How to go from a start-up studio to big-time contender

We trace the story of Reel FX; a one time commercials-only studio that’s putting its touch on sacred cartoon characters and releasing in-house CG feature films.

Oscar-winning producer of the Shrek films and new president of animation at Reel FX, Aron Warner explains: "We’re poised to become the kind of feature animation house others will aspire to be." Big words. But you need fanfare projects and a reputation spread by satisfied clients to give them clout. Reel FX is confident it has both.

Its secret? The unique strategy the company has been sticking to since 1993 which is quite prosaic. Not withstanding towering ambition, the studio's foundation is built upon 'great communication'. They mean more than a team dedicated to the art of storytelling.

"We push for as much cross-discipline communication and sharing as possible," says head of production David Parrish, "because each phase in the creative process – from assets and cameras to animation and lighting – is a different way of looking at the final screen image."

We push for as much cross-discipline communication and sharing as possible

Walking the corridors of Reel FX's Dallas, Texas or Santa Monica, California studios, a staff member may be invited to offer an opinion of an initial concept art one moment, or the next, get pulled into a screening by a director eager to show the progress of a current project.

More bang for your buck

There’s another, equally important thing. "We’re able to do high-quality work without spending a fortune," says Aron, and considering Reel FX has worked on extravagantly visual blockbusters like Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and Enchanted, the Crispin Glover-voiced Open Season 3 and a string of award-winning 3D stereoscopic Looney Tunes shorts, it bares scrutiny.

Last year's work on Universal Studio’s Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem 3D ride continued the studio's award-winning streak, bagging VES and Annie gongs for best animated special production and visual effects in a special venue project. However, David is keen to talk about a project that was first announced in 2010 and released late in 2013 – Free Birds.

Reel FX’s work on Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem received a VES Award and an Annie Award

The short was a big step for the studio. "The difference between filming a 1,600-shot feature and 12-shot commercial is you can't be as nimble on the film," explains David. It takes longer, it takes more planning and it takes more people.

"When I started at Reel FX nine years ago, we were at about 40 people just beginning to make the jump into longer format projects," he continues. There are now around 250 employees and "with Free Birds we've made our first animated film released as a Reel FX owned property." The film showed at 3,500 movie theatres in the UK alone.

Flight analysis

Creating the birds wasn’t all fun and games though: after all turkeys aren't the prettiest of birds and these comic characters were also covered in highly rendered plumage. "One of the unique challenges of Free Birds was finding an endearing look for our turkeys while maintaining a realistic feather solution," says digital supervisor Scott Peterson.

Now the focus has shifted to Reel FX's next feature, The Book Of Life. "We've learnt so much about how these projects develop a life and an identity of their own," says business development head Chuck Peil. It's helped solidify Reel FX's identity. "Our brand is world-class internationally released feature animated films that are produced in the $50 million dollar range," he adds.

The studio’s first fully owned intellectual property, and its first full CG feature film, Free Birds raked in around $55 million at the box office

Those are the big words too, but it would be wrong to think Reel FX as smugly resting on its laurels. There's simply no time, and the newest, Oscar-winning addition to the ranks suggests that it’s Reel's humble, steady persistence with its core values that remains the key to its success.

"The level of enthusiasm at Reel FX is a welcome change for me," says Aron. "No one has illusions of becoming overnight millionaires; everyone's in it for the long haul. And building a slate of unique films with a lot of really nice people is about as good as it gets in this business."

This article originally appeared in 3D World issue 182.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Beren Neale is commissioning editor at Creative Bloq.

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