Making of Mitsubishi

The Artist’s Commentary

In October, 2005, I was contacted by MJZ, a production company in Los Angeles, who were working on a new commercial about the Mitsubishi Endeavor SUV for the advertising firm BBDO. BBDO’s concept was to have the car drive through an “origami world.” They needed an origami artist to design and fold the origami figures to populate the world of the commercial. MJZ had brought in an award-winning director, Victor Garcia, to direct the commercial. Victor’s concept was for every scene to be incredibly rich, packed with origami; but he wanted a sleek, elegant look, recognizably folded, but not “cute”. It was clear that the volume of origami would be enormous; furthermore, the timetable was incredibly short: two weeks for design, construction, and filming of everything.

Based on their storyboards and an initial description, I developed some prototypes of some of the objects in the commercial—animals, buildings, plants, objects, in a couple of different styles—over the first few days. I then met with the production designer, Deborah Evans, the director, Victor Garcia, and John Merritt, the owner of Merritt Productions, a model shop that would be working on the project. Deborah and Victor looked at what I had done, liked the discrete figures very much, but the scene-filling objects—buildings, trees, bridges—were not rich enough for Victor’s vision. We needed a massive quantity of origami! After further discussions, we decided that I would fly down to Hollywood and work at John’s model shop, and John would put his 15 or 20 skilled modelmakers to work turning out origami that I would design.

Even with John’s people working on things, it was still a bigger project than I could handle alone, and I knew there would be origami folding beyond the abilities of novice folders, even if they were skilled model-makers. After calling around a bit and some further negotiations, we agreed that I could bring in Linda Tomoko Mihara, a gifted origami artist based in San Francisco, who would help with design and folding, and who would join our team in Hollywood. Over the course of the project, Linda and I would, in the space of a week, design several tens of new figures and fold probably over a hundred individual pieces.

Linda and I arrived in Hollywood on a Sunday; at this point 6 days had elapsed and we immediately launched into designing and folding. By the end of the first day it had become clear that I had been extraordinarily lucky to bring in Linda. We worked well together; she had the ability to rapidly learn to fold some of the pieces I had already designed (I verbally taught her to fold a sweetgum leaf on the drive from the airport as I drove), but Linda’s expertise in designing complimented my own and her aesthetic sense would prove to be invaluable throughout the project.

logo of sunset gower studios
The origami-like logo of historic Sunset Gower Studios.

Over the next 7 days, we spent 13- to 14-hour days designing and folding. We started working at the model shop in North Hollywood, but after a few days, we moved to the studio where filming was taking place. The origami was filmed at historic Sunset Gower Studio. The studio logo atop their entrance gate is, remarkably, a piece of origami! It was a good omen.

Over the course of a week, we created an immense quantity of origami. Much of it is only visible for a fraction of a second, at most, in the commercial. Commercials are only 30 seconds and it all just flies by. But there’s a lot going on, so in the pictures that follow, I’ll walk you through each shot, and tell you a little about what went into it.

Its legend is well known…

The commercial opens with the dragon in front of a forest, with clouds and mountains in the background. The dragon—which is now the most prominent origami in the ad—was actually an afterthought. I was already home from filiming when the producers called me up and said, “we’re thinking about adding a dragon to the commercial. Can you fold one?” As they described how it would be used, it was clear that they needed a pretty impressive one, so I resolved to design one with lots of features: scales on the body, legs, clawed feet, pleated wings, and a spiky head. From my origami dragon, they built a computer-animated dragon, so that they could create the motion. So what you see is computer-animated; but it comes from a real origami dragon, which took about 20 hours in total to fold. The original origami dragon is here:

The actual origami dragon.

Since the dragon wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of the ad agency during most of the filming, all appearances of the dragon were created in post-production.

Also in this opening shot you see trees, clouds, and mountains. Each of those is a distinct origami figure. It was important to Victor that he be able to shoot through an forest of trees to get these images. I originally designed a one-piece tree with a roughly Christmas-tree shape, based on a conical version of the pine cone weight from my Black Forest Cuckoo Clock.

conical tree
A one-sheet, single-square conical tree for the forest.

However, Victor wanted to be able to film while looking through the branches of his forest; the tree needed to have distinct branches with space in between them. So I designed a composite (multi-piece) tree in which each branch was folded from a separate sheet.

multi tree
The multi-sheet tree that was the prototype for the forest.

But we needed an entire forest: hundreds of trees, thousands of branches. Once I had developed the design (and drawn up folding diagrams), about five of John Merritt’s model-makers spent 4 or 5 days doing nothing but folding trees at sizes from 6″ to 24″ tall; the size range was to create a false perspective. The smaller trees in back aren’t really in the distance; they’re just smaller.

looking through trees
Looking through the origami forest.

The origami trees are about 18″ tall in this shot (and we’re looking at real filmed, folded trees here). The car, of course, is composited into the image. While we were folding and shooting in Hollywood, another film crew was off shooting footage of the car driving around Dodger Stadium; the images were combined in post-production. The leaves littering the foreground were added by computer, but they’re real footage of real origami leaves, shrunken to fit and digitally inserted into the scene.

One of Linda and my first projects when we arrived was to fold 25 leaves. I’d come up with several leaf designs: simple, intermediate, complex. Naturally, the production designer preferred the most complex leaf, that of a sweetgum. The image below shows one of the 25, which we folded from a range of colors and papers: tissue paper, lokta, and hanji.

The sweetgum leaf.
It rules the mountains…

Here the dragon flies over the origami forest, toward a range of mountains with clouds in the background. Even though the model-makers must have folded 50 trees, there still weren’t enough for this shot. So they gathered all the trees into one little patch, shot it, then moved all the trees over, did the same shot again, and over and over. In post-production, they then composited all the images to make one big forest. The photo below shows the set; these aren’t all the trees, but you get the idea how they clumped them together.

forest set
The forest set, under construction.

The mountains in the commercial really are in the background, and are about 4 feet tall. They’re all folded from seamless photography paper. I did three different styles of mountain: a simple, flat design; an intermediate, 3D design; and a “crumpled” 3D design. Victor went with the intermediate design, because the crumpled design was “too realistic.” Each mountain is two-piece—the main mountain, and the white snow cap. I sent a folded prototype down to Merritt early in the process, and the model team folded the range of mountains shown here.

The clouds were folded and shot individually, then composited into the background. Clouds were my nemesis on this project. I did 4 or 5 different designs over the course of the project: one crumpled (too crumpled), one simple (too simple, too flat), one simple but 3D (not complicated-enough), one pleated (too blimp-like). The style they ended up using was based on simple freehand scoring of irregular shapes of paper. I made about 6 or 7 of this style; these were shot individually against a blue screen, then they were digitally dropped into the background for the various shots.

Leaving the forest. More trees, mountains, clouds, and leaves swirling around. The leaves are a mixture of the 25 origami leaves we’d folded (which were destined for close-ups), plus about 100 leaves that were simple cut-outs used for group shots. In the end, result, there were no close-ups of the leaves, so we could have used all cutouts.

leaving the forest
Leaving the forest.
rules creatures
It rules the creatures…

“It rules the creatures.” The storyboard called for the car to scatter a herd of deer—both bucks and does. Buck deer have antlers, of course. Fortunately, I’ve previously designed several species of buck deer using my TreeMaker computer program, so I was able to use an existing mule deer concept for this design.

buck deer
Buck deer, from a single uncut square.

But I hadn’t ever designed a doe, so I had to come up with a new design for the doe in the same style as the existing buck. In the buck, about a third of the paper goes into creating the antlers, so the doe design had to be completely different. In the interest of time, I went with a box-pleated design. I folded just one of each gender; then the computer team at Sight Effects, Inc. built computer models of both, which they could then animate into movement.

doe deer
Doe deer, from a single uncut square.

What you see in the video is actually a composite of at least 5 different images:

  • The dashboard of the car (real footage);
  • The road, forest, and hills in the background (real footage);
  • The deer (computer animation of real origami);
  • The clouds (individual shots, composited in);
  • The sky (separate shot, composited in).
rules creatures continued
It rules the creatures (cont’d).

I was extremely impressed by the computer animators; they even capture the multiple layers running along the neck in the buck (on the right) and the joints of the animals move, for the most part, like origami joints would move. (However, if you look closely, you’ll notice the rear leg of the buck is starting to detach in this still shot.)

Note, too, that they’ve sprinkled in some of our leaves on the road and forest. No doubt the botanists in the audience are wondering what sweetgum leaves are doing in an obviously conifer forest? Ah, that’s the magic of Hollywood!

rules the wind
It rules the wind…

“It rules the wind.” Our car leaves the forest and enters the countryside, driving past a field of wheat, a fence, telephone poles with birds perched on the wires, rolling hills, and clouds in the background. All of which was folded; but we had a little help from technology.

If you look closely at the wheat field, you’ll see that it contains thousands of individual heads of wheat. And indeed, I designed and folded an origami stalk of wheat—several, actually. But there was no way I was going to fold an entire field of wheat! After a bit of negotiation, I ended up making 5 stalks. These 5 stalks were filmed waving in the breeze against a blue screen, as shown here.

Five wheatstalks, in the process of being cloned.

Once again, the magic of computers stepped in to multiple these five stalks into the entire field.

rules the wind
It rules the wind (cont’d).

While the wheat is composited in, the road, row of telephone poles, and fencing are all real and folded. You can’t really see the detail here, but the boards of the fence have been textured with folds to be irregular, like rough-hewn boards, and the telephone poles have fluted origami insulators on top. Fortunately, I was able to teach the Merritt people how to fold these and so they built all the poles and fencing that you see. A slightly different view is here.

telephone poles
The telephone pole set.

One of the little details you can’t see in the video but can see in the production photo is the stripes on the road. Each road stripe is actually a slightly raised trapezoidal brick. I folded 16 individual stripes for the road; all that work goes to create about 2 pixels of white for about half a second of visibility.

rules the cities
It rules the cities…

The hills in the background of the shot in the commercial are about 2 feet tall. Initially, the background was just paper-covered foamcore (which you see lying on the ground in the small picture of the telephone poles). But once Victor saw what it looked like through the camera, he said, “we have to do something else!” This was in the middle of filming; everything came to a screeching halt (except the expenditure of money, which was running like a torrent with a 30-person union crew twiddling their thumbs while we pondered). Linda and I dropped what we were doing and in a few minutes hit upon the idea of just folding a series of sugarloaf-shaped hills that we could overlay to look like real hills receding into the distance. In about 10 minutes, we threw together 24 hills; Victor pronounced it good, and shooting resumed.

The birds perching on the telephone wires take off and fly over the car. This actually required two different origami designs: a perching bird, and a flying bird. It was decided that the country birds would be swallows. In the final shot, the perching birds are teensy dots in the distance, so I could have folded elephants perching on the wires and no one would have been the wiser. But I didn’t know that at the time, so I folded both perching and flying swallows, shown here.

simple swallows
Perching and flying swallow.

My original swallow (which was a design I’d developed for one of the Fold-A-Day origami calendars) wasn’t fancy enough, so I added pleats to the wings and tail to more clearly indicate feathers.

detailed swallow
A more detailed swallow.

Like the deer, these origami figures were re-rendered as computer-animated models, so that the computerized version could be made to flap and fly.

seagulls over bridge
Seagulls flying over the bridge.

As the car leaves the field, the flying swallows transform into flying seagulls, which called for yet another new bird design. (And again, the original origami figure was brought to motion via computer animation.)

The seagull reference model.

The birds fly over a bridge that the car drives across, heading toward the city. I originally had a design for an extremely simple, stylized representation of a cable-stayed bridge that could conceivably have been folded from a single sheet. Deborah and Victor weren’t having any of that; they wanted an intricate suspension bridge. The “one sheet” concept was quickly jettisoned. John Merritt and his crew built an enormous wooden framework of a bridge, about 16 feet long; it was then up to his crew, Linda, and myself to cover it in origami.

bare bridge
The support framework for the bridge.

We designed scored and pleated pieces to cover the towers, and Linda folded a set of “strawberry” shaped lights to cap each tower and the ends of the support cables. I also designed and folded pleated girderwork to run along the sides of the bridge to break up the flat surfaces. The curved main cables were merely wrapped in paper, and then strips of narrow paper tape formed the support cables.

entering the city
The car enters the city.

The water is simple paper scored into ripples (much like the clouds). This, too, was shot separately and then composited in. We never folded a boat, so the boat in the video must have been a post-production figment of the computer animator’s imagination.

Once the car leaves the bridge, it enters the city, which was our largest set. The original storyboard called for several buildings, and I’d originally folded two sample building about 24″ tall, which were very simple and stylized. That would not do.

Victor wanted more buildings, bigger buildings, more intricate buildings! He wanted to shoot the scene with the camera at street level, which meant that “street level” needed to be about 6 inches high. This called for 1/24 scale models, which meant that the buildings needed to be up to eight feet tall!

robert and buildings
Me, in front of a portion of the skyscraper set.

This is way beyond what’s possible for origami to be self-supporting, so we followed a different tack. John Merritt and his crew designed and constructed building frames from foamcore, then covered them with paper, creating a set of building forms with strong, bold, art-deco style outlines. It was then up to Linda and myself to design origami facades and ornamentation to cover up the smooth, flat surfaces and give them proper detail.

linda and buildings
Linda putting finishing touches on a building.

We had 5 different sets under construction at the same time. With all that going on, there was no way I was going to be able to fold enough by myself to cover what was about 100 square feet of building area, so I designed and drew up crease patterns for all the building facades based on assorted tessellation patterns and taught Sam, one of the crack modelers, how to fold the patterns from seamless photography paper while I continued designing and folding for other sets. Sam and some of his people then spent the next day folding up patterns according to my drawings and attaching them to the building forms. They did this back at the model shop while Linda and I continued working at the studio, and I sweated bullets all the next day in fear that I’d made some dimensional error in my drawings that would prevent the facade from fitting the buildings. The relief was almost overwhelming when they wheeled in the buildings with all the facades fit perfectly. Linda, too, took part in designing and folding facades; the image to the right gives you an idea of the scale as she makes a last-minute correction to one of her pieces.

street level
A street-level view of one building. Note the detail: decorations on the coords, streetlights, even cracks in the sidewalk.

Of course, as big as they buildings were, the car still had to be shot separately and composited in. We knew there’d be street-level shots, so, we created a fair amount of street-level detail: doors, windows, art deco ornamentation, street lights, traffic lights, and fire hydrants. The Merritt team also created street-level structures for doors and windows from paper-over-foamcore. Most of it all is barely glimpsed in the commercial, but we know it’s there!

robert and streetlight
One of the streetlights for the city set.
row houses
The culminating shot: the Victorian row houses.

The culmination of the origami folding came, fittingly, in the very last shot: the Victorian row houses. Each house was a marvel of composite origami construction over foamcore frames, and Linda took on the lion’s share of the work, designing and folding a unique decorative scheme for each house. We started with foamcore boxes 24″ high for each house; then folded shingles for the roofs (each shingled roof comes from a single sheet), clapboard siding, steps with railings, porches, windows with drapes, some with mullions, gingerbread, banisters, finials, doorknobs, window boxes of flowers, and various other decorations. The streets were dressed with streetlights, trashcans, potted plants, and trees. My original conical tree design got a walk-on part as a potted Italian cypress (visible in front of the pink steps); Deborah the art director requested a set of trees with spherical canopies, and it was a trivial matter to modify the same design to take on a spherical form. The producers rather liked the spherical variant (we called it the “lollipop tree”): they digitally inserted them into several different views. (The ones on the right side of the street are real folded trees; the one on the left and the two in the distance are digital reproductions.)

row house 1
row house 3
row house 4
row house 5
The Victorian row houses.

The houses are only shown obliquely in the video, but each house had an incredible amount of detail, as these frontal shots show. Note the curtains in the windows, flower boxes, and mullions in the windows. Of course these are composite origami (folded from multiple sheets); nevertheless, there is an incredible amount of folding in each house. Linda spearheaded the Victorians; as it turns out, she was raised in such a house in San Francisco, is something of a Victorian aficionado, and educated both me and the model shop on what’s authentic and what’s not.

Oh yes: both the city and row houses had sidewalks, and, as in the city scenes, the sidewalks had folded cracks in them. No detail was too small for Victor (and, by extension, for us).

The row house set, like all the others, was shot against blue screen, and so the clouds, sky, sun, and bridge in the background were composited in during post-production. The sun was another afterthought that came even after the dragon. It’s one sheet, folded from a square, and was the last thing I created for the project.

pulling in
The 2006 Mitsubishi Endeavor.

Much of the origami we folded was “composite,” meaning folded from more than one sheet. The row houses, in particular, used many sheets. This was driven by both the style of the commercial—the “look” Victor was after—and partly due to the schedule pressure: even if something could be done from a single sheet, if we could do it faster with multiple sheets, we did. Nevertheless, many of the discrete objects are classic single-sheet folding. I particularly enjoyed designing the streetlights and trash cans, which are single-sheet, no-cut folding.

The original concept for the commercial had the car being greeted by a friendly dog, and so a friendly dog was one of the first designs I folded. How much friendlier can you get than a Labrador retriever?

friendly dog
The friendly dog.
mythic combination
A mythic combination of beauty and beast.

But as the commercial evolved, so did the ending; by turns, I folded an origami man (who would climb out of the car, but then got cut), then an unfriendly dog (sort of a mastiff/rottweiler combination).

L-R: John Merritt, Linda Tomoko Mihara, Victor Garcia, Deborah Evans, and me.

After filming was done, I got a call from the producer: they decided to have a dragon follow the car and meet it at the end, and how soon could I fold one? Well, I’ve done dragons before, but it was clear the way the commercial built to a climax that it would have to be a pretty impressive dragon. So I designed a scale-covered dragon with a fairly spiky head, clawed feet, and open mouth; and that became both a continuous motif and the finale of the commercial.