William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg of Moonbot Studios (The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) have another Oscar contending short in The Numberlys: an homage to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but for kids. In a world comprised of only numbers and black and white, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 create an alphabet and add a burst of color to their world.
Bill Desowitz: You should show The Numberlys and Metropolis together.
Brandon Oldenburg: Actually we did it a little bit a year ago. We have an awesome symphony here in town and they allowed us to world premiere it along with orchestration and accompaniment and they did show the opening sequence from Metropolis prior. We keep doing more with them and the latest short, The Cask of Amontillado, that Bill directed with Joe Bluhm, they did this past October. But Bill couldn’t be there because you were at the MOMA, Bill.
William Joyce: Yes, I was at the MOMA because they were premiering The Numberlys.
BO: That’s in my Bucket list of things: to be in the permanent collection at MOMA.
WJ: We still can’t believe that we got away with making a children’s homage to Metropolis.
BO: We had just seen that final cut where they put back all that footage and we were able to screen it here at our local cinema.
WJ: The movie makes sense now. It was a movie we always admired because it looked amazing. But it always seemed kind of disjointed. It it’s very rewarding emotionally now.
BO: And that scene with the giant bust of his wife,
WJ: Yeah, oh my God!
BD: So this is another great example of multi-media, interactive storytelling for you.
WJ: That was the mandate of Moonbot: we like playing in all the new sandboxes, whatever they are and think outside them.
BO: We made the app and put a short in the middle of it. And we were like, ‘Now we really want to make a short out of it.’
WJ: We ended up having to redo more of the original thing than we expected. And it ended up being better. Then the book came out. It ended up being even more convoluted than Morris.
BD: It must be great experimenting with trans-media and finding the best storytelling fit.
BO: Bill, your analogy of thinking outside the sandbox fits. Basically, mom gave us shovels and said here’s a sandbox and we’re over here digging up rose bushes. We’ll get to the sandbox in a minute — there’s some really nice dirt here under the Rhododendrons. Let’s make a dam.
BD: So now you can do a Secret Garden short or a magical sandbox.
WJ: It’s funny you say that because we’re working on a series of apps for little kids that are basically like playing in the sandbox or catching a firefly or making a dam or making a little bug out of a leaf that runs along the edge of a street.
BO: Playing hide and go seek in your neighborhood. All sorts of things that you apparently can’t do anymore.
BD: So tell me about the journey with The Numberlys as a short.
WJ: We were drawing the boards for months and they were horizontal, right? The way a movie is. But we were frustrated because we couldn’t get the compositions we wanted. We kept looking at those beautiful Fritz Lang Metropolis posters with the vertical scale. It was up and down and we kept jonesing for that but we couldn’t make the psychic leap until a pin fell out of one of the storyboards and it went down instead of being sideways, it was vertical instead of horizontal. And we just sat there looking at it.
BO: I think it was Matthew McConaughey communicating to us.
WJ: He took the pin out and we got Interstellared. I thought it was like the monkeys from 2001. We kept looking at it and touching the storyboards.
BD: You couldn’t get the hum out of your ears.
WJ: It was the eureka moment when the monolith came. And from then on it became: Why can’t we make this a tall, short film? And nobody said we can’t do that — so we did.
BO: And get this: There’s a film festival in Australia made just for films done in the vertical format that just started in 2014 and we got into it.
WJ: We thought we were first but at least we can claim that we’re on the vanguard.
BD: It must’ve been fun making this work because it’s all rhythm.
WJ: The trick was trying to get across this magnificent grandeur of Metropolis for kids. Or just reintroduce it to anybody. It’s a little esoteric for now. We never think of things just for kids anyway, we’re just pleasing ourselves. But what would be the story? The one thing is they don’t have a language when you see the letters in Metropolis and the neon signs are just sort of gobbledygook. But they have numbers. You turn a knob on the big machine and you go to this floor and it’s all numbers, numbers, numbers. So what if this was before there were letters and these guys are tired of that and they invent the alphabet and that makes things happen. And it was one of those days when an idea just comes together. And so I come in and draw the five guys on a napkin and showed it to Brandon and said, ‘We need to do something with this.’ And he went, That’s really cool.’ And we greenlit it an hour later.
The other thing was the aspect ratio, going vertical with this, with every story we make, we want to eventually make it into a book — we’re building a bookshelf of books for all of the intellectual properties we create. Dare we go vertical with the book? The publisher [Atheneum] is so fearless with their books but they were worried. We wanted to just turn the book and they were like, ‘I don’t know …that’s asking a lot of kids to figure out on their own.’ And we said kids would get it instantly. They actually brought in kids to Simon & Schuster and put early dummy copies of the book in front of them. We don’t know what the actual tabulation was but the call was, ‘Ya’ll can go ahead — it’s fine.’
BD: What was it like animating?
WJ: From a modeling standpoint, it was great for us. You try to mimic that grainy film feel, especially when we got into the color part. We’ve always been in love with old Technicolor.
BO: The programmers found a way to replicate the multi-layers of film for color.
BD: You look forward and back at the same time.
BO: One of our animators came up to us afterward and said Morris was our mission statement but The Numberlys is about Moonbot. Talk about being outside the sandbox.
BD: Everything you do is a meta statement.
WJ: It’s just funny how we never realized it or talked about it.
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