Film Makers Turn to iPad for Interactive Storytelling

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What would our world look like if books could fly? That’s a question that’s at the center of the a new iPad app called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore that was added to the iTunes app store on Thursday.

The app is based on the animated short film of the same title, in which a book lover finds himself catapulted into a world where books are alive, capable of flying, dancing and playing piano. It’s an interesting metaphor, especially during times where some people bemoan the supposed death of the traditional paper book in light of the growing importance of tablets and e-readers.

“An iPad app book is sort of like a book that flies,” said Moonbot Studios co-founder Brandon Oldenburg when I talked to him and two of his colleagues on the phone today. However, Moonbot didn’t mean to provide cultural commentary with its app; instead, the company just tried to explore new avenues of interactive storytelling. Check out a trailer for the app below:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sWs_CgDRNY]

Moonbot Studios was in the midst of producing the short film when Apple  introduced its first iPad about a year ago. The team initially wanted to just turn the movie into a traditional book, but they immediately realized an iPad version would offer a unique opportunity. “We thought: This is a game changer, this is exciting,” remembered Oldenburg.

This one is for you, animation buffs: Moonbot Studios decided to share some previously unreleased raw production footage with us. This short clip shows a model of the French Quarter...

Using the iPad to essentially produce an interactive book was particularly interesting because it fits into a pattern of combining old and new media to tell a story. “We used the most advanced CG technology,” Moonbot illustrator Joe Bluhm explained. At the same time, it relied on hand-drawn illustrations and hand-built miniature sets. (Check out some of the footage of these sets that didn’t make it into the final short film on the right.)

... and this is a shot of Morris Lessmore's study.

One of the issues that film makers have to deal with when working on a new platform like the iPad is that there are so many possibilities. The app published this week features a piano that can be played by the user as well as interactive animations that can be explored by tilting the screen. How does one stop short and not use every single feature possible?

Initially, the team planned for five times as many interactive features as it eventually pursued, I was told by Moonbot co-founder Lampton Enochs. But scaling that back and leaving some pages of the book made more sense. “It felt very freeing rather than tempting,” to explore these possibilities, remembered Enochs.

So where do film makers like the folks at Moonbot come down on the book v. tablet debate, especially after turning a book lover’s fantasy digital? “Most of us straddle both of those worlds,” Enochs said. Moonbot plans to eventually publish the paper edition of the short film, but it is also looking to bring some of the depth of story telling for old media into the digital space. “A movie can make you cry,” said Oldenburg. “Why can’t an app do the same?”

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