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Decades Later, HouseSpecial Is Still "Animation for the Masses"

Talking to the animation house behind 20 years of M&M’s commercials.

The Hole Shot from HouseSpecial on Vimeo.

Suzanne Twining animates a scene with characters looking down through a hole in a spot for the Ohio Lottery. Video by and courtesy of HouseSpecial.

From talking candies to cereal mascots, the commercial side of animation is a bustling medium, and HouseSpecial is leading the charge. The Portland, Oregon-based animation house, which started as the commercial arm of LAIKA, is a self-contained company devoted to commercial work and short animation projects. Perhaps most famous for the M&M’s commercials they’ve been creating for over 20 years, HouseSpecial works in CG, 2D, and stop-motion animation. The Creators Project spoke to Kirk Kelley, HouseSpecial’s CCO and creative director, Alvaro Cubillas, the COO, and Alise Munson, HouseSpecial’s brand strategist about the goals of the company, what it means to bring animation to the masses, and what it’s like working with M&M’s.

Though most animation houses zero in on one area of expertise, HouseSpecial makes it a point to specialize in multiple mediums. “We all come to work and play with dolls in dark places,” says Alvaro Cubillas, “whether it's physical puppets or digital characters. So any given day we’re very focused on character and performance animation.” That focus on character and performance is part of what makes HouseSpecial so… well… special. “We are best known and specialize in characters,” says Kirk Kelley. “People come back to us because we bring characters to life. I think all great stories are character-based, and because that’s our starting point, you really empathize with the characters, whether it's humorously or tragically.”

Alise Munson explains the house slogan, "Animation for the Masses": “We have the ability to do all kinds of animation, all mediums, from CG, to stop-motion, to 2D, all under one roof.” This flexibility allows them to approach a project from many different angles. “So we have the ability to create amazing, high quality, character-driven, story-driven animation that appeals to an audience that is broad. But also can really appreciate our artistic expertise.”

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Art Director Gee Staughton and Animator Chris Ohlgren (arms) are on set for CustomInk’s newest underwater campaign, which takes place in a fish tank. The pair collaborate to create seamless movement in a stylized setting. Photo by and courtesy of HouseSpecial.

Kirk Kelley goes on to describe HouseSpecial’s relationship with the M&M brand and their long series of commercials, “I’ve been on the M&M campaign since they became the characters that they are, back in 1995. I was involved in early development and I’ve been involved in hundreds of ads. Some people say I know those characters better than I know my family.”

M&M'S - Switch from HouseSpecial on Vimeo.

M&M’s spot Switch, starring Patrick Warburton. Singled out by CCO Kirk Kelley as the spot he most liked working on. Courtesy of HouseSpecial.

And what makes these characters so relatable? Kelley explains that they “have enough good qualities and bad qualities that they feel believable. They’re not perfect, they’re not just a spokesman, they’re actually things that people relate to.” People relate to them so much, in fact, that Kelley’s often stopped by strangers. “When we go to live shoots I carry these puppet stand-ins so that the actors and actresses and directors can see how big they are, and you can walk them around, and it makes people relate to them.” Kelley says that he’ll be waiting in line at an airport with the puppets in his bag, “and they’ll open it up and immediately everyone wants to take a picture.”

BTS: Animating Häagen-Dazs from HouseSpecial on Vimeo.

Suzanne Twining animates one of the end shots for a Häagen-Dazs stop-motion spot. Video by and courtesy of HouseSpecial. 

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Director Kirk Kelley overlooking a set for a Jose Cuervo spot. Photo by and courtesy of HouseSpecial.

It’s this attention to character, and this flexibility and mobility of their work, that sets HouseSpecial apart as one of the most innovative houses in the industry. Added to their accomplished commercial work, the house also features short, narrative films, which Alise Munson describes as a way to play, learn, and experiment with processes. And through this general attitude of playfulness and experimentation, HouseSpecial truly does bring animation to the masses. But Kirk Kelley adds a slight caveat to this point—“We do things slightly twisted, so maybe it’s better to say it’s for the twisted masses.”

Visit HouseSpecial's website to learn more. 

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