You know you're not in the lobby of some anonymous Dallas outpost of corporate America as soon as you step through the doors.
It's in the portraits of Sylvester and Tweety, Elmer and Daffy, and Chuck E. Cheese that line the walls.
It's in Bob Marley's Is This Love pumping through the sound system, to be followed by unidentifiable but definitely head-bob-worthy old-school hip-hop.
It's over in the lobby's far corner, where a drafting-style table, bright lights and an overhead camera have been set up to film a commercial being made with stop-motion animation. Designer Bill Nuske is acting as a hand model of sorts -- he even shaved his arms for the part -- turning pages of a book while director Kevin Althans, with the help of an iPad monitor, gives him instruction.
"You've got to do it painfully slow," Althans says to Nuske, whom he now addresses by his new nickname, Slick Willie, because of the fur-free arms.
Beyond the lobby, there's a darkened space where squads of young designers work only with the light from their computer screens. They are fur-and-texture artists, painstakingly making sure the look of the animal they've been assigned to animate is realistic and uniform.
If things get too stressful, they can let off steam with a rousing game of ping-pong, foosball or pool, or maybe even show off their skills in what one staffer jokingly refers to as America's oldest Atari machine, all without leaving the premises.
It's just another day at the office for the staff of Reel FX, the Deep Ellum animation and visual-effects studio that is rapidly becoming a major player in a world dominated by the likes of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. The company, which had its start in Fort Worth in 1993 as the brainchild of ad man Dale Carman, has morphed from a strictly effects-for-hire young gun -- assisting major studios/producers with visual pizzazz on such films as Apocalypto, The Wild and Open Season 2 and 3 -- to a maker of feature-length original content.
Here's a quick, cool look at some Reel FX work that you might recognize.
Reel FX produced Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D, the dreamy cinematic vision of the Montreal-based performance troupe in 2012, and has two major projects lined up for 2014: Book of Life, produced by Guillermo del Toro ( Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) and directed by hot-shot animator Jorge Gutierrez (Nickelodeon's El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera), and Turkeys, directed by Jimmy Hayward ( Jonah Hex, Horton Hears a Who!) and voiced by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson.
Last week, Reel FX made more Hollywood headlines by naming Aron Warner, producer on three "Shrek" films, as president of animation. The week was capped with a win at the Annie Awards in Los Angeles, the animation industry's equivalent to the Oscars, for best animated special production for the firm's work on the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios Orlando.
The city of Dallas has even taken notice of Reel FX's rising importance, coughing up a $1.75 million incentive package to get the company, which had been considering a move to the 'burbs, to stay in its Deep Ellum headquarters. Last summer, Reel FX purchased the 73,000-square-foot former cotton warehouse -- the one once occupied by Yahoo! and Mark Cuban's Broadcast.com -- it had been leasing.
Of course, founder/executive creative director Carman, 42, is aware of the mounting hype and attention, which is why he's trying to remain philosophical.
"It's not our desire to beat Pixar or be Pixar. It's to be us," says the Bangkok-born, Fort Worth-raised son of missionaries who always just wanted to draw. "But if those things happen, then that's good. But we've got a long way to go -- and it's taken a long time."
To hail and back
Reel FX has its roots in Carman's childhood ambitions.
"I was always an artist, so I would try and get my [school] work done and get a blank piece of paper so I could draw," he remembers. "Then I got introduced to the Macintosh, started doing desktop publishing stuff on it and dabbling with computer graphics."
The Fort Worth Christian High School and later Oklahoma Christian University student was working at ad agencies in Oklahoma and then Houston, but wanted to have his own place. "I started out as an illustrator, art director and creative director but started Reel FX because I kept coming up with complicated animated ideas and there was nobody who could make it unless I went to the West Coast," he says. "I had family here, friends here, so I said I'll just start the company here."
But Carman's dream got sidetracked (and almost derailed) by Mother Nature.
On May 5, 1995, two years after he and former business partner David Needham founded Reel Magic, the precursor to Reel FX, in Fort Worth, their building near Random Mill Road and Interstate 820 was severely damaged by a hail storm and flash flood that killed 13 people in North Texas.
"I was pitching tents and putting all our gear in tents," Carman recalls.
He went out and found a new space -- first on McKinney Avenue in Dallas' Uptown, then in the West End (where Dick's Last Resort is now) and finally in the current location.
The company's early work focused on commercials, not features, and, over the years, clients have been as varied as Chuck E. Cheese, Audi and the Florida Lottery. But Carman says films were part of the long-range goal.
"We really treated the commercials as mini-movies," he says. "The desire from the beginning was to tell stories.... Like some of those early G.I. Joe commercials we did [for Hasbro], we actually made them look like movie trailers. We used that to create a buzz -- this was pre-Facebook."
One of the other early clients was Allen-based Lyrick Studios, the force behind everyone's favorite purple dinosaur, Barney.
"They had a show called Wishbone and it had a visual-effects supervisor who was formerly with ILM [George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic], and they were looking for someone to do some visual effects," says Carman. "We ended up doing about 400 shots for them, and that was a pivotal point for us."
Word of mouth began to spread about Reel FX. In 2002, Austin director Robert Rodriguez tapped the company to help with the visual effects on Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams. Hasbro enlisted the company to make the G.I. Joe: Spy Troops direct-to-video feature in 2003.
Around the same time, former senior creative director Brandon Oldenburg began working with writer/illustrator William Joyce on a feature from Joyce's Guardians of Childhood stories. It ultimately became Rise of the Guardians, released by Dreamworks last year. (Oldenburg, now at Shreveport's Moonbot Studios, also is the co-creator of the giant Traveling Man sculptures that dot Deep Ellum.)
In 2010, Warner Bros. asked Reel FX to come up with three new Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons, which were screened theatrically in front of the films Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Yogi Bear, respectively.
"As we came up through the ranks and started doing more entertainment work, some of the opportunities we got was to take on overflow work for the studios," says chief operating officer Kyle Clark. "It could be part of a movie, short filler for the DVD, a music video or a set of commercials."
It also could be exhausting. "We had to replicate the characters and look that another studio had established and do that in our building, on a tenth of the budget, and a tenth of the time," Clark says. "We did that a couple of times and blew it out of the water. We found our niche."
Big fish, small pond
Being in Dallas, when so many of the company's contacts are on the West Coast, didn't make their jobs easier at first.
"When I started the company, I didn't have anyone I could draw on to help me," Carman says. "One of the things we did was to find guys who wanted to be here. In the case of Kyle, he is a Texan. He had been out in California, but the idea of being back in Texas was appealing. [Head of production] David Parrish was a Texan and he wanted to come back. We make the case about the lower cost of living and no state income tax.
"We've tried to make it an advantage," says Carman, who concedes, "It hasn't been easy because we're the only guys here doing this."
Though Clark adds that being the lone wolf has helped the company craft a unique identity. "There's always been this attitude that we don't have to do it the way other guys do it," he says. "It's a very agile studio and open-minded [about the work we do], and Dallas forced that on us. Ultimately, it's a serious competitive advantage for us in the way we work and operate."
Now, with a staff of more than 300, Reel FX is making the next step up from just being known for overflow work. Turkeys and Book of Life could push Reel FX from favorites of the animation industry into the pop-culture mainstream.
These two films represent two sides of the cartoon coin. The more comedic Turkeys (about two birds going back to the first Thanksgiving to scratch turkey from the menu) and the darker, more complex Book of Life (a love story set against the backdrop of Day of the Dead) certainly will have different sensibilities.
While this might seem like a deliberate move, Carman says that wasn't the case at all. "Those were just the two that were ready," he says.
The presence of Warner should certainly help with this transition. "He brings experience," says Carman. "He can warn us of pitfalls ... and he brings a lot of credibility with everyone in attracting talent."
And attracting the big-name talent -- people like Harrelson and Wilson as well as behind-the-scenes names like Warner -- may become more important as the studio expands. "You have good projects, you get good people," says Clark.
Warner, who will divide his time between Dallas and L.A., says Reel FX will in turn offer him something he craves. "For me, it's not fun unless it's a challenge, and Reel FX moving into features is that," he says by phone from Los Angeles. "It's like being in start-up mode. I like putting systems in place."
Staying in Dallas
Wandering through Reel FX's sprawling industrial cavern, with a wall of action heroes here, free snacks there and a horn that blows at 4:45 p.m. every Friday to let everyone know the weekend has arrived, it feels like a slice of the West Coast tech culture of legend set down in the middle of North Texas. You half expect to be run over by someone whizzing through on an errant Segway or Razor scooter.
Such a free-wheeling environment is one of the elements that most appeals to visual-effects supervisor Augusto Schillaci, a 25-year-veteran of the animation industry who has been at Reel FX for 11 years. "As soon as you get through the door, you sense it," he says. "You can go to Dreamworks or Pixar, [the departments] are so encapsulated, you don't know anybody unless you see them in the cafeteria. Here, the environment is open. That's something we try to develop as a culture."
Schillaci, who is originally from Argentina and worked for a time in Montreal, says being in a fun place is a requirement, as some potential hires may be leery of moving to Texas. A cool place to work can be a selling point. "[As an animator] you can't jump from one company to another [in Dallas], so this aspect is really important," he says.
Reel FX's brick building sits in a historic though often troubled neighborhood that, if not dead, had been on life support in recent years. Now, with more restaurants and bars taking over once abandoned spaces, Deep Ellum and Reel FX seem to be mirroring each other's rise. Even though Reel FX now also has a 15,000-square-foot office in media-hip Santa Monica, Calif., its heart remains in Dallas.
When the lease was up on the Deep Ellum space, Carman admits, he did think about moving the company -- Frisco and Richardson were possibilities -- but ultimately decided against it. Reel FX bought the building instead.
"It's home," he says. "The idea of a move, especially for Kyle and myself, is exhausting. And the artistic vibe of the area is a good fit."
"We weathered the storm pretty well," Clark says of Deep Ellum's decline. "We knew it was going to come back. We could see it earlier than other people down here. It really is back on an upswing."
Of course, that the city of Dallas kicked in a $1.75 million economic development grant probably didn't hurt.
"Companies like Reel FX, creative companies with a high-quality workforce, are of great value," says J. Hammond Perot, assistant director of Dallas' Office of Economic Development, in an email. "The company serves as a business anchor to this neighborhood. It is among the largest single tenants and employers in that community, and the workforce supports many restaurants and other small businesses during the day that might otherwise struggle."
Ultimately, Reel FX could end up not just being a producer of major films -- it even offers tours now, just like the big studios -- but a spark for other members of what economist/social scientist Richard Florida calls "the creative class" to settle nearby.
"The digital and creative community gets stronger every year," says Clark. "If you have companies that are successful, it will draw other creative companies to the area."
For now, though, the emphasis is less on who else is in the neighborhood than what is going on under the company's own roof.
"This is what we worked so hard for so many years to do: our own movies," says Schillaci. "It's a dream come true.... This is going to put us on the map."
For Carman, though, the measure of success may be more personal.
"Ironically, when people ask me, 'Can you believe that you are here? That it's become this amazing company?' I find that my initial reaction is, 'I'm not surprised.... In fact, I'm frustrated because I have so much I want to do. I can't believe it took this long!" he says. "Ultimately, my dream is to build an enduringly great company. I want to be able to say that we contributed a couple of threads to the fabric of our culture."