William Joyce and his team at Moonbot Studios won an Oscar for their short animated film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. But “it started as a book, it was always a book,” says Joyce.
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The character of Mr. Morris Lessmore was inspired by a real man, William Morris, “a most unlikely revolutionary who changed how books found their way into children’s hands,” as Joyce writes in the book’s jacket copy. Here he discusses the fantastic fortuitous detours of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and how that book-loving gent led the way to a storytelling experience in film, app and now—finally—a book, to be published in July.
Congratulations on winning an Oscar for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. What were the origins of this project?
As is often the case with my stories, they’re a response to what’s going on in my life in ways that are mysterious to me at the moment. It started when I was on my way to see Bill Morris. We knew he was dying, and I was really sad. I was writing it on the flight.
When I got to Bill’s, we had a great visit, and I got to tell him the story. I started doing the artwork for it, and then I had a retina detachment and couldn’t paint for a year. Then we started forming Moonbot, and we wanted to do a short film to show what we could do. I said, “Let’s do Morris.”
We wondered about the juxtaposition in the book of what seem to be stills from the film and images that are clearly drawn. For instance, the scene of the storm looks like a still from the film, but that first image of the library looks very much like an illustration.
Everything’s painted in the book. We didn’t rely on any frames or anything from the short. We had all the miniatures that we’d built, so a lot of the stuff in the short film is not CG [3-D Computer Graphics], it’s actually miniatures. We had that little house that Morris has, when it lands, and I could draw it.
But I tried a whole new method. It’s the first book I’ve done entirely painted on the computer. You do everything you’d do with a painting, but you do it onscreen with a stylus, and you get effects that are impossible to get with painting. You can zero in on a section and get an incredible amount of detail. It appeals to my yearning to try a new look and my anal retentive need for detail.
One of our favorite scenes in the film doesn’t appear in the book. It’s the idea that it takes Morris actually reading the antique book to revive it. As if to say that a story is only alive when it’s read—although you get at that idea in the book when Morris says, “All stories matter.”
That was the one thing I couldn’t put in the book that was in the film, that idea that you have to read a book to bring it back to life. We thought, “How would we illustrate that idea [‘all stories matter’] in the film?” The book is 50 pages? That’s as long as we dared make it. I would have loved to take the thing we discovered while making the short and include it, but then it unhinged the pace of the picture book.
On the other hand, one of our favorite parts of the book doesn’t appear in the film. It’s the scene that begins: “Morris Lessmore became stooped and crinkly. But the books never changed.”
That’s something we couldn’t express in the time allotted in the short. The opening lines of the book, that Morris put “all that he knew and everything that he hoped for” into his own book—there wasn’t a way to show that in the short in a succinct way.
The backbone of the story is as pure and distilled in the book as it possibly can be. Even then it has a lot of complex ideas in its pages. That’s the fun part about picture books—how much you have to imply with just an image and a few words. Everything we did [in the film and in the app] stayed absolutely true to the original 50-page idea. Sometimes the image is worth, if not 1,000 words, several minutes.
William Joyce will be signing in Simon & Schuster booth today at 12:30 p.m.
Jennifer M. Brown lives and reads in New York City and blogs at Twenty by Jenny.