App-maker Moonbot Gets An Oscar Nomination

There’s been a lot of talk about the divide between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, but at least one upstart animation studio seems to have one foot comfortably in both worlds — Moonbot Studios, which was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short.

The film in question, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” was also released as an iPad app, and will be published a traditional book, too. Co-founder William Joyce is an established children’s author, and he first conceived the project as a book, but when he teamed up with Brandon Oldenburg to start Moonbot in 2009, they decided to work on a short film as well. And in the middle of all that, Apple announced the first iPad, so Joyce decided that the story would make a great app, too.

Working on so many versions of the same story at once sounds a little nuts, but Joyce says the approach always made sense to him —in fact, he says this multi-platform approach was “the key to becoming a viable company.” For one thing, Joyce notes that he was able to reuse a lot of the media assets between the various projects. More broadly, he says that one of the main advantages of Moonbot is that it’s fast and experimental, especially compared to the glacial pace of feature film production. (In addition to his books, Joyce has credits as a writer or artist on Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Meet the Robinsons, and others.)

“There’s something that’s so totally just turbocharging, adrenaline rushing and fun about saying, ‘Hey, I got an idea, what do you guys think?’ and we start it that day, and three months later we’re done,” Joyce says. “It’s like you’ve been playing with the philharmonic for a long time and then you just sit down and jazz it up.”

So far, the results are impressive, at least from an aesthetic point of view. Joyce says the resulting apps (Moonbot followed “The Fantastic Flying Books” with another app called “The Numberlys”) are not quite games and not quite e-books, so he’s calling them “story apps” for now — though there may be a better name out there, waiting to be invented. The basic structure is that of a book (“The Numberlys” is more film-like), but Moonbot adds games and other interactive elements. The reviews have been largely positive, though with some reservations — for example, Wired’s GeekDad blog said “The Numberlys” looks great, but wondered whether it was really a good fit for kids.

Moving forward, Joyce says Moonbot’s future projects will continue to cross media — though maybe not quite as comprehensively as “The Fantastic Flying Books.” For example, one of the company’s next projects will start out as a puppet show in New Orleans. (Moonbot is based in Shreveport.) And there will be another iPad app this year, too.

“We think that tablets are presenting a new narrative experience as big, as important, as television was, as books were,” Joyce says. “They’ll have their own flavor. And discovering how to make that experience super-intensely different and emotionally involving — we’re just in the baby steps of that.”