William Joyce once helped design Woody and Buzz Lightyear. But now he's taking on giants like his former employer, Pixar, from an unlikely base: Shreveport, Louisiana, where he and his team at Moonbot Studios are intentionally acting nothing like a typical studio.
"We don't have a core business," says Joyce.
"Storytelling," adds another cofounder, Brandon Oldenburg.
"Make cool shit," says the third cofounder, veteran movie and TV producer Lampton Enochs.
Why would anyone in the entertainment industry take this kind of talk seriously? It's hard not to. Moonbot's first project came out last year; it was The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a short film followed by an interactive iPad children's book of the same name. The app sold more than 90,000 copies, briefly unseating Angry Birds as the best-selling app, and the short film earned Oscar consideration.
Now there's a list on a whiteboard in Enochs's office, which includes the names of an A-list film director and a legendary pop star. Written above it all is the word inquiries.
Moonbot opened in 2009 in Shreveport, Joyce's hometown, in part for the economics: A bevy of local tax incentives allowed the founders to staff up quickly, and a local tech foundation built them a dazzling office space for free. But being "away from the noise" of Hollywood, as Oldenburg puts it, had a deeper payoff. It let Moonbot focus its priorities, without worrying about building buzz.
"Pixar had to make commercials for years before Toy Story; Blue Sky Studios had to feed the beast for 12 years before they had the time and technology to produce [Oscar-winning short film] Bunny," says Joyce. "We decided to make our passion project the very first thing we did."
That thing was Lessmore. It was to be an animated short and, later, a children's book—but during production in 2010, the iPad came out. "I remember saying to Brandon, 'Fuck, this is going to change everything,'" Joyce says. "The iPad was the missing third way of expression."
At age 54, Joyce had largely conquered those other modes of expression. He's written and illustrated more than 50 children's books, been the subject of a traveling art exhibition, created Christmas window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue, helped design characters for Pixar, and is currently codirecting an animated DreamWorks feature.
The team pivoted, imagining every way possible for how to interact with the device. Out of that came what Moonbot calls "story apps," designed to be more movielike than e-books, more interactive than films, and more immersive than interactive games. Lessmore is just that—a movie with pages to turn and detours directly into its world. "It went further emotionally than even we thought it would," Joyce says.
Business exploded—as has its office. "During story development, we pride ourselves on how messy the room gets," Oldenburg says, in paper-covered space that clearly makes him proud. "You know things are being drawn and discarded, drawn and discarded. We don't treat anything too precious up front."
In Moonbot's cavelike animation department, Oldenburg says, a "very Tony Stark-like" game experience is being designed for Ford. (Moonbot isn't above work-for-hire projects; it helps keep the lights on, and the studio treats them as R&D experiences for its young staff.) And in the high-ceilinged story room where Moonbot develops and refines its own properties around an L-shaped conference table with a monster-size bite missing from it, the walls are covered in concept art for a dozen new story apps—including more adult fare like Specters, a mystery-horror novel set in a New Orleans populated by well-heeled ghosts.
"Imagine someone reading a novel on their iPad and seeing something out of the corner of their eye that makes them scream out loud," Joyce says. "How fucking cool will that be?"
Joyce has heard it before: Could Moonbot be the next Pixar? He'd rather it not. "I was at Pixar when they were still small," he says. "Chris Wedge [director of Robots, a 2005 film that Joyce cocreated] once told me, 'Small is the future.' I'll get worried after we hire our 100th employee."
Right now, Moonbot's staff is at 35—a nice fit for the studio's beanbag-chair-strewn screening room. One day in November, the crew is critiquing a clip from The Numberlys, a story app (embedded with 18 educational games) being developed in time for Christmas. On screen, bug-eyed characters react in exaggerated horror to an unseen calamity. Joyce belly-laughs. A young animator worries about the way light strikes a character's head. The tweak is noted, queued for revision. In 20 minutes, they're all back to work.
Moonbot moves fast—sometimes from a sketch to a finished product in six months (as with The Numberlys, a project hastily launched after Michael Tchao, Apple's vice president of product marketing, casually asked Enochs what the studio had planned after Lessmore).
To stay nimble, it recruits young, multitalented creatives (average age: 25) who veered from the typical studio machine. "This is not a place for specialists," says Adam Volker, who graduated from art school in 2008 and was hired after chatting with Joyce about video games. Since then, he's designed characters, concepted stories, art-directed, and helped lead the studio's interactive division. "If I worked for a studio in California, my whole job would be animating a background character's shoes."
Joyce believes a company like Moonbot wouldn't have been possible five years ago—but thanks to ever-cheaper production tools and computing power (Moonbot's "render farm" is just one server rack), "there will be a lot more companies doing what we're doing five years from now."
Which means that, in five years, Moonbot will be doing something different. Enochs expects to have finished an animated feature, produced entirely in-house. Oldenburg would like to design live events: "An opening ceremony for the Olympics—that'd be perfect."
Joyce knows the lessons of the land he's on. His dad was a geologist who advised Louisiana's oil wildcatters in the 1960s. "You'd have a one in 100 chance at best of striking oil. It's all about intuition," he says.
"There's a gambling spirit in this part of the country. What's the iPad of five years from now going to be? I don't know. Big studios are afraid of that because it threatens their business model, but we don't have one. So we don't have to be afraid."