From animation studio HouseSpecial and director Kirk Kelley comes Armor del Amor, a scripted nature “documentary” short—a combination of CG and live action—that follows the mating rituals of the nine-banded armadillo to discover the dark underbelly of modern mammalian dating.
The tongue-in-cheek narrative follows the armadillo (a CG character creation) as she emerges from her burrow and into the lonely Texas landscape. HouseSpecial researchers captured footage of this modern animal’s efforts to find a potential mate until finally, after several ill-fated opportunities, a match is made via a computer dating service.
“Our short film is an homage to nature shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. In reality, we are all just animals looking to find a connection,” Kelley said. “I wanted to explore how far removed we’ve become from unscripted mating rituals in everyday life. Since Match.com launched in 1995, dating has dramatically evolved...or de-evolved, depending on your POV.”
The idea to make a short about armadillos was sparked by Kelley’s stories of his youth in Texas. He grew up in the farmlands about 50 miles north of Dallas where road kill is a familiar part of the landscape. Adding the social commentary about modern dating highlighted the fact that even though we are humans in a world filled with technology, we are only a few genes away from being wild.
HouseSpecial researchers captured footage of this modern animal’s efforts to find a potential mate until finally, after several ill-fated opportunities, a match is made.
In tandem with HouseSpecial’s CG team, Kelley designed, modeled, animated and composited this photo-real armadillo using Nuke, Flame, PTGui, Maya with Arnold, Houdini, Mari, Substance Painter, ZBrush and Mudbox.
“From brainstorming the best approaches to rig the armadillo, to using layered renders and special techniques for character embedment into the live footage, our CG experts glided through every challenge,” Kirk said.
“The armadillo was wonderland for any texture artist who enjoys painting lots of intricate cracks and crevasses,” said CG texture artist Nikie Monteleone. “I ended up using a plethora of textures from turkey and pig skin to tree bark and rugged rocks plus even a few snapping turtle tongues to produce the final textures.”
CG animator Beavan Blocker said the animation was difficult, and required research. “It’s important to actually understand the locomotion of a creature before it’s rigged, otherwise the rig may not allow the animators to get the naturalistic motion that you want. Armadillos are very restrained in their body movement. They sort of rotate from their hips without a great deal of body flexibility, which can make it hard to get dynamic movement when you want it.”
VFX supervisor Rex Carter was thinking about the end of the production process while on the initial live shoot. “As we captured the live action footage, I knew it would be a challenge to sync and integrate the natural environment, (like grass, scrubs and leaves), with the CG armadillo. We took a blue screen with us to shoot elements individually and I then composited them into the shot with the final animation. We harvested samples of the various grasses and plants and brought them back to the studio to have on-hand for comp reference.”
HouseSpecial’s president and executive producer, Lourri Hammack, tapped familiar collaborators to create this film. Cinematographer Eric Edwards (Knocked Up, Cobain: Montage of Heck, Crossroads, My Own Private Idaho) skillfully captured Oregon’s sweeping high-prairie (doubling for Texas), evoking a sense of the expansive, lonely feeling often associated with online dating.
“The biggest challenge was finding a location in Oregon that looked enough like Texas to work for the film,” Kelley said. The crew ended up in Dufur, Oregon, near the Eastern Columbia River Gorge.
Death Cab for Cutie’s Dave Depper composed and performed the original soundtrack, which was a departure from Death Cab’s and his solo artist bodies of work. “This was a fun project for me as I rarely have the opportunity to be involved in the creation of primarily acoustic-based music. To prep I listened to a lot of Ry Cooder and Jimmy Page, as I wanted to record the guitar part in a non-traditional DADGAD tuning, which Page was fond of utilizing in his Led Zeppelin days. I also tried to imagine what Morricone would have done,” Depper said. “The rhythm guitar part was played on an old Martin D-28 that Ray LaMontagne gave me after our tour was done. It’s probably the nicest guitar I own. The slide parts were done on a newer Fender parlor acoustic. There’s also a bit of gentle synthesizer droning going on in the background.”
Though it was the studio’s first collaboration with British-born voice talent Edmund Stone, Kelley is a big fan of his weekly radio show and was looking for the right project to work with him. Cast as the narrator, Stone gave the short an authoritative, nature-doc voiceover. He can be heard on more than 1,000 e-books, in various commercial works, in a few movies and on The Score, his popular, syndicated radio show all about movie music.
“This was a labor of (twisted) love from our entire crew, who all got a crash course in ‘why the armadillo crossed the road!’ And while our paramour wasn’t fully successful, our artists created a lovely piece of filmmaking,” said Hammack.
The short was recently screened at the Northwest Animation Festival’s Animators Showcase program at The Hollywood Theatre in Portland. Portland International Airport travelers also caught the piece throughout July in the The Hollywood Theatre’s Micro-Cinema on C Concourse.
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Animation Production HouseSpecial Kirk Kelley, director/creative director; Lourri Hammack, executive producer; Karly Richter, producer; Cam Wiliams, editor; Rex Carter, Flame artist. CG Beavan Blolcker, Greg Kyle, animators; Karl Richter, technical director; Josh Tonnesen, Kendra Philips, modeling artists; Nikie Monteleone, texture artist; Matt Reslier, lighting artist; Terence Jacobson, John Lally, rigging artists; Karl Richter, Walter Behrnes, VFX; John Corbett, Nuke compositing; Tyler Bay, intern texture artist; Johnny Nam, intern lighting artist. Live Production Kirk Kelley, director; Eric Edwards, DP; Rex Carter, VFX supervisor; Elliot Freeman, line producer; Noel Adams, 1st assistant camera; Gee Staughton, art director; Clay Conally, Jake Hauswirth, grips. Fabrication Katie Mello, Margaret Meyer, prop fabrication; Rob Melchior, set fabrication. Stage John Nolan, DP; Jake Hauswirth, swing/electric/grip; Rob Melchior, wrangler; Erica Johnson, fabrication/stage dept. manager. Design Stephen Bodin, title/credits artist; Alan Cook, graphics artist; Olga Sokal, graphics intern. Postprdouction Rychelle Bedalov-Valde, assistant editor; Dino Coons, tape room op; Alvaro Cubillas, COO. (Toolbox: Nuke, Flame, PTGui, Maya with Arnold, Houdini, Mari, Substance Painter, ZBrush, Mudbox) Music Dave Depper (Death Cab for Cutie), writer/performer