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.
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 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.
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.
Morris Lessmore may be the best iPad book in the world. In July, Morris Lessmore hit the number one spot on Apple's iPad app chart in the US. That is to say, Morris Lessmore wasn't just the bestselling book, but the bestselling *app* of any kind for a time. At one point or another, it has been the top book app in 21 countries. A New York Times reviewer called it "the best," "visually stunning," and "beautiful." Wired.com called it "game-changing." MSNBC said it was "the most stunning iPad app so far." And The Times UK made this prediction, "It is not inconceivable that, at some point in the future, a short children's story called 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore' will be regarded as one of the most influential titles of the early 21st century."
Moonbot's vision for this groundbreaking experience didn't develop in a vacuum. The programming pyrotechnics and interface design came together under the direction of a pair of Shreveport natives, Keith and Ken Hanson. The identical brothers operate as the aptly named Twin Engine Labs, which incorporated to help create Morris Lessmore. Ken, who'd been living in San Francisco and was auditioning for a prestigious spot at Apple, came home to join Keith, who'd been talking with Moonbot. They landed the engineering gig and repaired to Moonbot's copy room to help shape the animators' vision into the final app.
After the app came out, Twin Engines took off. They've hired almost 20 people in less than a year and have moved into bare brick-walled new offices above Shreveport's shared startup space, Cohabitat. Its director, John Grindley, is clearly proud that one of the hottest companies in town calls his building home. Reflecting on Morris Lessmore's catalytic effect on Shreveport's tech scene, he hopefully references the digital media powerhouse next door, "Austin had to start somewhere."
Morris Lessmore is, as Coleen might have said, worth a shit. But what is it? It's not just a book, nor wholly a movie, nor fundamentally a game. Maybe we can call it a story that's reenacted live by whoever is holding the iPad. It makes parents cry, kids laugh, babies stare, and artists drool.
Morris Lessmore is so good, in fact, that we drove all the way across Alabama, Mississippi and Lousiana to visit Moonbot Studios. They were the first marker we stuck on our map of the South when we began our roadtrip through the region's innovation landscape. So, even though Moonbot was about 500 miles and 8 hours off our route to New Orleans, we went anyway. We emailed Moonbot and heard back from Oldenburg immediately. "If y'all are up for it - we'd like to give you guys the full MOONBOT experience," he wrote. "Dinner is a must! Most of the best things revolve around food, puppets and explosives."
Oldenburg and Joe Bluhm pick us up in front of the Hilton in a Honda Element. It's the first cold day of our trip and we hurry to duck through the suicide doors into the warm back seat. Oldenburg wears a bright red hoodie, a striped t-shirt and a black Moonbot cap. He could be 18 or 38, it's hard to tell. We don't know where we're headed, but we've been told to wear clothes we can move in and comfortable shoes. (This posed a problem for at least one of us.) Oldenburg shares, by way of a hint, that he was into experimental puppetry in college.
Downtown Shreveport has a few things going for it: Reno-style casinos float legally on the river; there's a large medical center that's made the city a regional health care hub; a military base keeps some fresh blood circulating. More glamorously, Louisiana tax credits brought many film crews through the city. With the movies came some movie stars, a fancy independent film center right in the heart of town, and a community center for creativity known as artspace.
Joyce and Oldenburg program events at artspace, including the performance we're about to see. We head downstairs into what feels like a school cafeteria, with low ceilings and rectangular folding tables. The room is filled with the laughter and conversation of 20 or 30 people who are wrapping up an afternoon craft session with plastic cups of wine. In greeting, a tall, young guy says to us, "Bet you didn't expect to find a bunch of half-drunk 20-somethings in handmade masks." Actually, maybe we did.
Before we have time for handshakes or introductions, the entire group hustles toward an elevator. Three floors up, we file out and take seats in rows of plastic chairs facing a red and gold curtain patched together with halved corduroy pants and wool sweaters. The lights go down, a hush falls, the curtain parts.
On a six-foot proscenium in the glow of a stage light, a slight young man stands facing away from us, stooped over with his rear end protruding, wiggling side to side in brown polyester slacks. He turns and casts his huge eyes skeptically upon the crowd, then continues intently polishing the cover of a book that stands taller than he -- a giant, cardboard-rendered version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl.
Finally he swivels around, acknowledges us, and introduces himself in a breathy, burnt sugar Southern accent, "My name is Cornelius," he says slowly, "but you can call me....Uncle Cookie."
Uncle Cookie sets the scene, weaving the tale of the three wealthy farmers who rule the land that Mr. Fox nightly stalks. Page by gigantic page, he brings the characters to life with wildly exaggerated physical comedy until finally he finishes the book and something unexpected happens: The back cover begins to recede from the wall, extending into a dark tunnel.
Uncle Cookie prompts the audience to our feet and a frenzy ensues as cast members hand each person a headlamp and a pair of foam knee pads. We strap on the gear and enter the passage one-by-one, crawling on all fours until we arrive inside of a completely enclosed theatrical set.
Seated at the edge of the cliff, peering through the dim light, the orchards can be seen stretching into the distance, with the three farmers' houses tucked among the trees. The fox peers out from a hollow. Finding the coast clear, he emerges.
He stands four feet high, with spindly limbs and a wide, orange face. From his head, hands, and feet extend the means of his locomotion: three puppeteers in deliberately nondescript costumes. Tight-fitting hoods and sheer veils conceal their faces; the only visible expression is on Mr. Fox, whose dynamic eyebrows broadcast his emotions. "For so many years, people hid themselves as puppeteers," Oldenburg tells us later, "but that's half the joy is watching how it's created. They are not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. There is duct tape everywhere and you don't care."
The fox dives down into the orchard. His figure glides over the papier-maché contours of the land along a barely perceptible track, controlled from below by the puppeteers' hands. In the valleys between each hill, ever smaller foxes replace one another in seamless succession, until a tiny fox silhouette appears at the far end of the set, conveying epic distance.
This is an unlucky night for the pilfering Mr. Fox. A farmer catches him and chases him into his den. We are inside the story, so naturally, the audience must follow. For nearly two hours, we pursue the cast through the underground lair, plunging down slides into ball pits, hiding in giant shelving units behind enormous jugs of apple cider, darting through clouds of chicken feathers, and finally tumbling back out into the room where it all began.
For those who are willing to end the suspension of our disbelief, the show's creators invite us to walk around the exterior of the installation in which we've been immersed. What felt like a comprehensive habitat from within looks like a series of low, glue-glazed cardboard igloos from the other side.
As we prepare to leave, Oldenburg looks over our flushed, chicken-feather covered faces with delight. Two more unsuspecting adults infected with the joy of crawling through a cardboard fort with a band of life-size puppets. Gotcha!
We step into a misty Shreveport night with all those twenty-something talents. It's cold and there's not much going on. This is all part of the Moonbot Experience.
* * *
Moonbot is on the verge of national recognition. The project that originally brought Joyce and Oldenburg together, The Guardians of Childhood, is finally turning into products. Books based on the idea are streaming out of Simon & Schuster and a feature-length movie will be out from Dreamworks in 2012. While Morris Lessmore was a small, tight, emotional package, The Guardians is sweeping and epic, a Persian carpet of storylines unfolding from the beginning of time and across the galaxy. It reimagines the origin myths of a passel of beloved characters. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are actually a network of heroes who help the Man in the Moon battle the evil Pitch, who would make all dreams nightmares. The Man in the Moon is the child of intergalactic sailors and his isolation up there in the sky is softened by the presence of the Moonbots, who make the satellite into a playground for the boy.
The connection between the fantastical world and the more prosaic one on Earth is a wizard named Ombric Shalazar, the last surviving denizen of Atlantis. He speaks the languages of insects and moonbeams and he teaches the children of the town Santoff Claussen bits of his magic. The town surrounds his home, Big Root, which is "a wonder of the cosmos. It grew to the exact size of Ombric's dream for it. And it formed its limbs, roots, and trunk so that Ombric could live inside." The wizard wanted Santoff Claussen "an enlightened place where no would laugh at anyone (young or old) who dreamed of what was possible ... and impossible. And so inventors, scientists, artists, and visionaries from across the globe were drawn to his village." Of course, it's not easy to get there.
To drive out to Moonbot's building, head west from downtown on Texas Street, the old route to the Lone Star State, until you reach First Methodist church, a thick brick house of God with simple white trim. Turn left then right around the church grounds and continue past boarded up, dilapidated storefronts. Note that they are beautiful, built before real estate developers cut costs by eliminating artistry. In the parking lot of one building you'll see a sculpture of a chicken, big enough you could ride it, pointing out at the road. Keep driving.
As you get closer, the landscape gets scrubbier, with empty lots separating the buildings like gaps in a smile. A man may walk down the street in welding gear. Pull into the parking lot of BioSpaceX, a shiny new building originally intended to house biotechnology startups. Walk through the doors. You're at Moonbot.
The reception area is a theater in the round, with a desk in the center enclosed by a low, circular wall and crowned by a gargantuan hanging lampshade. A stubborn realist might posit that the firehose-size pull cord does not, in fact, turn on the light. But if someone happens to be standing near the wall switch, and the cord puller happens to be Oldenburg's youngest daughter, then that cord most certainly causes the bulb to glow.
The offices were built especially for Moonbot. Joyce and Oldenburg were instrumental in planning the design, and much of it was custom-made, including the conference table, which consists of wooden alphabet blocks shellacked into a heavy slab. As might be expected from a company that specializes in children's entertainment, the space teems with color. Visitors can wait on a multi-tone green sofa by the Dutch designer Hella Jongurius, which features big buttons sewn on with contrasting thread like a page from the classic children's book, Corduroy. The private reading nook is filled with an overgrown couch upholstered in stripes of every hue. It is as if Pee Wee's Playhouse got a makeover from Dwell Magazine.
In the main work room, employee desks are arranged in pods, united by the common technology required for advanced digital art and animation, and distinguished through each team member's personal touches. Sketches, posters and plush toys pop up everywhere.
Then there are the storyboards. Covering the walls of the two largest rooms are the visual components of all of Moonbot's projects in progress. Each illustration portrays an astonishingly detailed world, a stylistic era, a range of emotion. There are character studies and typeface trials and color tests, historical photos and book cover concepts. They could call this place The Museum of Future Children's Classics and charge an admission fee.
Joyce and Oldenburg's best source for new hires has been Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida (yes, that Ringling). Oldenburg earned his BFA in illustration from RCAD in 1995 and now serves on the college's board. His reputation at the school as a distinguished alumnus, and the students' general awareness of Joyce's storytelling chops are enough to put Shreveport on the map as a post-graduate destination.
Looking over the storyboards, it's not at all obvious which were done by the company's senior illustrators and which are the work of the newbies. It's clear that Joyce and Oldenburg are dedicated mentors -- nurturers, even -- and they gush when we stand in front of the art of their youngest teammate, Christina Ellis.
"We got her right out of school," Oldenburg recounts, "She didn't have a car, didn't have a driver's license. Never written a check before. She was young and so gifted. Her storytelling skills are incredible. All Bill and I wanted to do was retell the Magnificent Seven. She really helped us fold this story into what it is right now."
Then they decide to have Ellis tell us about it herself. Enochs calls her in and she enters the room with the shy, excited bounce of a child. Her light brown hair puffs out like she slept with braids and unwound them on the way to work. She wears a red and blue hand-knit scarf with a felt caterpillar face sewn onto one end, a green and teal striped dress, orange tights, and grey and black striped knee-high socks. Her elation over the creative license of this job is palpable. The Moonbot founders not only validate the quirky, awkward artist kid, they seek her out and water her like a flower. Ellis is all petals.
"This was inspired by Magnificent Seven, which was of course inspired by Seven Samurai -- you're familiar with those films, right? -- but Bill and Brandon wanted this new twist," she tells us breathlessly, "It's this fantasy world where all kids are able to use magic, but they are kind of oppressed. But naturally there are kids who run away from home and become the Lost Boys of the world. They use their power to survive and help people."
We listen as Ellis's imagination carries her away. She gestures her way through the narrative as though she'd rather tell it with her hands. "It's funny," she says finally, "I haven't worked on it lately because we've got this big project. I just want to jump back into this and develop the style even more. I want to make it explode again."
Every day, the entire Moonbot team gets together for the team huddle they call, Dailies. It's a meeting at which everyone showcases what they did that day, from lighting a shot to coloring a frame to animating a sequence. The affair is held in a large, black-walled room with three risers stepping up from a large screen. Red beanbags pile up in front while shapely Karim Rashid-designed armchairs sit against the back wall. The sound system shakes your guts every time it rumbles down the spectrum.
In the middle, a light wood desk houses the controls and a laptop dock. Oldenburg sits down near the dock. We're looking at work from The Numberlies, which must be ready in time for Christmas. iTunes credits are a common holiday gift and as with all retail, fourth-quarter products tend to do big business. So, despite the profusion of stories that are poking out from every brain and fingertip, scribbled on every wall and inside every notebook, everyone here is working together on the big push to finish The Numberlies.
The story will be, of course, Moonbot's follow-up to the Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Joyce describes it as "Metropolis for kids." Yes, Metropolis, the 1927 silent film about an industrial dystopia torn apart by inequality and the introduction of a robot (the machine-man). The Numberlies borrows Metropolis' aesthetic, the black-and-white gradients, the soaring buildings, the massive gears, and stark I-beams.
The Numberlies are a race of beings who haven't created an alphabet. Everything is known by a number. "If you want pizza, you don't call it pizza," Oldenburg explains, "It's called 32." Moonbot's story relates how five Numberlies create letters. Letters that can spell jellybean and rollie-pollie and balloon. In the app, you break the numbers apart and forge the new shapes in a series of minigames. This is their version of an alphabet book.
The concept had been bopping around Joyce's head for years, but it was little more than a sketch until Apple's VP of product marketing, Michael Tchao, called up Enochs in June and asked him, "What are you going to do at Christmas?" Enochs, not familiar with the seasonality of the retail business, was initially confused. His first thought was, "I usually go to my in-laws." When he realized that Tchao meant, "What product do you intend to sell during the holidays?" Enochs quickly recovered and said, "We're going to do another app." Which meant, then, that the Moonbot team had to crank out another app that would not only match, but exceed Morris Lessmore, in just six months. By the time we visit in late October, the Moonbots are like Santa's elves trying to finish up the world's toys. There is still a lot of work to do, a hard deadline to hit, and everyone knows precisely when the clock runs out.
The Moonbot crew files in and the lights go down. We watch a snippet of animation from The Numberlies in which gloop (the technical term for what the creatures eat) extrudes from a nozzle almost like frozen yogurt. It hits the plate with a satisfying glub (or bloop or plop). We all appreciate the wonder of its wobble. It's quiet for a few seconds as everyone takes in this new sequence.
"Can we get a little more reflective highlight on the gloop?" Joyce asks. "Gimme some glisten on our gloop." Yeah, the group seems to assent, the gloop could use a bit more glisten.
A color image of the cityscape shows up on screen with a triangle of pale blue sky at the top left of the image. Everyone ooohs. Ellis immediately starts noting its flaws. "This is just me playing around with color," she says. "I wanted to play with the buildings. So, yeah, it's not done. Eventually there will be Numberlies and letters."
Joyce, sitting down near her, starts to imagine a different blue in the sky. He sounds as if he's talking from a long way away. "What if that blue in the sky was really old Technicolor?" Joyce says. "That crazy fucking Technicolor blue. You saw some of it in A Star is Born. You can have it drop off, but have the really crazy blue in there." His laser pointer flashes to the spot of sky. "Do that Star Is Born Blue."
A scene in which the main characters run along the base of a massive door and stick a huge number 1 through its handles to keep it shut draws cheers. Imagine Laurel and Hardy plus three other funny looking guys running in lockstep. Number 3 is fat and we watch in slow motion as he waddles along; the gloop has gone straight to his thighs. Tiny little Number 1 hangs on to the door handles and then drops to the ground with a gymnast's triumphant, performative ease.
There are laughs all around. It's clearly a winner. But it is to this scene that the group devotes the most criticism.
"It needs some refinement. I think 2 is a little too piston-like, a little too bouncy, or not bouncy, but too abrupt in his bounces," one animator offers. Oldenburg has a larger concern. "I know we throw logic to the wind in a lot of these shots, but," he begins, "when they slide the 1 into the door, their arms will be colliding with the handles. I'm thinking of suggesting that they throw it a little bit -- something in their arm movement, a shoulder shift maybe."
"Keep it subtle," Joyce says, almost sounding sad, "so you don't detract from the fun of 1."
Number 1 draws his attention again during another scene, in which all five characters are shown reacting to the invention of the alphabet. Number 1 smiles happily and then knowingly looks at Number 2. The way his lower lid curves up as he turns, he looks smug, even sinister.
"Can number 1 look a little more innocent?" Joyce asks.
Number 1 is a child and Joyce will not let him know too much. The Moonbots are the guardians of childhood, and they know what the hazards of adulthood are. They have chosen a medium that allows them to create perfect worlds, and they do not take that responsibility lightly.
If a studio traffics in animated children's entertainment and it is very good, Pixar cannot be far from the discussion. With all due respect to Pixar, Moonbot does not want to become Pixar.
Pixar's headquarters are in Emeryville, California. A former industrial area at the intersection of several highways, it has been built anew according to the renderings of developers. It strives after modern to appeal to people of the creative classes. There's a long outdoor mall and lofty condos. If the walls of Emeryville could talk, they'd be reading a Powerpoint. It is a perfect place to make wonderful entertainment that appeals to nearly everyone in the world. It is precisely anywhere.
Shreveport is a place. We can taste it in the food and hear it in the accents. Characters are so powerful they live on as ghosts. Plots poke up out of the swamps, ready for action.
More importantly, all three founders have worked on big-budget movies and we sensed a weariness about the business. Joyce, Oldenburg, and Enochs don't want to get to the scale where they can pump out that kind of entertainment. In the past, that might have been impossible. There isn't a huge market for animated shorts, certainly not the multibillions that can be reaped from a wide-release. If they'd wanted a world-class studio, they might have been forced to supersize their operations.
The iPad has changed all that. Now, they can build interactive experiences like Morris Lessmore that are not books nor movies nor games, but still tell of their joys and sorrows, of all that they knew and everything that they hoped. They aren't reinventing any old medium as much as inventing a new one from the raw ingredients of the past. That's why Oldenburg wanted us to see the Fantastic Mr. Fox. If those puppeteers could do all that with cardboard and their hands, imagine what Moonbot could do with the iPad.
Moonbot is a company lucky enough to be present at the birth of a new medium using new devices with new capabilities. Working for the iPad will let them stay smaller, retain more creative control, and tell stories in new ways. They have faith that stories are more fundamental than technology, but that technology will enable a storytelling renaissance. It's as if Nicholas St. North is speaking for Moonbot when in the first Guardians of Childhood novel, he tells Ombric the wizard, "Well, old boy, get ready for something you've never seen. I'm ready to combine man-made devices with your ancient hocus-pocus."