Volkswagen Uses Zoetropes in Artful Pitch for ID.4 Electric SUV

Johannes Leonardo traces the evolution of mobility

Think of it as evolution in motion.

To introduce its ID.4 battery-electric compact crossover, Volkswagen of America created a poetic, somewhat abstract film that traces the history of mobility.

Shot mostly in a single long take, the 90-second spot shows modes of wheeled transportation, from horse-drawn buggies to locomotives and cars, culminating with the ID.4. It displays this progression using a series of specially designed zoetropes—devices invented in the 19th century that spin images to create moving pictures:

The Wheel | ID.4 Electric SUV

Developed by Johannes Leonardo and Imperial Woodpecker director Sam Brown, "The Wheel" rolls out this week across VW's social channels, with TV edits airing through January, ahead of the vehicle's launch in March.

It's certainly a fresh, unexpected approach, akin in some ways to JL's animated farewell to the VW Beetle last year. Both spots lean on history, though the new work's approach, spanning thousands of years, might prove a tad much to fully appreciate on first viewing.

Below, agency creative director Kevin Watkins discusses the project with Muse:

Muse: Aren't zoetropes a pretty unusual, even unwieldy way to tell this particular story?

Kevin Watkins: We knew we wanted to do more than a simple retelling of these pivotal moments in history. And we also wanted the way we showed these moments to evoke the feeling and tone of each era. That's what drew us to the use of animation devices. We started with the idea of only using one phenakistoscope—an even more rudimentary and obscure 19th-century machine. But as the film developed, we realized we needed the devices to evolve along with the stories they told. As our story of transportation unfolds, each new innovation of the device is used until we arrive at the reveal of the ID.4.

Why go artsy?

If you're familiar with car advertising, you'll notice almost everything has been done, and it can tend to look the same. To come across a unique way of storytelling and use of craft in this category is unusual. We wanted to use creativity to showcase big moments in automotive history to introduce another huge moment for in VW's history. As such, we purposely made "The Wheel" to look nothing like a traditional car ad, but a cinematic piece of work, in an effort to capture the massive impact of this pivotal moment for the brand.

So, how does form meet function? What exactly do the images communicate?

Movies are really just a sequence of still images that are presented in a fast enough sequence to create the illusion of movement. And it's all thanks to wheels of some kind, a motif that presents itself in many ways throughout the film. We hope the film helps put the ID.4 into the context of other great revolutions in mobility and transportation, and signals VW's readiness to step into this next era.

Who's the target audience, and why will this appeal to them?

Our target is environmentally conscious but values practical sophistication. In the U.S., EVs have largely been sold as either a status symbol (elite) or a virtue signal (eco). People in the market for a compact SUV have really never had an affordable electric option. Volkswagen wanted to make electric mobility more approachable to more people. Unlike other car brands, Volkswagen isn't taking a pre-existing chassis and putting an electric motor in it, but delivering on affordable quality for everyone. The brand has created an entirely new platform built from the ground up. Our creative approach was to purposely build each device used in the film from scratch as a nod to the level of craft and consideration that goes into VW's engineering.

Can you talk about shooting the film, the challenges involved?

It was a massive technical feat for our director, Sam Brown, and his team in Prague. Sam was amazed at how many different ways the simple concept of a spinning wheel and a sequential series of images has been reinterpreted and reinvented over the years, and it set him thinking about how each technique might be applied to a stage of our narrative. So, a group of artisans and engineers carefully hand-crafted, tested and built the zoetropes from scratch. Each machine, unique in its own way, is simple, contemporary and sleek, like one of those expensive modern turntables in which all the components have been intricately milled and engineered.

There is no CG or special effects to make them work. On a basic level, these machines celebrate the simple joy of movement. And all of the images inside the zoetropes used a never-before-seen combination of pre-film, film and animation techniques integrating sequences of hand-drawn illustrations, vintage photographs and unique animations that give the illusion of motion.

And you shot in-camera, with just quick cuts at the very beginning and end?

Sam's vision for the film was to do it all in-camera, which is what excited us. He wanted to create a performance piece with the machines themselves—allowing each to tell its story as if we were watching a person move through time and space. It was by far one of the most complex shoots I've been involved with. On the day everything was set, nothing except the lighting could be tweaked, even the camera move had been plotted out methodically beforehand.


CLIENT: Volkswagen Group of America
President and CEO: Scott Keogh
EVP, Sales & Marketing: Duncan Movassaghi
SVP, Marketing: Kimberley Gardiner
Director, Brand and Retail Content: Jennifer Clayton
Manager, Advertising: Chanel Barresi
Senior Specialist, Brand Advertising: Annabel Lyon
Specialist, Brand Advertising: Ladan Rafei

AGENCY: Johannes Leonardo
Chief Creative Officer: Jan Jacobs
Chief Creative Officer: Leo Premutico
Creative Director: Kevin Watkins
Creative Director: Jono Flannery
Copywriter: Patrick Wells
Art Director: Iwona Usakiewicz
Head of Production: Maria Perez
Executive Producer: Rebecca O'Neill
Executive Producer: Benton Roman
Associate Producer: Haley Harris
Business Affairs Manager: Joe Bringuier
Business Lead: Ben Muldrew
Account Director: Erandika Weerasinghe
Management Supervisor: Mal Gretz
Account Manager: Stephanie Loucas
Project Manager: Sarah Scardillo
Group Strategy Director: Mary Bakarich
Senior Strategist: Eileen Zhao
Product Information Specialist: Ryan Callahan


Director: Sam Brown
Executive Producer:  Doug Halbert
Producer: Polly Ruskin
Director Of Photography: Sebastian Blenkov
Art Director:  Henry Boararos

Editor (Lead): Sam Ostrove
Assistant Editor: Nick Deliberto
Managing Partner: Carr Schilling
Executive Producer: Adam Becht
Producer: Michelle Dorsch

FINISH/VFX/ COLOR GRADE: Global Production Company The Mill
Executive Producer:  Chris Allen, Clairellen Wallin
Producer: Mia Saunders, Shannon Botts
Production Coordinator: Judit Jakli
Production Supervisor: Julia Paskert

Creative Director: Jorge Montiel, Wes
Shoot Supervisor: Wes
2D Lead Artist: Gary Driver
3D Lead Artist: Ben Blundell
2D Artist: Thiago Dantas, Pete Atack, Kristian Reyes-Cabrera, Charles Dockerill, Ant Walsham, Didem Ergor, Fabien Coupez, Anne Trotman
3D Artist:  Laurie Estampes, Joe Besagni
Finish Artist: Rich Watson, Holly McLean, Jeanette Eiternes
Design: David Rowley, Kevan Lee

Colorist: Seamus O'Keane, Thomas Mangham
Executive Producer: Color Charlie Morris
Color Producer: Evan Baur

Audio Mixer: Rohan Young
Sound Designer: Michael Anastasi
Executive Producer: Susie Boyajan

MUSIC HOUSE: Lightning Studios
Composer: Seth Olinsky


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