Monday, January 30, 2012

Moonbot Studios: Prototype for the "New Hollywood"?

Unless you're an iPad user, you probably haven't heard of Moonbot Studios, but you're likely to hear much more about them over the next few weeks. Moonbot develops interactive children's books for the iPad; its first project, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, started as a short film that's been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Update, February 26, 2012: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Moonbot isn't an animation studio, publisher or app developer--it's all of those things.

Moonbot was founded in 2009 by William Joyce, Brandon Oldenburg and Lampton Enochs. Joyce is an illustrator, graphic designer, writer and animator who's written and illustrated more than 50 children's books, created Rolie Polie Olie, one of the first computer-animated children's television shows (for which he received three Emmys), created character concepts for Pixar's Toy Story and A Bug's Life, and co-created and produced Blue Sky's Robots.

Moonbot's creations, Morris Lessmore and the new The Numberlys, which was released for the iPad earlier this month, are what the company calls "story apps". They combine elements of animated films, children's books, and videogames, but they're unique enough not to be classifiable as any of those things. It's that uniqueness that makes Moonbot's story apps early examples of a new medium, not just an extension of eBooks or films.

According to Fast Company, Moonbot stumbled onto its approach when working on Morris Lessmore, which was originally planned to be a short film and printed children's book. The iPad was released while the film was in production, and Joyce realized that it would enable Moonbot to do things that simply weren't possible previously...what he calls "a third way of expression".

If Moonbot is pioneering a new medium, what's its potential? It's too early to say how big the market size is, but if it develops like the video game industry, it'll both be big and largely independent of legacy media. Digi-Capital estimated that global video game industry revenues for 2011, including online and mobile games, were $87 billion, about twice the size of the global theatrical motion picture business.

The video game industry only tangentially depends on legacy media companies like movie studios and broadcasters--in fact, few video games based on movie characters have been successful. Moonbot isn't dependent on legacy media companies at all: It creates its own characters, writes its own stories, produces its own animation, builds its own apps and distributes its own works. It does all of that in Shreveport, Louisiana, a city not known as either a technology or media center, with only 35 employees.

The story app concept is no way limited to children--Moonbot's creations are as compelling to adults as they are to kids. It's still in its infancy; imagine how we'll be able to interact with these apps when we have Siri-style voice interaction and Kinect-style 3D motion detection to go along with touch gestures.

Could The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore be this new medium's The Great Train Robbery? I wouldn't bet against it.

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