BREWMASTERS NOTE: This week Cartoon Brew takes a closer look at each of the five Academy Award nominated animated shorts. Each day at 10am EST/7am PST we will post an exclusive interview with the director(s) of one of the films. Today, we begin with The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore:
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is the first film from William Joyce’s Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana. Co-directors William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg spoke with Cartoon Brew on January 25th.
Jerry: First things first. Your studio is in Shreveport, Louisana. Why there?
Bill Joyce: That’s where I grew up, it’s a great little Southern Shangri-la. Not that far from Dallas, about 2-3 hrs away. Brandon was working at Reel FX and started contacting me about working together, and then Lampton (Enochs, co-partner in Moonbot) moved out here after Hurricane Katrina. The movie industry is actually pretty big in Louisiana. In this weird way, Shreveport has become this film making mecca. (laughter) That sounds too kind of ludicrous to say, but it’s sort of true.
Jerry: It IS true, you can make movies anywhere, everywhere today. Now, I’m a little fuzzy on the whole origin of this project. I’m under the impression that it started as an app, or designed to be something else other than a film?
Bill: It started out as a book that I wrote a few years ago in response to my mentor at Harper Collins. His name was Bill Morris and he had been there since they were called Harper Brothers, since 1949. He was just a great old publishing titan, and a real gentlemanâ€¦ but he was dying and I was really bummed out about it. One of the ways I deal with the good things and the crummy things in my life is I write a story. I was flying up to see him and on the way this title just kind of tumbled into my head, called “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore.” It was a play on both Bill’s name and his actual physical statureâ€¦ he was a diminutive guy, though a giant in the industry. And he loved books and everything about publishing. So I got to read him the story which was really sweet. He was a kind of crusty old guy but he would respond to outreaches of emotion in his crusty old way. I was going to make it into a book but then Brandon and I started working together in animation, and we wanted to create a short film around same time I was working on the book. It was then Lamptin suggested we form a company.
Jerry: I love how the film combines CG with hand drawn and miniaturesâ€¦
Bill: Well, we kind of decided early on we wanted to play with all different kinds of animation, and it seemed that just to think of it in terms of computer animation seemed too limiting. Brandon and I were just so stoked about building miniatures and having CG characters, and doing 2D for some of it, and just doing everything we loved. It just seemed to apply to the story.
Brandon Oldenburg: And we love those old Popeyes, man. You know, we just wanted to just see if it would work. We had gotten a taste of building sets back in 1998 on a test film that we did called The Man In The Moon, where we built miniatures and took them down to New Orleans to an old vaudevillian theater that had been converted into a sound stage. And you know, that short test piece actually evolved into the upcoming Dreamworks project, The Rise of the Guardians.
Jerry: It seems you really put what you wanted into this film and you weren’t aiming for it being a 6 minute short, a 12 minute film, or a 22 minute TV special.
Bill: Going in, we were all “OK. We can’t afford anything over 7 minutes. We have to make this work for 7 minutes.” (laughter) And then we made an animatic completely disregarding time frame. “OK, how long does it time out? Oh! Oh crap! It’s 16 minutes!” So it’s like, OK, we’ve got to figure out how to cut this down. “Let’s cut it down to 7!” We cut it down to 7 and we watched it and we were like–
Brandon: It was horrible!
Bill: It lost all of the emotional impact. So then we worked it and massaged it to where it ended up. And you know, you’re right, it goes back to the love and making sure we did justice to the story and we didn’t cheat it, and we just had to stay true to the emotion it needed. It needed time. So many shots needed to flow slowly.
Jerry: Well, I think getting nominated made it worthwhile. I want to ask about one thing that delighted me and a lot of us who love the old 2D animation, of course, that is the little Humpty Dumpty character in the book. That’s such a great idea. I’d never even seen anything like that and I thought that was so cool. What can you tell us about you wanting to do that, or where it came from?
Bill: I’m really glad that you like that part of it because it really was our favorite thing in a way. I’ve been doing picture books for a long time. And I started working in animation at John Lasseter’s invitation on Toy Story. So I’ve been in both these worlds for such a long time, and we thought “it’s going to cost so much to make 3D rigs for these guys, but you know, they’re 2D when they’re on a piece of paper.’ So to save money and actually be purer to the concept, we should see if it’ll work if we can mix these 2D guys in there. So it was a weird mix of something that worked for the story and actually made it economically possible for us to finish this thing. I mean, there’s a lot to be said sometime for monetary constraints. It makes you think creatively.
Brandon: One of the happy accidents, though, was the fact that when our animators showed up, the first day on the job, we did not have computers for them to work on.
Bill: (laughter) They hadn’t come in yet.
Brandon: We only had a few, and the few that we had were prepping rigs on just Morris. So, we knew that we had this 2D character and we said ”you know, remember in your third year of college? That 2D animation course?”
Brandon: (laughter) ‘Let’s go back to pencil and paper guys. It’s gonna be exciting.’ And so we’ve got this Humpty character, we need to do these scenes, we already have an animatic, we know what we need to do. So they jumped head first into that, and it was a great use of their time. It worked.
Jerry: This is the year of The Artist, Hugo, and even Midnight In Paris, with films that evoke the pastâ€¦. and your film has the same spirit. You have a silent character here who’s been clearly inspired by Buster Keaton. Would you speak to that and the character animation involved?
Bill: We have all this dramatic, chaotic stuff going on in this short. And we felt like we needed a calm center to anchor it. But then it even got weirder, and cooler, because when we were telling the animators what we were going for, we started showing them Buster Keaton films as well as some Winsor McCay material. Then Brandon and I realized that Keaton and McCay were contemporaries. They had to have influenced each other. McCay’s animation was coming out when Keaton was in vaudeville, and he was still doing the strip when Keaton began making movies. You look at McCay’s drawings and the poses and they look like key frames. They seem like they had to have influenced Keaton. He seems to strike the same poses and have the same look.
Brandon: And the crazy thing is, Walt Disney is quoted in saying that he wanted Mickey to invoke Buster Keaton, which is hilarious. Come on, Buster is a human being. He shouldn’t be able to pull off the physical things that a cartoon character struggles to do. But it’s true. Most cartoons struggle to create performances with such strong sillouetted poses, but [Buster] was then and is now, just as great a resource and reference for this action.
Bill : More than Chaplin, even.
Brandon: We had all these young animators who were so eager to just animate their asses off, and we’re going, ‘it’s all reductive. Look at Buster. It’s about precision and “not doing”. (laughter) We were saying in this story, this character needed to be unflappable in a situation whereâ€¦
Bill : â€¦where he’s being flapped.
Brandon: (laughter) Yeah.
Brandon Oldenburg standing, William Joyce in center & Lampton Enochs in foreground. Photo by Lora Fairchild.