Oscar shorts: ‘Morris Lessmore’ has hybrid animation, iPad app
Animated short film “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” is the first film made by Mootbot Studios, but it’s certainly no trial run for the small animation and visual effects company. A favorite on the film festival circuit last year, the short boasts some innovative merging of animation techniques, has launched a successful companion iPad app and is in the running for an Oscar for best animated short.
The 15-minute film was produced by Lampton Enochs and co-directed by Brandon Oldenburg and William Joyce, who also penned the screenplay. The three are also Moonbot’s founders, who came together to form the studio under unusual circumstances.
Until 2009, writer-illustrator-filmmaker Joyce was bouncing back and forth between two coasts, constantly traveling for work, including as a concept artist for early Pixar films such as “Toy Story.” Then he decided he’d spent enough time on the road and was determined to find a way to base his work in his native Shreveport, La.
Enochs, whom Joyce knew through mutual friends, was already working in the upstate town after being forced north by Hurricane Katrina. The two decided to start Moonbot together with Joyce’s frequent collaborator, Oldenburg, who was freed up to become a partner in the company when his plans to work on the film about Michael Jackson’s comeback tour were canceled upon the announcement of the pop singer’s death.
“It took a hurricane and the death of a superstar” to bring the three of them together, Joyce pointed out.
One of those, Katrina, ended up being a key influence on the film, which also drew inspiration from “The Wizard of Oz” and filmmaker-comic actor Buster Keaton. But the idea for the story started with longtime children’s books publisher William Morris, Joyce’s mentor at HarperCollins.
“I wrote this little story about a guy who gives his life to books,” Joyce, 54, said. “I wrote it on this airplane flight [en route to visit Morris], and I got to read it to him when I went to see him. He died just a few days after that.”
That story became the film, which is about not only a man who gives his life to books, but also the books that give back. The story, at turns bleak and bright, follows book lover Morris Lessmore as a windy force of nature leaves his town in shambles, blowing him “Oz” tornado style to a land where he discovers a library of lively books and becomes their caretaker.
The film was made with a hybrid animation style, using stop motion with miniatures, computer animation and traditional hand-drawn techniques. The Morris Lessmore that made it into the film is completely computer animated, but the crew created a miniature version of him too, which it placed inside the miniature sets as a guide for lighting for the animators. The project started while the founders were just getting Moonbot launched, when they had a limited crew working for the studio.
The choice to go with hybrid animation wasn’t purely an aesthetic and personal preference for “a handmade feel,” Oldenburg said; it was also a practical one for the young studio. Moonbot was able to complete a good portion of the film before animators were hired by starting with shooting the miniatures. When the animators came aboard, there weren’t yet enough computers available, so the directors had them start working on the hand-drawn animation components, including Morris Lessmore’s constant companion, Humpty Dumpty, who lives on the pages of one of his books.
“We think that computer animation is too young to be one thing and one way,” Joyce said. A hybrid animation approach “seemed beautiful and right … to see if we could make this third kind of world that wasn’t real, it wasn’t CG, it was something somewhere in between.”
Moonbot has also turned the story into an iPad app of the same name, an interactive ebook of sorts. The filmmakers found it to be a fitting way to stretch the multimedia potential of “Morris Lessmore.”
“We’re doing a short film that celebrates books and speaks to their preciousness and … that they’re endangered,” seasoned children’s book writer-illustrator Joyce said. “This is a transitional time for printed media. There was some trepidation about doing the app –- we didn’t want to kill the thing we love -– but at the same time we thought, ‘This new technology could very well be a way to help save publishing. But we’re not sure. Let’s dive in and see.’ ”
The studio received an influx of feedback on the app, which is available internationally. A reader from India said the story touched a chord with memories of her village’s library, which was lost to a fire before villagers rebuilt the library with donations of books. Many parents wrote in with stories about their young children reading the story together with their elderly grandparents.
The iPad app is $4.99 on iTunes. The film is also available on iTunes. The download will be free until Feb. 26, when the 84th Academy Awards ceremony will take place. There is also a physical book version in the works for release in late 2012 or early 2013.
Among all the influences that came together to become “Morris Lessmore,” one that Joyce said was most powerful for him was visiting the various places where refugees from New Orleans were housed after Katrina.
“They’d lost everything, and they were completely dislocated, and they had no privacy. And no sense of any of the comforts of home that we take for granted,” Joyce said.
While on a grant to visit sports arenas and other venues-turned-emergency-housing to get people’s stories, Joyce saw organizations donating picture books and children’s novels. Seeing that became a piece of the short film, which the three filmmakers contend is “all about the power of story.”
“It was amazing,” Joyce said, “to see in this room full of 20,000 people that a kid can be sitting with a book in their hands, and they were totally lost in that story, that they’d escaped from all that was wrong with their situation.”
–- Emily Rome
Photos: Top: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" tells the story of a man who discovers a lively collection of books. Middle: The short film was shot with hybrid animation styles, including stop motion with miniature sets. Bottom: "Morris Lessmore" plays with color and black and white, much like one of its influences, "The Wizard of Oz." Credits: Moonbot Studios.