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Animation Wizard

Kirk Kelley '82 helped to transform the red M&M into a human played by Danny DeVito for the brand's 2018 Super Bowl commercial (pictured). The ad was very positively received.

During the 2018 Super Bowl, the M&M’s brand did something it had never done before: It made its red M&M character a real-life person in the form of actor Danny DeVito. After the commercial aired, Twitter was buzzing with enthusiastic responses to the transformation, with one user tweeting: “Danny DeVito as the red M&M. Best. Casting. Ever.”

One of the creative minds behind the commercial—and indeed, behind much of M&M’s advertising work over the last two decades—is an Aggie: Kirk Kelley ’82.

Kelley began working with M&M’s in 1995 when advertising agency BBDO and the Mars Inc. brand selected his studio to take creative lead on revamping its advertising. Kelley and his team worked to create distinct animated characters for each M&M color: red (the sarcastic one), blue (the cool one), yellow (the simple one) and green (the stylish one, added in 1997). Later, orange and Ms. Brown joined the gang as well.

Today, each of the “spokescandies” has its own personality. The characters are so ingrained in the company’s brand that a portion of the M&M’s website is dedicated to showcasing their age, weight, best features, shortcomings and more. It would seem the creative genius pays off—last year, M&M’s generated $688.7 million in sales.

In addition to his work with M&M’s, Kelley has also been involved in commercials for Chipotle, Mac vs. PC, California Raisins, Boom Beach and more. His impressive resume of work in visualization, animation and computer-generated art is far-reaching, but the Portland resident got his start at Texas A&M, when the university’s visualization program was in its early stages.

In 1995, BBDO selected Kelley’s studio to take creative lead in bringing the M&M’s characters to life to revamp the brand's advertising. 

A Creative Rebel

Kelley is a native Texan who comes from a family background in farming. “With farming, you’re always figuring out how to make something work,” he said. He recalls constantly being interested in building things: While in junior high, he converted his lawnmower to burn on hydrogen.

This innate curiosity led him to major in chemical engineering at Texas A&M. As an undergraduate, Kelley was heavily involved in the Memorial Student Center (MSC), serving on its Leadership Council, where he was awarded the prestigious Thomas H. Rountree Award, given annually to recognize and honor the organization’s most outstanding student leaders.

“It turned out I wasn’t cut out for engineering,” he admitted. “It was more regimented than I was prepared for, which is why I got so involved in the MSC. I enjoyed doing things outside my engineering work to broaden my horizons.”

His out-of-the-box thinking and artistic expression set him apart from the crowd. “When I look back, I think I grew a lot by pushing creative boundaries at Texas A&M. For example, I used to anonymously put sculptures on campus every Wednesday for a few years. The Battalion eventually picked up on it and asked me to share why I was doing it. It got people talking.”

Kelley earned his first bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1982. He worked for a few years, later spending nine months traveling in Europe. When he was biking through Italy, he studied its architecture and art scene. This inspiration, coupled with a trip to visit friends who were studying at the University of Cambridge, motivated him to return to Texas A&M and further his studies in the fields he was passionate about. He earned a second bachelor’s degree in environmental design from the College of Architecture in 1989, just as the college established its Visualization Laboratory and Master of Science in Visualization program.

“This new field was fascinating to me, because I loved photography and I was making videos, and this discipline linked all those elements,” he said. Motivated, Kelley enrolled in the program and completed his master’s in visual science in 1995. During his studies, he developed a passion for his future specialty: mixing media, such as integrating animated characters into live-action film.  

Dr. Jorge A. Vanegas, dean of the College of Architecture, presents Kelley with the college's Outstanding Alumni Award. 

Creating Iconic Characters

Today, Kelley serves as partner, chief creative officer and director of HouseSpecial, a pioneering animation studio that branched off from LAIKA, a feature film production company. Over the course of his career, he has created numerous short films and major advertisements, including developing the well-known M&M’s advertising campaigns.

M&M’s were first introduced in 1941 in response to a demand for candy that soldiers could carry and consume during World War II. Mars Inc., the company that owns M&M’s, first produced the candy in Newark, New Jersey, before expanding to production plants across the country. The chocolates were exclusively made available to members of the military during the war because they were heat resistant due to their candy-coated shell (“Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”). The original M&M colors included brown, yellow, green, red and tan.

In the 1990s, M&M’s decided to revamp its advertising. The company was phasing out the tan M&M to make the candy more colorful; executives at Mars Inc. felt it was redundant to have two shades of brown (brown and tan). The company announced three new possible colors: pink, purple or blue, and put it to a public vote. It proved to be a fun marketing move, and consumers selected blue.

In 1995, BBDO selected Kelley’s studio to take the creative lead in bringing the M&M’s characters to life. They drew inspiration from a 1954 television commercial that featured black-and-white, hand-drawn versions of the plain (red) and peanut (yellow) M&M diving into a pool of chocolate, which gave them their candy coating. Deciding that they would reintroduce the idea of M&M characters, Kelley’s team, in conjunction with BBDO, set to work on developing personalities for the red and yellow M&M’s.

“Yellow is bigger than Red,” Kelley said, “and we decided that he’d be kind of goofy. He doesn’t seem like he would be super smart, but it turns out he’s ahead-of-the-curve. On the other hand, we decided Red would be cocky, acerbic and snide. He’d be the one to get the gang into trouble.”

Their approach was groundbreaking. “These were among the first computer-generated characters that really captured the imagination of people,” he said. Before that, animated characters weren’t as sophisticated.

 

  • Miniature Sets

    One of Kelley's favorite mediums to shoot is stop motion, an animation technique that physically manipulates an object so that it appears to move on its own.
  • Royal Treatment for Fine Ingredients

    For stop motion animation, objects are filmed on a small 5 by 10 square foot set and moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a fast sequence. This technique was used in the recent “Ingredients Reign” ad campaign for Chipotle.

 

“Jurassic Park came out in 1993, and Toy Story came out in 1995. These films were real game-changers in the industry,” Kelley explained. “Toy Story used entirely computer-generated (CG) characters, and they were well developed. Before then, animated characters that used computer generation didn’t have much personality; no one had gotten there yet. When I was studying in the College of Architecture in the early 90’s, that’s what everybody was trying to do.”

After developing characters for the red and yellow M&M’s, the team continued with blue. “Blue is the cool guy in the room,” Kelley said. “After that we developed Green, the first female M&M. She’s stylish and smart. She flaunts it, but she can put you in your place easily.”

Out of all the work in his creative career, Kelley holds the M&M’s campaign dear to his heart and still attends most of the M&M shoots that take place around the world. When he’s on the set of a live-action shoot and speaking with actors, he tends to describe the M&M’s as if they were real. “I say, ‘this is what Red would do, this is what Yellow would do,'” he laughed.

Good Storytelling

Kelley’s job at HouseSpecial results in atypical workdays. “Certain days, I’m busy storyboarding and shooting live action,” he said, “but other days, I roll up my sleeves and actually do some of the animation and artwork on the computer, bringing characters to life. And sometimes, I work on pitches for new clients or handle logistics and strategizing.”

HouseSpecial, the pioneering animation studio Kelley directs, used humor, charm and a renaissance theme to create captivating stop motion commercials for Chipotle, the popular Mexican fast food chain. 

One of his favorite mediums to shoot is stop motion, an animation technique that physically manipulates an object so that it appears to move on its own. Typically, objects are filmed on a small 5 by 10 square foot set and moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a fast sequence.

A recent example of HouseSpecial’s stop motion work is the 2016 “Ingredients Reign” ad campaign for Chipotle, in which Kelley served as director and creative director. Using humor, charm and a renaissance theme, the commercials spotlight Chipotle’s commitment to sourcing, preparing and serving only the very best ingredients. Through vivid animation, Kelley’s team captivated viewers and illustrated how Chipotle’s fresh vegetables and responsibly raised meats are given “the royal treatment” to become the “finest ingredients in all the land.” Kelley called it the right combination of “surreal whimsy and crafted beauty.”

“Ultimately, you’ve got to be super excited about what you do every day or it’s not worth it,” he said. "As for me? I just really like making little movies. Commercials are essentially structured the same way as feature films.”

In every project he approaches, Kelley specializes in breathing life and creativity into characters. “Delving into what makes a character ‘tick’ can help you tell more interesting stories, and you can connect people through those stories or elements of humor. Figuring out how to tell stories and how to bring characters to life is crucial, because characters are the heart of any story.”

Contact:

Larry Zuber

Assistant Vice President for Development
College of Architecture