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

Why Friday’s Release of Free Birds Marks a New Milestone in the Life of Deep Ellum Animation Company Reel FX

Edit note: This article originally appeared in D CEO.

Animation studio Reel FX turns 20 this year. But in many ways, the under-the-radar creative shop run by Steve O’Brien in Deep Ellum still feels and acts like a startup.

Maybe it’s the “margatini” drink recipe scribbled in the lower left-hand corner of the white board. It’s right there alongside copious notes about modeling, texture handoffs, quality control, and other things decipherable only to those in the animation industry.

The studio, tucked into a sizable but nondescript red-brick building that formerly housed Yahoo Broadcast.com, is buzzing these days with work on two full-length feature films—the company’s first movies developed entirely in-house.

It used to be that Dallas-based Reel FX was a “work-for-hire” shop doing commercial advertising and animated projects for others. But the studio has evolved over the past two decades to reach today’s tipping point—creation of its own feature-length animated movies for the big screen. Whether it’s up to the task will be tested when it releases its first film—an animated comedy about turkeys called Free Birds, with voices by Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, and Amy Poehler, to be distributed by Relativity Media—in November. Moviegoers will get a chance to critique the studio’s work again in October 2014, when its second film, Book of Life, hits theaters.

O’Brien, who has been the CEO for more than eight years, commands considerable street cred for helping the studio reach this milestone—a dream long envisioned by the studio’s founders.

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