Who says high and low tech can't come together in animation and publishing?
Certainly not famed children's author, animator, and retro designer William Joyce (Meet the Robinsons, Robots), who has created a minor miracle with The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the Oscar-winning short (it also took Best in Show at SIGGRAPH 2011 in Vancouver) and bestselling e-book for the iPad.
The wild mash-up of Oz and Buster Keaton (silent and in color and black-and-white) tells the story of a book lover displaced by a twister and hurled into an alternate world ruled by books.
"The idea came to me eight years ago when I was on a plane to New York to visit my mentor, Bill Morris, who was dying," recalls Joyce, who has two adaptations coming to the big screen: Rise of the Guardians from DreamWorks in 2012 and Leaf Men from Blue Sky in 2013. "He was part of that old publishing ethos that was about taking care of your authors and that the best way to sell a book was to tell people and then they tell people, which is what's going on now with blogging. So I wrote this funny, little parable [about the curative power of books] on lined notebook paper and by the time I landed, I pretty much had done it, and I read it to him in our last visit and he seemed very pleased."
Joyce subsequently partnered with tech pal Brandon Oldenburg (co-founder of Reel FX in Dallas) and they formed Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana, two years ago. With limited funding and around 20 artists (a combination of local professionals and students), they first made the animated short before embarking on the more ambitious interactive book.
Hurricane Katrina proved to be the other major inspiration. Joyce got a grant to chronicle the aftermath, in which 45,000 were displaced in Shreveport. After taking photos of people in shelters and getting them to describe their experiences and hopelessness, the mere act of telling their stories brought a light to their faces. "But there were organizations that brought books for them to read and that was great for the kids, who were surrounded by strangers yet completely absorbed in their books," Joyce recounts.
Plus the city of New Orleans looked like it was in black-and-white for six to eight months after the flood waters receded. Joyce says it was like every story was washed clean.
This was followed by the natural disasters in Haiti and Japan, and, according to Oldenburg, "it seemed like we were watching the same story play out in other countries. And on top of that, the whole dialogue about the death of printed media. What is it going to mean for books? And the fact that this was all about the love of books and stories."
They wanted to combine different animated techniques while getting their hands dirty making miniature sets, such as the wondrous library filled with thousands of books (modeled and molded and then printed using rapid prototyping). Morris Lessmore was CG, Humpty Dumpty was hand-drawn, but the book he lives in was also CG. "We wanted to see if they could co-exist in the same world," Joyce continues. "But we were afraid it would turn into this bonbon of sugar that would be unpalatable and make no sense. So I guess the pleasing thing is we put in all the yummies that we love and it somehow feel like it belongs."
But Joyce was still aching to do a literary version, and they figured the iPad experience was a complementary, if ironic, fit. Since its release in May in the Apple App Store, the e-book version of Flying Books has sold more than 55,000 copies and was even the number one-selling app in the world for two weeks.
"You get the written word and the ability to have it narrated, but beyond that, you actually get to interact with the illustrations and parts of the story," Joyce suggests, taking it full-circle back to his mentor.