Oscar-nommed toon house sees potential in all media

Moonbot Studios is nominally an animation house, but that’s a limiting description when it comes to telling the story of the two-year-old shingle co-founded by award-winning children’s author and animated-feature veteran William Joyce.

“Our properties … our stories — we don’t see them as just one thing in one medium,” says Joyce, who started the studio in his hometown of Shreveport, La., with Reel FX Creative Services co-founder Brandon Oldenburg and producer Lampton Enochs. “We sort of sit there and go: ‘Is this a great movie? ‘Is this a great book?’ And if the answers are ‘yes,’ then we think of them in whatever different (form is applicable).”

Moonbot’s first project, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” has borne out that approach. It debuted as an iPad app (selling more than 120,000 downloads since last summer). That was followed by an animated short film that’s been nommed for an Oscar — and a book version is due from Simon & Shuster later this year.

Follow-up project “The Numberlys,” made to fit the iPad’s vertical orientation, has sold 20,000 downloads since it preemed last month. The upcoming short-film version — dubbed by Moonbot as “the tallest short film in the world” — will retain the iPad’s vertical aspect ratio and also will be followed by a book version.

Joyce says the app for “Lessmore” came about almost by accident, well into production on the short film and book, when the iPad was introduced, and filled a previously unarticulated void. “It wasn’t a book and it wasn’t a movie — it was something in between. We had been wanting that, but not knowing what that was.”

But more than just porting content from one medium to the next, Moonbot tailors the work to each platform. The story app blends aspects of the film and the book, offers minigames and explorable environments, and leans on computer interactivity. The short has met with obvious success, and with the book featuring original illustrations, each version of “Lessmore” stands on its own, Oldenburg says.

“They all justify their own existence, and we want to make sure (of) that.”.

Digital distribution helped “Lessmore” and Moonbot reach a far wider audience than a book or short would typically reach alone. “You don’t have to make a distribution deal; you don’t have to court five or six different companies,” Enochs says. “You press a couple of buttons, and the world can see it.”

The majority of buyers are parents, though the app also has been a hit with teenagers, and emails have come in from classrooms, Enochs says.

(Cost to produce all the parts of “Lessmore” is difficult to determine, Enochs says, considering the app wasn’t part of the original plan — which meant there was a learning curve for developers to deal with — and the final part of project, the book, isn’t due out until late this year.)

Author of more than 50 children’s books, Joyce has produced or contributed ideas, designs and animation to features from “Toy Story” to “Robots” and “Meet the Robinsons,” and is exec-producing the upcoming DreamWorks Animation feature “Rise of the Guardians” based on his “Guardians of Childhood” book series. He sees in Moonbot’s approach the freedom to create new projects — and also the chance to just have fun.

“I feel like people expect, or are coming to expect, different experiences in storytelling,” says Joyce, who dismisses as “overdramatic” the idea that books will die out, but admits working on apps is more instinctual and timely. “We’re able to be almost live-action filmmakers in a way, which is an interesting thing to bring to animation.”

“The Numberlys” is a prime example. The story app was made with off-the-shelf software and cameras, and completed in about four months, allowing Moonbot a chance to quickly capitalize on its growing brand, Oldenburg says.

In addition to projects for clients, Moonbot plans another short/app/book project, tentatively titled “Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat”; and a feature being developed in which yet another entertainment platform figures prominently — by having a New Orleans puppet troupe perform the story live before audiences.

“We found that to be really a very cost-effective way to figure out if a scene is working,” Joyce says, “by performing it theatrically.”

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