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The Louisiana Roots of Rise of the Guardians

Will Coviello on the storytellers behind an Oscar-winning Shreveport startup

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When William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg accepted the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film last February, Joyce offered a modest description of their enterprise.

  "Look, we're just like these swamp rats from Louisiana," Joyce said, grinning from ear to ear and clutching the trophy. "This is incredibly grand. We love the movies. We love the movies more than anything."

  They looked like father and son: the diminutive Joyce with his short gray hair and thick-rimmed glasses, and the much younger Oldenburg with his tousled hair and one arm around Joyce's shoulder.

  "It's been a part of our DNA ever since we were children," Oldenburg said. "It's made us storytellers."

  They had created the 15-minute film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore as a calling card for their Shreveport-based startup, Moonbot Studios. The film tells the story of a booklover named Morris Lessmore, who loses his books in Hurricane Katrina and is swept away to a new land.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore Trailer from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

  Though their company was new (founded in 2009), the two had plenty of industry experience and a very focused plan. Together with Moonbot co-founder Lampton Enochs, they wanted to make a mark fast.

  "Most animation companies start up and then get jobs," Joyce says. "They try for years and years to get enough time and money to make a short film. We said, 'Let's reverse that.' Let's just start out with a short film that we know will lose money but will establish who we are and what we are able to do and maybe we'll get some notice for that. So we had our fingers crossed. Maybe we'll get nominated for an Oscar or at least get notice at some film festivals.

  "You can't just say we're going to have an animation studio in Louisiana, in the 107th largest city in the country and have them believe you. You have to do something."

  The Academy Award helped put Moonbot on the map. But besides winning the Oscar, the story was spun off as an app, which App Magazine named its 2011 App of the Year, and finally a book — ironic, given Joyce's first career focus was picture book publishing. The book spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times' children's best sellers list. He's authored Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo and George Shrinks among many other popular children's books. Many of them have been made into movies or TV series, and next week DreamWorks releases the holiday film Rise of the Guardians, which is based on Joyce's stories.

  Many of Joyce's projects have done very well with major studios. He created characters for Toy Story and A Bug's Life, Pixar's first big animated films. His Rolie Polie Olie book series became an Emmy-winning Disney Channel series. His book A Day With Wilbur Robinson became the Disney film Meet the Robinsons. His book The Leaf Men is the basis for 20th Century Fox's 2013 release Epic, due in spring 2013. He's also illustrated 10 covers for The New Yorker, and was named the 2008 Louisiana Author of the Year by a Louisiana State Library program to recognize contemporary writers.

  "Guardians, next to Toy Story, is the movie I am most pleased with that I've worked on," Joyce says. "It's what I envisioned. It's what I hoped it would be: It is successful grand entertainment."

  Moonbot's name does not appear in the credits for Guardians because the project predates the startup by many years. It's based on a series of books initiated by Joyce more than 15 years ago and a short film, Joyce and Oldenburg's original demo project, shot in New Orleans in 1998. Oldenburg's former company, Reel FX, is credited with producing the short film.

The concept art for Pitch and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians. - RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. - CONCEPT ART PROVIDED BY WILLIAM JOYCE.
  • Concept art provided by William Joyce.
  • The concept art for Pitch and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians.

    RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

  Morris Lessmore was finished quickly by movie-making standards and gained recognition even faster. From its relative geographic isolation from the industry, Moonbot has shown the agility of what an open-minded startup can do. Apple's iPad was introduced to the world while they were filming Morris Lessmore, and Moonbot quickly created an app because Joyce and Oldenburg saw the device's potential for telling a story in a new way. As they prepare for the regional premiere of Guardians in Shreveport at The Strand Theatre, Moonbot designers are busy working on new apps, movies, books and more.

Moonbot occupies much of the bottom floor of a lone modern building tucked away near a cluster of hospitals in central Shreveport. A team of animators works on movies and games in an open area, workstations littered with toy figures and the walls covered with poster-sized illustrations. Oldenburg and Joyce have offices on opposite sides of the main hall. Joyce's is a dimly lit cave in the center. He works at a slanted illustrator's desk; sketches cover his walls. Oldenburg has a sunny office, and its windowsill is covered with Star Wars action figures and some Toy Story characters. Elsewhere a Fraggle Rock muppet is perched on a lamp and his old Super 8 camera sits on a shelf.

  Most of the company's roughly 45 employees are 25 or younger. Or as Oldenburg puts it, many probably remember a film like Toy Story as their first exciting movie. He remembers Tron. Many of the artists were recruited from the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., Oldenburg's alma mater (and he sits on its board of trustees). Moonbot has a unique creative environment. Every week, everyone in the company watches film and animation produced that week, and everyone is welcome to critique and comment. The studio also has "Sketch Tuesday," in which everyone is welcome to contribute drawings to a Moonbot blog post. Sometimes they are new sketches along a chosen theme, sometimes illustrators pull things out of old sketchbooks or files.

  There are many new innovative projects, all tracked on a whiteboard in Enochs' office. Recent projects have included the IMAG-N-O-TRON, another iPad app to enhance book experiences. It's used as a companion to a book, recognizing images and pages to activate the app's features. When the reader points the IMAG-N-O-TRON at the Lessmore page featuring the library, it allows the viewer to do a 360-degree pan around the library. The iPad screen can be pointed at different books, which then whisper to the IMAG-N-O-TRON holder.

  Oldenburg jokes that it is not a threat to publishing

  "We said to (a meeting of) librarians (at a presentation), 'It's OK. You still have to have a book.'"

  The Numberlys is another story app that features creatures living in a gray numbers-based world modeled on the classic Fritz Lang silent film Metropolis. The Numberly creatures use numbers to invent an alphabet, and with that comes words and then color. They go from eating gray and gloppy "00259" to picking up a rainbow of jellybeans raining down from the sky. A film and book version are planned.

  Forthcoming projects include a Kickstarter campain in November to fund a new multiplatform project based on the Jewish folk tale of the Golem. Moonbot books will be released on a special Simon & Schuster imprint.

  One team of programmers and designers is working on a game for Sony PlayStation called Diggs Nightcrawler. Using a new controller, which is shaped like a book with turning pages, players can help a bookworm (who looks like a caterpillar) detective named Diggs solve a mystery in a noirish cartoonscape. Diggs tries to solve the mystery of how Humpty Dumpty fell off his wall.

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  It's not the first time Humpty Dumpty has been a character in a Moonbot story. When Morris Lessmore arrives at the library, a book featuring Humpty Dumpty reaches out to him. The two-dimensional Humpty encourages him to explore books again.

  Why Humpty Dumpty?

  "I like him," Joyce says, sitting in his office. "He breaks, and they always say they can't put him back together again. And that always bothered me. I wanted to do a story in which everything breaks and gets put back together again."

Many Hollywood studios tried to buy Rise of the Guardians. But the story wasn't generated for a pitch meeting. Or even originally a book. It was hatched years ago for an audience of one. Joyce's 6-year-old daughter Mary Katherine asked him if Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy all knew each other. Joyce quickly responded, "Yes." But it wasn't that simple.

  "Once we started talking about this, I thought, 'God, this is really rich stuff,'" Joyce says. "The questions didn't stop there. I had opened Pandora's box. There were many, many questions. I always resented when I was a kid and I asked my parents how [Santa Claus] did all this in a night and they said, 'Well, he just does.' And that doesn't tell me anything.

  "Now I am in the same position, I want to do things differently than my parents. Since I am a storyteller, I will engage here. I want to give (his daughter and son) a mythology that is very interesting. And then I realized this is really fun. I was really enjoying it. It was flowing out of me. I was channeling all the myths that I loved. Everything that I had ever seen that I liked was becoming this gumbo of new mythology. There was a little bit of Pandora, a little bit of the Flying Dutchman, a little bit of Greek mythology, of Harvey the Rabbit. Hindu myths that I had read. Native American myths. Celtic myths. They blended together. ... I wanted to actually do this as books, as something. It didn't take long after that initial yes."

  Joyce drew and filled in the back stories on Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy. He imagined Santa as a figure with a dark past. His Santa looked like a Russian Cossack, a former thief with a wild side, covered in Russian prison tattoos. In the DreamWorks version, Santa is tattooed: The words "Naughty" and "Nice" are inked on his thick forearms, like the words "LOVE" and "HATE" are tattooed on the fingers of the jailhouse preacher played by Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter.

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