games, was created using sequins, toy cars and various food stuffs, while KaBoom! made clever use of matchsticks and a toy plane. PES worked alone on Game Over, doing everything from model making to editing, sound design and animation.

“Sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself that you can lock yourself in a room and make a film,” he says.

“It’s almost like an exercise that I go through as a response [to making ads], almost keeping myself on my toes,” he continues. “You do these commercials and there’s someone to do everything – there’s always a specialist standing by and I always feel it threatens to make you lazy as a director – so I set these little challenges for myself.”

He now tries to make a short film every two years in between working on commercial projects. “Honda’s kept me pretty busy this year, but it’s a sidestep out of original content that is well worth it because of the quality and the challenges they were offering. It allows my work to reach a different level of polish and production that you just can’t achieve in a short film … so it allows you to grow and push yourself as a film-maker.”

Working on commercials for major brands can be chaotic – with shifting deadlines and long hours on set, it can be difficult to fit in personal work around client projects. PES prefers to focus exclusively on short films for a few weeks at a time, allowing him to give each one his full attention. “Maybe it’s just me as a director, but I like to give all of myself to projects. I don’t find so much pleasure in multi-tasking,” he says.

His success on YouTube has led not just to ad commissions but funding to put his own ideas into production. Showtime Networks funded Fresh Guacamole in return for exclusive licensing rights to the film when it launched, while Submarine Sandwich was funded by Nikon and Kickstarter donations.

The budgets for these projects are considerably smaller than for Paper or The Power of Ridgeline, but they do allow PES to work with expert model makers, animators and other specialists, creating shorts that are a cut above your average stop motion production.

“It’s an interesting development in the business over the last 10 or 12 years. I started out making my own films and doing commercials on the side, then all of a sudden, people see my own films gets tens of millions of hits, and they want to hire you to make your own content. I wish that happened more frequently than it does … but the truth is it doesn’t come along that often,” he says.

This success has its downsides, however. His skilled use of stop motion has led to various requests from agencies and brands asking him to create more of the same.

One of the things that first attracted him to working with Honda was the chance to try something new. Paper and The Power of Ridgeline allowed him to apply his animation skills on an epic scale, while the latest spot offered the chance to do something more performance based.

“Whenever I look at scripts, I’m looking for opportunities that give me a chance to expand and do something new. Of course, I’m looking for something that fits in with my voice, and I’m not saying I don’t ever want to do stop motion anymore, but I really value commercial opportunities when people ask me to do things I haven’t done.”

For Clarity, ad agency RPA presented PES with the track and the concept and he suggested creating a choral arrangement of the song. The arrangement was devised by Jeremy Turner and sung by eight young vocalists, who also appear in the ad. “We recorded [the song] in the studio in Los Angeles before we did anything else – it was really important to strike the right chord with the music,” he explains.

Still from Honda Clarity, directed by PES

“One of the things I said in the beginning was that this is a very famous pop song, so you don’t want to come out singing the chorus. You want to tease people, and engage them, you want people to say, ‘oh it sounds familiar’, but they can’t quite piece it together…. We build it from a single voice to a chorus of voices, and we eventually go into the sort of third act reveal of what the song is, so it becomes a revelation to the viewer.”

Shooting the ad was a complex process: children were filmed while lip-synching the song and their performance was captured from various angles, with a motion control camera moving around their heads. DOP Shawn Kim and his team also had to ensure that each child’s eye line would match up on screen. Twenty-four children are featured in the ad but some appear in several scenes – the minute-long spot features 165 heads in total and was shot in just a few days. PES drew up a detailed plan for the shoot before filming began, mapping out the formation of heads in a detailed previs to ensure the team would capture the correct footage.

Still from Honda Clarity, directed by PES
Still from Honda Clarity, directed by PES

Each of his films is the result of meticulous planning: whether working in stop motion or live action, he maps out films frame by frame before shooting, creating a detailed visualisation of each production in advance. As well as making shoots more straightforward, it can help PES explain his ideas to both clients and crew.

“If you plan meticulously, you afford yourself the chance to make some decisions on the day for the better. All your questions about do I need this shot, do I not need this shot have been decided, so on the shoot it becomes, ‘how do we raise the camera a little bit here, how do we make this shot better?’ It’s very simple and very focused, because we’ve had all of those discussions beforehand,” he says.

“It’s also a useful thing on shoot because everyone knows what you’re shooting…. I’m very inclusive as a director. I want all my crew to know, no matter what they’re doing or what their role is, that they have a responsibility in this thing, and to know what that thing is, so they’re not just showing up and doing what people tell them.”

This need to plan is also due in part to PES’s perfectionism. When choosing models for his animated shorts, for example, he will experiment with various materials and props to find the best possible solution, rather than simply settling for whatever looks ‘good enough’.

“I tend to be the person who looks at all the options before choosing one … I’m not someone who just goes, ‘this is what I want to do, let’s do it’…. I hate the idea of some months down the line, waking up and thinking ‘you missed the great idea, you missed the right way to do it’,” he says.

The beauty of PES’s shorts lies not just in their inventiveness and attention to detail but also in how succinct they are. With ads getting ever longer, it’s refreshing to see a story told in just 60 or 90 seconds.

“Something I encourage all filmmakers to do is make your ideas as short as possible. Your goal isn’t to make the longest film you can make, it’s to get rid of anything superfluous,” he says.

“I also kind of feel like it’s respectful to your viewer to not overstay your welcome. You should know the length of your idea…. The whole reason I do previs is to figure out what I don’t need as much as what I do … and my goal is always to find the simplest, most direct, leanest way to tell a story.”

He also stresses the importance of having a clear story arc. It’s a simple concept, but one that is all too often overlooked in overly long ads.

“I tend to like ideas that resolve themselves at the last possible moment. Ones that leave a reveal,” he says. “So much of filmmaking is about trying to make the viewer want to know what happens next – it’s a really basic concept, but that tends to be my guiding principle,” he adds. With Clarity, for example, the arrangement of the song encourages viewers to keep watching as they wait for the chorus to kick in.

Above all, the success of his films comes down to a great idea that has been thoroughly considered and well executed – whether it’s building a giant playground or cooking with a Rubik’s cube. In an age of being able to upload films instantly, it’s tempting to share every concept that pops into your head as quickly as possible, but PES advocates putting an idea through rigorous testing and development before putting it out into the world.

“I tend to encourage people to work on their idea longer than making them, because this is what works for me. I work on my ideas, I write them out, I draw them out, I do animatics with stand in props, then I do a rough version of the film for timing. I still go through that process for my own work. Some ideas have been hanging around for years before I actually pull the trigger and make them,” he adds.

He also recommends testing out ideas with people from outside of the industry, whether with friends, family, your cab driver – anyone who can offer up an honest opinion.

“I’m more likely to ask someone who is not in film what they think of my idea or how they respond to it,” he says. “As a filmmaker, you’re never able to control whether someone will like your idea or not, but what you can control is whether you’ve communicated it as clearly and succinctly as possible.”

You can see more of PES’s work at PES is represented by Blinkink in the UK.

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