William Joyce, center, and Brandon Oldenburg, right, discuss minor travel budget discrepancies in a meeting with Adam Volker and Bohdon Sayre at Moonbot Studios.
Former Dallasites William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg formed a company called Moonbot Studios in Shreveport Louisiana. It’s been making games, apps, books, music videos and the prize-winning short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports Joyce and Oldenburg are really just getting started.
KERA radio story:
When William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg won the Academy Award for best animated short in 2012, the presenters noted that John Lassiter had won the award in 1998 — before going on “to change the world of animation when he helped create Pixar.”
“But — no pressure, of course.”
Well, that was two years ago. So what have the two of them been up to … lately?
Joyce, Oldenburg and Lampton Enochs started Moonbot Studios in 2009 in Louisiana — with state-financing, the first major animation studio to locate there. And Morris Lessmore was the first short film they ever released, an incredible debut. In book form, Morris was a New York Times bestseller for 11 weeks, while the app version has been put in the iTunes Hall of Fame. Since then, Moonbot has won web design awards, animation awards, a couple of daytime Emmys. It’s produced game apps like Lollipop 3: Eggs of Doom and an award-winning short film for Chipotle that’s been viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube. Moonbot developed Diggs Nightcrawler, an interactive video book for the Playstation device, Wonderbook. And it’s even created Bullseye, a music video with Polyphonic Spree. (Says Joyce: “Those guys are trippy.”)
The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore
With all this, Moonbot has become something of a multi-media mini-conglomerate with 50 employees. It’s even inspired several other start-ups in the area. But a couple things distinguish Moonbot from many ambitious, digital entertainment ventures. For one thing, they’re really into books. Brandon Oldenburg declares old-fashioned print and paper are at the heart of what they do.
“From books, everything else happens,” he says, “whether it’s a spinoff into a game or a film or, who knows, theme parks or theatrical productions. That’s why we love books and don’t want to think of them as merchandise.”
No surprise there. William Joyce is the acclaimed author-illustrator of a string of children’s stories – from Dinosaur Bob and Santa Calls to his Guardians of Childhood series. In fact, Moonbot Books has just released The Numberlys, his latest book, a collaboration with artist Christina Ellis. What also distinguishes the studio’s efforts – from bestsellers to Moonbot’s website – is their look. It’s a kind of retro futurism. The Numberlys, for instance, is clearly a cuter version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, right down to the mass conformity, the looming, art-deco skyscrapers and the old-school, massive gear-and-pulley production line. Basically, Moonbot stuff will often have space-age gizmos whizzing around but there’s also a whimsical, nostalgic style borrowed from the ’30s, ‘40s and ‘50s (check out, if you haven’t, the image of Joyce and Oldeburg out front on Art & Seek).
William Joyce explains this persistence of vision: “That’s my once upon a time – when I was a kid and I was seeing films like King Kong and Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and the old cartoons with Bugs Bunny and with Betty Boop. And women wore hats and men wore hats and cars were round. And everything looked — awesome.”
Injecting a goofy whimsy into everything — it certainly helped that Joyce grew up in Shreveport in “a congenital horde of Southern screwballs,” complete with an uncle who thought he was from another planet and a grandfather who’d pop out his glass eye and swear he could still see through it.
The new book.
If you’ve never seen a William Joyce book, you’ve still seen this happy-fairy-tale-mechanoid look. It’s in the smiling robot sculptures at the Good-Latimer DART station, the ones called Traveling Man. Brandon Oldenburg co-designed them with Brad Oldham, back when Oldeburg was co-founder of Reel FX Creative Studio in Deep Ellum. Years before,, Oldenburg recognized a kindred spirit in Joyce, so he wrote him a letter. One thing led to another and that led to their collaboration.
“We both have that sensibility,” Oldenburg says, “and I think that’s why we get along so well. There’s certain design elements from the past that we love about futurism.”
Joyce has had several of his books adapted by Hollywood — he’s won three Emmy Awards for the TV series, Roly Poly Ollie. But movies and network shows cost a fortune, they take forever to make and the heartbreaking end results often lack what Joyce calls “unencumbered charm,” precisely the quality that enlivens his work. So Moonbot has been creating its own apps, games and short films.
With these, Joyce says, “You end up getting your vision out there and you get it out there quickly and uncompromised. And it spoils ya, y’ know?” he adds, laughing.
Conceptual art from The Golem of Prague
But short films don’t really make money. And a Kickstarter campaign designed to fund a major new Moonbot game based on the Golem of Prague stalled — and a chief reason they turned to Kickstarter in the first place is the general lack of movie funding in Shreveport (although Louisiana is third behind California and New York in terms of film productions). So not everything has gone hunky-dorily. Which is why the plan for several of these digital efforts is to use them as calling cards. They demonstrate Moonbot’s talents and capabilities. Joyce and Oldenburg have a slate of projects they’ve been nurturing — because, ultimately, yes, they want to create their own full-length animated features.
Just like Pixar.
“We’ve got them to the point,” Joyce says of these projects, “that we need partners and distribution and we need a studio. We’re going to go to them and say, here’s what we’ve got – give us some money!“
It took John Lassiter seven years from winning that first Oscar to Pixar releasing its first feature, Toy Story. And Lassiter managed that because he had Steve Jobs backing him. If Joyce and Oldenburg are going to follow that model – in Shreveport, no less – they’re the kinds of guys who might actually pull it off.
Only, you know, they’ve got just five years left.
But, again … no pressure.