Reel FX is Ready For Its Close-up

Calm and tactical, Steve O’Brien leads the super-creative studio to new heights in commercial and animated-movie work.

Living Life Fully
O’Brien may have been able to do that because of his childhood, which was anything but typical. He was just 5 years old when a car crash took the lives of his two older siblings. His parents were injured but survived. O’Brien, who was also in the car, suffered a broken wrist but was otherwise physically unharmed. He still thinks about the accident—quite a bit, he admits. “Certain things you can’t forget, being in a car that somersaults down a hill,” he says, in a steady but matter-of-fact voice. Despite his tender age when tragedy struck, O’Brien believes it likely shaped his outlook, one that’s based on living life fully.

“I developed a deep respect for my parents and how strong they were,” he says. Both are now aged and living in a Dallas retirement home. “One thing that I noticed is that they didn’t baby me or try to overprotect me. I got into skiing and almost broke my back skiing, tore up my back pretty good. I would go backpacking in the Sierras and did all kinds of things in which my mother was probably like, ‘Please don’t get hurt.’ But they didn’t say, ‘We don’t want you doing that.’”

O’Brien’s growing-up years were otherwise normal. He learned to play the keyboard and made model trains, planes, and ships with stinky Testors glue. His next-door neighbor was one of his best friends. Later on, as an adult, he took up electric guitar and continued his fondness for making things with his hands by dabbling in woodworking. An interest in architecture and design led him to design some of the furniture pieces in his home, although he had someone else build them. He’s a fan of mid-century architecture and winces when he sees 1950s-era homes being torn down to build McMansions. He oversaw the renovation of his own midcentury home.

O’Brien exercises not because he loves it, but because he wants to stay healthy. He works out a couple days a week in the early morning. Disciplined, he wakes at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays for a two-hour workout, preferring the gym or running. But you won’t see him competing in races, marathons, triathlons or the like (Reel FX Olympics aside, of course). Although he didn’t reveal it, others confirmed that he is the company’s reigning ping-pong champion.

When asked who influenced him as a young adult, he pauses, not immediately settling on a name. Then he recalls the impact that Irish rocker and LiveAid founder Bob Geldof’s book, Is That It?, had on him some 20 years ago. The book, the fifth one down in a haphazard stack in his office, tells Geldof’s journey from music stardom to philanthropist.

“He made it his mission to make a difference,” O’Brien says. “I was impressed that one guy could make so much difference in the world—a guy who probably particularly wasn’t very well-respected, considered a lowly musician who was probably a drug addict and party animal, the typical stereotype of a rocker. Then he stepped up and did all this great stuff.”

They Get Paid to Do This? Reel FX employees gather for a 3D screening in the company’s office theater.

The Next Pixar?
D CEO magazine first interviewed O’Brien in 2007, when he was three years into the job as Reel FX’s chief executive. The writer said O’Brien spoke in a monotone and looked scruffy, like he had just woken from a nap. O’Brien, somewhat incredulous, relates the article’s description of himself to chief operating officer Kyle Clark, who laughs.

Clark calls O’Brien the “calm in the storm.” Others describe him as even-keeled and approachable. Clark is a long-timer, having joined Reel FX about a year before O’Brien, when the studio employed about 45 full-time employees. “We were mostly doing commercial post-production and … were just dipping our toe into the all-animated, all CG entertainment films,” he says, referring to “computer-generated” films.

Clark, who had come to Reel FX after working for big West Coast studios and with Microsoft on the first-generation of Xbox games, said the creative vibe at Reel FX was palpable. “It had a really great feel to it,” he says. “There were a lot of great people dedicated to building this thing and working a lot of long hours. They were really passionate about the studio.” Now with about 320 employees—40 of them at a location in California—the studio has become a mainstay in the entertainment business, having reached the point of owning and producing its own intellectual content. Funded by investors including Bedrock and Pharos Capital, Reel FX spent its first couple of decades building up its experience by working with big partners, developing the talent and technology to lay the groundwork for making its own films.

The early challenges forced Reel FX to think and operate differently in order to be competitive. “A lot of these big studios have been around a long time. You can think of them as the Titanic,” Clark says. “Any sort of change in process or technology is very difficult. We are like a speedboat, so we can adapt to change much easier, much faster. The CG technology used to make these films will literally change on a daily and weekly basis. We are able to constantly evaluate what’s new—how to do things differently.”

Founding member Peil dreams of bursting onto the big screen in the manner of much-admired Pixar. Pixar brought the nation its beloved Toy Story, the first feature-length CG film, and later ruled the box office again with Finding Nemo.

“I dream that for our artists,” Peil says, “more than anything else.”

But if Reel FX’s star rises—and it indeed becomes a household name beyond the animation space—its leaders say they won’t leave Big D for Hollywood.

“We are proud of the state we come from, and where we started the business, and we are staying here,” Peil says. “It’s an incredibly supportive city, region, and state for the arts and for what we do.”