Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Christmas creep. It should go: October is for Halloween, November is for Thanksgiving, and December is for Christmas (and/or Hanukkah). But my Grinch-like protest is for naught: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has been terrorizing retail workers since October, and don’t even get me started on people who replace their inflatable 12-foot skeleton with a 15-foot Rudolph on the first of November.
The only good thing about Christmas creep is that it means we get to look forward to a certain commercial. Yes, it does exist.
The M&M’s commercial “Faint” debuted in December 1996 (the same year that America had Tickle Me Elmo fever). It still airs on TV every holiday season in all its standard-definition glory. The ad, as I’m sure you know, begins with Yellow, voiced by Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, asking Red (Futurama legend Billy West) if Santa Claus will enjoy eating red and green M&Ms. “I don’t know. I never met the guy,” Red answers. They never find out, because as they skulk around a living room at night, they run into the big man. “He does exist!” Red yells. “They do exist!” Santa says incredulously. Both Red and Santa faint from shock and wonder, leaving Yellow alone with his bowl of candy.
The commercial is a classic, but it also begs a lot of questions. Is Santa in Red and Yellow’s house? Why is Red so mad at Yellow for asking a reasonable question? Is it cannibalism for Yellow to serve a human being his own kind? And most importantly, who plays Santa?
That last question remains a mystery (sorry Santa), but I did learn the actor nearly got a concussion while filming the ad. This was among the many revelations during my chat with “Faint” animation director David Daniels, who is also the co-founder of Bent Image Lab and creator of the strata-cut animation technique. He, along with his co-workers at Will Vinton Studios, helped imagine the M&M’s “to be a kind of CG update to the California Raisins, with broader personalities, clear actions, and not cynical, ” Daniels told Uproxx. That’s apparent in the commercial, which has run for decades because of its wholesomeness.
Below is our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
How does it feel watching a 1996 commercial in 2023?
Wow. There’s a tremendous amount of different feelings. It’s amazing generally, just to know that the crew and the talent that I was directing still resonates. And that in a larger sense, it’s because the M&Ms themselves still exist as they were designed in 1994 and 1995. Having been there at the birth, I see it as a testament to all the thoughtful energy put into their characterizations and their movements and their surfaces. And then generally the humor of two myths meeting each other thinking the other is not real. It works for a 15-second spot. It’s impressive that it doesn’t need to be a 30. It still works, which is why they could play it so much.
It’s a very charming spot, because generally the M&Ms are built around their own insecurities, and how small they are or how edible they are, so they live in a world of threat. People are either going to be nice to them, or they’re going to eat them. So, we did a lot of thinking about what they could do. You could have a gag where a truck comes by and Red is in the middle of the street, and he goes, ‘Ahh,’ but then he’s still standing there, of course, because he’s so small. And the truck just went right over him. That’s just a tip of the iceberg of the theory that you take everything that’s their flaw and make comedy out of it.
I’m probably overthinking things here, but it’s weird that Red and Yellow are serving Santa a bowl of M&Ms, right? It’s candy cannibalism.
Many of our brothers had to die for this, this holiday treat experience [laughs]. I think that happens on a practical level, like, well, what are you going to do? OK, well, they’re coming in to do this. Well, we want to put more product in the spot, so therefore, they’re carrying a bowl of M&Ms. It’s not a cup of hot chocolate or something else that would be more traditional. And then the irony comes from that, but I don’t think it comes from, like, the first thing we’re going to do is make something ironic here. It’s the second thing that happens. But it’s certainly funny that way, isn’t it?
Tell me about when you started working at Will Vinton Studios.
I moved to Portland in 1992 as a stop motion and strata-cut animator. Having succeeded at first MTV during the decade of the ‘80s and then a larger sort of mixed media thing, I was doing all kinds of styles and Will Vinton Studios needed to expand beyond the California Raisins and the Noid, which were the moneymakers for them in the late ‘80s. So they hired me. I was the first director at Will Vinton Studios who was not homegrown. They went outside of their community. That was an effort to revitalize the studio, which, in a sense, the M&Ms is the culmination of that revitalization.
I brought computers with me, which they didn’t have. There was no computer animation in Portland in 1992. And I had been doing a lot of work in motion control as well. So motion control is really pivotal to elegant stop motion. It’s stuff that I had been doing that they didn’t have a knack for. So I was able to bring technical innovation to the studio. I was able to bring a lot of jobs to the studio that they wouldn’t get because I was much more different in how I use clay.
How did you land the M&Ms gig?
I had been working on a lot of other jobs. And I was taking a vacation, literally the week that the job started. The first M&Ms job with a live shoot in 1994, the director… Will Vinton is the guy the agency thought they were hiring, but as they got to know him, they wanted to work with his assistant director Larry Bafia. Will, let’s say, let his ego get in the way of the relationship. They were trying to make Seinfeld with candy, the agency, and he was trying to make Mark Twain with candy. Bless his heart, he’s a very sweet man.
It was a 12-week animation schedule, and Larry quit in week one during a live shoot after a humiliating public tongue-lashing from Will that horrified the agency in all respects during a voice record session in Los Angeles. Will wanted to have final say on the voice reads, and it is traditional for the agency to have the last word. So Larry walked off and quit. And the agency said, “Oh my God.” They threw me into it, right? It was literally, “OK,” the next day, “what do we do?” And I got on the phone and we landed that puppy.
We had to hire 16 people who really hadn’t worked at Vinton before. So it was a talent thing. It was everything. We had to buy a lot of equipment and we parallel-processed our way so every person would, in a sense, work on one shot and only one shot. I became the animation director because the agency was freaked out about not making the M&Ms into the Pillsbury Doughboy. That’s exactly what they didn’t want: nice and cute. Predictable. It went on for two years. Kirk, my technical director, we had to do a lot of hot wiring, hacking, just brute forcing our equipment to make it professionally finished in that time.
Because the ad has been playing for so long, is there a consistent paycheck, year after year? Or was it a one-time lump sum?
No, it’s like advertising. It’s one sum. Nobody gets paid after the job is done. I mean, you’d have to be celebrity status to write a contract like that, and we’re a production company. I’d be rich [laughs]. But what they did get was, of course, M&Ms ads forever. Not forever, but up until… Well, that’s a longer story I don’t want to get into. But pretty much 12 ads a year at $200,000 to $400,000 each, depending on if it was 15 or 30. It was a great baseline because it kept coming. [Advertising agency] BBDO was a juggernaut of advertising, and it had high visibility and fun character work.
I give credit to Susan Credle, who’s still highly successful in advertising, and her partner Steve Rutter. They wanted small, subtle, human acting with sarcasm and self-involved personalities. With complex thinking for the characters. The comedy was to be built from the flaws and very human quirks of each personality. To make candy not be, as they would say, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” which is what the Pillsbury Doughboy is. Very likable and completely forgettable, except for [Daniels does an impression of the Doughboy giggle]. You have your one mnemonic, but you have no personal connection with him, right? Whereas with a variety of M&Ms, the point of it is to allow personalities.
What do you think Billy West and JK Simmons brought to the roles?
It started off with, as you know, as Jon Lovitz and John Goodman [as the voices of Red and Yellow, respectively]. The braggadocio, the pompous self-importance of Red with verbal vulnerability. You know he’s bullshitting half the time or pumping himself up, or just being an asshole, but not with an edge. What Billy brought to it is charm. He’s great. It’s a great voice. And Yellow is the lovable lunk, which allows you to not think so badly about Red. Red likes having Yellow around because he likes people, let’s say, less astute than him. So he feels bigger. That’s why he’s friends with Yellow. But for the audience, it’s good to have the complement of the two. There’s a Laurel and Hardy thing, as well. Classic shapes and behaviors that are opposites. I think a lot of other people could have played Yellow. I think Red is really key.
One piece of information that I can’t really find out there about the ad is the name of the actor who played Santa. Do you remember?
No, but that actor also has some stunt credit credentials. It wasn’t just that he was an actor, but he also had done some stunt work. Because he has to fall, like, literally fall in that shot. And he falls behind the sofa. Well, the first take we did, he fell and he pretty much got his bell rung. That was a concussion, the poor guy. There was a moment on set we’re like, “[scared, frantic noise].” We didn’t kill Santa, but it’s like, who is going to put on the suit? It was a good 10 minutes, half hour as they were trying to shake him, shake the cobwebs out, and then they were redesigning his suit. He needed to be better padded on the back of his suit when he fell. All that stuff needed to be improved, so it just wasn’t done right. We got it on the next takes. He was a trooper and came around.
That was one of the physical challenges. What were some of the technical challenges of combining live action with computer graphics at the time?
Well, cameramen and live-action people who are generally shooting this don’t visualize invisible characters very well. So a lot of the challenge is first to set down an object that’s a yellow egg that’s three feet tall and a red oval that’s two and a half feet tall. So, we build little creatures to put into this, so they can line it up. Literally, we’re saying, “OK, they’re here, they’re here, they’re here.”
We would also shoot plates so we could get the surfaces in the lighting correct. A lot of animation matching is to see the exact lighting and the exact position, so as you get the plate back, you shoot them with it and without it so you can use the reflection on these puppet-like models that have been put in.
The longevity is crazy. I’m waiting for AI to improve that commercial. I haven’t looked at it recently, like I didn’t look at it last year. Have they finally done it?
Usually, that’s a telltale sign, and you wouldn’t put that up in 2023. But it’s charming perhaps when people think of it like that. I know when I was young and I watched things that were made a decade or two earlier, the charm is that they’re so quaint.
Do you remember any of the rejected character designs for the M&Ms?
I want to give credit to Robin Ator, who was key to the design of these characters and their success. He was a longtime storyboard artist at Will Vinton Studios, and I really loved his ability. Those characters in a sense had already been generalized in the storyboard stage at the beginning, but manifesting them into three-dimensional objects was a completely different thing. And that’s what I was really responsible for. But he established the character stuff. The one thing I think that I really did add was the mouth shapes. I — and Chris Olgren, who sculpted the lip shapes and mouths for Red and Yellow — really went after the fact they have to have fatter lips. Yellow has to have a fatter lip at the bottom. The mouth shapes really are charming. In CG at the time, you could make very kind of pinched-looking things. And it took a lot of work.
Have you been to M&Ms World? That has to be a weird experience.
It’s odd. It’s indescribable. It’s such an epiphany. It’s amazing. One thing that runs through my mind is if it was going to last this long and be this widespread, and be so prolifically recreated in all these venues, I would have done a better job. It’s that kind of feeling. I look at it and go, “Oh, we could do better now.” But they stick with a series of original decisions. Because of course, you know, I understand that there’s their thing and why mess with something if it’s working. So that’s what goes on in my little machine, I think, “Oh, it’s still working. Like, wow, that’s crazy.” Because you’re thrown into something not knowing the length of time it’s ever going to be seen. I was just working two jobs for 10 weeks. I knew more would come if we succeeded… but you’re not thinking, 25 years out in your mind. So yes, it’s kind of really amazing.
I have mixed feelings in the sense that — this would probably be the dark version of it — they represent obesity to me in some respects. Since obesity has become such a big thing in the acceptance of culture, you know, we’re a very overweight culture, and that’s putting it politely. I’ve recently done some McDonald’s nugget characters too, recently, and I think, “Is this a gateway drug to allow people to think it’s OK to eat all this stuff and be fat, right?” That’s the dark side.
But there’s some really good stuff, too, because it brings joy. There’s a lot of people who say, “Oh, that’s such a great set of memories from my childhood.” A lot of work I’ve done that isn’t the M&Ms, they will say, “Oh, wow, you did that spot, too.” And I’ll have that mixed feeling. But I’ll be very grateful to bring a little laughter to life. It’s not the worst thing. There is a fantasy component to it, which I think is good. People should have more imagination.
You’re speaking like a true creative by finding perceived flaws in things that people love.
Especially over time. And I have a lot of not nostalgia, but a sense of cultural Gestalt. You have to always give credit to the animators and the team, and the actual CG sculptors who I was trying to direct to get these things done. The great thing about animation is you’re always working with another team each time, but you’re all in it together. And you’re all with it. There’s a humility about the achievement because it took so much to actually create an illusion of life.
We’ve been talking so much about the present but let’s change the subject to the future. Are there any upcoming projects of yours that you would like to highlight?
What I’m super excited about is that I’m going to be doing strata cuts as neural radiance fields (NeRF). Currently, there’s a form of neural radiance fields called a Gaussian splatter. That will allow your phone to capture from multiple cameras, but then it’s able to synthesize it as an inference. You can now re-cut up your strata cut from any angle. This will help stop motion. Imagine I can see the stop motion, but I can move my head around it now from any angle, and I can watch it in time from any time duration. The term is “Spatial Cinema.” That’s something I’ve dreamed about four years ago and thought maybe, you know, eventually, but I think time has finally caught up. That’s the one thing I live for because it gets beyond the two-dimensional nature of the screen finally. It’s literally a three-dimensional understanding of something over time that’s sculpturally happening in front of you. That’s my goal.
You can see some of Daniels’ work below: