Shreveport, Louisiana-based Moonbot Studios is humming these days. Still high on the success of its Oscar-winning maiden venture, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” Moonbot is cooking up projects that range from films, games, and books to iPad apps and interactive music videos.
Children’s author/illustrator and filmmaker William Joyce and illustrator/designer Brandon Oldenburg, both multiple award-winners, founded Moonbot in 2009 with help from the State of Louisiana’s tax incentive programs for film and digital media. The two men had been collaborating on projects since the late 1990s.
Oldenburg said they had been kicking around the idea of a short animated film for years and had created some preliminary work. The pieces began to coalesce a decade later with “The Fantastic Flying Books,” which Oldenburg described as the “calling card” of the fledgling studio.
“Our highest aspirations for the short film came true,” he said. “It’s like OK, cool, wow, right out of the gate, it’s hugely successful—not only as an app, not only as a New York Times bestseller, but also as an Oscar-winning animated short film.”
After a wildly successful start with “The Fantastic Flying Books,” how does Moonbot continue its momentum? The serendipitous answer was “The Numberlys,” based on one of Joyce’s drawings. Storytelling drives all of Moonbot’s projects.
“We took this idea, the invention of the alphabet, conceptualized the story, turned it into this book/game/story experience called “The Numberlys.” And we created it from start to finish in four months,” said Oldenburg.
Already The Numberlys app has garnered critical acclaim, selected as a finalist for the “Innovation by Design Awards” by Fast Company, a magazine featuring innovative businesses.
Moonbot storytellers hustled to get it out in time for the 2011 holidays. The product’s stripped-down, mostly black-and-white look, is reminiscent of what Oldenburg calls a Bauhaus aesthetic.
“We took all the things we loved from old cinema and illustrations, threw it in a pot, and sort of stirred it up.”
Then they turned tradition on its head.
“We’re turning a book into an app. You think you have to navigate through the story by turning pages. Well, wait a second. Why do you have to navigate a story that way when you have a device with which anything’s possible,” challenged Oldenburg.
The interactive app allows users—the target age is five and under—to jump around in the narrative, playing mini-games and helping the characters create letters.
The revolutionary concept also led to the IMAG•N•O•TRON app for “The Fantastic Flying Books” on iPad which Oldenburg likened to “almost like alchemy.”
“It uses a technology called augmented reality. It’s maybe a little ahead of its time. This is a normal book, this is an app, and the two work together to create a whole new experience. No markers. It’s image recognition, which can either track or trigger.”
The camera in the iPad views the illustrations and animates them in 3D on the screen. The different images trigger an internal gyroscope so the user can pan around the scene and hear 360 degrees of sound. Currently, the app is available only for “The Fantastic Flying Books,” but Moonbot Marketing Director Sara Hebert said other titles will be added.
The next Moonbot app release comes early next year with “Diggs Nightcrawler” for the new Sony PlayStation 3 Wonderbook platform. The film noir-style tale follows a bookworm detective as he tries to solve the murder of Humpty Dumpty.
Moonbot Interactive Creative Director Adam Volker called the app "IMAG•N•O•TRON on steroids." It involves a book, the Sony PlayStation platform, and a special camera to animate the book interactively on a video screen. The Nightcrawler character actually digs through the book with interactive help from the reader. Getting ahead of the narrative leads to a dead end so the user has to go back. View trailer: youtube.com
Rolling out on November 21st is the DreamWorks film “Rise of the Guardians,” based on Joyce’s book series “The Guardians of Childhood.” Joyce acted as the executive producer on the movie. The books feature childhood icons like Santa Claus, the Sandman, the Easter Bunny, and the Man in the Moon, and will be available through Simon and Schuster. See trailer: Rise of the Guardians
The company’s frenetic pace highlights the incredible success of this start-up digital media company, that dared to locate so far from established media centers. But Moonbot’s Oscar win proves the company knew what it was doing locating in North Louisiana, which currently ranks as the fastest growing digital media hub in the nation and is being hailed as the new “Hollywood South.”
“Louisiana, through its creative industries incentives, has quickly become a leader in film and digital media production outside of the traditional California and New York corridors. Our company has been able to attract and train a highly talented workforce, utilizing Louisiana Economic Development programs and incentives,” said Joyce. “From the creation of our first animated film to the completion of our first iPad interactive book, Moonbot has benefited from the economic opportunities we’ve found in North Louisiana.”
So, if you were wondering why the name Moonbot—Oldenburg said it goes back to the first short film they collaborated on in 1998 about the Man in the Moon.
“The Moonbots are the caretakers for the baby Man in the Moon, until he grows up. So Moonbot just made sense, it was our first character we created together.”