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An interview with the Oscar-winning artists behind “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”

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Reel Mama: An interview with the Oscar-winning artists behind “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An interview with the Oscar-winning artists behind “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”

Still from the Oscar winner for Best Animated Short,
"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"

I go ‘round and ‘round the mulberry bush. Why does the weasel go “pop”?  Does it matter? If life is enjoyed, does it have to make sense?

This is the musing of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the protagonist of the touching animated short film “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” as he writes in the journal documenting his life among books.  The childhood melody of “Pop Goes the Weasel” comprises the film’s score with numerous variations. When lively, it perfectly captures the film’s whimsical side, and when more melancholy, embodies a longing for childhood, and a recognition that all things must pass.

“If life is enjoyed, does it have to make sense?” could also be the guiding philosophy behind the animation studio that created the film, Moonbot, which received the Oscar for Best Animated Short last week, and for the creation of art itself. In the movie, books fly, and reading breathes color into the black and white characters, making their dreams soar.  As audience members, our hearts soar with them as we watch the film.  Does it have to make sense?

No doubt the original fantastic five behind the film’s creation -- co-directors and Moonbot co-founders Brandon Oldenburg and William Joyce, animation lead Jamil Lahham, and art leads Joe Bluhm and Adam Volker -- feel that they are living in a dream.  Just a year ago their journey began as they undertook the production of “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”  At the same time, Joyce and Oldenburg established Moonbot with the mission of developing original stories as films, books, interactive applications, and games, all with their unique brand of heartfelt storytelling and innovative visual style.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Joe and Jamil about their experience on the film, their big Oscar win, and more.  The film is available for viewing on iTunes here.

First things first: how did it feel to win the Oscar? 

Jamil Lahham: It was that moment of giving birth and everything was okay after that, and we were happy.  It was physically consuming. We were doing nothing but standing around looking at the screen. It was exhausting.
How did you react when the moment finally arrived, and you heard your film’s name announced? 

John Bluhm: It was mostly just freak-out.  A friend of mine was watching me, and he told me after the fact that I had this little Rain Man step going.  I was swaying and acting nervous and had about ten tics going at once. After the fact it was just like a giant weight had been lifted. With the anticipation, the build-up to such an event, you just want to get it over with, and when it is over with, it’s just like settling into a warm bath: calming and happy.

One thing that really stood out to me was the hybrid animation style of the film, which combines miniatures with character-generated inserts, and even used stop motion along with 2D and 3D animation.

Joe: Early on in the process when it was just a few artists and the directors, we were talking about the budget and how we needed to find a way to do things either in a new way, or an efficient, economical way.  We knew it was going to be a while before we had a lot of technical and scenic artists.  We were all painters and illustrators, and we make things with our hands, so we thought we’d take a risk and make all miniatures instead of building computer graphic backgrounds. So all the sets are miniatures, and all the characters and a few props are CG (character generated).

Talk about the genesis of the film, and how the five of you collaborated and came up with this interesting idea.

Joe:  In the very beginning it was an idea that William Joyce had. One of his mentors in publishing, Bill Morris, was getting sick, and he was about to pass away, and William was going to visit him.  Bill Morris was from the early days of publishing:  he treated the authors and illustrators very well, and he took care of them first and foremost.  On the airplane William wrote a little parable.  He started working on a story that would be an ode to books and a dedication to Bill. When he showed it to Bill, he said he loved it, and he hoped he would do something with it some day.

Our directors Brandon and William also had the experience of helping give books to victims of Hurricane Katrina, who were in shelters temporarily and whose lives were ripped away from them.  All the pain went off the people’s faces and they were immersed in the books, lost in them, and [feeling] joy.

Brandon and William had been discussing this idea for years.  It was one of those [projects] they had in the back of their minds, sort of the “eventually” to-do list. And out of nowhere the timing just seemed right, and they dove in headfirst. Now it’s a full-fledged studio. 

Why is Moonbot based in Shreveport, Louisiana, and how did that come about? 

Jamil:  The short answer is that William is from Shreveport.  Also, the state of Louisiana realized the importance of the tax incentives [for attracting film projects], and they put together a really nice package for both the film industry and the interactive and technology industries.  William happened to be here, and people trust him.  He’s got quite a history in the industry, and so why not him?  It seemed very fitting.  He always wanted to make his own movies. This financial situation that is really appealing to filmmakers happened.  It’s like the planets aligned or something.

What is your next project?

Joe: William, a couple of other artists, and I just finished the “Morris Lessmore” children’s book, which should be out this summer.  We’re really excited about that and putting on the finishing touches. We’re taking “The Numberlys,” which is an app that we have out right now for iPhone and iPad -- it’s sort of an alphabet book – and we’re going to be adapting that into a short film to put into the festival circuit.  We’re working with our video game company on some new technology right now, and we’re collaborating with them for a children’s platform that uses augmented and virtual reality. We’re also going to start developing another short film this year that’s going to be another original content piece.  There are a few other things, like a puppet show with a troupe in New Orleans, and that will hopefully develop into a feature.

Describe the work on the “Morris Lessmore” iPad app you developed after the film was released. It seems like helping reading come alive for kids is a real priority for Moonbot.

Joe:  The iPad came out while we were building miniatures, and Brandon, one of the partners and the creative manager here, was blown away and said we need to do something with this.  While we were nearly finished with “Morris Lessmore,” we saw a few children’s book apps but didn’t feel that anyone was taking full advantage of the capabilities of the iPad. So we worked with a company here in town called Twin Engine Labs. I led the production on the app.

Jamil and I were talking about this, how a film is appropriate for the big screen, and a video game is appropriate for a controller in your hand, and how apps are appropriate for an iPhone, and I think there is an appropriate way to design -- sort of a “golden goal” -- that people have to make them appropriate for that device, and so I think that’s what we were shooting for with the “Lessmore” iPad app.

Reading is a huge part of William’s DNA.  He is a big champion of books.  He loves movies, so putting the two of them together thematically is something he’s going to try to do for the rest of his life.

The other thing we decided we weren’t going to be doing with our properties is patronizing children, or watering things down or simplifying things for them.  We’ve seen three-year-olds and 80 year-olds connect with our film on the same level.   When we decided to make the app we knew that it would be a children’s market, but we thought that this is a story everyone can appreciate, so let’s just make it what it is and let it be. I remember presenting it to my three-year-old nephew, and he was lost in it just as much as my 30-year-old brother.  Something we’re trying to hold onto is that kids are smart, they’re people, and we definitely want to treat them like our peers, who you’d want to educate and entertain.

Image from "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" iPad app

iPad app image

iPad app image

There was an interesting phenomenon that several of this year’s top Oscar winners, The Artist and Hugo, have a silent movie theme.  Your film is the third, because it was inspired by the films of Buster Keaton, a silent film star.  What do you think of this coincidence?

Jamil:  I think filmmakers are saturated with cookie cutter stories, love stories and explosions and technology, all these gimmicks.  They’re ready to go back to a really simple, nice arc of a story with simple, relatable characters -- no superheroes or superheroines.  I felt like it was such a coincidentally classical year.

Joe:  When a couple of superhero movies came out that were very similar, they weren’t coordinated, and it wasn’t a trend necessarily. It was just coincidental.  Back when Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and Ants came out, and they were very similar, there may be some reasons for that, but sometimes it’s just a sign of the times. I think that Jamil’s right, and that a lot of directors are just trying to do something that pleases them on a basic level.

Check out my review of all the 2012 Oscar-nominated short films here.


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