The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore
It’s just won the Academdy Award for Best Animated Short – now, Moonbot Studios takes a retrospective look at the highs and lows of the short’s production and explains how its iPad storybook, created with the help of Maya, blurs the boundaries between film and literature…
Having our first project as Moonbot Studios convey our absolute dedication to the power of story and the ways that it can change your life was important. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore found its original inspiration in co-director William Joyce’s friendship with one of the grand old men of publishing, Bill Morris. When Joyce travelled to New York to visit an ailing Morris, he wrote a parable about a man who loved books and devoted his life to the creation of stories. The character in that tale became Mr Morris Lessmore.
Enter an enchanted library in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, an iPad storybook combining 2D and 3D animation with miniatures
As co-directors William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg expanded on the story of Morris Lessmore, they relied on diverse inspirations such as Hurricane Katrina, The Wizard of Oz and Buster Keaton. Their love of film, especially the Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, also played a particularly important role in the film’s aesthetic. Because the film begins in New Orleans and is set largely in a beautiful old library, it was important to us to achieve the well lived-in look identified with those environments.
We decided to use miniatures for certain scenes in the movie to help to evoke the worn, comfortable, even decayed look required. The film further incorporates 2D and 3D animation, since both styles are loved by the filmmakers and were chosen for the appropriateness of the look to the narrative. The story of Morris Lessmore was originally planned for release as a book. When Moonbot Studios was formed, we decided to use the story as the basis for our first project, an animated short. During production on the short film, Apple announced the release of the iPad, and we jumped at the chance to bring Morris Lessmore to the new platform.
Concerning the iPad, Joyce said at the time: “This platform was something Brandon and I have been waiting for. We’ve always wanted a different place to tell our stories, different from books and different from films."
Ironically, the book will now follow the film and app, to be published in 2012. Concerning the iPad, Joyce said at the time: “This platform was something Brandon and I have been waiting for. We’ve always wanted a different place to tell our stories, different from books and different from films. As we craft our narratives and the world they inhabit, we always come up with more elements than can be included in just a book or film. The iPad enables us to incorporate both media while allowing us to expand the narrative as far as possible.”
What we did right
We embraced our medium Joyce and Oldenburg were already in production on the short film when the iPad was first launched. They immediately began the discovery process of learning what this new device could accomplish. They met with programmers to help determine the technical aspects – the capabilities and limitations – always making sure the app enhanced the narrative that had been developed in the book and the short film. We then used the framework of the book as the blueprint for the app, but employed the assets from the film to animate the ‘pages’. book or a short film. The result is a true hybrid of a book and an animated film.
Morris Lessmore was fully storyboarded for production as a 3D short before the iPad became the ideal extension for the tale
What we did wrong
1. We thought too cinematically
Using the elements from a short film was a great way to economise our assets – but while sticking strictly to the entire fi lm or shot compositions would be the easy answer, it wasn’t always the best way of composing a ‘page’ for the iPad app. We found that app development is not only repurposing what we’d already done, but also taking a shot or a moment and re-composing it to make it more fitting for this format and this moment in the story.
2. We closed some avenues too soon
When choosing a functional framework as a foundation for our app, we had to make several functionality decisions very early on in the development process. As a result, later in development we discovered features and Morris Lessmore was fully storyboarded for production as a 3D short before the iPad became the ideal extension for the tale
All our decisions on individual design details were based on the platform’s strengths and abilities, as well as whether a feature enhanced and suited the story uniquely in this medium, as opposed to stylistic devices or constructs that would work better in a behaviours we wanted to include that were either prohibitively complicated or impossible due to the framework we’d chosen.
Even if our top choice of interaction on a given page wasn’t possible to do at the time, we found a way to create an interaction that rightfully engaged the reader or said what we wanted to say in that moment of the story. Advancing the story through a ‘page turn’ is something we continue to wrestle with. In The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, we used the traditional page curl and page turn found in most ebooks. We’re currently looking at more inventive and integrated methods of progressing through the story.
The interactive app’s components are set to be re-used for both an animated short and a book
The main inspiration for diving into an iPad app was the fact this device seemed to hold the promise of seamlessly experiencing a story as a movie, a game and a book all in one. In fact, this proved to be more accurate than we’d anticipated. We were able to reuse the assets from the film, allowing the process to proceed quickly and smoothly. For us, a key lesson to take away from this project is to design our assets from the outset so that they work in both our app and our short film pipelines with minimal adjustments. It’s a bit more work up front, but saves us time in the long run. Cohesive design, narrative flow and thoughtful interactivity are all important elements to consider when creating an engaging app. All the resources in the world can’t turn a flawed composition into one that works, or a confusing interaction into one that’s intuitive and engaging, without a keen editorial perspective.
The main characters and the flying books themselves were rigged and animated in Maya
Of course, there’s the trade-off of time and money against the added value of each feature or element you use. As a team, we had to evaluate the cost-benefit trade-off for each incremental feature or element in our app design. If something didn’t meaningfully reinforce or advance the story, or add value to the fundamental experience, we had to redesign or cut the feature, however sentimentally attached we had become. This is especially true for larger or more costly items. Developing the most amazing, mind-blowing interaction is cold comfort if you’re not around to deliver it to the public as a consequence of budget over-runs.
Studio: Moonbot Studios
Format: iOS app
Co-directors: William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg
Project length: Film, six months; app, three months | Team size: 30
Software used: Maya, Nuke, After Effects, Illustrator, Photoshop, boujou, Final Cut Pro/Studio
Moonbot Studios is an animation and storytelling company in Shreveport, Louisiana. It was co-founded in 2010 by award-winning artists and filmmakers William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, and veteran film producer Lampton Enochs. Moonbot Studios’ philosophy is to develop stories as books, interactive applications and games, with a compelling emotional narrative and exciting visual aesthetics.
on Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 at 1:21 pm under Features, Making of.
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Tags: Academdy Award, Best Animated Short, Moonbot Studios, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore