Exclusive: A Look Inside Reel FX and ‘The Book of Life’

Reel FXReel FX is a Dallas-based company that has seen their fair share of the commercial animation world. In the last two decades, they have lent their digital magic to a multitude of projects, both large and small. The company also maintains a Santa Monica location but the unassuming brick building here in North Texas houses a multitude of digital artists – ones well-versed in the field of computer animation.

Founded 20 years ago, the company began doing service work and were one of the first to have the “Flame” software (their current circle logo is loosely based on that fact). Over time, their projects grew in size, as did their commercial division which handles smaller projects – music videos like Katy Perry’s “Firework” – and other short-form work.

Until recently, Reel FX has made a name for themselves working on and contributing to other studios’ projects. But, on the heels of their first film, Free Birds, they are now beginning to tell their own stories. After all, the end goal for Reel FX had always been to make their own films. But they had to be ready.

While Free Birds is the studio’s “first” feature-length production, the 2012 animated film Rise of the Guardians actually began at Reel FX. It was a deal with William Joyce called “The Guardians of Childhood” that was later sold to, and further developed by, DreamWorks. Reel FX realized they had just a little more growing to do.

Reel FX_freebirds

Interestingly enough, Free Birds and The Book of Life were pitched on the very same day with the intention that Life would be the studio’s debut film. But Free Birds was moved up a calendar year to give The Book of Life the time it needed. Free Birds boasted big Texas talent (Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson) and although the movie went on to mixed reviews, it showed promise for this up and coming studio.

The forthcoming and eagerly anticipated feature, The Book of Life, is the passion project of Jorge R. Gutierrez, and his wife, Sandra Equihua. It is based on their Mexican heritage and filled with wonderful stories he has always wanted to tell. He presented the idea to his friend, producer Brad Booker, who then helped bring it to Reel FX where everyone quickly fell in love with it. To add value to the studio and the production, Gutierrez pitched his ideas to Guillermo del Toro. It didn’t take long before del Toro, a gifted and visionary storyteller in his own right, quickly decided he had to be part of the world Gutierrez endeavored to share with the world.

The Book of Life_Reel FX still_Manolo

GoSeeTalk was part of a small group of local press and media who were given an exclusive look at the film in its nearly final stages. While there we had the opportunity to tour the studio and have candid talks with the leads in different departments. Everyone we met was excited and passionate about even the smallest of details in the picture. Reel FX knows what’s expected of the Hollywood system, and, based on some of the footage we saw on our tour, they have what it takes to compete. The visuals in their upcoming film The Book of Life are stunning, but there’s more to a quality film than just how it looks.

The Book of Life_Reel FX still

Animation can be extremely tedious, but, in a way, it allows every animator to be an actor and to get inside the head of each character. To help with that, audio is always recorded first. It helps flesh out the characters beyond preliminary production sketches or the very detailed descriptions. But to get the story from sketches to theater screens requires talented artists. On the tour we met with animation supervisor Wes Mandell who showed us the efforts that go into just one second of animation time.

The characters Gutierrez created, by virtue of their design, can’t move like normal people. So it was up to Mandell and his team to figure out the unique physics and mechanics of Manolo, Maria, Joaquin, etc.

“We did a lot of exploration to establish how someone like “Manolo” (voiced by Diego Luna), who is a blocky kind of guy with two joints and square arms, might move around in this world. The Book of Life_Manolo MariaHe’s complicated because he doesn’t have a simple ball and socket like we do. So we worked closely with Paul Sullivan and Jorge to make sure we didn’t water down the design just to make it easier to animate. It was a challenge none the less.

After some time we figured it out and sent that on to modelling and rigging which is like “connect-the-dots” in 3D space. Then we have to put the joints in which is like an armature or skeleton of the character that allows us to move them around. Then, on top of that, we build in what we call “controls”. All the joints are manipulated with the controls to pose out the character for each of the 24 frames of animation.”

From that point, we saw how reference footage of an animator playing guitar (inspired by storyboards from Gutierrez) helped aid the animators. It’s a lot of work and a highly complicated process that involves lots of feedback from the director. That process of trial and error is time consuming, but it ensures each sequence of animation is ready for the next step. It’s also why 30 seconds of animation can take weeks and weeks to complete.

The Book of Life_Characters

Then we moved on to the lighting department where visual effects supervisor Augusto Schillaci took us briefly though his role in the process. The lighting department is one of the last parts of the production following animation and textures; it gives the picture the intended depth and realism. Things like sunlight, shadow, and smoke are all heightened by this department which is not too different from live action films. It’s about adding intensity or, conversely, softness in relation to what is happening and/or needed at a particular time in the in the story.

It’s a lot of “cheated” light, but it helps convey the emotion or tone. And yes, the teams at Reel FX really do work in such low light environments seen in the photo below…

Reel-FX_Lighting-Dept

In a special screening room, Jorge Gutierrez and art director Paul Sullivan gave us a very intimate look at The Book of Life. For 45 minutes we were treated to six nearly completed sequences in the film followed by interesting tidbits and in-depth breakdowns about story, character, music, etc. They also went into the elaborate philosophy that motivated every design decision (we’ll post the full transcription of that closer to the film’s opening).

Gutierrez has wanted to tell this story for a long time. He and Reel FX have collaborated on the film for five years, but that still doesn’t compare to how long he has envisioned and been crafting the likes of Manolo, Maria and Joaquin. It takes hundreds of people working thousands of hours so that the audience can behold the magic simply leaping off the screen. But Jorge is very fond of the idea that “pain is temporary, but film is forever“.

The Book of Life - still-2014

This film allows both Gutierrez and Equihua to tell such a wonderful story filled with strong and striking visuals/characters, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. More than that, he cast them, and their universal themes, in a light that is both accessible and actually makes you want to reach out and grab them.

Jorge R. Gutierrez

Writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez

Moreover, he calls everyone at Reel FX “professional children” because, to quickly glance at the studio floor, you’ll see each work station filled with the character of their animator – which is to say the characters, or “figurines”, on their desks. Gutierrez adds, “we’re basically in this business for the toys.

Though held to certain parameters and principles, animation is a free-form art with limitless creativity. As such, there’s identity, color and imagination in every square inch of Reel FX. Save for the purposely minimalist and urbanized lobby, every wall is lined with sketches, scribbles, test art, and mock up banners for (hopefully) dazzling looking upcoming projects. There’s also many, many posters and souvenirs from projects in which Reel FX had a hand, be it as a studio or just the individual animators. From TMNT, to Blue Sky’s Robots, to their own feature films, Reel FX is a company that knows their way around the business.

Have a look at some photos taken on our tour…

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Reel FX Lobby (2)

Reel FX Lobby

Reel FX Hallway

Reel FX Hallway 1

Reel FX_BOH

The Book of Life is exactly one month away from its theatrical release. Hopes are high – from the studio, Gutierrez and the creative team, even the general public – and based on the small bits of footage we got to see, they have every right to be excited. In the words of Augusto Schillaci, “your eyes are going to explode“.

After the tour, we sat down to an exclusive interview with the lead creative team. Click here to see the video of that session to learn more about the genesis of the project, the characters, the complicated psychology in the movie, and much, much more.

Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastic worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

20th Century Fox has slated The Book of Life for release this Fall on October, 17th, 2014.