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The Fantastic Flying Animated Adventure of William Joyce

Find out how Moonbot Studios made their first project fly as a short and E-book.

Having won SIGGRAPH, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a top contender for the Oscars. All images courtesy of Moonbot.

William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg are obviously onto something special with their award-winning short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. It creatively coalesces low and high-tech in a silent ode to the curative power of reading, telling the story of a Keatonesque book lover displaced by a twister and hurled into an alternate world ruled by books.

The maiden project of their Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana, The Fantastic Flying Books utilizes nearly every animated technique: CG for the protagonist and anything that moved; 2D for Humpty Dumpty like a flip book; miniatures for the library coupled with stop-motion camera moves; matte paintings on top of miniature environments when they're still; and practical shots of dust and debris. There's even a Zoetrope effect. They used Maya, Nuke, boujou, and Photoshop.

Directors William Joyce (l) and Brandon Oldenberg on set.

They wanted a tactile look so they also created their own miniature sets (principally the library topped off with matte paintings and filled with thousands of books that were rapid prototyped as brick models), and shot live-action elements for dust and debris.

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, said the idea sprang eight years ago on a flight to New York to visit his dying mentor, Bill Morris, a children's book advocate at HarperCollins. Morris was one of the last of the grand old gentlemen of old publishing. "I wrote this funny, little parable 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," adds Joyce.

The illustration and literary influences are drawn all over the film.

The love of books certainly shines through in this Oz-like phantasmagoria (fittingly composed in both color and black-and-white) along with the sense of displacement and hopelessness from Hurricane Katrina, which also impacted Joyce.

He 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 recalls, emphasizing the power of printed media.

Humpty Dumpty was one of the most challenging characters in the film.

It just so happened that in the aftermath of Katrina, Louisiana also wanted to shore up its animation production. So Joyce hooked up with pal Oldenberg (co-founder of Reel FX) and they created Moonbot with limited financing.

"We developed a simple pipeline but with a little more sense of spontaneity than the industry normally allows," Oldenberg suggests. The most challenging part was Humpty Dumpty. "There are two performances going on with Humpty Dumpty," Oldenberg continues. "The person who is riding the horse and the horse, meaning Humpty is the rider and the book is the horse and finding that balance was an interesting challenge because it was mixing mediums. We had to fit the 2D animation of Humpty to fit the 3D animation of the book. And on top of that, we were paying homage to the flip book tradition of animation."

Character designs.

Still, Joyce was aching to do a book and it seemed like a natural to make an interactive one, so with some extra effort at Moonbot, they launched the iPad version of Flying Books last May and it's been a resounding success.

"The whole story is told through an iPad experience in different way but they complement each other," Joyce explains. "You get the written word and have the ability to have it narrated, but beyond that, you actually get to interact with the illustrations and parts of the story. So I guess the pleasing thing is we put in all the yummies that we love and it somehow feel like it belongs."

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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