Born of Hurricane Katrina and the passing of a dear friend, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is more than a poignant, interactive allegory, it is the budding metamorphosis of the narrative.
In the interactive piece of fiction, readers flip through digital pages on their iPad, poke pictures into life, paint grey skies blue, shift the winds of change with their fingers, all while sinking deeper into the fiction of the simple story.
"I like that people don't know what to call Morris. It's a book app maybe, it's kind of a game. Maybe it's a new thing," said author Bill Joyce. "That's exactly what we were aiming for.
"We think the iPad will initiate a new book experience."
The iPad book started out as a story written by Joyce, the author, illustrator and director behind such creations as the book and movie Meet the Robinsons, the children's book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs and series of books and TV show Rolie Polie Olie.
It was inspired by images of New Orleans' streets turned rivers, filled with floating books. The powerful imagery was a perfect symbol for what had happened during Hurricane Katrina, Joyce said, a storm that washed away lives and left people looking for their stories again.
The book opens with bibliophile Morris Lessmore sitting on a balcony, stacks of books by his side, reading. As a narrator reads the story, floating arrows slip across the screen, urging me to trace their path with a finger. When I do, wind starts to flip the books covers open and then blow the books and Lessmore away.
Each page seems to hold little hidden treasures of interaction to be discovered and played with. The result is a book that uses not just its touching story, but its ability to interact, to engage readers.
The idea for creating an iPad app for the book actually came last. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore started out as a book. It was meant to be a sort of calling card, a way to introduce Moobot Studios to the world, said Brandon Oldenburg, Moonbot's managing creative partner.
Moonbot was formed as a sort of collective of artists and storytellers. The studio, based in Shreveport, Louisiana, is made up of people with varied and eclectic abilities and experiences. One thing they all seem to have in common, though, is that the worlds they create are more elaborate than a book, or a movie, or an iPad experience, or a video game can hold.
The notion of Moonbot was to create a place where these fictions can bubble to life more organically, instead of following a process dictated by studios.
In the case of The Fantastic Flying Books, it was meant to be a book first. But parts of it seemed to be a perfect fit for an animated short, Oldenburg said. So Moonbot set to work turning it into something that blended hand-drawn animation, CGI and stop-motion filming.
Half way through the process, the iPad came out.
"It was like there was this thing that we could use to leap between these mediums," Oldenburg recalled.
So Moonbot teamed up with Twin Engine Labs to turn their book, turned animated short, into an iPad app as well.
Joyce said they weren't really sure what they were creating at first, just that they wanted to make something that didn't simple draw from the story, but instead made it better.
"We really thought of what would make the narrative stronger," he said. "If it happened to look great, that was great, if it was more subtle that was great," he said. "It was only afterwards that we thought, that's sort of a gameish."
There is a sense of playing, rather than reading, the book as you work your way from page to page, listening to the story and watching the animation. It's a sense of play that infuses not just the interactions, but the animation and story.
I recently sat down with my wife and 10-year-old son to read through, play through the app with them. We giggled at the clever animation, took turns poking around each page on the hunt for a reaction. When we finished, my son asked to read the book again. It was the experience of reading a book as a family with a 21st century twist that left us wanting to re-experience the book again and again.
"We are a playful nation," Joyce says wryly, when I tell him about my experience reading his book and how much like a video game it felt at times. "We wanted to make sure that it was an emotional experience, something you were involved in. But we weren't sure if it would make people feel more evolved or less."
While Joyce doesn't think what they've created is a replacement for books, he does think it's a new way of telling a story.
"For a ghost story we are working on right now, we are using the idea of a novel with pictures, but those pictures can suddenly change," he said. "You start to realise that the illustrations are starting to do something you weren't aware of.
"It's not going to replace a book, it could amplify a book. At the end of the day it's going to be a new way to get a story."
While the inspiration for The Fantastic Flying Books was Katrina, the book-loving Morris Lessmore of the story is based on famed HarperCollins children's book advocate Bill Morris, something Joyce calls a lovely irony.
"He was a little, dapper man, an icon of publishing," Joyce tells me. "His whole thing was that the way you sell books is you tell people about them; it's a person-to-person communication."
"The last few years, the internet is taking off and Tweeting is taking off. Books have really come full circle. The success of this app has all been fuelled by people posting their opinion about it and sending it to their friends, the same way Bill Morris did since 1945. It's staying within the tradition, the oral tradition of how to sell a book."
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