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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.

The concept art for The Sandman 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 The Sandman and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians.

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

  The world of Guardians and the scope of the project grew. Joyce envisioned 13 picture books to tell various parts of the tale (he's completed five), and he thought there should be a movie, but not a direct adaptation of the books. The film, set in the present, takes place 200 years after the time in which the books are set.

Oldenburg grew up in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas. He fell in love with movies at a young age.

  "I walked out of Raiders of the Lost Ark knowing what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "That weekend, my dad and I went out and bought a Super 8 camera. I started making movies in the fourth grade, cutting them there at the kitchen table."

  His mother noticed his talents and signed him up for art lessons.

  He was a founder of Reel FX Creative Studios, a Dallas company that did work for Disney, Pixar, Blue Sky Studios and Troublemaker Studios.

  In 1997, Joyce released The World of William Joyce Scrapbook and Oldenburg bought a copy. Oldenburg particularly liked the last page, which included drawings of characters for a book Joyce was then working on, The Man in the Moon.

  To get Joyce's attention, Oldenburg crafted and mailed him surprise boxes, with springs and moving parts that launched pop-ups and created small effects. Soon, they talked on the phone, and Oldenburg said he wanted to make a movie with Joyce.

  Joyce was very busy, often traveling to either New York or Los Angeles for book and film projects, but he decided to go to Dallas.

  "My wife asked me, 'Why are you doing this?" Joyce says, intoning an implication of futility. "I had so much going on. But I said, 'I just have a hunch.'"

  It didn't seem so promising at first.

  "They didn't even know how to tell me how to get to their offices," Joyce says. "They were like, 'It's next to the Hooters downtown. If you can find the Hooters, we're right next door.' So I finally find it and Brandon comes out, and he looks like he's 11 years old. He looks like he's 15 now. This is 1998. I am like, 'Oh, my God, they're children.' I went through [Reel FX's] offices, and I don't think any of these guys shave. Do their parents drop them off? Is this some afterschool program?"

William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg built a scale model of a French Quarter block to shoot the initial scenes ofThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. - PHOTO BY DAYMON GARDNER
  • Photo by daymon gardner
  • William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg built a scale model of a French Quarter block to shoot the initial scenes ofThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

  But he was impressed with their work.

  "They had great instincts, great technological ability," Joyce says. "They were finding cheap ways to do complicated things. ... If you go into any animation house, you get an instant read on what the place is like. If a place is rocking, there's a happy sort of energy in the air. Pixar had that. It's rare. When I went into Reel FX it was there. It felt like when I had walked into Blue Sky for the first time. It felt like when I walked into Pixar for the first time."

  Joyce and Oldenburg decided to make a short film together. Actually, it was just a sequence of scenes setting up The Man in the Moon story, a very early installment/prequel to Rise of the Guardians.

  In late fall 1998, they spent a week filming in New Orleans because Morrison Productions Studio (located in the former Coliseum Theater in the Lower Garden District) had a computer-controlled boom arm that would allow them to shoot their scenes and create desired effects, incorporating miniatures and animation. The four-minute film later became crucial to their deal with DreamWorks, but it also helped forge the creative bond between Joyce and Oldenburg.

  "It was the first time I directed anything. I had been wanting to direct," Joyce says. "We had so much freedom. We had so much fun. They did such beautiful work. ... I was supposed to be there for one day. I didn't bring a suitcase. Every day they had a flight for me [back to Shreveport]. And every day I had Chuck, the producer, call my wife and say it's not going to be today. ... We had the best time. We never slept and we never stopped. We finished all that we had the money to do."

  Oldenburg also was elated.

IMAG-N-O-TRON makes the Morris Lessmore story come alive by adding movement, sound and features like 360-degree pans extending beyond the pages of the book.
  • IMAG-N-O-TRON makes the Morris Lessmore story come alive by adding movement, sound and features like 360-degree pans extending beyond the pages of the book.

  "In our hearts, the two of us knew that if we could make a short film, it would be embraced by the world," he says. "We had to wait over a decade to try that again. It wasn't like we just formed a company overnight."

Many studios were interested in Rise of the Guardians and Joyce had pitched it to several of the larger ones. None of them was interested in the books.

  "I had become way emotionally attached to the whole thing," Joyce says. "I felt this was the best thing I had done. I felt it was the story I was put on Earth to do. I cannot hand it over to Hollywood — even with all the assurances and even with being a producer or director. ...

  "At first I was going to direct it. They all said no.

  "They all offered tons of money. I was offered so many Faustian bargains, I felt like my soul was up for purchase — insane sums of money were offered, and I had to go, 'No. These are the conditions of which I will do this. Take it or leave it.' And they'd say, 'No, but here's a shitload more money.'"

  He stood firm because he was very interested in the film's audience, and cautious about the way money works.

  "These characters stay vivid and powerful in kids' imagination," he says. "More than if they are handing out coupons or selling products on TV. The way you see them in your head as a kid is pretty magnificent. [The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy] do all these things in one night. They judge you. There's a lot more mythic power to them as a child than when you are a grownup. We wanted to honor that.

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  "You shouldn't let large fast-food chains define who Santa Claus is, OK."

  When DreamWorks heard his plan and saw the film Joyce and Oldenburg made, its team was interested.

  "The head of the studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, said, 'I like this idea. I like your take on it. I like that you want Santa Claus and the Guardians to be grand heroes. I like it epic,'" Joyce says.

  They inked a deal in early 2007, and Reel FX, which had been using the film as one of its calling card demos, pulled the film off the Internet as part of the deal with DreamWorks.

In 2009, Joyce was at a point in which he wanted to travel less. He's a Shreveport native, his daughter was ill and he wanted to be away less often.

  Joyce had been talking about his desire to stay in Shreveport to Enochs, who worked in film production. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, many film production companies had shifted operations to Shreveport. Enochs was working on the FX miniseries Thief, which relocated to north Louisiana in order to retain film tax credit benefits. He met Joyce at a cocktail party, and later they started talking about creating a film and animation studio. Joyce's first priority was to bring Oldenburg on board. The name Moonbot refers to characters in the film Joyce and Oldenburg had made in New Orleans.

  The three of them agreed to create a short film to put out as a calling card. Years earlier, Joyce had flown to New York to meet with William Morris, who had been a mentor to him. On the plane, he sketched out a story about a man who loves books. Nothing came of it for a while, and the framed piece of paper, with sketches and notes, resides in Oldenburg's Moonbot office.

  By the time they took it off the shelf, it had been infused with a new vision. Morris Lessmore became not just someone who loves books, but someone who loses his books and rediscovers their power. It was one of the things Joyce saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The concept art for E. Aster Bunny 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 E. Aster Bunny and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians.
    RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

  Many Shreveport facilities were turned into shelters after the levee failures. Joyce worked with a group that created "Faces of Katrina," in which photographers and writers went to shelters to interview the displaced and dispossessed. Shreveport's Hirsch Memorial Coliseum temporarily housed thousands of people in a huge open space crowded with rows of cots. That's where he noticed the effect of another relief effort: RIF and First Book's push to get millions of books in the hands of kids who were without schools.

   "These shelters were always bustling with noise," Joyce says. "But there would be a kid (with) book in hand, and it was like it made this protective dome around them. They were lost in that book. All this anxiety of what they were going through, all the loss of privacy and displacement vanished, and they were lost in the world of those pages and that was a stunningly powerful thing."

  Then Joyce visited New Orleans, and among the debris he saw more books: books caked with mud, loose pages waterlogged, blurred and unreadable, all lying in drifts and piles and where the floodwaters left them.

  When he and Oldenburg started working on their film, they built a scale model of a French Quarter block. In the opening scene, Lessmore sits on his second-floor balcony reading, surrounded by stacks of books. Then a wind blows, and as it gets stronger, it blows letters off the pages. Then it carries away whole books. A TV flies by, and on it one can see the spinning hurricane-tracking icon on a weathercaster's map. Then a man on a bicycle flies by and it looks like the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, but in reverse, because in the hurricane's wake, Lessmore's world goes gray.

  When Lessmore eventually finds refuge, it's in a library. He goes inside and finds it full of flying books. There also are damaged books, and he sets about repairing them one page at a time.

  When Moonbot was created, it didn't have many animators on staff at first. Joyce and Oldenburg started filming miniatures while they hired staff who could do animation work.

The concept art for Santa Claus 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 Santa Claus and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians.
    RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

  While they were working on the film, Apple introduced the iPad. Joyce and Oldenburg pounced on the idea of an app for the story. They didn't have programmers, and Enochs reached out to the Louisiana Economic Development office and was connected with programmers in Shreveport. Their app made the Lessmore story into an e-book experience with interactive elements. The app was named App of the Year before they won the Oscar.

  "It was another way to tell a story," Joyce says. "This has things a book can't do; things a movie can't do. You can't interact with a movie. You can't move around what's on a page. We wanted to see what the thing was capable of. It's stupid to think of the app experience for a book as putting a book on an app. It's got all this stuff, so you use this stuff.

  "I showed it to Maurice Sendak, and he said 'I like it. It's not a book.' And I said, 'Well, I didn't say it's a book.' Things we do for apps are not books. They're stories. Story apps. The idea of flipping the pages on an app is a total waste of what it could do."

  The multimedia life of Lessmore is how many projects develop at Moonbot. They are slated to be issued as books, films, apps or whatever medium suits the creative team, and in whatever order makes sense.

  "The purpose of Moonbot is to tell really good stories on multiple platforms," Enochs says. "Find a great story and find what's the coolest way to tell it."

  Technology has given Moonbot more control of its work.

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  "It's democratization," Oldenburg says. "We have control. We can push a button and release our story without having to go to a studio or a publisher."

  Joyce believes that reacting to changing technology is necessary and positive.

  "Everything's changing," he says. "All the paradigms are falling apart right before our eyes. We are just trying to see which ship is going to stay afloat and be able to tell a story in a way that we think is compelling. I don't think publishing is going to die. I don't think the book is going to die. All of these things are going to become a different way to experience a story."

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