By SIERRA DAVIS | Pali Life Editor
At first glance, Reel FX Animation Studio may appear to be the hip new kid on the Westside’s creative block. Walking in from the back alley entrance through the frosted glass doors, the creative space opens to high ceilings, brick walls and a chic, industrial feel. Beach cruiser bikes hang from exposed beams and the studio’s 40 employees plug away dressed in jeans and t-shirts – including Palisadian Chuck Peil, head of business development and strategic partnerships, at the helm.
The studio’s vibe is young and fresh, but the creative shop has a robust resume going back 20 years to its Dallas roots. After opening the doors to the Santa Monica space in 2009, Reel FX created their first animated feature, Free Birds (2013), starring Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Amy Poehler.
The studio’s sophomore effort, The Book of Life, released by 20th Century Fox in October 2014, earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature and an Annie Award win for Outstanding Achievement for Character Design in an Animated Feature Production.
CELEBRATING THE PAST
Set against the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, Book of Life tells the legend of Manolo (voiced by Deigo Luna), a hero and dreamer who embarks on an epic journey through three fantastical afterlives where he must face his greatest fears to rescue his true love and save his village. Steeped in bold imagery and traditional Latin culture, the film artfully celebrates the past while looking forward to the future.
It is in this same spirit that Peil is working to move Reel FX into their next chapter. A Midwest native who moved from Dallas to his home in Marquez Knolls seven years ago, Peil has been a driving force behind the creative shop’s vision since the creation 20 years ago. As a founding member, Peil has been front and center for the studio’s evolution from a full-service animation studio to developing and producing their own full-length films.
While many studios considered the Book of Life’s Day of the Dead storyline too taboo for young viewers, the unique nature of the film was exactly what captured the interest of Reel FX, Peil said.
“Every major studio said ‘no’ for all the reasons we loved it,” Peil said, adding the film was a long-standing passion project for writer and director Jorge Gutierrez who brought on Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro after a five-minute poolside pitch meeting.
According to Peil, the film was the chance for Tijuana-born Gutierrez to honor his childhood best friend who was killed in a tragic accident at age 7. Holding true to the holiday’s traditional themes, the film reminds viewers that though our loved ones pass, they will always be close so long as they are remembered.
“The themes and narratives in this film really reflect our family values and the way we all grew up. It was great to know that this story was so heartfelt,” Peil said of the collaboration.
Using 3D computer animation, Reel FX gave the characters an almost-tangible wooden appearance based on maquetes of the characters, crafted by Salvadorian artists, on display in the studio. Framed images from the film’s art book fill the walls around the intricate models, paying tribute to the story’s vivid imagery.
“The art is such a big part of the film and we wanted to treat it as art,” Peil said. “It’s amazing the way the film has a handmade feeling, even though it’s digital. That’s our goal, to push innovative visuals and story ideas.
FEELS LIKE COMING HOME
Peil, a laid-back father of two with a Texas-size personality, had his eye on the coastal community of Pacific Palisades for years before he called it home.
In the studio’s early days, before the western expansion, Peil would travel from Dallas to hold meetings at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood. His route from LAX? Straight up PCH, past the surfers and through the Palisades.
“We never put a foot in the ocean in all those years – we were working too hard to cut our teeth with the right agencies here,” Peil said. “But I remember driving along the Pacific Ocean, watching the waves and driving down Sunset thinking, ‘Wow… wouldn’t this be a great place to live someday?’”
When the studio set up shop on the West Coast in 2009, someday arrived for Peil, his wife Kimber and their two children KK and Holland.
Moving to the West Coast, the family was curious if they could find a sense of community like the one they left behind – but Peil said he remembers the moment he and his wife knew they’d found it in the Palisades.
“The closer for us was the Fourth of July parade. I remember we looked at each other and we just knew. Everything about this place appealed to my Midwestern roots. The Palisades just has that ‘slice of life’ Americana feel that reminded me of the way I was raised,” Peil said.
The family was roped into another local tradition when they moved into their home on Bollinger Drive. As the newest family on the block, they were pronounced “Bollinger Drive Mayors” and put in charge of the neighborhood’s annual summer block party and Halloween pumpkin carving contest (featured in the Post on Oct. 30, 2014.)
“Right away we could feel the love in the neighborhood,” he said, “and we knew we had found what we were looking for.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Just as life came full circle for Peil when he went from taking business trips to Southern California to now calling it home, his work at Reel FX has taken a similar turn. Though the animation studio is now two-decades seasoned, in many ways Peil said it feels like they’re starting from scratch again.
“Book of Life set the bar high for us. We’re like a startup again, but this time we have a foundation. We still have our hard knocks, but we wake up every day trying to figure how to do something just as good – or really, better.”
In addition to a number of projects in their creative incubator, Reel FX recently announced a deal with Book of Life’s writer/director Gutierrez for an animated picture Peil described as a “kung fu space western.” The film tells the story of the galaxy’s charming outlaw who must face a legendary villain to protect the fate of the galaxy.
“The goal is, and has always been, for Reel FX to cerate a home for creative filmmakers to bring their ideas to life,” Peil said. “I love the arts and I love the people I work with; they are so talented at their craft. I stumbled on this, but my passion for the art is there just the same. Some people find their passion; mine found me. This is my business, but it is also my happiness.”
His other happiness, he added, is his morning ritual – stopping at the Huntington Bluffs to take in the view on his way to work.
“I never get tired of seeing the mountains meet the ocean. Reminding myself that my commute is now the same route I used to take back when we were just getting started is how I maintain my compass,” Peil said. “It’s a way to remember how fortunate we are.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.