How to Build the Pixar of the iPad Age in Shreveport, Louisiana

Two of the three founders of Moonbot Studios are festooned in Mardi Gras attire, leading 100 people through the streets of the French Quarter as they push what appears to be a puppet shaped like a gloriously fat woman stuffed into a shopping cart. She wears a pink polka dot dress. Her gray hair is pulled back and up into a ponytail. A wide, tall grin stretches across her face, chin after chin hanging below it. But her most noticeable characteristic is the massive middle finger of her left hand, which sticks up like a club as her own loving message to her krewe.

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Brandon Oldenburg pushes the Colleen Salley effigy through New Orleans.

This is Coleen Salley, her effigy at least, and she is the spirit that haunts Moonbot, a rousingly successful production company for children's entertainment. Founded in Shreveport, Louisiana, six months after the 2009 parade, this oddball little studio now seems positioned to be the Pixar of the iPad age.

Cofounder Brandon Oldenburg, an accomplished puppeteer, steers the cart, stopping with the crowd at each corner to chant a refrain to the (stuffed) chanteuse.

"Hail Coleen,
Hail Queen Coleen
Queen Coleen,
What a Bitch!"

Coleen, who had died the previous year of Mad Cow Disease (!), was not there to rejoinder, as she had during her life, "Fuck you!"

Coleen was a charming drunk who told a good story and about whom a good story could be told. Another Moonbot cofounder Bill Joyce, her long-time friend and fellow storyteller, calls her "wild, profane, but deeply kind and gentle." On meeting Joyce, she looked over his very first book and said, "Well what do you know, you're worth a shit." They remained friends until Coleen's death and afterwards.

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Moonbot cofounder Bill Joyce with a sketch of the Golem, for one of the studio's upcoming projects

Lampton Enochs Jr, a TV producer and the third Moonbot founder, is quick to note that Coleen wasn't only a persona. She had a celebrated career as a children's literature professor at the University of New Orleans. His Uncle Blackie and Coleen had been "running partners" in their younger years, so Enochs knew her growing up, through the death of her husband and as she raised three kids alone, all the way to her reification in the streets of New Orleans as that highest category of human being: A Character.

When the two of them met to discuss forming a company, Enochs sealed their partnership by saying, "I know Coleen." That would have been in 2009, a few years after the storm blew Enochs out of New Orleans and up to Shreveport, where Joyce has lived for decades. They talked as friends but not yet partners, and Joyce insisted that were they to start something, they had to lure a guy named Brandon Oldenburg over the border from Texas.

Back in 1998, Oldenburg had contacted Joyce out of the blue. Hoping to create a puppet show out of Joyce's book Santa Calls, Oldenburg sent over a present: a mechanical box that opened to reveal "fog, music and automaton-like characters." Joyce was charmed and the two of them began collaborating on a young adult story concept -- The Guardians of Childhood. That project, more than a decade on, started to bear fruit (a book series, a Dreamworks movie), but more on that later.

Oldenburg, for his part, wasn't sure that he'd join Joyce and Enochs at Moonbot. His family had just bought a house in Dallas. He and his wife and two young kids wanted to settle in. Plus, his dream gig was dangling before his eyes: He was going to be the creative director for Michael Jackson's much anticipated 50-night stint in London. Oldenburg had met with Jackson and was set to fly to London to cut a final deal. Before he went, Joyce and Enochs prevailed upon him to spend a week in Shreveport thinking about joining their new operation.

Shreveport is a small, self-contained place. It's hours south of Little Rock, hours north of Baton Rouge, hours east of Dallas, hours west of Jackson. It's all alone, perched on the Red River at the western edge of Louisiana. To live here is to commit to the place, to swallow the hook.

The oil business left three lasting marks here: decent infrastructure, a risk-taking culture, and beautiful old housing stock, all of which could be easily adapted to modern conditions. The mayor, Cedric Glover, is one of the strongest advocates in town for growing the creative economy. A smart man whose charm is almost as capacious as his frame, he roots for his community and they join him in welcoming newcomers and encouraging rising stars. Joyce and Enochs were convinced: Moonbot could become the anchor for a new Shreveport.

But to throw in with Moonbot would be to give up Dallas and London and time with one of the world's greatest superstars. Michael Jackson had been Oldenburg's favorite musician since forever. He'd made home videos to "Beat It."

Oldenburg and his wife were still in Shreveport when they got word on June 25, 2009, that Michael Jackson was dead. The Oldenbergs put their house on the market that weekend. Joyce, Enochs, and Oldenburg were founding a company.

Their first project, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, was released for the iPad last May. It recounts the wondrous adventures of a book lover who dotingly cares for a living library before writing a book himself that tells of "his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped." Gorgeously illustrated, Lessmore breaks new ground in the way that it incorporates interactivity. Each page has a wormhole of interaction. Read about a song and perhaps a keyboard will pop up and guide your fingers to plunk out "Pop Goes the Weasel." When Morris Lessmore hand-feeds alphabet cereal to his books, the reader gets a bowl too, with letters that can be dragged along through the milk to spell out words. Each page holds its game like a secret and puzzling out what to do encourages the reader to look harder, knowing they'll be rewarded. The games pull the reader deeper; the narrative pulls the reader farther. The tension between lingering and racing is potent.

Presented by

Sarah Rich and Alexis Madrigal

Sarah Rich is the editor of Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog, co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, and a former senior editor at Dwell. Her most recent book, Urban Farms, was published in June 2012. Alexis C. Madrigal is a contributing editor for The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.

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