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The Louisiana Roots of Rise of the Guardians 

Will Coviello on the storytellers behind an Oscar-winning Shreveport startup

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  "You shouldn't let large fast-food chains define who Santa Claus is, OK."

  When DreamWorks heard his plan and saw the film Joyce and Oldenburg made, its team was interested.

  "The head of the studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, said, 'I like this idea. I like your take on it. I like that you want Santa Claus and the Guardians to be grand heroes. I like it epic,'" Joyce says.

  They inked a deal in early 2007, and Reel FX, which had been using the film as one of its calling card demos, pulled the film off the Internet as part of the deal with DreamWorks.

In 2009, Joyce was at a point in which he wanted to travel less. He's a Shreveport native, his daughter was ill and he wanted to be away less often.

  Joyce had been talking about his desire to stay in Shreveport to Enochs, who worked in film production. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, many film production companies had shifted operations to Shreveport. Enochs was working on the FX miniseries Thief, which relocated to north Louisiana in order to retain film tax credit benefits. He met Joyce at a cocktail party, and later they started talking about creating a film and animation studio. Joyce's first priority was to bring Oldenburg on board. The name Moonbot refers to characters in the film Joyce and Oldenburg had made in New Orleans.

  The three of them agreed to create a short film to put out as a calling card. Years earlier, Joyce had flown to New York to meet with William Morris, who had been a mentor to him. On the plane, he sketched out a story about a man who loves books. Nothing came of it for a while, and the framed piece of paper, with sketches and notes, resides in Oldenburg's Moonbot office.

  By the time they took it off the shelf, it had been infused with a new vision. Morris Lessmore became not just someone who loves books, but someone who loses his books and rediscovers their power. It was one of the things Joyce saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

click to enlarge The concept art for E. Aster Bunny and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians. - RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. - CONCEPT ART PROVIDED BY WILLIAM JOYCE
  • Concept art provided by William Joyce
  • The concept art for E. Aster Bunny and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians.
    RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

  Many Shreveport facilities were turned into shelters after the levee failures. Joyce worked with a group that created "Faces of Katrina," in which photographers and writers went to shelters to interview the displaced and dispossessed. Shreveport's Hirsch Memorial Coliseum temporarily housed thousands of people in a huge open space crowded with rows of cots. That's where he noticed the effect of another relief effort: RIF and First Book's push to get millions of books in the hands of kids who were without schools.

   "These shelters were always bustling with noise," Joyce says. "But there would be a kid (with) book in hand, and it was like it made this protective dome around them. They were lost in that book. All this anxiety of what they were going through, all the loss of privacy and displacement vanished, and they were lost in the world of those pages and that was a stunningly powerful thing."

  Then Joyce visited New Orleans, and among the debris he saw more books: books caked with mud, loose pages waterlogged, blurred and unreadable, all lying in drifts and piles and where the floodwaters left them.

  When he and Oldenburg started working on their film, they built a scale model of a French Quarter block. In the opening scene, Lessmore sits on his second-floor balcony reading, surrounded by stacks of books. Then a wind blows, and as it gets stronger, it blows letters off the pages. Then it carries away whole books. A TV flies by, and on it one can see the spinning hurricane-tracking icon on a weathercaster's map. Then a man on a bicycle flies by and it looks like the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, but in reverse, because in the hurricane's wake, Lessmore's world goes gray.

  When Lessmore eventually finds refuge, it's in a library. He goes inside and finds it full of flying books. There also are damaged books, and he sets about repairing them one page at a time.

  When Moonbot was created, it didn't have many animators on staff at first. Joyce and Oldenburg started filming miniatures while they hired staff who could do animation work.

click to enlarge The concept art for Santa Claus and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians.RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. - CONCEPT ART PROVIDED BY WILLIAM JOYCE.
  • Concept art provided by William Joyce.
  • The concept art for Santa Claus and the DreamWorks version in Rise of the Guardians.
    RISE OF THE GUARDIANS © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

  While they were working on the film, Apple introduced the iPad. Joyce and Oldenburg pounced on the idea of an app for the story. They didn't have programmers, and Enochs reached out to the Louisiana Economic Development office and was connected with programmers in Shreveport. Their app made the Lessmore story into an e-book experience with interactive elements. The app was named App of the Year before they won the Oscar.

  "It was another way to tell a story," Joyce says. "This has things a book can't do; things a movie can't do. You can't interact with a movie. You can't move around what's on a page. We wanted to see what the thing was capable of. It's stupid to think of the app experience for a book as putting a book on an app. It's got all this stuff, so you use this stuff.

  "I showed it to Maurice Sendak, and he said 'I like it. It's not a book.' And I said, 'Well, I didn't say it's a book.' Things we do for apps are not books. They're stories. Story apps. The idea of flipping the pages on an app is a total waste of what it could do."

  The multimedia life of Lessmore is how many projects develop at Moonbot. They are slated to be issued as books, films, apps or whatever medium suits the creative team, and in whatever order makes sense.

  "The purpose of Moonbot is to tell really good stories on multiple platforms," Enochs says. "Find a great story and find what's the coolest way to tell it."

  Technology has given Moonbot more control of its work.

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  "It's democratization," Oldenburg says. "We have control. We can push a button and release our story without having to go to a studio or a publisher."

  Joyce believes that reacting to changing technology is necessary and positive.

  "Everything's changing," he says. "All the paradigms are falling apart right before our eyes. We are just trying to see which ship is going to stay afloat and be able to tell a story in a way that we think is compelling. I don't think publishing is going to die. I don't think the book is going to die. All of these things are going to become a different way to experience a story."

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